Character Study of Macbeth: From "Brave Macbeth" to "Dead Butcher"
There can be no play without characters to tell the story. In Shakespeare's plays, though he borrowed many of his stories, the characters are his own inventions based on various sources. Although there is no mention anywhere in the text of the play of any of Macbeth's physical characteristics, such as height or hair and eye colour, we do see a psychological progression from 'brave Macbeth' (1.1.16) to 'dead butcher' (5.9.36). The playwright, through the actor playing the role, gives us an almost diagrammatic study in the destruction of a man and his reputation, as well as the rebirth of Scotland.
Unlike many other Shakespeare plays, the eponymous hero does not make his entrance until the third scene of Act I. When the play opens, we are given only a brief sketch to whet our expectations. The witches are the first characters we see, and if Shakespeare intended to grab our attention, this opening surely does it. They are 'real' in the sense that we can actually see them, but they are also supernatural in that we believe witches belong to the world of evil spirits and sing-song spells. In lines 7-8, they inform us that they are to meet Macbeth upon the heath - nothing else. But we must wonder: why Macbeth? Why on the heath? What do they want?
The following scene takes us to a battlefield. King Duncan receives details of a fight between his forces and the rebels forces led by Macdonald and troops from Norway. The Captain tells the King that 'brave Macbeth' (1.2.16) met the traitor Macdonald with his sword drawn and killed him in a very horrible and gory manner. Thus our first description of Macbeth is that of a brave, loyal soldier defending his King and country from those who would take the throne and enslave the people. The King is so pleased with Macbeth's performance that he gives Macbeth the traitor's title, Thane of Cawdor, calling him 'noble Macbeth' (1.2.67). Thus we are led to believe that Macbeth is a good man, loyal, courageous, and determined. He has proven his valour and is duly rewarded by the King.
Immediately following, however, we are shown the witches for the second time in three scenes, effectively framing Macbeth the soldier with witches, which could imply that Macbeth is no ordinary warrior. When Macbeth enters, his opening lines echo those of the witches in the first scene:
Witches. Fair is foul and foul is fair … (1.1.12)
Macbeth. So foul and fair a day I...
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Who are the Witches?
Shakespeare's handling of the three witches or "weird sisters" of Macbeth is in itself equivocal. He assigns them the first dozen lines of the play their proclamation that "fair is foul, and foul is fair" (I, i., .11) setting the tone for the horrid events ahead. When their prediction of Act I, scene iii that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor comes true almost instantaneously, the broad contours of the play's plot are set; Macbeth will become king of Scotland and this will require the elimination of Duncan and his sons. While the witches perform seminal and salient functions in the play, their appearance on stage is nonetheless limited. Assuming that Act III, scene v. of Macbeth as we have it was written into the play after the Bard's death, Shakespeare gives us only one more glimpse of the weird sisters in Act IV, scene i. with its famous "double, double, toil and trouble" (l,10) invocation of evil. We see very little of the witches and this, in turn, contributes to our uncertainty about who or what they are. They clearly possess supernatural powers, including the capacity to foretell the future and to read the minds of the mortals with whom they come in contact, and this suggests that they are real but supernatural. On the other hand, even after their final manifestation at the start of Act IV, Shakespeare undercuts the reality of the witches, again raising the possibility that the weird sisters are an hallucination, an emanation from the human psyche.
The key characteristic of Macbeth's witches is that while they can influence Macbeth's actions, they cannot compel him to commit the evil deeds that he undertakes in the course of the Scottish tragedy. This limitation on the power of the weird sisters, their dependency upon human will to work their black arts, is highlighted by the difference between Banquo's reaction to their initial predictions and that of Macbeth. After their encounter with the witches in Act I, scene iii, Banquo wonders aloud about whether they were real or whether he and Macbeth are suffering from some type of hallucination: "Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason prisoner?" (I, iii., ll.83-85). It is not Macbeth, but Banquo, who first notices the witches on the heath, asking Macbeth: "What are these/So withered and so wild in their attire/That look not like th' inhabitants of the earth/And yet are on't" (I, iii, ll.39-42). Banquo then...
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Why Does Macbeth Change His Mind About Killing Duncan?
At end of Act I, Macbeth declares, "I am settled, and bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat" (I, vii, ll.79-80). Given the witches' prediction that he will become Scotland's king, we have ample reason to believe that Macbeth and his partner in regicide, Lady Macbeth, will succeed in their enterprise of murdering Duncan. What is most remarkable is that just fifty lines earlier, Macbeth has flatly told his wife that they shall proceed no further in the bloody business at hand; in the midst of Lady Macbeth's subsequent argument against such "unmanly" inaction, he commands her to hold her peace. Lady Macbeth defies him, and the spurs embedded in her reply tap deeply into Macbeth's psyche. Most interpreters have focused on Lady Macbeth's skillful manipulation of gender identities and the strong innuendo of sexual tension between the two in their explanations of why Macbeth changes his mind and decides to kill the king. But Macbeth is not merely a susceptible puppet of his wife's finely-honed goading, for while she is the prime mover in the assassination of Duncan, the other murders in the play (of Banquo and MacDuff's family) are exclusively Macbeth's doing and this shows that he retains the capacity for independent action. Lady Macbeth's influence is a catalyst, but Macbeth is a willing object of her persuasions, but the seeds of his decision are sown well before the end of Act I.
The witches' promised intention to meet Macbeth aside, the first we hear of him is in Act I, scene ii, as a wounded sergeant reports that "brave Macbeth" swathed in the blood of the rebels, "unseam'd" the old Thane of Cawdor "from the nave to th' chops" (I, ii., l.22) and then impaled his head upon battlements. The loyal officer Rosse then says that Macbeth is "Bellona's bridegroom" (I, ii., l.54), Bellona being the virgin goddess of war. Even before he arrives on stage, we know that Macbeth is capable of bloody deeds (in a good cause), while the figurative reference to Bellona will soon materialize in the character of Lady Macbeth. It is after this, in Act I, scene iii, the Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches with their intriguing prediction that Macbeth will become Scotland's monarch. Macbeth leaves open the normative question of whether this prediction is good or ill, but when he becomes Thane of Cawdor by "chance," he speculates that it may be possible for him to become king "without my stir" (I, iii, l.143).
Macbeth's hopes for a...
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Character Study of Lady Macbeth
With the possible exception of King Lear, no character in any of Shakespeare's plays undergoes such a radical devolution as that which transforms Lady Macbeth from a nearly superhuman character in the first act of Macbeth into a sleep-walking zombie at the start of Act V. When we first see Lady Macbeth on stage, she is plainly in command of her faculties and, in fact, she has deliberately intensified her capacity to realize her royal ambitions for power. But after her ineffective efforts to control Macbeth's reaction to the Ghost of Banquo in Act III, scene iv., in which she says that all her husband and partner in crime needs is sleep, Lady Macbeth disappears from the play. We learn of her again at the start of Act V when a doctor and one of her ladies in waiting discuss her insomnia. This hardly prepares us for the spectral figure who next appears, as Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking uttering words that are laden with guilt and a pathetic longing for the comfort of her absent husband. Even before Macbeth is told by Seyton that Lady Macbeth is dead (Act V, scene iv), we recognize that she is no longer herself but merely a shadow, a living ghost.
We first see Lady Macbeth in Act I, scene v. alone and reading a letter from her husband that speaks about his meeting with the weird sisters and their prophecy that he will become Scotland's king. Lady Macbeth issues no response to Macbeth's fantastic story. She focuses instead on the prospects for Macbeth's acting to fulfill the prediction and finds that he may be too full of the milk of human kindness to carry out the required deed of killing Duncan. She then summons her husband in a conjuring spell: "Hie thee hither,/That I might pour my spirits in thine ear,/And chastise with the valor of my tongue/All that impedes three from the golden round,/Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crown'd withal" (I, v., ll.25-29). Her designs are congruent with those of the weird sisters, but Lady Macbeth's invocation is far more splendid and powerful in its language than the inarticulate (but cunning) statements of the witches.
Learning that King Duncan is coming to their castle and thereby providing an opportunity to kill him, Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to unsex her, "And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;/Stop up the access and passage to remorse,/That no compunctious visitings of nature/Shake my fell purpose nor keep...
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Macbeth: On Stage, Screen, and Television
The complexity of the character of Macbeth and the 'curse' that attends its performance in the theatre would seem to make it a poor choice for performance. It is these very qualities, however, that make it one of the most popular plays in the canon. The role of Macbeth has the ability to provoke sympathy and ire occuring in the text simultaneously, but these qualities only become clearer when an actor brings the play to life on the stage, in a film, or in a television programme. Which element is emphasised is the choice of the director, and this choice affects the play's balance and overall impact.
Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, there is an eye-witness account of a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London: '…Makbeth at the Glob, 1610, the 20 of Aprill.' Dr. Simon Forman, an advisor to the Privy Council during the Gunpowder Plot investigation, made this entry into his diary, and although Dr. Forman gets quite a few of the details of the play incorrect, there is no doubt that he did indeed see the play.
After the English monarchy was restored in 1660, theatres which had been closed by Oliver Cromwell were re-opened by King Charles II. He granted royal patents to William Davenant and Thomas Killegrew for theatres to be established on former tennis courts. Shakespeare's plays were divided between the two men, with Macbeth going to Davenant. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on 5 November 1664 (the fifty-ninth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot) that the play was 'a pretty good play, but admirably acted'. The popularity of Davenant's production was partly attributable to the singing and dancing witches who also flew around the stage, thereby creating comedy absent from the text. Treating the witches as comic eliminates any threat they pose to Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, and weakens one of the main arguments of the play: free will versus Fate. The burden of malice therefore lands on Lady Macbeth. This event has the knock-on effect of making Macbeth a hero controlled and spurred on in his murderous reign by a cold, ambitious, deceitful wife. Clearly this is only one of many interpretations of the text.
In 1744, David Garrick performed the role in a text that he himself had revised to be closer to the First Folio text (1623). The version seen by Samuel Pepys (Davenant's) did, however, influence Garrick. Unfortunately, in Garrick's version, he cut much of the text and inserted his own written...
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Macbeth: Victim of Historians
The Tragedy of Macbeth is undoubtedly one of the darkest portraits of a villain that Shakespeare could have written. Macbeth is without any redeeming qualities whatsoever, as he and his venomous Queen murder their way to the throne of Scotland, before revenge and insanity take their toll. Is it possible that the people of Scotland would have tolerated such an ignoble pair? As experience has taught, trying to understand British history from Shakespeare's history plays is a wasted effort, since the playwright was in the business of filling his playhouse with plays that people would pay to see. Naturally, he would take an incident and turn it into a spell-binding yarn to satisfy the patrons. If this is so, then it is necessary to look at Macbeth as he appears in history to find out if he really was all that bad or is a victim of the historians and the playwright.
If, like Shakespeare, we depend on 16th century historians, we get a limited view of Macbeth. The truth is that these writers produced their histories some 500 years after the death of Macbeth, and Shakespeare's play was almost 600 years later in 1606. In order to get a more accurate picture of Macbeth, his Queen, and their reign, we must go back to the 11th century and seek contemporary accounts. FN1
Archaeological information from the 11th century is scant at best, with only one axe head being extant in Great Britain. There are no potteries, jewellery, or coins to help, but there is a piece of Gaelic poetry, "The Prophecy of Bierken", which gives a physical description of Macbeth. The poem says that Macbeth was a 'furious red king' (meaning he had a ruddy complexion) and that he had flowing blonde hair, both contradictions to the traditional casting for an actor in the role.
The actual Macbeth was not a thane (or local magistrate), but a warlord who ruled in the Scottish Highlands as the Mowmar of Murray, effectively a mini-kingdom. This kingdom was very important to King Duncan because of its strategic position between the English Northumbrians who threatened Scotland from the South and the Viking raiders who lived in the North. Macbeth, however, did not have an easy succession to the mowmarship. His cousin killed Macbeth's father when Macbeth was a teenager and took control of Murray. In 1035, Macbeth burned his cousin and fifty of his followers alive, taking back Murray and marrying his cousin's widow, Gruagh. Macbeth's wife is the first Queen...
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The Theme of Guilt in Macbeth
Through the experiences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare demonstrates that self-destructive guilt cannot be assuaged by recourse to action nor by even the most determined effort to expunge the pangs of conscience by active engagement in denial and transference. In the course of the Scottish tragedy, Macbeth repeatedly misinterprets the guilt that he suffers as being simply a specimen of fear. Consequently, his characteristic way of dealing with his guilt is to face it directly by committing still more misdeeds, and this, of course, only generates further shame. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is fully cognizant of the basic difference between fear and guilt, and she attempts to preclude the onset of the latter by first denying her own sense of conscience and then by focusing her attention upon the management of Macbeth's guilt. These acts of internal repression do not work, and, once her husband has departed to the field of combat and she is left alone, Lady Macbeth assumes the very manifestations of guilt that have been associated with Macbeth. Yet in Macbeth, we are furnished with several examples of how remorse can be addressed, most notably in Macduff's response to the slaughter of his wife and children. Therefore, while Shakespeare show us that feelings of guilt can unleash self-destructive drives, he also teaches us that it is the way in which we cope with guilt which is determinative of its ultimate effects.
A warrior by vocation, Macbeth is accustomed to overcoming self-doubts by confronting his fears with sword in hand. When thoughts of slaying Duncan to obtain the crown first enter his mind, Macbeth's concern is that they not be detected. Hence, he proclaims, "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires," (I, v, 11.58-59), and, when on the cusp of crime, he again calls on nature to mask his motives, entreating the earth, "Hear not my steps which way they walk" (II, i, 11.65-66). As a man of action, Macbeth is convinced that if only he can hide his crime and further the prophecy given to him by the witches, his ill feelings will naturally dissipate. This belief underlies his reaction to the murderer's news that Fleance has escaped the fate which Macbeth planned for him. Learning of this flaw in the execution of his scheme, Macbeth laments: "Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect; Whole as the marble" (III, iv, 11.25-26). For Macbeth, the reason that the ghost of Banquo appears...
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Lady Macbeth: A Liberated Woman?
The question of Lady Macbeth’s degree of liberation may be seen from two opposing viewpoints. If we define a "liberated woman" as one who has found her own strength, one who is able to function independently of the traditional subservient roles, Lady Macbeth clearly does not fit. She defines herself, and is defined by others, as a wife to Macbeth. Her ambitions are for him, and she willingly places herself in a secondary position in their relationship. She acknowledges his primary social position and his superior physical strength, and does not attempt to compete with him.
She functions flawlessly as the "woman of the house", the mistress of the castle, the hostess. On the other hand, a case could be made for the fact that Lady Macbeth struggles with what she defines as her own feminine nature's weakness, and overcomes that weakness long enough to participate in the bloody murders. We first meet Lady Macbeth as she reads the news of the witches’ prophecies. With a grim determination she resolves to make the promises come true. Her motivation is clearly her husband's hesitant nature:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis'd: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it.
(Act I, Scene v.)
Realizing that she will have to be the prime mover of the plot to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth prayers for the spirits to "unsex" her, to be given freedom from any interference by her natural feminine gentility. She renounces compunction and remorse, which she recognizes to be her own natural responses. Ironically, however, after the murder, it is the seemingly steely-natured Lady Macbeth who begins to capitulate to the first onslaughts of an uneasy conscience:
These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.
(Act II, Sc. i)
As the play progresses it becomes more and more clear that Lady Macbeth is not able to put aside the natural feminine components of her psyche. She errs, it seems, in defining her delicacy in such matters as weakness. She is clearly not a liberated woman because she feels that in order to be strong she must deny her womanliness. Unable to reconcile her own...
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The Guilt of Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's moat fascinating creations. One immediately reacts to her image as if all the forces of cunning and heartlessness in the universe combined to form the prototype of the femme fatale. And yet, upon examination of the character as she speaks in the play, one is drawn to the conclusion that there is more of the woman and wife than of the witch about her.
The reader first meets Lady Macbeth as she reads the news of the witches’ salutations and prophecies. With a grim determination she resolves to make the promises of the black sisters come true. It is interesting to note, however, that her motivation is clearly her husband’s hesitant nature:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it. (Act I, sc. v)
Realizing that she is to be the prime mover of the plot to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth intones a prayer:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here;
And fill me, from the crown to the top, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature –
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! (Act I, Sc. v)
The prayer uses most specific images which suggest that Lady Macbeth is not a coldly calculating predator. She wishes to be unsexed, to be given freedom from any semblance of feminine gentility; she renounces compunction and remorse, rather delicate terms which suggest a thoughtful, conscientious nature. In other words, Lady Macbeth is not going to allow herself to be dissuaded by those taunts of conscience which trouble her husband during the early stages of their plotting. Ironically, however, after the murder, it is the seemingly steely-natured wife who begins to capitulate to the first onslaughts of an uneasy conscience:
These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad. (Act II, Sc.i)
From the haunting similarity between the sleeping Duncan and her own father, Lady Macbeth moves in...
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The Witches in Macbeth
Throughout Macbeth there exists confusion as to what is real and what imaginary, and, for the most part, it is Macbeth himself who is confronted with these confusions. The question of whether or not the witches are real must be examined in relation to them.
The Weird Sisters always appear in thunder and either vanish mysteriously or are swallowed up in a mist. They play a prophetic role, and, at the beginning of the play, inform the audience that they are to meet with Macbeth. From the beginning, then, their existence outside of the imaginings of any of the other characters, is established. The witches appear in scenes where no other characters are present, and therefore can be seen to have an independent existence.
On their first encounter with other characters, the Weird Sisters are seen not only by Macbeth, but by Banquo, too. The latter, unsure as to their form, asks whether they are spirits, proclaiming that they do not look like "inhabitants o’ th’ earth," (I.iii. 41.) Both Banquo and Macbeth take the prophecies of the witches seriously, though not comprehending the nature of the three. Banquo demands of them whether not they are imaginary. Macbeth knows that they will disappear with the thickening mist, and when they do, comments that "wat seemed corporal, melted,/ As breath into the wind." (I.iii.81-2) Once they have vanished, Banquo questions whether he and his companion have been subject to an illusion:
Were such things as do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner? (I. iii. 83-5)
If the Witches were not real, then they can only have existed in the imagination of himself and Macbeth. But, considering the prophetic nature of the words conveyed, it would seem that the Witches should be credited with some existence of their own.
Banquo links them with the devil, calling then the "instruments of darkness," (I. iii. 124) while Macbeth alludes to "supernatural soliciting." (I. 111. 130) In his case, the appearance of the witches has lent his imagination — which had been considering murder, to gain the positions the witches endowed him with — a greater degree of reality.
When the dagger appears to Macbeth he immediately questions its reality, being more unsure of its real existence than he is of that of the witches. As with the witches, the appearance of the dagger...
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