Macbeth Character Analysis

What drives the protagonist of the Scottish play?

Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth star in Verdi's Shakespearian opera, Macbeth, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on Saturday, September 20, 2014.

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Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intense characters. While Macbeth is certainly no hero, he's not a typical villain either. He is complex, and his guilt for his many bloody crimes is a central theme of the play. The presence of supernatural influences is another theme of "Macbeth" and one that affects the main characters' choices. Like other Shakespeare characters who rely on ghosts and otherworldly portents, such as Hamlet and King Lear, Macbeth does not fare well in the end. 

A Character Fraught With Contradictions

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is celebrated as a loyal and exceptionally brave and strong 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 ever-growing ambition and contributes to his transformation 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, together with his wife's conniving pressure, appears to be enough to push his overweening ambition to be king in the direction of murder. 

Our first perception of Macbeth as a brave soldier is further eroded when we see how easily he is manipulated by Lady Macbeth. We watch how vulnerable this soldier is to Lady Macbeth's questioning of his masculinity. Macbeth is a mixed character, with a seeming capacity for virtue at the start, but no strength of character to reign in his inner power lust or to resist his wife's coercion.

As the play advances, Macbeth is simultaneously overwhelmed with a combination of ambition, violence, self-doubt, and ever-increasing inner turmoil. But even as he questions his own actions, he is nevertheless compelled to commit further atrocities upon atrocities in order to cover up his previous wrongdoings.

Is Macbeth Evil?

Viewing Macbeth as an inherently evil creature is difficult because he clearly lacks psychological stability and any strength of character. We watch as the events of the play affect his mental clarity: His guilt causes him a great deal of mental anguish and leads to insomnia and hallucinations, such as the famous bloody dagger and the ghost of Banquo.

In his psychological torment, Macbeth has more in common with Hamlet than with Shakespeare’s out-and-out villains, such as Iago from "Othello." However, in a very marked contrast to Hamlet's endless stalling, Macbeth has the ability to act swiftly in order to fulfill his desires, even when it means committing murder upon murder.

He is a man controlled by forces within himself and outside of himself, but despite being subject to these forces greater than his struggling and weakening conscience, despite this inner division, he is still able to murder, acting decisively like the soldier we meet at the start of the play.

Origins of the Character of Macbeth

The story of "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, who is the source for the character of Macbeth. Thus, disloyalty and murderousness also mark the character upon whom Shakespeare's tyrant is based.

How Macbeth Responds to His 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. This divided conscience continues to the end of the play, where there is a sense of relief when the soldiers are at his gate. However, Macbeth continues to remain foolhardily confident—perhaps due to his unerring belief in the witches’ predictions. At his end, Macbeth embodies an eternal archetype, the weak tyrant: the ruler whose brutality is borne of inner weakness, greed for power, guilt, and susceptibility to others' machinations and pressures.

The play ends where it began: with a battle. Although Macbeth is killed as a tyrant, there is a small redemptive notion that his soldier status is reinstated in the very final scenes of the play. Over the course of the play, the character of Macbeth in a sense comes full circle, back to battle, but now as a monstrous, broken, and desperate version of his earlier self.