Character Study of Macbeth: From "Brave Macbeth" to "Dead Butcher"

There can be no play without characters to tell the story. In Shakespeare's plays, though he borrowed many of his stories, the characters are his own inventions based on various sources. Although there is no mention anywhere in the text of the play of any of Macbeth's physical characteristics, such as height or hair and eye colour, we do see a psychological progression from 'brave Macbeth' (1.1.16) to 'dead butcher' (5.9.36). The playwright, through the actor playing the role, gives us an almost diagrammatic study in the destruction of a man and his reputation, as well as the rebirth of Scotland.

Unlike many other Shakespeare plays, the eponymous hero does not make his entrance until the third scene of Act I. When the play opens, we are given only a brief sketch to whet our expectations. The witches are the first characters we see, and if Shakespeare intended to grab our attention, this opening surely does it. They are 'real' in the sense that we can actually see them, but they are also supernatural in that we believe witches belong to the world of evil spirits and sing-song spells. In lines 7-8, they inform us that they are to meet Macbeth upon the heath - nothing else. But we must wonder: why Macbeth? Why on the heath? What do they want?

The following scene takes us to a battlefield. King Duncan receives details of a fight between his forces and the rebels forces led by Macdonald and troops from Norway. The Captain tells the King that 'brave Macbeth' (1.2.16) met the traitor Macdonald with his sword drawn and killed him in a very horrible and gory manner. Thus our first description of Macbeth is that of a brave, loyal soldier defending his King and country from those who would take the throne and enslave the people. The King is so pleased with Macbeth's performance that he gives Macbeth the traitor's title, Thane of Cawdor, calling him 'noble Macbeth' (1.2.67). Thus we are led to believe that Macbeth is a good man, loyal, courageous, and determined. He has proven his valour and is duly rewarded by the King.

Immediately following, however, we are shown the witches for the second time in three scenes, effectively framing Macbeth the soldier with witches, which could imply that Macbeth is no ordinary warrior. When Macbeth enters, his opening lines echo those of the witches in the first scene:

Witches. Fair is foul and foul is fair … (1.1.12)
Macbeth. So foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3.36)

Obviously, then, there is some link between Macbeth and the witches. At this point, however, we do not know the nature of the relationship, only that the witches intend to meet Macbeth, but the implication is that this is an unholy alliance.

It is not long before we witness the meeting. While Macbeth's friend, Banquo, stands near him, the witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and 'king hereafter' (1.3.43). Macbeth is startled by what he hears. He knows he is already Thane of Glamis, but does not know, as we do, that Duncan has promoted him to Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, and we as well, are surprised by the promise of kingship. Banquo's prophecy is even more fantastic: he will be the father of kings but not king, and will be greater and happier than Macbeth! Yet, just like us, Macbeth wants to know more. Why did the Weird Sisters address him as Cawdor and king? Where did they get their information? Why deliver the prophecies on the heath? We know about the heath and Cawdor, but we do not know the source of the other prophecies. Is it possible that the witches are able to tell the future?

When Ross and Angus enter to proclaim Macbeth's promotion, the announcement comes as a surprise to him, and temporarily our attention is diverted since the two men merely state what we have already seen. More subtly, however, as Macbeth believes the event to be a fulfilment of a prophecy, we note somewhere in the back of our minds that we do not have any information about Macbeth that would allow us to understand how he could become king, especially since we are unaware of any problems with the present King. What Shakespeare is doing here with Macbeth is comparable to peeling an onion: this character will be revealed layer by layer.

In the next few lines it becomes apparent that Macbeth not only has thought about being king, but he also believes what the witches tell him is true:

Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:
The greatest...

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Who are the Witches?

Shakespeare's handling of the three witches or "weird sisters" of Macbeth is in itself equivocal. He assigns them the first dozen lines of the play their proclamation that "fair is foul, and foul is fair" (I, i., .11) setting the tone for the horrid events ahead. When their prediction of Act I, scene iii that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor comes true almost instantaneously, the broad contours of the play's plot are set; Macbeth will become king of Scotland and this will require the elimination of Duncan and his sons. While the witches perform seminal and salient functions in the play, their appearance on stage is nonetheless limited. Assuming that Act III, scene v. of Macbeth as we have it was written into the play after the Bard's death, Shakespeare gives us only one more glimpse of the weird sisters in Act IV, scene i. with its famous "double, double, toil and trouble" (l,10) invocation of evil. We see very little of the witches and this, in turn, contributes to our uncertainty about who or what they are. They clearly possess supernatural powers, including the capacity to foretell the future and to read the minds of the mortals with whom they come in contact, and this suggests that they are real but supernatural. On the other hand, even after their final manifestation at the start of Act IV, Shakespeare undercuts the reality of the witches, again raising the possibility that the weird sisters are an hallucination, an emanation from the human psyche.

The key characteristic of Macbeth's witches is that while they can influence Macbeth's actions, they cannot compel him to commit the evil deeds that he undertakes in the course of the Scottish tragedy. This limitation on the power of the weird sisters, their dependency upon human will to work their black arts, is highlighted by the difference between Banquo's reaction to their initial predictions and that of Macbeth. After their encounter with the witches in Act I, scene iii, Banquo wonders aloud about whether they were real or whether he and Macbeth are suffering from some type of hallucination: "Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason prisoner?" (I, iii., ll.83-85). It is not Macbeth, but Banquo, who first notices the witches on the heath, asking Macbeth: "What are these/So withered and so wild in their attire/That look not like th' inhabitants of the earth/And yet are on't" (I, iii, ll.39-42). Banquo then asks the witches directly whether they "live or are "aught" and Macbeth demands further, "Speak, if you can, what are you?" (I, iii., l.47). They do not respond to these questions, but simply hail Macbeth, first as Thane of Glamis, then as Thane of Cawdor, and finally as "King hereafter." When Banquo asks that witches if they can foretell...

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Why Does Macbeth Change His Mind About Killing Duncan?

At end of Act I, Macbeth declares, "I am settled, and bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat" (I, vii, ll.79-80). Given the witches' prediction that he will become Scotland's king, we have ample reason to believe that Macbeth and his partner in regicide, Lady Macbeth, will succeed in their enterprise of murdering Duncan. What is most remarkable is that just fifty lines earlier, Macbeth has flatly told his wife that they shall proceed no further in the bloody business at hand; in the midst of Lady Macbeth's subsequent argument against such "unmanly" inaction, he commands her to hold her peace. Lady Macbeth defies him, and the spurs embedded in her reply tap deeply into Macbeth's psyche. Most interpreters have focused on Lady Macbeth's skillful manipulation of gender identities and the strong innuendo of sexual tension between the two in their explanations of why Macbeth changes his mind and decides to kill the king. But Macbeth is not merely a susceptible puppet of his wife's finely-honed goading, for while she is the prime mover in the assassination of Duncan, the other murders in the play (of Banquo and MacDuff's family) are exclusively Macbeth's doing and this shows that he retains the capacity for independent action. Lady Macbeth's influence is a catalyst, but Macbeth is a willing object of her persuasions, but the seeds of his decision are sown well before the end of Act I.

The witches' promised intention to meet Macbeth aside, the first we hear of him is in Act I, scene ii, as a wounded sergeant reports that "brave Macbeth" swathed in the blood of the rebels, "unseam'd" the old Thane of Cawdor "from the nave to th' chops" (I, ii., l.22) and then impaled his head upon battlements. The loyal officer Rosse then says that Macbeth is "Bellona's bridegroom" (I, ii., l.54), Bellona being the virgin goddess of war. Even before he arrives on stage, we know that Macbeth is capable of bloody deeds (in a good cause), while the figurative reference to Bellona will soon materialize in the character of Lady Macbeth. It is after this, in Act I, scene iii, the Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches with their intriguing prediction that Macbeth will become Scotland's monarch. Macbeth leaves open the normative question of whether this prediction is good or ill, but when he becomes Thane of Cawdor by "chance," he speculates that it may be possible for him to become king "without my stir" (I, iii, l.143).

Macbeth's hopes for a passive and legitimate route to the throne are dashed in the very next scene of the play. In Act I, scene iv, the good King Duncan tells Macbeth that he owes more to his loyal general than he can pay (l.20), and Macbeth then dutifully replies that the service and loyalty he owes to the king are payment in itself. This is somewhat illogical, but for a brief moment it appears that Macbeth might becoming king without "stirring," that Duncan might name him as his successor. But after Duncan names his son Malcolm as heir apparent, Macbeth realizes that the prophecy that he will become Scotland's monarch will not unfold without action on his part. He acknowledges that this will entail Duncan's murder and that his ambitions have caused him to develop a still notional murder plan. Toward the end of the scene, Macbeth withdraws and, in a stage aside, he tells us the naming of Malcolm is a step that bars his ascent...

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Character Study of Lady Macbeth

With the possible exception of King Lear, no character in any of Shakespeare's plays undergoes such a radical devolution as that which transforms Lady Macbeth from a nearly superhuman character in the first act of Macbeth into a sleep-walking zombie at the start of Act V. When we first see Lady Macbeth on stage, she is plainly in command of her faculties and, in fact, she has deliberately intensified her capacity to realize her royal ambitions for power. But after her ineffective efforts to control Macbeth's reaction to the Ghost of Banquo in Act III, scene iv., in which she says that all her husband and partner in crime needs is sleep, Lady Macbeth disappears from the play. We learn of her again at the start of Act V when a doctor...

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Macbeth: On Stage, Screen, and Television

The complexity of the character of Macbeth and the 'curse' that attends its performance in the theatre would seem to make it a poor choice for performance. It is these very qualities, however, that make it one of the most popular plays in the canon. The role of Macbeth has the ability to provoke sympathy and ire occuring in the text simultaneously, but these qualities only become clearer when an actor brings the play to life on the stage, in a film, or in a television programme. Which element is emphasised is the choice of the director, and this choice affects the play's balance and overall impact.

Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, there is an eye-witness account of a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in...

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Macbeth: Victim of Historians

The Tragedy of Macbeth is undoubtedly one of the darkest portraits of a villain that Shakespeare could have written. Macbeth is without any redeeming qualities whatsoever, as he and his venomous Queen murder their way to the throne of Scotland, before revenge and insanity take their toll. Is it possible that the people of Scotland would have tolerated such an ignoble pair? As experience has taught, trying to understand British history from Shakespeare's history plays is a wasted effort, since the playwright was in the business of filling his playhouse with plays that people would pay to see. Naturally, he would take an incident and turn it into a spell-binding yarn to satisfy the patrons. If this is so, then it is necessary...

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The Theme of Guilt in Macbeth

Through the experiences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare demonstrates that self-destructive guilt cannot be assuaged by recourse to action nor by even the most determined effort to expunge the pangs of conscience by active engagement in denial and transference. In the course of the Scottish tragedy, Macbeth repeatedly misinterprets the guilt that he suffers as being simply a specimen of fear. Consequently, his characteristic way of dealing with his guilt is to face it directly by committing still more misdeeds, and this, of course, only generates further shame. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is fully cognizant of the basic difference between fear and guilt, and she attempts to preclude the onset of the latter by first...

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Lady Macbeth: A Liberated Woman?

The question of Lady Macbeth’s degree of liberation may be seen from two opposing viewpoints. If we define a "liberated woman" as one who has found her own strength, one who is able to function independently of the traditional subservient roles, Lady Macbeth clearly does not fit. She defines herself, and is defined by others, as a wife to Macbeth. Her ambitions are for him, and she willingly places herself in a secondary position in their relationship. She acknowledges his primary social position and his superior physical strength, and does not attempt to compete with him.

She functions flawlessly as the "woman of the house", the mistress of the castle, the hostess. On the other hand, a case could be made for the fact...

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The Guilt of Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's moat fascinating creations. One immediately reacts to her image as if all the forces of cunning and heartlessness in the universe combined to form the prototype of the femme fatale. And yet, upon examination of the character as she speaks in the play, one is drawn to the conclusion that there is more of the woman and wife than of the witch about her.

The reader first meets Lady Macbeth as she reads the news of the witches’ salutations and prophecies. With a grim determination she resolves to make the promises of the black sisters come true. It is interesting to note, however, that her motivation is clearly her husband’s hesitant nature:

Glamis thou...

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The Witches in Macbeth

Throughout Macbeth there exists confusion as to what is real and what imaginary, and, for the most part, it is Macbeth himself who is confronted with these confusions. The question of whether or not the witches are real must be examined in relation to them.

The Weird Sisters always appear in thunder and either vanish mysteriously or are swallowed up in a mist. They play a prophetic role, and, at the beginning of the play, inform the audience that they are to meet with Macbeth. From the beginning, then, their existence outside of the imaginings of any of the other characters, is established. The witches appear in scenes where no other characters are present, and therefore can be seen to have an independent...

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