Last Updated on October 5, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
Extended Character Analysis
Macbeth begins the play as a heroic and triumphant figure, the noble Thane of Glamis, a general in the Scottish army who has just defeated the insurgent King of Norway. As a reward for his valor and loyalty, King Duncan transfers the title of Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth. However, prior to receiving this news, Macbeth encounters the Three Weird Sisters, who greet him as the Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and future King of Scotland. Macbeth is initially wary of the witches’ prophecy, but after he discovers that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, his belief in their prophecy is cemented and his thoughts turn to how he might become king. From that point on, Macbeth sinks deeper into murder and treachery as he becomes a regicidal tyrant in the eyes of the people of Scotland.
Macbeth is characterized primarily by ambition. Even before his thoughts turn to regicide, he is enraptured by the witches’ prophecies. His appointment as Thane of Cawdor only serves to stoke the fires of his ambition. He at first assumes that he will become king in the same fashion that he became Thane of Cawdor, but when Duncan names Malcolm as his successor, Macbeth’s ambition is left unsatisfied. However, rather than being content with his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth becomes fixated on the loftier title of king.
Though his ambition is his chief drive, Macbeth also experiences moments of intense self-doubt and guilt. In act I, scene VII, Macbeth’s self-doubt leads him to call off the murder, only agreeing to go through with it after Lady Macbeth intervenes. His guilt grows with each villainous action he commits, compounding to the point where he feels trapped, unable to do anything other than accept his role as a villain. Macbeth begins the story as a soldier, a valiant warrior who fights his enemies with purpose and integrity. His descent into treachery and murder, with no just cause, rankle his more noble sensibilities. Though guilt is not enough to stave off Macbeth’s moral decay, it does serve to humanize him, adding emotional depth and conflict to a character who would otherwise be an irredeemable villain.
Macbeth’s moral decay can be interpreted in different ways. By one reading, unchecked ambition becomes a corrupting influence that transforms an otherwise good man into a brutal tyrant. Macbeth’s conscience is at war with his ambition, with ambition ultimately winning out when Macbeth commits regicide. By this reading, Macbeth is a tragic hero who is ultimately destroyed by his own ambition and faith in the witches’ prophecy. The witches and Lady Macbeth become the villains in Macbeth’s story, driving him to commit terrible acts in spite of his conscience. By the time Macbeth realizes that he has doomed himself, it is already too late, so he resigns himself to his chosen path. However, many critics argue that this interpretation minimizes Macbeth’s wickedness and portrays him as more virtuous than he really is.
By a different reading, Macbeth is an immoral villain from the start. Though he tries to talk himself out of the murder and maintain some semblance of honor, Macbeth is less concerned with Duncan’s welfare and more concerned with the prospect of personal failure. His excuses to Lady Macbeth focus more on what they stand to lose than on any elements of virtue, and he is easily swayed back to her cause. Some have even read Macbeth’s declaration that they will not go through with the murder as a means of testing Lady Macbeth’s resolve. By this reading, Macbeth is less a tragic hero and more an anti-hero, a character who pursues his own ends at the expense of others. Despite being named Thane of Cawdor purely on merit, Macbeth is not content to trust the witches’ prophecies to come true on their own. Instead, after Duncan declares Malcolm as his successor, Macbeth immediately considers regicide. His increasingly brutal actions, including ordering the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, suggest a nearly limitless capacity for cruelty. Perhaps the most damning evidence of all is that, unlike most tragic heroes, Macbeth commits his sins with full acknowledgement of his own immorality, unable to justify their necessity beyond the fact that they satisfy his ambition.
An additional interpretation is that Macbeth is neither a tragic hero nor an anti-hero, but rather a man struggling against fate and the natural order. In act I, scene II, the sergeant who reports the outcome of the battle to Duncan describes Macbeth as “disdaining fortune” by overcoming the Norwegian forces. Fate, especially when viewed from a religious standpoint, is often equated with the natural order. By contrast, the witches are equated with unnatural, “foul” forces. Macbeth willingly accepts the witches’ prophecies as fate because, unlike the natural order and hierarchy within Scotland, they appeal to his ambition. By this reading, Macbeth becomes an agent of the unnatural, disdaining fate in favor of dark prophecies. However, by doing so, he becomes an unnatural figure himself, a disruption that must be purged for the natural order to continue.
Macbeth’s story comes full circle in the final act. Just as Macbeth had been hailed as a hero for defeating the insurgent King of Norway, Macduff is hailed as a hero for defeating the tyrannical King Macbeth. Macbeth seems to recognize the futility of his actions in act V, scene V when he laments that life is a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound a fury, signifying nothing.” Whether he plays the role of tragic hero, anti-hero, or defier of fate, Macbeth’s descent into damnation means, in his own words, “nothing.” However, the ending of the play is open to interpretation. By one reading, Macbeth is struck down as a villain, ending his reign of terror as the monster he has made himself into. The ending can also be read in a redemptive light, whereby Macbeth returns to the battlefield as the soldier he was meant to be and dies honorably, finally free of his conscience.
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