We must remember that character creationis a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author. Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically. The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys. Macbeth goes through a transformation; initially portrayed glowingly as brave and loyal, but then slowly degenerating into a despised evil tyrant.
What do the following quotes tell us about the changing perspectives in the character of Macbeth? At the beginning of the play Macbeth is highly regarded by all, but by the end no one likes him. Shakespeare shows us the progression from undisputed hero to despised villain by how other characters describe him and through Macbeth’s internal struggles with his conscience.
When we first hear of him he is described in glowing terms as the man who has saved the day; almost single-handedly thwarted an attempt by the Thane (nobleman) of Cawdor with the aid of Norway to overthrow King Duncan of Scotland.
“brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” (The Sergeant)
“Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapp’d in proof (Ross)
Confronted him with self comparisons” (Mars)
“0 valiant cousin.’ worthy gentleman.’” (Duncan)
“noble Macbeth” (Duncan)
“noble partner” (Banquo)
My worthy Cawdor!* (DUNCAN)
True, worthy Banquo; he is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me. Let’s after him,
Whose care is gone before to bid us welcome:
It is a peerless kinsman. (DUNCAN)
Almost unanimous and universal praise from all, yet he is painfully aware how fragile and fleeting such acclaim can be
“I have bought (won) Golden opinions from all sorts of people” (Macbeth)
His wife knows him well and is a bit more realistic and down to earth and seeing his limitations reminds him of these:
“Thou wouldst be great,/Art not without ambition. .
“too full of the milk of human kindness.” (Lady Macbeth)
Macbeth in his heart and solitude recognises his own weakness.
“I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent,
but only Vaulting ambition . . .“ (Macbeth)
Almost immediately after murdering the king, Macbeth’s conscience goes to work and he feels the pangs of remorse and regret.
“I had most need of blessing, and ‘amen’ Stuck in my throat.”
“Wake Duncan with thy knocking
I would thou couldst.” (Macbeth)
“Better be with the dead
Than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.” (Macbeth)
To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself. (Macbeth)
Once you gain power, if you have to maintain your power by brute force, people may resent it, so by Act IV, the wheel has come full circle and the general consensus develops that he is a despised tyrant:
This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongue. (Malcolm)
Menteith: How does the tyrant?
Caithness: “Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him…do call it valiant fury”
“The devil himself could not pronounce a title
More hateful to mine ear.”
Macduff: “Turn hell hound turn!
“But get thee back, my soul is too much charg’d With blood of thine already,”
As Macbeth vacillates between abject despair and a false bravado, in a private moments he faces reality – his legacy; he must now pay the price of his lack of principles:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
Malcolm gives us the final summation of his legacy:
This butcher and his fiend like queen.
Lady Macbeth #
In the beginning Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear to share the deepest love. In Act one, they are a happy loving couple, sustained throughout the first two acts. This is indicated by the intimate letter he sends her sharing his day, his innermost thoughts and aspirations and their continued mutual loyalty. Lady Macbeth, however, is depicted as a ruthless, scheming, strong minded wife who goads him into achieving his ambition. Lady Macbeth becomes an anomalous construct of less than womanly heroic qualities - festering ambition and naked self-interest.
Her infamous invoking of mystical powers to:
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! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
She considers her domain as “my battlements” and has supreme confidence in their untrammelled security;*
“ What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–
When Macbeth becomes king the relationship between this loving and passionate couple has changed, because of the horrible thing they did and with greed and fear in which they live in, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth slowly drift apart.
Some critics suggest that she represents the patriarchal fear of unsubordinated womanhood who threatens the stability of the world and order can only be restored by her removal. (Peter Stallybrass)
The relationship grows weaker and weaker as Macbeth lives in fear and hatred and his wife begins to suffer mental stress and anxiety about after the shameful murder of Duncan. She realises that even after becoming queen she isn’t happy but suffers guilt and remorse. As Macbeth doesn’t consult her or talk to her, she is alone and in grief that nothing or none will cure her.
At first she controls the action, however the turning point appears when he arranges the murder of Banquo and he advises her to “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,**/ Till thou applaud the deed”. From this point on Macbeth appears the sole controller of events.
By Act 4 Lady Macbeth has become so agitated and suffers, from stress and psychic remorse. She has hallucinations and cannot sleep. This is the time that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not even a couple, Macbeth runs off as a violent, tyrant and bloodshed murderer who only cares about himself and the fear of people outside of the castle knowing the evil and unforgivable things he is responsible for. She is fragile and shattered in the mind now; because of the guilt that eventually kills her. She begins to see blood spots on her hands as she is imprisoned with her thought and disgraceful things. As she says “What, will these hands ne’er be clean”. During this time of triumph Macbeth realises that his wife is unwell and tells the doctor to cure her mind to be free from this burden she lives in, but the doctor can not cure her troubled mind.
After he hears the news of his wife death he understands that he is alone , and that no one is beside him.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
to the last syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools,
the way to dust death.
Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
a poor player that struts and frets his hours upon stage
and then is heard no more .
It is a tale told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
While this appears a genuine eulogy to his wife it lacks any specific or personal warmth, rather it is a general resigned acceptance of universal fate, his own as well.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth began the play as a highly valued couple, honoured by King Duncan and respected by the other Thanes. By the end of the play MacDuff’s sums them up as “This butcher and his fiend-like queen.” We can conclude that those who choose to pursue their ambitious dreams through violent means will also meet a violent end.