How does Shakespeare present heroes and villains in Hamlet and Macbeth? 

Expert Answers
thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In William Shakespeare's plays "Hamlet" and "Macbeth", characters exemplify a wide range of evil behaviors and a more limited range of morally admirable behaviors. 

In "Macbeth", there is definitely a protagonist, Macbeth himself, but not really a character who can be called a hero, in the sense of a morally good character who can be considered a model for the audience to emulate. King Duncan appears to be a good king, just and well liked, but in the play his main function is to be killed by Macbeth. MacDuff, who eventually puts an end to Macbeth's reign of terror, is an essentially minor character; he has very little time on stage. Both Banquo and Macbeth at the start of the play have heroic potential as loyal and powerful followers of Duncan. The witches (pure villains) play upon their ambitions. While both listen to the witches, Banquo realizes that they are evil, instruments of the Devil, and repudiates them while Macbeth, his ambitions enflamed, develops into a true villain, as does his wife, Lady Macbeth, who strengthens his resolve. As Banquo is killed by Macbeth relatively early in the play, like Duncan, he remains a supporting character.

In "Hamlet", the protagonist is not as unambiguously evil as Macbeth, but is still not a conventionally heroic figure. His motive, revenge for the murder of his father, is traditionally heroic, but his character is indecisive and his methods based on subterfuge. As we watch him feigning insanity leading to Ophelia's suicide, bullying his mother and killing Polonius without even bothering to ascertain his identity, and arranging the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he appears a somewhat morally ambiguous character. Claudius, on the other hand, is a wonderful "smiling villain", masking evil with under a genial and charming exterior, although in soliloquies, he proves a more complex character, with a strong understanding of his own moral lapses.