Character of Macbeth

Macbeth is introduced in the play as a warrior hero, whose fame on the battlefield wins him great honor from the king. Essentially, though, he is a human being whose private ambitions are made clear to the audience through his asides and soliloquies. These often conflict with the opinion others have of him. Despite his fearless character in battle, Macbeth is concerned by the prophecies of the Witches, and his thoughts remain confused, both before, during, and after his murder of King Duncan. When Duncan announces that he intends the kingdom to pass to his son Malcolm, Macbeth appears frustrated. When he is about to commit the murder, he undergoes terrible pangs of conscience. Macbeth is at his most human and sympathetic when his manliness is mocked and demeaned by his wife.

At home with his wife, Macbeth displays another dimension to his character. The cut-throat, strong, confident general has no retort for his wife's degrading accusations. Could this mean that Macbeth was manipulated by both the witches and his wife? Or did he act on his own free will intending to kill Duncan all along? The driving forces behind Macbeth’s decision remain an ongoing debate.

However, by Act III, Scene 2, Macbeth has resolved himself into a far more stereotypical villain and asserts his manliness over that of his wife. His ambition now begins to spur him toward further terrible deeds, and he starts to disregard and even to challenge Fate and Fortune. Each successive murder reduces his human characteristics still further, the killing of Macduff’s entire family and the household is the nadir of Macbeth’s degradation. Nevertheless, the new-found resolve, which causes Macbeth to "wade" onward into his self-created river of blood, is persistently alarmed by supernatural events. The appearance of Banquo's ghost, in particular, causes him to swing from one state of mind to another until he is no longer sure of what is and "what is not".

But Macbeth's hubris or excessive pride is now his dominant character trait. This feature of his personality is well presented in Act IV, Scene 1, when he revisits the Witches of his own accord. His boldness and impression of personal invincibility mark him out for a tragic fall.

The horrific and detestable acts perpetrated by Macbeth mirror the crimes of Shakespeare's great villains -- Aaron the Moor, Iago, Richard III, Edmund -- all at the ready to slaughter women and children, usurp divinely appointed kings, and butcher their closest friends to satisfy ambitious cravings. Yet, despite his villainous deeds, Macbeth is not among the list of Shakespeare's most base evildoers.

Macbeth is never happy with his actions, even when they have earned him his prize, because he is acutely aware of his own tyranny. At the end of the play there is a sense of relief when the soldiers are at his gate. However, he continues to remain foolhardily confident – perhaps due to his unerring belief in the witches’ predictions.

It is difficult to view Macbeth as an inherently evil character because it is clear that he lacks strength of character. The events of the play also affect his mental stability – his guilt causes him a great deal of mental anguish and leads to hallucinations. In this respect, Macbeth has more in common with Hamlet than with Shakespeare’s other out-and-out villains like Othello’s Iago. However, unlike Hamlet, Macbeth is quick to act in order to fulfill his desires.

What sets Macbeth apart is his penchant for self-reflection. Although ultimately he cannot resist his dark desires, his struggle to regain his goodness is constant, and the part of his character that is capable of much love and compassion, although ever fading, is always present. There is no moral dilemma with Shakespeare's true villains. They relish every moment of their immorality. Thus, rather than a villain, Macbeth is considered to be one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. He is by no means the epitome of the Aristotelian tragic hero, but he is a tragic hero nonetheless, because we, the audience, can see ourselves in him.

The play ends where it began: with a battle. Although Macbeth is killed as a tyrant, there is a sense that his soldier status is reinstated in the final scenes of the play. Throughout the course of the play Macbeth comes full circle.

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 8:22 AM