Macbeth Character Analysis

What drives the protagonist of the Scottish play?

Macbeth Character Analysis
Macbeth Character Analysis. Photo © NYPL Digital Gallery

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intense characters. While Macbeth is certainly no hero, he's not a typical villain either; his guilt for his many bloody crimes is a central theme of the play. The presence of supernatural influence is another theme of "Macbeth" that sets it apart from many of Shakespeare's other plays. But Shakespeare's characters who rely on ghosts and otherworldly portents (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear) usually don't fare well in the end. 

Character of Macbeth

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is celebrated as a brave soldier and is rewarded with a new title from the king. He becomes the Thane of Cawdor as predicted by three witches, whose scheming helps drive Macbeth’s ambition and transform him into a murderer and tyrant. How much of a push Macbeth needed to turn to murder is not clear, but the word of three mysterious women appears to be enough to drive him to kill. 

Our perception of Macbeth as a brave soldier is further eroded when we see how easily he is manipulated by Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth is soon overwhelmed with ambition and self-doubt. Although he constantly questions his own actions, he is also compelled to commit further atrocities in order to cover up his previous wrongdoings.

Is Macbeth Evil?

It is difficult to view Macbeth as an inherently evil creature because it is clear that he lacks strength of character. The events of the play also affect his mental stability – his guilt causes him a great deal of mental anguish and leads to hallucinations, such as the famous bloody dagger and the ghost of Banquo.

In this respect, Macbeth has more in common with Hamlet than with Shakespeare’s other out-and-out villains like Iago from "Othello." However, unlike Hamlet, Macbeth is quick to act in order to fulfill his desires, even when it means committing murder.

Origins of the Macbeth Story

"Macbeth" is based on a history of the United Kingdom published in 1577 called "Holinshed's Chronicles." It contains stories about King Duff, who is murdered in his own house by his subjects, among them Donwald, an analogue for Macbeth.

This history has the same witches' prophecy as Shakespeare's version, and even a character named Banquo. But unlike Shakespeare's version where Banquo is Macbeth's victim, in the earlier version, Banquo is Donwald's accomplice in the king's murder. 

Another detail Shakespeare changed from the early "Chronicles" is the location of the king's murder. Macbeth kills Duncan in Macbeth's castle. 

Macbeth’s Downfall

Macbeth is never happy with his actions, even when they have earned him his prize because he is acutely aware of his own tyranny. At the end of the play, there is a sense of relief when the soldiers are at his gate. However, he continues to remain foolhardily confident – perhaps due to his unerring belief in the witches’ predictions.

The play ends where it began: with a battle. Although Macbeth is killed as a tyrant, there is a sense that his soldier status is reinstated in the final scenes of the play. Throughout the course of the play, Macbeth comes full circle.