What is your interpretation of the character of Macbeth and what evidence from the play would you use to support your view?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the early part of Shakespeare’s Macbeth an unusual amount of attention is given to the treasonous activities and execution of the Thane of Cawdor. Even after the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed and Macbeth has received word that King Duncan has transferred the title and possessions to him, there is still more dialogue about the former Cawdor. For example:


Is execution done on Cawdor? Are not
Those in commission yet returned?


My liege,
They are not yet come back. But I have spoke
With one that saw him die, who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implored your Highness’ pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. He died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed
As ‘twere a careless trifle.


Early in the play Duncan addresses Macbeth as Cawdor. Macbeth’s own wife addresses him as “Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor.” Perhaps most significantly, the three witches greet him as follows:


All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!


All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!


All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

Shakespeare evidently intended Macbeth to have what in modern parlance is commonly called a split personality. He is the loyal Thane of Glamis and inherits the mantle of the treasonous Thane of Cawdor: It becomes possible for him to be both loyal and treasonous. It is as Cawdor that he commits the murder of Duncan and schemes against Malcolm and Donalbain. It is as Cawdor that he orders the murders of Banquo and Fleance and later of Macduff’s wife and children. By inheriting Cawdor’s title, he has also inherited his wicked character. Significantly, Macbeth says at the end of Act 2, Scene 3:

To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself.

Macbeth actually ends up with more than two identities. He is Macbeth, the ordinary human being like all of us. He is Thane of Glamis. He is Thane of Cawdor. And, finally, he is King of Scotland. His multiple identities are psychologically overwhelming. He no longer knows who he is after committing the murder of Duncan--but it would seem that what initiated the change in his character, as if from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, was being transformed into the Thane of Cawdor.

Like Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Macbeth could not control both identities. Becoming Thane of Cawdor leads directly to becoming King of Scotland, and this is far more than Macbeth (the man) can handle. His misrule of his kingdom, which we only know of by report, sounds like the behavior of a lunatic king. He is a victim of his own success.

Toward the end of the play, Angus and Menteith exchange the following opinions about Macbeth:


Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.


Who, then, shall blame
His pestered senses to recoil and start
When all that is within him does condemn
Itself for being there?