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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It seems apparent that Shakespeare wanted to make Macbeth a somewhat sympathetic character and somewhat of a tragic hero. He did not want him to be an out-and-out villain who gets his well-deserved comeuppance at the end of the play, as was the case in his historical play Richard III which was written much earlier in his career. Richard III was written around 1591, and Macbeth was not written until around 1606. In order to mitigate Macbeth’s guilt, Shakespeare created the three witches, who seem to be encouraging Macbeth to be “bloody, bold and resolute” because it is his unalterable destiny to be king of Scotland. From the beginning of the play, Macbeth is torn between ambition and honor. The most important influence on Macbeth is his wife, who is relentlessly harassing him, using every psychological ploy to persuade him to do the deed and make her queen. She does everything but kill Duncan herself. While waiting for her husband to return from committing the murder, she says to herself


I laid their daggers ready;

He could not miss ‘em. Had he not resembled

My father as he slept, I had done ‘t


Here Shakespeare is obviously trying to push as much guilt onto Macbeth’s wife as possible, in order to lighten the load of guilt on the hero himself. She would have gone as far as actually committing the murder--but Shakespeare must have considered the possibility and realized that this would only make Macbeth look more weak and ineffectual than he already does.

Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth tends to make her poor husband look henpecked and uxorious. This was probably not Shakespeare’s intention, but it is hard to read the play without feeling that Macbeth is a weak man pretending to be courageous. He doesn’t seem to know his own mind. Unlike Richard III, he needs someone to tell him what to do. When he isn’t listening to his wife’s hectoring, he is running to the weird sisters for advice and reassurance. When he actually becomes king, his inadequacy for the complex tasks of running the country causes chaos and mass desertions. Perhaps he was reluctant to murder Duncan because he understood that he was a good soldier, a good follower and subordinate, but not qualified to be the king. All he can do as king is to use force. He is a soldier accustomed to fighting and bloodshed. This is what he knows, and this is his means of governing. He becomes a tyrant. He terrorizes some people and alienates others. We find it hard to admire him or to pity him.