Macbeth Character Analysis

The Scottish protagonist is more complex than your typical villain

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.

Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most intense characters. While he is certainly no hero, he's not a typical villain, either. Macbeth is complex, and his guilt for his many bloody crimes is a central theme of the play. The presence of supernatural influences, another theme of "Macbeth," is another factor that affects the main character's choices. And 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 he is rewarded with a new title from the king: the Thane of Cawdor. This proves true the prediction of three witches, whose scheming ultimately 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 words of three mysterious women, together with his wife's conniving pressure, appear to be enough to push his ambition to be king toward bloodshed. 

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

As the play advances, Macbeth is 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 in order to cover up his previous wrongdoings.

Is Macbeth Evil?

Viewing Macbeth as an inherently evil creature is difficult because he lacks psychological stability and strength of character. We see 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 clear-cut villains, such as Iago from "Othello." However, in 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 both within and outside of himself. However, despite the inner division caused by these forces greater than his struggling and weakening conscience, he is still able to murder, acting decisively like the soldier we meet at the start of the play.

How Macbeth Responds to His Own 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 arrive 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 of the weak tyrant: the ruler whose brutality is borne of inner weakness, greed for power, guilt, and susceptibility to others' schemes 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. The character of Macbeth, in a sense, comes full circle: He returns to battle, but now as a monstrous, broken, and desperate version of his earlier, honorable self.