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 entire section is 1831 words.)