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

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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 is behind …
Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. (1.3.115-116, 126-128)

Macbeth knows that in order to become king, Duncan must die, by natural or unnatural means, and this last thought strikes him with panic and fear while he debates the good or bad of the prophecies. That he did not dismiss them right away as ridiculous indicates that in spite of his bravery as a soldier, Macbeth is not totally committed to Duncan. He has ambitions for himself, and if anything stands in his way, he will probably eliminate it. Macbeth's change has begun.

When Macbeth presents himself before Duncan, however, he pledges his 'service and loyalty' (1.4.22) to Duncan without reservation. Once Duncan announces he has made his eldest son, Malcolm, his heir and Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth's response is immediate:

… that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. (1.4.48-50)

As rapidly as we are thrown into the events of the play, we are shown that Macbeth not only loves his King and country, but also himself. It still remains to be seen what action he will take.

We do not have to wait long, because the next scene takes us to Macbeth's home where we meet his wife, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband in which we learn more about him. Apparently in an effort to find out more about the prophecies, Macbeth has had the witches investigated and has

… learned by the perfectest report that they have more in them than mortal knowledge. (1.5.2-3)

It is clear that after calling the witches 'imperfect speakers' (1.3.68), Macbeth has now changed his mind. Macbeth also mediates and interprets the prophecies and conveys his version to his wife which differs to the one we know.

Macbeth calls Lady Macbeth 'my dearest partner of greatness' (1.5.9-10) and here it seems he is sincere. Lady Macbeth, however, is determined that her husband becomes king and in her speech, implies he lacks the qualities necessary to assassinate Duncan without remorse or regret. She waits anxiously for Macbeth so that she can spur him on to regicide. She is so bent on the 'golden round' (1.5.26) that she prays for supernatural help to devoid her of any feminine traits and reinforce her 'fell purpose' (1.5.44). When her husband arrives, she begins her campaign by greeting him with the two titles he has and implies the third - king.

The rest of scene involves Lady Macbeth telling her husband to 'Leave all the rest to me' (1.5.71). These six words not only implicate Lady Macbeth in the murder of Duncan, but they also cause us to wonder if the pair will succeed in their act of assassination. Given that Macbeth has shown some doubt, perhaps the plan will fail.

Duncan arrives at the castle and while the King eats dinner and prepares to sleep peacefully, Macbeth is still debating how he can achieve the crown without getting caught or punished. His wife joins him in this reverie, and severely rebukes him for his confusion. She tells him that he is less than a man if he does not carry out the murder, and that she, a mere woman, has more strength of purpose than he. As Lady Macbeth unfolds the details to her husband, she is also telling us the plan and implicating us as we sit helpless in the audience. The two are in agreement as we move closer and closer to the murder of the King.

In the opening scene of Act II, the murder is committed. In the short space of eight scenes, Shakespeare gives us all the information (and a bit more) that we need to understand the character of Macbeth. We have seen him at his best and at his worst. We have witnessed his succumbing to the entreaties of his wife, and we have seen him go off to kill not only the King, but also any witnesses to the act. Everything that happens from this point forward will be based on our observations: Macbeth seizing the crown; the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his Queen; the murders of Banquo, Lady Macduff and the children; the death of Lady Macbeth; Macbeth's defeat and death.

Macbeth will consult the witches once more and since he believed their prophecies at the beginning of the play, we know that he will believe the Apparitions that he forces them to conjure. However, we also know that because of his inability to think clearly, he will not understand their true meaning and arrive at his own erroneous conclusions. But this character in the person of the actor tells more than one story.

According to Machiavelli in The Prince, the ends of political power justify any means taken to achieve them. Macbeth clearly shows not only the action of unbridled ambition, but also its results. Perhaps one of the reasons for the play's continued popularity is its portrayal of a politician that we can all recognise in our present day systems.

The character of Macbeth also serves as a metaphor for birth and death on several levels. On the one hand, Macbeth marks the birth of a new political ideology and the death of a tradition. On another, Malcolm's creation of the first Scottish earls from the thanes marks the birth of a new society, while Macbeth's death signals the end of the old. Still further, the childlessness of the Macbeths compared to the families of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff reflects these societal changes. Perhaps most uniquely, Macbeth lacks any sub-plot and therefore, there is no comedy (except the Porter, 2.3) to offset the intensity of the tragedy nor is there any thread of bawdiness (except the Porter, 2.3 and the witches, 1.3 and 1.4).

Although Macbeth is the shortest of all of Shakespeare's plays (2,108 lines), the playwright does not take any shortcuts in developing Macbeth as a human being who, when given a choice, chooses his own gain instead of his people's welfare. He also puts himself before any consideration of family or the community that is comprised of those families. We are presented not only with a soldier who killed his way to the throne of Scotland, but also a man who could be our next-door neighbour. And that, with the warning of the witches, is really scary.

Who are the Witches?

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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 future, they hail him as a future sire of Scottish monarchs, and when Macbeth then asks the witches to explain their salutations and the means by which foresee future, they vanish into thin air. Banquo ultimately concludes that the witches are not an hallucination, nor are they of substance, explaining to Macbeth that, "the earth hath bubbles, as the water has/And these are of them" (I, iii, ll.79-80).

Since both Macbeth and Banquo actually see the witches, and since both are of sound mind before and immediately after this encounter, the alternative thesis that the witches are only mental figments seems false. Moreover, Lady Macbeth (while she is in her right mind) accepts the reality of the witches having an independent existence. Nevertheless, Shakespeare deliberately upsets any firm conclusions as to who or what the weird sisters are. When Lennox arrives in Act IV, scene i, after the witches have vanished into air, Macbeth asks whether he saw them. Lennox replies with a simply no, and while his failure to see them is most plausibly the result of his having entered the scene too late, we are again thrown off balance.

Leaving the issue of the witches' nature aside for the moment, we find that while the weird sisters can influence humans like Macbeth to carry out heinous acts, they cannot force them to do so, nor do they intervene directly in the commission of crimes. In facing the weird sisters, Macbeth undergoes a two-stage process: he first determines that they are credible and then decides to act upon this assumption. The first step occurs when word comes through Rosse and Angus that King Duncan has directed them to call Macbeth by his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Both Macbeth and Banquo then lend credence to the witches' ability to see into the future. Banquo, however, refuses the temptation of taking the second step, saying that, "The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray 's/In deepest consequence" (I, iii., ll.124-126). Macbeth, however, furnishes the witches with the essential ingredient for the mayhem they are brewing, the agency of his will. He first assumes a neutral stance toward acting upon the prediction that he will become king, asserting that "This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good" (I, iii., ll.130-131). Macbeth presumes that even though his encounter with the witches incites terror in him, it cannot be "ill" because it augured his success in becoming Thane of Cawdor. At this juncture, Macbeth has headed down a slippery slope: once he proceeds with "weighing" the value of the witches' predictions he is only a short distance from subordinating his own will into an instrumentality of evil.

The contrast between Banquo and Macbeth in relation to the witches surfaces again at the start of Act II when Banquo confides to Macbeth that he has dreamt of the three weird sisters, while Macbeth replies that "I think not of them" (l.22). This is, of course, a lie and a denial of reality, for right after this exchange and once Banquo leaves, Macbeth sees a dagger hovering before his eyes, and places it in the specific context of his meeting with the witches: "Now o'er the one half world/Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse/The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates/Pale Hecat's offerings" (II, i., ll.49-51). It is important to note that in his second (and final) encounter with the witches (Act IV, scene i.), Macbeth takes an active hand in conjuring the apparitions that furnish him with an equivocal security about his future as Scotland's king. In the course of the play, the witches paradoxically become less real, but more potent. In the end, the reality of the witches is predicated upon the willingness of human beings to perform their evil handiwork and in the character of Macbeth, this willingness is plainly present.

Why Does Macbeth Change His Mind About Killing Duncan?

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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 to the throne. His ambition is so powerful, moreover, that he fears that his evil intentions will be discerned, saying "Stars, hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires (I, iv, ll.50-51).

At the start of Act I, scene vii, Macbeth is considering the technical parameters of a hypothetical murder, finding "If it were done, when ti's done, then 'twere well/It were done quickly" (ll.1-2). When his fears about the consequences of detection surface, Macbeth begins to list the reasons for not assassinating the king. He turns first to customary personal loyalty, observing that Duncan is a blood relative and, as such, that Macbeth should protect the king against knife rather than wield it against him. Secondarily, he says that Duncan has been a good king, against whom he has no grievance. But he fails to mention the most obvious reason for refraining from murder, that it is morally wrong, a cardinal sin that deserves damnation whether detected by human agency or not. Instead, he urns to making an inventory of the resources he would need, should he decide to move forward. On this count, Macbeth finds one thing lacking, "I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself" (I, vii, l.25-27).

It is then that the "spur" appears (almost as if Macbeth had conjured it into being) as Lady Macbeth enters the scene. Initially, Macbeth is adamant in his rejection of the course that they both know must be taken if he is to become Scotland's ruler, and tells his wife that they shall proceed no further in this business. Now Lady Macbeth launches into her argument, and the "spur" that has captured the critic's attention is her charge that Macbeth is a coward. In fact, she does not directly say this (she merely asks if her is prepared to live like a coward), nor is it the crux of her case. Indeed, Macbeth has a rebuttal to the coward charge, asserting to Lady Macbeth, "I dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do more is none" (I, vii, ll.46-47), and he then commands her to be silent. But Lady Macbeth need not heed her duty toward her husband, for there is a second plank to her counter-argument; she tells Macbeth that if he does not follow through on their developing plot then he has broken a promise to her. She first asks whether the "hope" that he raised for their royalty in the letter that he sent to her after meeting the witches was "drunk." She then says that since the expectations he raised in this missive were false, she will accord his professions of love to her to be equally false. That being so, some "beast" must have egged Macbeth on to breaking the bonds of trust with his wife by making promises (the attainment of the throne) that are then withdrawn.

It is at this juncture that Lady Macbeth enters into her famous "phantom child" speech, saying to Macbeth: "I have given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,/And dashed the brains out, had I shown as you/Have done to this" (I, vii, ll.54-58). Although the attention of modern critics has centered upon the gender and sexual aspects of this speech, especially in conjunction with Lady Macbeth's earlier "desexing" soliloquy in Act I, scene v, ll., the thrust of the argument pivots on trust, specifically the trust that unites husband and wife.

Lastly, Macbeth returns to practical issues of execution. He seems to seek reassurance rather than an opportunity to back out, having already determined that his bond to Lady Macbeth requires him to act, when he asks her "what if we should fail?" Lady Macbeth has her follow-on answer and the details of the murder plan set. She says that only fear will cause their plan to fail and then lays out plot that pivots around pinning the blame for king's death upon "spungy officers" drugged into "swinish" sleep (her reference to "swine" creating one of many associations between Lady Macbeth and the witches). The irony here is Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan rests upon what he sees as the dictates of his natural relation with his wife, but the relation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is no longer natural, but purposively unnatural, Lady Macbeth having shorn herself of maternal gender, Macbeth having entered into an unholy relation with the witches that will ultimately supplant his marriage to Lady Macbeth altogether.

Character Study of Lady Macbeth

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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 and one of her ladies in waiting discuss her insomnia. This hardly prepares us for the spectral figure who next appears, as Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking uttering words that are laden with guilt and a pathetic longing for the comfort of her absent husband. Even before Macbeth is told by Seyton that Lady Macbeth is dead (Act V, scene iv), we recognize that she is no longer herself but merely a shadow, a living ghost.

We first see Lady Macbeth in Act I, scene v. alone and reading a letter from her husband that speaks about his meeting with the weird sisters and their prophecy that he will become Scotland's king. Lady Macbeth issues no response to Macbeth's fantastic story. She focuses instead on the prospects for Macbeth's acting to fulfill the prediction and finds that he may be too full of the milk of human kindness to carry out the required deed of killing Duncan. She then summons her husband in a conjuring spell: "Hie thee hither,/That I might pour my spirits in thine ear,/And chastise with the valor of my tongue/All that impedes three from the golden round,/Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crown'd withal" (I, v., ll.25-29). Her designs are congruent with those of the weird sisters, but Lady Macbeth's invocation is far more splendid and powerful in its language than the inarticulate (but cunning) statements of the witches.

Learning that King Duncan is coming to their castle and thereby providing an opportunity to kill him, Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to unsex her, "And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;/Stop up the access and passage to remorse,/That no compunctious visitings of nature/Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between/The effect and it" (I, v, ll.46-51). The speech resembles Macbeth's "stars hide your fires" speech in the prior scene, but we also note that Lady Macbeth fails to consider that "compunctious visitngs of nature" might arise after the crime has been committed, and that her voluntary "de-sexing" alters her natural bond with Macbeth.

After Lady Macbeth has ceremonially drained all feminine kindness from her spirit, Macbeth enters, and Lady tells him that Duncan must be "provided for," the innuendo being that it is murder that comprises the night's business. He puts her off, saying that they shall speak about the matter later, but we note that Lady Macbeth does not name the deed at hand, referring to as "this enterprise." Since the two speak openly about their plot, we cannot ascribe this reticence to name the deed to simple prudence; it may be that moral inhibitions prevent Lady Macbeth from naming the sin she has in mind. But when Duncan arrives in Act I, scene vi, he is greeted first by Lady Macbeth alone, she uses an ironic pun in saying that everything has been "doubly done" on Duncan's behalf, the connotation of duplicity suggests that Lady Macbeth may use her ability for verbal equivocation to some advantage. In short order, this impression is reinforced, for she easily persuades Macbeth to take the plunge into regicide in Act I, scene vii.

Things do not go as planned. Not only does Macbeth fail to carry out his wife's instructions concerning the placement of the murder daggers, the blame does not fall upon Duncan's guards but upon Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons, who have fled the scene. At the midpoint of the play, in Act III, scene ii, Lady Macbeth worries aloud, asks a servant whether Banquo is gone from the castle, and then sends him with a message for King Macbeth. For the first time we see that Lady Macbeth is not satisfied with the outcome of her plan, saying in a soliloquy, "Nought's had, all's spent/Where our desire is go without content;/'Tis safer to be that which we destroy/Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy" (III, ii., ll.4-7). When Macbeth enters, she chastises him for leaving her alone and then advises him to "sleek over" his "rugged looks," and be "bright and jovial" at banquet. (III, ii. ll.27-28). He first advises her to do the same and then says that she should remains ignorant of his plans to dispose of Banquo and Fleance. In the banquet scene itself, Lady Macbeth is unable to rein in her husband's guilty horror at seeing Banquo's ghost, and her handling of the guests is inept.

Lady Macbeth is absent for the play and her reappearance at the opening of Act V is presaged by the worried comments of her doctor and one of her gentlewomen. As Lady Macbeth enters silently, the two refer to her behavior as if she no longer existed. They note her compulsive habit of washing her hands, and, consistent with this diagnosis, the first words that the devolved Lady Macbeth speaks are "a spot." We soon realize that in her own mind, Lady Macbeth's hands are unclean and that she cannot command an imagined "damn'd spot" to disappear. Completely oblivious to those around her, Lady Macbeth transfers this symptom of guilt to Macbeth, saying "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on 's grave" (V, i., ll.62-64). Macbeth, of course, is not present, for he has gone to the battlefield, but in her final speech, Lady Macbeth's desire for conjugal partnership comes forth, as she says to her imagined husband, "To bed, to bed, there's knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed" (V, i., ll.66-68). In Act V, scene iii, Macbeth commands the doctor to cure Lady Macbeth, to which the physician replies, "Therein the patient must minister to himself" (V, iii, l.45), and shortly thereafter Macbeth is told of his wife's death, presumably as a result of suicide.

Looking back, After the murder of the King, Macbeth withdraws from his marital relationship to Lady Macbeth and no longer relies upon his wife's capacity to interpret events for him. He keeps his plans to have Banquo and Fleance killed from her, saying to his one-time partner, "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck/Till thou applaud the deed" (III, ii, ll.50-51). By the banquet scene of Act III, Lady Macbeth is no longer part of her husband's world, he no longer needs her as a spur to ambition. Deprived of her function in directing Macbeth's acts, Lady Macbeth is left alone and without further purpose. Long before Macbeth concludes that life is a tale told by an idiot, Lady Macbeth, no longer a wife nor even a natural woman, has entered into a twilight realm in which there is no active role for her to perform nor any means through which guilt can be extinguished.

Macbeth: On Stage, Screen, and Television

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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 London: '…Makbeth at the Glob, 1610, the 20 of Aprill.' Dr. Simon Forman, an advisor to the Privy Council during the Gunpowder Plot investigation, made this entry into his diary, and although Dr. Forman gets quite a few of the details of the play incorrect, there is no doubt that he did indeed see the play.

After the English monarchy was restored in 1660, theatres which had been closed by Oliver Cromwell were re-opened by King Charles II. He granted royal patents to William Davenant and Thomas Killegrew for theatres to be established on former tennis courts. Shakespeare's plays were divided between the two men, with Macbeth going to Davenant. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on 5 November 1664 (the fifty-ninth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot) that the play was 'a pretty good play, but admirably acted'. The popularity of Davenant's production was partly attributable to the singing and dancing witches who also flew around the stage, thereby creating comedy absent from the text. Treating the witches as comic eliminates any threat they pose to Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, and weakens one of the main arguments of the play: free will versus Fate. The burden of malice therefore lands on Lady Macbeth. This event has the knock-on effect of making Macbeth a hero controlled and spurred on in his murderous reign by a cold, ambitious, deceitful wife. Clearly this is only one of many interpretations of the text.

In 1744, David Garrick performed the role in a text that he himself had revised to be closer to the First Folio text (1623). The version seen by Samuel Pepys (Davenant's) did, however, influence Garrick. Unfortunately, in Garrick's version, he cut much of the text and inserted his own written speeches, such as a death speech for Macbeth in which he tries to repent but gives up hope:

I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy -
It is too late, hell drags me down; I sink,
I sink - Oh! - my soul is lost forever!

John Philip Kemble, an actor-theatre manager, trimmed even more text than either Davenant or Garrick by cutting Lady Macduff, her son, and the Porter, while he emphasised spectacle. Instead of three witches, Kemble had a singing, dancing comic chorus of more than fifty people, in a version that held the stage from the end of the 18th century well into the 19th. As with Davenant, cutting the text of the shortest play in the Shakespeare canon resulted in shifting the emphasis on evil from the witches to Lady Macbeth in both the Garrick and Kemble productions.
As cultural attitudes toward women began to mitigate and change in the mid-nineteenth century, however, the interpretative focus moved once again. While the witches and Lady Macbeth were relieved of much of their comic evil and malice, Macbeth himself was severely indicted for his innate greed and ambition, especially in productions and performances by William Macready at The Drury Lane Theatre, London. The production was a milestone in the staging of the play which was done in the Jacobean style, and thereafter, Macbeth was almost always a darker character than he had been previously. After Macready, the Macbeth productions most acclaimed were those by Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Irving's Macbeth was more indecisive than any Hamlet, yet an unrepentant villain. The choice of this stress on Macbeth meant that Lady Macbeth became a devoted, gentle wife who only wanted the best for her husband. Critics attacked this view, claiming it made the marriage unbelievable and contrary to Shakespeare's play.

For Tree, a stickler for highly detailed, representational staging, Macbeth was a ghost-inhabited dreamscape in some sections, and critics thought that Tree's performance was ineffectual and forgettable. Some of his staging, such as Macbeth speaking the prophecies of the Apparitions, continued to influence 20th century productions, especially those of the Royal Shakespeare Company headquartered in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The next important and acclaimed English productions starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1955, and Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in 1976-1978, both at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. In this outing, Olivier's Macbeth was heroic but fatally flawed, while Leigh's Lady Macbeth was weak and frail. Directed by Trevor Nunn, now director of the National Theatre in London, the McKellan-Dench production characterised the witches as demonic forces with far-reaching influence. The emphasis on the joint crime of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth did not allow either of them to escape responsibility for their horrible deeds. Yet at the same time, the audience's sympathy for their tragedy was paradoxically aroused.

Where were the Americans in all this? Because American theatre until the late 19th century consisted mostly of touring companies from England who performed only sections of the play, it was up to the famous Cushman Sisters to bring the complete play to American theatres in the late 1800's with a text that Charlotte Cushman felt 'restored' Shakespeare, but which was simply the First Folio text. The biggest contribution of the Americans was their desire to make use of the new medium of film, and advances in film technology meant that the witches and Apparitions no longer presented much of a problem for filmic expression. Orson Welles, considered a wunderkind after his debut as writer/director of the film classic Citizen Kane, staged the play in 1936 in a Caribbean context and earned the production the nickname 'voodoo Macbeth'. He nonetheless based his 1948 treatment on his stage production. The Welles effort, based on a highly edited text, uses many of film noir's filmic expressions, producing a group of menacing hag-witches, a dark, brooding, villainous Macbeth, and a sexy but aggressive Lady Macbeth.

Two other notable film efforts are Japanese director Akira Kurasawa's Kumonosu-ju (Throne of Blood, 1957), and Roman Polanski's text-based film (1971). Kurasawa's film is more aptly called an appropriation of the play. It omits Malcolm and the business around him, and the Porter. The three witches are reduced to one, and Kurasawa draws heavily on the conventions of Japanese Noh drama which dictates minimal and sometimes mechanical movement.

Polanski's interpretation of the play, though panned by the critics at the time, illustrates some of the descriptive passages of the text with strong, visual images, such as the execution of Cawdor, and, most notably, the murder of Duncan, which in the play, takes place offstage. It remains the only depiction of the murder, either on stage or film. Polankski, like Franco Zeffirelli in the 1968 Romeo and Juliet, used a very young couple for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Despite re-ordering the plays' scenes, this Macbeth remains 'bloody, bold, and resolute' as his wife remains tender and adoring. She dies by throwing herself from a tower and audiences witness Macbeth's head rolling down a street, but the focus is on the malevolence of the witches: an old hag, a middle-aged disfigured woman, and a young girl. The women are part of an all-female coven that in Act IV, scene i, meet in the nude. Overall, the film retains its thoughtfully created strongly male, unrelenting violent impact.

Versions for television have been less successful, although two are outstanding: the BBC Shakespeare (1982) with Nicol Williamson and Jane Laportaire, and Macbeth on the Estate, directed by Michael Bogdanov (1997). In the BBC version, Macbeth is weak and Lady Macbeth is sexy and strong in Act I, scene i. These roles reverse themselves subtly throughout the play, so that by the conclusion, the two are destroyed by their own weaknesses.

Macbeth on the Estate takes place in a public housing development in a ghetto of a Northern English city. The political conflict is between two rival gangs. The letter from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth at the opening becomes a message left on an answering machine. The witches are two young boys and a little girl. The most interesting choice is the line taken with Lady Macbeth. She is close friends with Lady Macduff and frequently baby-sits for the Macduff children, including an infant. When Lady Macbeth receives Macbeth's message, she retreats to a small nursery with an empty crib and a baby's picture on a chest of drawers. The 'unsex me here' speech (1.53-52) is delivered while Lady Macbeth crouches in a corner of the nursery, but the heartbreak ultimately drives her to madness when she witnesses the murders of Lady Macbeth and the children by her husband. The film's brutal honesty underline Macbeth's brutality, and, without undermining the power of the witches, demonstrates that Macbeth is open to free choice, but chooses badly.

The most recent staging to receive critical approval is that of Sir Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in a Royal Shakespeare Company production that toured the United Kingdom, the United States, and several other countries. The production was filmed and blocked for television and aired on 2 January 2001 in England. It takes place in a modern setting and many of Macbeth's speeches are heard in voice-over. The production is tense, dark, and unforgiving, showing Macbeth as a murderer who has lost any capacity for remorse. The play lends itself readily to such broad and differing interpretations over the centuries because Shakespeare has taken great care in creating a character who is not only multifaceted, but also multidimensional. Whether a director, a critic, or a student of the play chooses only one of Macbeth's many characteristics as a main point of interest, it is never completely possible to define Macbeth in concrete terms. The play's text may remain constant, but Macbeth, the King and killer, has the ability to speak to all times and all cultures.

Macbeth: Victim of Historians

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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 to look at Macbeth as he appears in history to find out if he really was all that bad or is a victim of the historians and the playwright.

If, like Shakespeare, we depend on 16th century historians, we get a limited view of Macbeth. The truth is that these writers produced their histories some 500 years after the death of Macbeth, and Shakespeare's play was almost 600 years later in 1606. In order to get a more accurate picture of Macbeth, his Queen, and their reign, we must go back to the 11th century and seek contemporary accounts. FN1

Archaeological information from the 11th century is scant at best, with only one axe head being extant in Great Britain. There are no potteries, jewellery, or coins to help, but there is a piece of Gaelic poetry, "The Prophecy of Bierken", which gives a physical description of Macbeth. The poem says that Macbeth was a 'furious red king' (meaning he had a ruddy complexion) and that he had flowing blonde hair, both contradictions to the traditional casting for an actor in the role.

The actual Macbeth was not a thane (or local magistrate), but a warlord who ruled in the Scottish Highlands as the Mowmar of Murray, effectively a mini-kingdom. This kingdom was very important to King Duncan because of its strategic position between the English Northumbrians who threatened Scotland from the South and the Viking raiders who lived in the North. Macbeth, however, did not have an easy succession to the mowmarship. His cousin killed Macbeth's father when Macbeth was a teenager and took control of Murray. In 1035, Macbeth burned his cousin and fifty of his followers alive, taking back Murray and marrying his cousin's widow, Gruagh. Macbeth's wife is the first Queen to be named in Scottish history and was a member of the royal line as Duncan's aunt. Her marriage to Macbeth was probably a political arrangement that benefited them both. She was a good woman who generously funded and gave land to the Caudies monks who transcribed manuscripts on an island in Loch Levlan, Fife. As a royal relative to Duncan and a link to Kenneth I, Gruagh enhanced Macbeth's status and reputation.

The historical Macbeth was well versed in warfare. In addition to regaining Murray, he did take part in the defeat of the Norwegian lord, Svend Estridsen or Sweno at Torfness. Although not solid evidence of this particular battle, 'Sueno's Stone', discovered in the 19th century, stands near Forres, Scotland, Macbeth's home in the play. The stone depicts excessive carnage, such as severed heads and decapitated bodies, which gives a good idea of what warfare was like in Macbeth's day. The stone, however, does not tell us that the 'battles' were actually skirmishes that lasted only about thirty minutes. The 'armies' were small bands of men from the land that Macbeth ruled. He may have worn protective armour for the battle, but his poor soldiers would have only had swords, spears, or axes with which to defend themselves. These skirmishes were not 'little' in their intensity, violence, or bloodshed. The swords, spears, and axes were designed to kill, and if they did not, they left the receiver of their blows horribly maimed or totally disabled.

As such a great warrior, did Macbeth actually kill Duncan? To understand what happened, we must understand something of the political process in Scotland at the time. In selecting a king, the system of tanistry was 'a royal kin group electoral college system'. FN2 It meant that, unlike today when the oldest male child succeeds his father (primogeniture), the king could be elected from anywhere in the male royal line. There were two branches of the royal line descending from Kenneth Macalpine, or Kenneth I. Over the years, the election of the king had rotated from one branch to the other. Malcolm II decided unilaterally to change the system and since he had no sons, named his grandson, Duncan, heir to the throne, in an effort to establish primogeniture over tanistry in Scotland.

That Macbeth killed Duncan is documented in several sources, but there is question about how Duncan died. Some sources say he was fatally wounded in a battle with Macbeth at Pitgavaney. According to a historian writing twenty years after the death of Macbeth, Malebrichter the Hermit, Macbeth killed Duncan at the Hass of the Blacksmith, and that the King died at Elden Cathedral. Macbeth in killing Duncan restored the tanistry system by force, and in the Scottish view, was justified in doing so. Macbeth's claim, however, could not be ratified until he sat on the Stone of Destiny.

This stone was the traditional place of installing a new king. It had been in Westminster Abbey, London, until it was recently returned to Scotland and is now kept with the Scottish crown jewels in Edinburgh Castle. At the time of Duncan's assassination, the stone was kept in the Abbey Church at Scone. Macbeth would, as in the play, have had to go to Scone, where after a bard had recited the long list of fifty-seven Scottish kings, he would have been presented with a sword to protect his people. Crowning the king was a much later ritual. Becoming king in his early 30s, Macbeth was a good ruler, generous and fair. He travelled throughout a united Scotland that was wealthy, safe, and secure. In 1050, Macbeth made a pilgrimage to Rome, a trip he would never have undertaken if there had been any unrest in Scotland. According to Professor Ted Cowan of Glasgow University, the purpose of this trip may have been 'to bind Scotland more closely' to the European Church.

Other characters that affect Macbeth in the play, such as Macduff, Banquo, and the witches, were added much later. In 1590-1591, the North Berwick witch case was much discussed. Dozens of witches, whom James VI questioned himself, had planned to destroy him through witchcraft. In addition, Dr. David Caldwell of the National Museums of Scotland thinks that it is possible that Shakespeare was poking fun at Scottish cooking. Since Scots are fond of soups, porridge (oatmeal), and boiled meats cooked in large pots, the playwright has the witches mix up a most vile brew in the cauldron. The truth about the witches is that more were burned in the 17th century than any other period. In 12th century Scotland, the Church had no desire to confront old gods or traditional beliefs. It was the practice to incorporate them into religious events or to dismiss them as nonsense.

In addition to the fascination with witches and their craft, Macbeth is drawn in a stereotypical fashion that agreed with 16th century writers. In about 1547, Andrew Boorde, a doctor living and practising in Glasgow, wrote:

I Am a Scotyshe man, and trew I am to Fraunce;
In every countrey, myself I do avaunce;
I wyll boost myselfe, I will crake and face;
I love to be exalted, here and evry place.
an Englyshe man I cannot naturally love,
Wherefore I offend them, and my lord above…
I am a Scottyshe man, and have dissembled muche,
and in my promise I have not kept touche.
Great morder and theft in tymes past I have used… FN3

This picture of the Scots as boastful allies to England's enemy, France, with no regard for the codes of gentlemanly behaviour, can be found in many extant documents. Even today in England, there is a great divide between the northern and southern sections of the country: the North is supposedly violent and uneducated, while the South is presumably the opposite. As with all prejudices, this bias was and is irrational, but does contain an element of truth.

Because of northern Scotland's rugged terrain and unpredictably harsh weather patterns, the Highlanders, or Celts, tended to focus on survival. They organised themselves into clans and conducted themselves according to strict codes of honour which the English could not comprehend and which were foreign to their sensibilities. Scottish amusements were seen as inferior to the theatre which thrived in England. The portrait of the Scotsman as an uncivilised barbarian capable of human cruelty and violence may have been a myth, but it is a myth in which Macbeth the man is shrouded.

As for Macbeth's overthrow, Malcolm began his campaign for the revenge of his father's death in 1054. There actually was a battle at Dunsinane on the 27 July 1054, and Macbeth was defeated. But he escaped with his family to his Highlands stronghold, Lumphanon. Malcolm rushed to Scone to be ratified as King, but Macbeth was still alive. This meant that Scotland now had two kings: one in the South, one in the North. On 14 August 1057, seventeen years to the day that Duncan died, Malcolm attacked and Macbeth was killed. The fall-out from the historical Macbeth's defeat was to have long lasting effects. Malcolm moved his court south and married an English princess. With this one action, he altered the course of Scotland. The country's whole orientation changed from Celtic to Anglo-Norman which meant that its Celtic roots were severed in favour of development along European lines. If Macbeth, 'the last great Celtic King of Scotland' (FN4) had survived, it is possible that Celtic Scotland may have been preserved and Scotland would be very different today.

It is Shakespeare's play that has created the majority of mythic tales that concern Macbeth. Why should the playwright write such as villain? Mindful of his eye on box office receipts, Shakespeare took his story from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, first published in 1577 (expanded edition, 1587) in two separate books that contained three volumes. Volumes One and Two contain the history of England before and after the conquest of William the Conqueror. Volume Two covers the history of Scotland and Ireland. It is here that the account of Macbeth's rise and reign is told, possibly drawn from other sources such as Hector Boece's Scotorum historiae (1526, 1575) and John Bellenden's translation of Boece into Scots (1540?).

According to Holinshed, Macbeth reigned for ten years during which he was a good king and met his responsibilities to his people. Holinshed, however, also described Macbeth's belief in witches and the Birnam Wood incident. Interestingly, Holinshed placed a genealogy of Scottish kings descended from Banquo in the middle of the story about Macbeth. In Holinshed, it is Lady Macbeth who has the driving ambition to usurp the throne, and it is she and Banquo who are Macbeth's co-conspirators in Duncan's murder. Holinshed is very clear that Macbeth's tenure as king was also controversial because of changes to the method of succession to the Scottish throne. As we have seen, these histories and the 'facts' they convey are suspect because of their time distance from the events. Repeatedly throughout the play, the juxtaposition of Macbeth's personal actions to his public persona is emphasised by the words 'blood' and 'bloody'. As far as his education and cultural life, he does not read in the play and only writes one letter. The only songs are those of the witches. When compared to other Shakespeare tragedies or history plays, Macbeth has a higher proportion of scenes that cannot be fixed as to place or time and apparently are outdoors. This inability to be tacked down underscores his barbarity and lack of polish. Shakespeare's possible motive for maligning this last Celtic king might have been political, to please the new King, a Scot, who had become his patron.

Furthermore, the play touches on what had been a delicate issue: succession to the throne. In Macbeth, Duncan nominates his oldest son, Malcolm, to succeed him. For Jacobeans, the recent debate about Elizabeth I's childlessness and reluctance to name an heir, and the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne, would have made the problem all too real.

The myths about Duncan's murder, the prophecies of the witches, and the role of Lady Macbeth in the proceedings are just that - myths. In essence, Shakespeare provided his patron and King, and the members of the audience with great entertainment at the expense of Macbeth's real place in Scottish history.


1. The information contained in this essay draws heavily on The Real Macbeth, written by Tony Robinson; directed by David Willcock. Spire-Films Production for Channel Four Television Corporation, 2000. Air date 1 January 2001. All quotations are taken from this programme except where otherwise indicated. The speakers have been duly footnoted.

2. Ron Geer, Clan Duncan Museum, Scotland.

3. Andrew Boorde. Fryst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge. F. J. Furnivall, ed. Early English Text Society, Extra Series n10, 1870, pp. 135-136.

4. Prof. Ted Cowan, University of Glasgow.

The Theme of Guilt in Macbeth

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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 denying her own sense of conscience and then by focusing her attention upon the management of Macbeth's guilt. These acts of internal repression do not work, and, once her husband has departed to the field of combat and she is left alone, Lady Macbeth assumes the very manifestations of guilt that have been associated with Macbeth. Yet in Macbeth, we are furnished with several examples of how remorse can be addressed, most notably in Macduff's response to the slaughter of his wife and children. Therefore, while Shakespeare show us that feelings of guilt can unleash self-destructive drives, he also teaches us that it is the way in which we cope with guilt which is determinative of its ultimate effects.

A warrior by vocation, Macbeth is accustomed to overcoming self-doubts by confronting his fears with sword in hand. When thoughts of slaying Duncan to obtain the crown first enter his mind, Macbeth's concern is that they not be detected. Hence, he proclaims, "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires," (I, v, 11.58-59), and, when on the cusp of crime, he again calls on nature to mask his motives, entreating the earth, "Hear not my steps which way they walk" (II, i, 11.65-66). As a man of action, Macbeth is convinced that if only he can hide his crime and further the prophecy given to him by the witches, his ill feelings will naturally dissipate. This belief underlies his reaction to the murderer's news that Fleance has escaped the fate which Macbeth planned for him. Learning of this flaw in the execution of his scheme, Macbeth laments: "Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect; Whole as the marble" (III, iv, 11.25-26). For Macbeth, the reason that the ghost of Banquo appears at the feast, then, is that the loose end of Fleance's remaining alive has left him "cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears" (III, iv, 11.30-31). Finally, in his encounter with Malcolm, Macbeth uses the crutch of the prediction that no man born of woman can harm him to buckle his courage, for that being so, "The mind I sway by and the heart I bear/Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear" (V, ii, 11.9-10). Consistently, Macbeth construes his mental problem as one of grappling with fear. We realize, of course, that it is not cowardice, but the operation of guilt that drives Macbeth toward his tragic end. After all, Macbeth has displayed almost superhuman courage on the field of battle. But Macbeth remains blind to this, and comes to believe that the mental torture he is experiencing is rooted in some external threat.

It is this misinterpretation of guilt as fear which explains Macbeth's assumption of the role of plotter from his wife following the murder of the king. We recall that the scheme to dispatch with Duncan is spawned by Lady Macbeth, and that she is only able to enlist her husband's participation in the murder by implying that he is a coward. Macbeth counters this charge by killing Duncan once he has "screwed up his courage," and, thereafter, he takes the leading part in orchestrating still more misdeeds, including the use of hirelings to assassinate Banquo and, later, the family of Macduff. Indeed, having proven his mettle to himself by slaying Duncan, Macbeth deliberately keeps his intention to complete the crime by ordering the deaths of Banquo and Fleance from his wife, telling her, "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck/Till thou applaud the deed" (III, ii, 11.50-51). It is significant that immediately after his vision of Banquo's ghost, Macbeth's mind is drawn to the external problem of Macduff's suspicions. Hearing that Macduff has left for England, Macbeth propounds that, "From this moment/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand" (IV, i, 165-67). As the play unfolds, Macbeth remains under the impression that what bothers him is not the psychological impact of his past crimes, but his failure to conduct still more carnage, that is, his inability to grapple with fear and do what must be done to vanquish its inhibitory power.

In contrast to her consort, Lady Macbeth knows well in advance of Duncan's murder that her participation in the crime will expose her to the ravages of guilt. Thus, in an oft-cited speech, she conjures supernatural forces to transmute her into a being shorn of conscience.

Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
The effect and it (I, v, 11.44-51).

This invocation embodies a shortcoming which will prove to have ironic consequences. We note that while Lady Macbeth implores the spirits to relieve her of those pangs of guilt which might deter the accomplishment of her purpose, she does not extend the "spell" beyond the commission of the crime. Lady Macbeth believes that the prospective remorse which she faces is an obstacle to the plot which she has hatched to gain the throne, but she does not consider the possibility that guilt might reverberate after Duncan has been slain. This view is reinforced when she herself contemplates stabbing Duncan in his sleep, but refrains from doing so because he resembles her father.

With Duncan's death, the potentially negative effects of guilt are denied by Lady Macbeth, for, after all, in her conception, guilt is only a problem insofar as it stands as a barrier to attainment, having no substantive consequences once this initial hurdle has been overcome. Having denied the after-effects of guilt, Lady Macbeth's subconscious method for coping with it is to concentrate on the symptoms of guilt which arise in her husband. In the wake of his crime, Macbeth hears that internal voice which commands him to "sleep no more" (II, ii, 11.50-51). Restive to the end, Macbeth's insomnia is noted by his wife, and she attempt to explain the more vivid and horrifying experiences that he undergoes, such as seeing Banquo's spectral effigy at the feast, by referring to natural causes, telling her husband that his vision stems from the fact that he lacks "the season of all'natures, sleep" (III, iv, 1.73). In the scene which occurs immediately after Duncan's death, Lady Macbeth orders her husband to get some water "and wash this filthy witness from your hand" (II, ii, 11.61-62). He rejects her suggestion, crying out, "What hands are here. Hal they pluck out mine eyes!/Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?" (II, ii, 11.77-79). She, in turn, insists that the tell-tale signs of his crime cannot be seen by others, that "a little water clears us of this deed" (II, ii, 1.85) . For Lady Macbeth, then, the means through which she responds to the guilt that besets her is to concentrate on her husband's irrational behavior lest it betray their common part in perfidy.

The innate limitations of Lady Macbeth's way of managing her own guilt by bolstering Macbeth become plain in the play's final act. As the gentleman informs the doctor who has been called to cure her insomnia, Lady Macbeth only begins to sleepwalk and to compulsively wash her hands when Macbeth is no longer present, the tyrant having taken to the field to stop Malcolm, Macduff, and their fellows from overturning his reign. Indeed, as the doctor and the gentleman observe her actions, Lady Macbeth seems caught in the routine of assuring Macbeth that he has no cause for fear, as she speaks the lines: "Wash your hands, put on your night gown/Look not so pale. I tell you yet again/Banquo's buried. He cannot come out on's grave" (V, i, 11.56-57). At this juncture, Lady Macbeth has so suppressed her own feelings of guilt that she can only address them indirectly, resorting to an imagined effort to calm her husband. The problem, of course, is that Macbeth is not there to divert her attention from her own sense of guilt, and she must therefore confront a state of mind which her narrow understanding of guilt as a deterrent to action cannot accommodate.

Although both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer irrevocably from the torment of guilt, throughout the play we are presented with characters who experience guilt but nonetheless deal with it effectively. The first of these is the erstwhile Thane of Cawdor. On the execution block, Macbeth's predecessor takes active measures to alleviate his soul of the guilt of rebellion. It is reported of him to Duncan, "That very frankly he confessed his treasons/Implored your highness' pardon, and set forth a deep repentance" (I, iv, 11.5-7). The insurgent Thane, then, acknowledges his crime, begs the forgiveness of its target, and expresses his regret. Similarly, it is by disclosing his shortcomings to Macduff that Malcolm frees himself of his feelings that he will prove a greater tyrant on the throne than Macbeth and is able to abjure "the taints and blames laid upon myself" (IV, iii, 1.138). But the most important example of how guilt can be overcome is that of Macduff. Apprised that his family has been killed by Macbeth's henchmen, Macduff is urged by Malcolm to "dispute it like a man" (IV, iii, 11.257). He agrees on the need to exact vengeance upon Macbeth, but tells the prince, "I shall do so/But I must also feel it as a man" (IV, iii, 11.258-259). Macduff then remonstrates with himself, acknowledging that he has been "sinful" in the sense that his innocent wife and children were slain for his opposition to Macbeth. Yet once this guilt is openly acknowledged, Macduff is able to move toward the final confrontation with Macbeth in a deliberate and highly focused manner, refusing to strike down the reluctant soldiers in Macbeth's force and seeking his revenge on Macbeth alone.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare reminds us that sin and accompanying guilt is ubiquitous, and warns us of the dire consequences of an uneasy conscience. At the same time, in Macduff and in other figures in the play, Shakespeare shows us that guilt can be overcome when it is recognized as such. Plainly, neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth rises to this task. Macbeth attempts to substitute fear for guilt and to deal with it through action, while his wife acknowledges the debilitating effect of guilt she constricts it into a deterrent, using the management of her husband's guilt as a means for diverting her attention away from her own sense of shame. Both of these courses prove ruinous, and, at bottom, the depth of tragedy which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth undergo stems not from their heinous deeds alone, but from their inability to accept the guilt that issues from their crimes.

Lady Macbeth: A Liberated Woman?

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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 that Lady Macbeth struggles with what she defines as her own feminine nature's weakness, and overcomes that weakness long enough to participate in the bloody murders. We first meet Lady Macbeth as she reads the news of the witches’ prophecies. With a grim determination she resolves to make the promises come true. Her motivation is clearly her husband's hesitant nature:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis'd: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it.
(Act I, Scene v.)

Realizing that she will have to be the prime mover of the plot to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth prayers for the spirits to "unsex" her, to be given freedom from any interference by her natural feminine gentility. She renounces compunction and remorse, which she recognizes to be her own natural responses. Ironically, however, after the murder, it is the seemingly steely-natured Lady Macbeth who begins to capitulate to the first onslaughts of an uneasy conscience:

These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.
(Act II, Sc. i)

As the play progresses it becomes more and more clear that Lady Macbeth is not able to put aside the natural feminine components of her psyche. She errs, it seems, in defining her delicacy in such matters as weakness. She is clearly not a liberated woman because she feels that in order to be strong she must deny her womanliness. Unable to reconcile her own ambivalence, she moves in a steady progression to those fateful moments of insanity which lead to her death. She first fears madness and then experiences overwhelming guilt:

Naught's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than, by destruction, dwell in doubtful joy.
(Act III, Sc. ii)

In the banquet scene, wherein Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of the murdered Banquo, Shakespeare further advances Lady Macbeth’s collapse. Consistent with her role as wife and hostess, she skillfully saves her husband's honor by dismissing the company before the stricken Macbeth is carried further into hallucination. She has always played the role of wife very well - at his side, coaching and coaxing. But after the departure of the guests, it is evident that she has changed. Her tirade of the first act in which she persuaded Macbeth to murder Duncan finds no parallel here. Instead of scornful anger, Lady Macbeth speaks in brief sentences to her husband words which suggest resignation rather than castigation. At this moment in the play Lady Macbeth is perhaps most herself.

In the last act of the play, driven by a conscience that would try to usurp its own gentle nature, Lady Macbeth wanders through the castle in her sleep, reliving the horror of Duncan's murder. Her final lines in the scene suggest both the horror and the pitiable spectacle of a woman who wanted too much, not solely for herself, but for the man she loves:

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale: - I tell you yet again, Banquo'a buried; he cannot come out on's grave....To bed, to bed; there's knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand: what's done cannot be undone: to bed, to bed, to bed.
(Act V, Sc.l)

There is the sharpness of the stronger woman contrasted with the brooding terror of the conscience-stricken which makes these moments so memorable. We are reminded of the ambitious woman who scoffed at her husband's bravery in order to prod him into action; It is the Lady Macbeth who had to take control of the situation at the peak of its danger; it is the wife who had to lead her husband with threats and encouragement through the murderous ritual. At the same time, Shakespeare presents a touching picture of a woman who has been destroyed by her daring disruption of her own sensitive nature. She is the one who finally breaks; she is the stricken, weaker partner.

In the course of the play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reverse their positions. Macbeth grows from a reasonable and loyal nobleman to a tyrannically murderous despot. Lady Macbeth first appears to us to be a woman who is struggling to overcome her feminine delicacy, then succeeds, and then fails. Her initial cruelty seems born of the desperation of the moment, rather than a basic element within her nature. In times of crisis, someone must be strong; she is that one. Even Macbeth connects this burst of violence from Lady Macbeth with the emergence of a masculine side of her personality, although he states it in terms of her female reproductive capabilities:

Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
(Act I, Scene vii)

A further point should be made regarding Lady Macbeth as a liberated woman. Shakespeare makes it quite clear that the marriage relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is a cornerstone of the tragedy. As the events of the play unfold, Macbeth and his wife are swept apart by the consequences of their action. She becomes guilt-ridden and inactive while he lusts for more confirmed power, thereby becoming his own driving force. Earlier, however, it was not so. They loved each other and respected the mutuality of their marriage vows. The tragedy of Macbeth is greatly enhanced by the realization that, for all practical purposes, love brought dishonor and death to both. Their lives as loving partners in the early part of the play reminds us of the essential humanity, and therefore, fallibility of these people. Without the background of these qualities, Macbeth and his Lady seem barbarically cruel.

Thus, while arguments might be made that Lady Macbeth attempted too be a "liberated woman", it seems clear that she was not. She functioned best in her role of wife. Her attempts to find strength in cruelty, in a denial of her own feminine nature, ended in disaster. The truly liberated woman finds strength in recognizing and nurturing her own natural qualities, not in denying them or in attempting to act like a man. Indeed, Lady Macbeth seems to confuse strength, bravery, cruelty and masculinity: "When you durst do it, then you were a man;” (I,vii) she replies when Macbeth insists that he dares "do all that may become a man".

In the final analysis, Lady Macbeth is not liberated. She is, in fact, a prisoner of her own misdeeds and of her own guilty conscience. When she invoked the spirits to "Come to my woman's breasts/ And take my milk for gall" (I,v), she did not know that that gall would ultimately poison her. The only liberation, ultimately, for Lady Macbeth, is death.

The Guilt of Lady Macbeth

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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 art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it. (Act I, sc. v)

Realizing that she is to be the prime mover of the plot to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth intones a prayer:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here;
And fill me, from the crown to the top, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature –
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! (Act I, Sc. v)

The prayer uses most specific images which suggest that Lady Macbeth is not a coldly calculating predator. She wishes to be unsexed, to be given freedom from any semblance of feminine gentility; she renounces compunction and remorse, rather delicate terms which suggest a thoughtful, conscientious nature. In other words, Lady Macbeth is not going to allow herself to be dissuaded by those taunts of conscience which trouble her husband during the early stages of their plotting. Ironically, however, after the murder, it is the seemingly steely-natured wife who begins to capitulate to the first onslaughts of an uneasy conscience:

These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad. (Act II, Sc.i)

From the haunting similarity between the sleeping Duncan and her own father, Lady Macbeth moves in a steady progression to those fateful moments of insanity which lead to her death. Along the way, as is evident in the above quotation, she first fears madness, and then experiences the emptiness of their triumph and a palpable guilt:

Naught’s had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than, by destruction, dwell in doubtful joy. (Act III, Sc, ii)

In the banquet scene, wherein Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of the murdered Banquo, Shakespeare further advances Lady Macbeth's collapse. Consistent with earlier behavior, she skillfully saves her husband's honor by dismissing the company before the stricken Macbeth is carried further into hallucination. She has always been on his side, strongly coaching and coaxing. But after the departure of the guests, it is evident that she has changed. Her tirade of the first act wherein she persuaded her lord to consider Duncan's murder finds no parallel here—and it certainly calls for a cautionary rebuke. Instead of scornful anger, Lady Macbeth speaks in brief sentences to her husband words which suggest resignation rather than castigation. It is an interesting and touching moment in the tragedy.

The unfortunate woman makes her next appearance in the last act of the play. Driven by a conscience that would try to usurp its own gentle nature, Lady Macbeth wanders through the castle in her sleep, reliving the horror of Duncan's murder. Her final lines in the scene suggest both that horror and the pitiable spectre of a woman who wanted too much for the man she loved:

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale—I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave. . To bed, to bed; there's knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand: what’s done cannot be undone: to bed, to bed, to bed. (Act V, Sc. i)

There is the sharpness of the stronger woman contrasted with the brooding terror of the victimized conscience that makes these moments some of the most memorable in the play. The reader is reminded of the ambitious woman who scoffed at her husband's bravery in order to prod him into action; it is Lady Macbeth who had to take control of the situation at the peak of its danger, it is the wife who had to lead her husband with threats and encouragement through the murderous ritual. And, at the same time, Shakespeare is presenting a marvelously touching picture of a woman who has been destroyed by her daring disruption of her own sensitive nature. She is the one who must be led away now; she is the stricken, weaker member.

During the course of the tragedy, both protagonists cross paths, so to speak. Macbeth grows from a reasonable, loyal nobleman to a tyrannically murderous despot. He abandons morality after weighing all sides. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, plunges directly into the fray. She boldly prays not to let her own good instincts blunt, even for one moment, the fierce determination she must effect to achieve her desired ends. Only gradually does human nature assert itself in her character. And when it does, the burden of guilt proves too much for her mind. She becomes the moral recluse while her husband continues his struggle for conquest and power.

Viewed in this light, the character of Lady Macbeth becomes more understandable end certainly much more convincing. Her cruelty seems born of the desperation of the moment rather than a basic element within her nature. In times of crisis, someone must always be strong; she is that one. Unfortunately, her strength achieves tragic dimension.

One other point which perhaps has not been made as evident as it might be is the relationship that exists between husband and wife. It is, after all, the cornerstone of the tragedy. As the events of the play unfold, Macbeth and his wife are swept apart by the consequences of their action. She becomes guilt-ridden and inactive while he lusts for more confirmed power, thereby becoming his own driving force. Earlier, however, it was not so. They loved each other and respected the mutuality of their marriage vows. The tragedy of Macbeth is greatly enhanced by the realization that, for all practical purposes, love brought dishonor and death to both. Their lives as loving partners in the early part of the play reminds us of the essential humanity, and therefore, fallibility of these people. And, in point of fact, discarding the gory particulars, one feels in this tale of ambition run amuck a mythic tone which suggests success and happiness are perhaps man’s greatest trials.

The Witches in Macbeth

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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 existence.

On their first encounter with other characters, the Weird Sisters are seen not only by Macbeth, but by Banquo, too. The latter, unsure as to their form, asks whether they are spirits, proclaiming that they do not look like "inhabitants o’ th’ earth," (I.iii. 41.) Both Banquo and Macbeth take the prophecies of the witches seriously, though not comprehending the nature of the three. Banquo demands of them whether not they are imaginary. Macbeth knows that they will disappear with the thickening mist, and when they do, comments that "wat seemed corporal, melted,/ As breath into the wind." (I.iii.81-2) Once they have vanished, Banquo questions whether he and his companion have been subject to an illusion:

Were such things as do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner? (I. iii. 83-5)

If the Witches were not real, then they can only have existed in the imagination of himself and Macbeth. But, considering the prophetic nature of the words conveyed, it would seem that the Witches should be credited with some existence of their own.

Banquo links them with the devil, calling then the "instruments of darkness," (I. iii. 124) while Macbeth alludes to "supernatural soliciting." (I. 111. 130) In his case, the appearance of the witches has lent his imagination — which had been considering murder, to gain the positions the witches endowed him with — a greater degree of reality.

When the dagger appears to Macbeth he immediately questions its reality, being more unsure of its real existence than he is of that of the witches. As with the witches, the appearance of the dagger reflects the thoughts in his mind, for he had been contemplating murder with the use of such a weapon. Macbeth can definitely conclude, though, that "There's no such thing," (ll.i.47) he has imagined the existence of the dagger, which appeared only to him.

Following the murder of Duncan, Macbeth is again disturbed by a phenomenon that only he is the subject of: he hears voices accusing him of his crime. Lady Macbeth must reassure him that his imagination is responsible, for he is thinking too much of his deed.

When the ghost of Banquo appears and sits in Macbeth's seat, it is again only the latter who can see it. Lady Macbeth both equates his "vision" with that of the dagger, which she explains as products of his imagination, stemming from fear. Macbeth, however, believes the ghost of Banquo is real. When it appears a second time, he is afraid and calls it imaginary, an “Unreal mock'ry." (III.iv.107) However, when the ghost disappears, and he is himself again, he believes in its reality and cannot understand why his guests can remain calm. The apparition appeared to him without his instigation. Yet, he can summons the witches to appear before him, arranging a meeting with them to gain further knowledge about the events of the future.

Later, Hecate shows her disapproval of the witches’ actions, and threatens to conjure up genuine apparitions to confuse Macbeth. She, too, grants the Weird Sisters an independent existence.

Confusion as to their reality arises from the means by which the witches appear and disappear. In the cavern scenes, they arise from the flames of the cauldron, and again disappear without trace.

The witches would seem to be real in that Macbeth can converse with then and question them, whereas the ghost of Banquo, which was projected from his imagination, did not speak to him. Neither do the apparitions, which the witches conjure up, have the ability to answer his questions. They may only repeat their warnings to him.

Whereas other "visions" in Macbeth bear direct relation to the King’s guilt, having reference only to his thoughts and actions, and appearing only to Macbeth, the witches represent more than this limited aspect of evil; they also refer to killings outside of Macbeth's mind and actions. They make reference to deeds they have done which do not touch the King, nor the events of the play. The ambiguity that is maintained as to their real form, seems to indicate that it is not even necessary to establish whether or not they are real; it is enough that they perform the function of representing evil and prophesying future events. They are not completely of the earth, demonstrating supernatural qualities.

Macbeth believes in the reality of the witches, and the fact that he sends for information — which he receives — as to their nature, confirms their existence outside of his imagination. He knows where to gain information about them, and where to find them when he needs their assistance.

The whole play is concerned with unnatural acts and the chaos that necessarily results, in the world of man, and in nature. The natural order of things is overturned, and what was previously thought impossible, becomes the reality. The doubtful existence of the witches reinforces this theme; they help to illustrate the predominating evil, presenting not only Macbeth’s evil, but that existing all through the world. This wider role helps to establish them, however, outside of the imagination of Banquo and Macbeth.

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