‘Macbeth’ gives us a classic example of the literary definition of a ‘tragic hero’. The title character is a Thane, of high birth, and an influential leader whose decisions affect many others. He possesses a number of admirable qualities, among these honesty and conscience. Along with these positive attributes, he also possesses a fatal flaw, namely ambition. And like so many other tragic heroes, he rapidly falls from grace before encountering a moment of enlightenment.
The first indication of Macbeth’s moral demise is plainly illustrated from the very first scene of the play, where the three witches are gathered amid an ominous backdrop – that of stormy weather, signalled by thunder and lightning. The tempestuous weather serves as an indication of change and upheaval of a negative nature, so that from the outset, it is evident that all shall not run smoothly during the course of the life of the title character. The witches’ final words of the scene, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’, are eerily echoed by Macbeth later on, when he remarks, ‘So foul and fair a day…’ establishing a subconscious link between them.
Macbeth can be described as a tragic hero since he possesses certain attributes of character and circumstances, which conform to the traditionalistic view of the literary tragic hero. Some of these characteristics are shown to us in the second scene through the eyes of Ross and the Sergeant. The latter ironically describes the Thane of Glamis as ‘brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name’. Macbeth is portrayed as a noble and valiant fighter, and along with Banquo, is proclaimed the man of the hour. The Sergeant creates an immaculate picture of Macbeth, one that is larger than life. Shortly afterwards, the same man is described by Ross as the husband of Bellona, the goddess of war.
The witches’ first encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is where the first seeds of ambition are planted in Macbeth. They use their prophetic words to seduce Macbeth into pondering the advantages of kingship, whilst Banquo remains sceptical and distant. The imperatives that Macbeth uses to try to stall these vindictive creatures reflect his perplexity. He uses words such as ‘Stay’, ‘tell’ and ‘Speak’. When Ross and Angus appear and hand Cawdor’s title to Macbeth, Banquo remarks silently, ‘what! Can the devil speak true?’ showing that, unlike Macbeth, he has associated the witches with evil. The encounter on the moor signals the beginning of the protagonist’s downfall.
Banquo then advises Macbeth wisely, saying that:
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
The message Banquo is trying to get across is that in order to bring about our destruction, sometimes the forces of evil tell us simple truths, leading us to trust them. They then deceive us when it matters the most. Macbeth does not heed this warning, and later he and Lady Macbeth will sacrifice all they have for something that they think will make them happy. They do not count the blessings that they already have, and, consequently, fall into a trap of evil, deceit and despair.
From then on Macbeth’s thoughts are set on kingship. He will become obsessed with the imperial theme. By professing that ‘nothing is/But what is not’ we are fleetingly shown his single-mindedness, as he only desires the one thing which he does not have. Yet for the moment he adopts this sensible attitude:
If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.
Subsequently, we encounter an event where Duncan is to bestow upon Macbeth his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Speaking of the traitorous Cawdor, he makes an important and meaningful statement, saying,
There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
Duncan has already started to build ‘An absolute trust’ upon Macbeth, the new Thane of Cawdor. Here the irony lies in that Duncan has made the same mistake twice – he has twice put his faith in a backstabber.
Later on, Duncan makes an important statement, which is the turning point in Macbeth’s fall from grace – it is his first plotting of murder. As soon as Duncan proclaims Malcolm as heir to the throne, Macbeth realises that he must kill both the king and his successor so that the third prophecy may be fulfilled. In order to magnify the horror of what Macbeth will do, Shakespeare establishes an almost father-son relationship between Duncan and Macbeth. This is why Macbeth asks that light not see his ‘black and deep desires’. It is an ominous wish, and it is uncannily similar to the language used by the three witches, the representatives of the evil in all of us.
We then come to our first introduction to an encounter with Lady Macbeth, where she is reading Macbeth’s letter, in which he calls her ‘my dearest partner of greatness’. This reflects the ambitious nature of the couple.
Lady Macbeth has guessed what it is that Macbeth is considering in order to gain the crown. Yet she has a very profound psychological understanding of Macbeth, and says that his nature ‘is too full of the milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way’. She knows that Macbeth has a conscience, and that it will not be easily dispelled. She is also aware that he is morally upright and too sensitive to do something that is wrong.
Lady Macbeth, nevertheless, is unlike her spouse. She is the decision-maker: domineering, manipulative and smooth talking. She abounds with self-confidence and has no qualms whatsoever. The latter is especially evident when, in the same scene, a messenger has just been to see her to tell her of Duncan’s arrival at their home that very evening.
She invokes evil spirits, so that they may take away her maternal instincts, love and tenderness – all that makes her a woman – so she can have the determination and coldness to carry off the intended evil deeds. Lady Macbeth then asks that her evil deeds be hidden and obscured from all that is good and right. The foreboding image of darkness plays a prominent role throughout the play as a force closely attached with horror and malice.
Upon Macbeth’s arrival, his wife tells him that ‘[His] face, my thane, is as a book where men/May read strange matters.’ The eye is the mirror of the soul, and through this medium, Macbeth is plainly expressing his feelings. He must put on a false pretence if he wishes to succeed in his crusade. Lady Macbeth further utters words of advice to Macbeth, when she tells him that his hand and his tongue must ‘look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t.’ The hand is that with which you convey sincerity or acceptance of a decision, whilst the tongue expresses your inner emotions. He must revoke all his honest feelings and give way to ruthlessness, malice and heartlessness.
Duncan’s arrival at Macbeth’s castle follows, and both he and Banquo paradoxically describe the castle as something resembling paradise. Macbeth is not upon hand to greet the king, under Lady Macbeth’s orders. She is now in charge. Speaking on behalf of all present, Duncan tells Lady Macbeth that they ‘love him highly’. He, ironically, is referring to the new Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth’s first soliloquy is presented to us at the end of the first act. It is the first opportunity he has had to carefully deliberate murder. He is presented as a man about to succumb to temptation; yet from the outset, he is acutely aware that if he escapes temporal judgement, he shall not escape divine justice. He wishes that there could be no negative consequences resulting from the proposed assassination, but he knows that this is well nigh impossible. Macbeth also knows that there is not a single justifiable reason why he should kill the good man who has treated him as his own. The only purpose he can find for which to kill Duncan is ‘Vaulting ambition’, which he knows only preludes a fall. Ambition is Macbeth’s tragic flaw.
After his deliberation, Macbeth tells his wife that he does not wish to partake in the proposed deed, having realised that he does not want to risk anything. Lady Macbeth, however, has her mind made up, and uses her husband’s sense of masculinity, male independence and power to push him manipulatively towards committing murder.
Macbeth finally agrees, fully aware of future consequences and the callousness of the deed. There is no compelling force driving him – he will kill a man for selfish, materialistic reasons. He is to commit an indefensible crime, since there is no moral, political or personal reason for it that is justifiable. He is a tragic hero because he knows what he is doing is wrong, yet he fails to realise that his future happiness will rest on the outcome of that fatal night.
Macbeth is waiting for the signal to murder Duncan at the outset of the second scene. Speaking with Banquo, whom he encounters, Macbeth is nervous and jittery in both speech and manner. He begins to hallucinate, seeing a dagger in his hand, proving that his imagination is beyond control. He wonders if the vision proceeds ‘from the heat-oppressed brain’, showing that he is both feverish and under pressure. Macbeth is dealing in ambiguous terms. Part of Macbeth’s soliloquy is as so:
Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings; and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, toward his design
Move like a ghost.
All the images in the above extract come from the world of the occult and the supernatural, showing that Macbeth is indeed possessed by the idea of kingship, and is set on fulfilling the third prophecy. He is adopting a machiavellian attitude, believing that the end justifies the means. Shakespeare is rapidly revealing the murder in its full horror, with the emphasis being on the despicable nature of the act.
The moment after the murder is the beginning of the aftermath. Macbeth has committed the deed, because Lady Macbeth says that ‘Had he not resembled/[Her] father as he slept, [she] had done’t’. Macbeth has undergone a horrifying, haunting and harrowing experience that will leave him emotionally scarred for life. Macbeth says of himself: ‘I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’/Stuck in my throat.’ He is beyond forgiveness and redemption.
Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!
These words, uttered by Macbeth, are a prediction of the insomnia he shall suffer as a result of what he has done. By killing Duncan, Macbeth has also killed his own conscience and peace of mind, and so gained a guilt-ridden conscience. Macbeth has forfeited all chances of happiness.
Sleep is innocence; therefore, Macbeth covets sleep because when you sleep, you do not think. Being awake makes him relive that fatal night repeatedly in his mind to the point of madness. He wishes only for his death, so he can be rid of his sins. Macbeth has lost his zest for life – life is hollow and meaningless after the murder and until his own death.
At this point, Macbeth is rapidly falling from grace. He will become ignoble, cynical and ruthless, stopping at nothing to hide his crime. Macbeth goes on to murder many more possibly innocent men in order to determine that the blame for Duncan’s death should not fall upon him. The honest, noble, morally upright hero we were introduced to at the start of the play is now an unrecognisable monster set on keeping the one thing which has destroyed his life and those of many others.
Macbeth’s perception of the magnitude of the crime is such that he thinks his hands will stain the waters of the sea with his blood. Yet Lady Macbeth states that ‘A little water clears us of this deed;’ showing that she is confident and is unrepentant. Her husband, in stark contrast, says of the knocking at the castle entrance, ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I wish thou couldst!’ This reflects the level of Macbeth’s regret – he has discovered a side of himself he wishes had remained undiscovered.
The Porter’s oration in the third scene is a revealing and interesting one. By mentioning a ‘hell-gate’, he subconsciously creates a parallel between Dunsinane and hell. Macbeth initiates many atrocities there, which makes ‘hell’ a fitting label for Dunsinane. He refers to ‘a farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty’ – a story which is parallel to Macbeth’s life. The Porter also identifies greed and avarice as destructive forces, and he shows how easily man can be equivocated. Macbeth should know that he can equivocate people on earth, but never in heaven.
Lennox’s description of storms, wind and ‘strange screams of death’ reinforces the Elizabethan concept of hierarchy, where the king, is divine, holy and infallible. If regicide is committed, then it will shake the foundations of Nature itself. The unruly weather is due to Nature manifesting itself because of this perversion of order.
When Macduff comes with news of the murder, it profoundly affects Macbeth.
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There’s nothing serious in mortality,
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
Macbeth believes that if he had died an hour before the murder, his life would have been blessed; as it is, he shall be tormented for all his living days thereafter. He compares the earth to a wine cellar from which the best wine has been drawn, so that it can boast only of the dregs.
Further on, we find that Macbeth is quite inept at lying and covering up, since he unnecessarily goes on about what a good man Duncan was, and how unjust and cruel the killer must be. He speaks so unconvincingly that Lady Macbeth finds herself being forced to faint to take the attention away from her spouse.
As the scene closes, and Malcolm and Donalbain are considering fleeing the country, the latter utters a perceptive and intensely relevant metaphorical truth:
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.
We then arrive at an ominously frightening prologue to Macbeth’s reign. He has committed a metaphysical crime, so Nature is topsy-turvy, and chaos reigns. Ross tells us that ‘by the clock ’tis day, /And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp [the sun]’. For the rest of the play, Scotland will be in a state of perpetual darkness, which brings home the abominable nature of Macbeth’s deed. The roles of predator and prey have been reversed, with news of a falcon having been eaten by an owl. Horses have become carnivorous and have begun to eat each other. It is ironic that the hero who saved Scotland at the start of the play is now the one who is bringing about its destruction.
The third act opens with Banquo pondering the recent mysterious event, in particular how the witches’ prophecies all came true, yet he suspects Macbeth of receiving the crown through dishonest means. Macbeth’s once good name is in disrepute.
Macbeth’s ambition is insatiable, and therefore he wants to control time and destiny. He feels inferior to Banquo, as he tells Lady Macbeth:
There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuk’d, as, it is said,
Mark Antony’s was by Caesar.
Speaking of the witches, Macbeth says, ‘Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown / And put a barren sceptre in my gripe’. He feels that his kingship is worthless if it is to be that Banquo’s children will inherit the crown, and not his own. His ambition keeps him yearning for more when he has already achieved his objective.
Evidence of Macbeth’s blind ambition is the notion that he believes that he cannot change the witches’ prophecies; yet, he believes that he can change those given to Banquo. He will twist the prophecy round to suit himself, and so further upset the balance. At this point, Macbeth is increasingly becoming a lonesome, solitary creature.
Perhaps we, the audience, could have removed some blame from Macbeth for Duncan’s murder, since Lady Macbeth was the driving force, and pushed her husband into committing regicide. Macbeth, however, cannot be forgiven for Banquo’s murder because it is he who initiates it, without any help from Lady Macbeth. In fact, Lady Macbeth knows nothing of her husband’s scheme. Ironically, Macbeth uses the same intimidation tactics that his wife used on him in order to convince the murderers that Banquo’s murder would be a beneficial one to them all.
At this stage, it may occur to us that we have yet to see a scene where Macbeth is happy. He has obtained the one thing that he desired the most, yet he is miserable because of it. He blames Banquo for his problems, yet he should be blaming himself. Macbeth is sick, unhappy and spiralling into the realms of evil. This is clearly evinced by his making use of low-life characters for his dirty work.
A particularly cruel move on the central character’s part is ordering that Fleance, along with his father, also be killed. Macbeth – despot, tyrant and dictator – is sending ruthless adults to kill an innocent child. What little heart there was in this man is now practically extinguished.
The second scene is there to show us how far apart Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have grown. Macbeth has an empty title; he is unpopular and unloved. Lady Macbeth, addressing her spouse, realises that ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent, /Where our desire is got without content’. They have both spent their happiness, marriage, peace of mind, sleep and friends in exchange for nothing. She continues: ”Tis safer to be that which we destroy /Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.’ She has declared that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
There has been a breakdown in communication between the pair, as Lady Macbeth asks why her husband ‘keeps alone’ so much. In his reply, is the following:
Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done its worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.
He envies Duncan, his predecessor because he is in an eternal slumber. He now sees life as a succession of obstacles, something to be endured, and not enjoyed.
Ironically, he tells Lady Macbeth:
We must make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.
There has been a role reversal, since this is what Lady Macbeth used to say to him. They must have hard, impenetrable looks.
Macbeth also tells her: ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill /So, prithee, go with me.’ He has convinced his wife by telling her that deeds that are started by evil become stronger with more evil.
Macbeth is now in possession of a contaminated mind that has been poisoned by the witches. In what he thinks and says are references to the world of the occult and the supernatural, such as ‘scorpions’. He is obsessed with crime and evil.
Banquo’s murder does not tell us much of Macbeth, only that he has sent another murderer to make sure that the job is done. He trusts no one. Fleance’s escape creates yet another problem for the unhappy king.
Subsequently, upon hearing the news of the boy’s escape, Macbeth says:
But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.
He feels trapped in by intruding thoughts, those that he has created himself. Macbeth is afraid of consequence, which is why he becomes distracted at the news.
The murderer tells Macbeth that Banquo is dead, with ‘twenty trenched gashes on his head’. Banquo has been hacked and torn apart brutally and extremely violently. This horrendous picture shows the violent and ruthless nature Macbeth has developed of late.
Then we witness the second time Macbeth’s imagination plays tricks on him, when he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting at the dinner table. In Shakespeare, ghosts are seen when the main character has a guilty conscience. Lady Macbeth chastises and mocks her spouse to rouse him out of his stupor, again asking him, ‘Are you a man?’
More evidence of Macbeth’s poisoned mind surfaces when he says,
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.
Shortly afterwards, Macbeth toasts Banquo thus:
I drink to the general joy of the whole table,
And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss;
Would he were here! to all, and him, we thirst,
And all to all.
He is being hypocritical and lying through his teeth, yet he still manages to keep face after Banquo’s murder, unlike during the aftermath of Duncan’s murder.
When he sees the ghost again Lady Macbeth mocks him, but he replies, ‘What man dare, I dare’, meaning that he is not afraid of physical danger, but he is afraid of the supernatural.
Macbeth is a dictator who is paranoid, insecure and apprehensive. He suspects everyone, and trusts no one. He feels as if he is constantly under threat, yet if Macbeth fears no physical danger, then occult forces intimidate Macbeth. He has sunk so low that he has a spy in every man’s house. He is losing all the humanity that he ever had inside of him.
He is also worried about Macduff, as evinced in these lines:
For mine own good
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
He resolves to visit the witches, and in the closing line of the scene, he utters a frighteningly ominous assertion:
We are yet but young in deed.
The former Thane of Cawdor has just begun his catalogue of horrors.
Succeeding this declaration, we behold Hecate and the witches, who are on the moor ‘To trade and traffic with Macbeth / In riddles and affairs of death’. This is yet another example of their cold and unfeeling nature – they are toying with Macbeth. However, Hecate makes an astute comment describing Macbeth’s character, saying that he ‘Loves for his own ends’. That is to say, that he does not love evil for its own sake, but only for what it can do for him.