Explain briefly the antagonist and protagonist of Macbeth. Give relevant examples to support your answers.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist of a literary work is the main character.  As such Macbeth of Shakespeare's play is a protagonist, albeit not a good man.  Still, he is the character who drives the plot of the drama. The antagonists are any character whom Macbeth opposes or with whom he comes into conflict. Thus, Macbeth conflicts with Duncan, Banquo, Lennox, Macduff, Ross, Mentieth, Simward, and all noble Scotsmen.  Of course, Malcolm III must be included in this list, and even the three sisters whom Macbeth encounters in Act I since they make predictions that work against Macbeth.  For instance, they tell Macbeth in the first act that he will be Thane of Cawdor, but they also tell Banquo that his sons will be king. Later, in Act III Banquo asks Macbeth if the witches can fulfill their prophesies for him, which prove to be antagonistic, why cannot his prophesies be also fulfilled:

As the weird women promised and I fear

Thou play'dst most foully for't:  yet it was said

It [being king] should not stand in thy posterity

But that myself should be root and father

Of many kings,. If there came truth from them--

Why, by the verities on thee made good,

May they not be my oracles as well

And set me up in hope?  But, hush, no more. (3.1.1-10)

This statement, of course, is Banquo's undoing as he, thus, becomes antagonistic to Macbeth in wishing his sons to be king.  In another example, when Malcolm speaks of returning Scotland to its people, he also intends to dethrone Macbeth.  This action again sets the witches as antagonists since they have predicted that no man born of woman will kill Macbeth; however Macolm is not "born of [any]women"; he has been surgically removed from his mother's womb.  Worried about Malcomb, Macbeth attempts to destroy him.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is clearly the protagonist of the play, but he's also in some way his own antagonist. Macbeth is a fundamentally weak, vacillating character who needs to be constantly goaded into action by his scheming, devious wife. His is a disordered personality, riven by contradictions. On the one hand, he displays guilt over murdering Duncan:

"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red" (2.2).

No ocean is big enough to wash the stain of guilt from Macbeth's bloody hands. But at the same time he accepts, albeit reluctantly, the necessity of the crime in achieving his political ambitions.

But fate is also an antagonist in the play. Many people in Shakespeare's time were firm believers in fate and the utter futility of trying to resist its immense power. Initially, Macbeth resists the witches' prophecy, but he eventually relents:

"If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, 
Without my stir" (1.3).

Macbeth, like all of us, is ultimately subject to fate and all its mysterious wiles. Macbeth fights (not very hard, it should be noted) against his antagonist, but it is all to no avail. This does not excuse Macbeth's actions in any way. Fate may have determined that he will one day ascend the throne, but it is the exercise of his own free will that has resulted in acts of unspeakable murder. So ultimately it is Macbeth who is the main antagonist in the story, and he it is who eventually destroys Macbeth the protagonist.