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Character Analysis of “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 21st, 2021

Introduction

Hailed as the most influential writer of English literature, William Shakespeare has written 154 sonnets and 37 plays. Among the latter, “Macbeth” is arguably the most powerful and passionate creations of the great writer (Philips et al.). A Scottish general and the thane of Glamis, Macbeth is an intelligent and courageous man blessed with ambition and spirit (Macbillard). He has a loving wife , possesses an imposing home , and is highly regarded by King Duncan. Macbeth rapidly rises in power until he is crowned king of Scotland. However, the actions leading to this highest achievement were not unnaturally thrust on him, but caused to happen due to Macbeth’s role as the architect of his own fate (Johnston). Macbeth’s actions are the result of his fateful decisions; these decisions are either taken wholly on his own or precipitated by the actions of other characters in the novel.

The event that spawns the spate of fateful decisions of Macbeth is his meeting with the three witches. Created by Shakespeare primarily to cause trepidation to the audience, the demonic and scary hags (Macbillard), symbols of antagonistic powers that work in nature (Theatrehistory.com), have roles shrouded in mystery, with nothing known about them except that they are subject to Hecate, the god of witchcraft (Ccs.k12.in.us). The three witches enthusiastically greet Macbeth first as the thane of Glamis , then as the thane of Cawdor . The proclamation of the second title is the spark that ignites the fire of his ambition, making him intensely interested in the apparent supernatural future foretelling powers of the ignoble hags. Ignoring Banquo’s statement that the witches don’t seem to be “inhabitants o’ th’ earth” , Macbeth is further shocked and overwhelmed when the witches go on to predict that he would be king of Scotland one day (Philips et al.). The uncouth and dishonorable agents of hell (Theatrehistory.com) then turn their attention to Banquo, referring to him as a person not of the same stature as Macbeth {“lesser than Macbeth”}, but whose children would occupy the throne of Scotland in future . While Banquo does not take the prediction seriously, saying the witches are like devils that tell half-truths in order to “win us to our harm” , Macbeth muses thoughtfully and seriously on their words, murmuring to Banquo: “Your children shall be kings” (Philips et al.).

Macbeth’s already fired up ambition is fanned into a conflagration by his fiercely ambitious and totally unscrupulous wife. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth is ambitious but not strong-willed enough to take matters into his own hands: “being too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,/ Art not without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it” (Mabillard). So when she hears about the witches’ prophecies, Lady Macbeth employs powerful and effective oration liberally spiced with sophisms that cast a cloak of magnificence over crime (Theatrehistory.com), as she starts urging, taunting and manipulating her husband to ruthlessly demolish all obstacles that stand in his way of becoming king (Philips et al.). Emboldened and spurred on by his domineering wife, Macbeth proceeds to take the seven fateful decisions that would change his life.

First fateful decision

The unplanned overnight stay of King Duncan and his entourage at Macbeth’s castle precipitates Macbeth’s first fateful decision: to murder King Duncan and clear the way for the witches’ prophecy to come true. This decision is largely due to the highly persuasive, goading words and actions of Lady Macbeth. She urges her husband to summon up courage to kill the king: “Look like the innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under ’t” . She even calls him a coward, and taunts him by throwing doubts on his manhood: “When you durst do it, then you were a man” . Macbeth finally takes action on his fateful decision and murders King Duncan. When he emerges distraught and shaken, his hands covered with blood, lamenting “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?” , Lady Macbeth helps him wash off the blood, calming him with the words: “A little water clears us of this deed/ How easy it is then!” (Philips et al.).

Second fateful decision

Macbeth’s second fateful decision is to kill the two chamberlains who were supposed to guard Duncan, on the pretext that they murdered the king (Lady Macbeth had cleverly framed them by placing the bloody daggers on them as they lay in drunken slumber induced by the wine she had provided them earlier). Macbeth’s action on this decision prevents any chance of the chamberlains professing their innocence and also cleverly diverts suspicion from Macbeth himself. However, Macduff and Banquo are not convinced that the chamberlains murdered King Duncan: “Let us meet/ And question this most bloody piece of work,/ To know it further” (Philips et al.).

Third fateful decision

Macbeth’s third fateful decision is to rally support from the Scottish nobles and become king. His decision and subsequent successful action is facilitated by the actions of Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain: fearing that they would meet the same fate as their father, the brothers flee rather than stay to assert their royal rights – Malcolm goes to England while Donalbain goes to Ireland (Philips et al.).

Fourth fateful decision

Macbeth’s fourth fateful decision is to kill his old friend Banquo and his son Fleance. His decision is fuelled by the prophecy of the witches that Banquo’s sons would occupy the Scottish throne in future. Fearing that their prediction meant Macbeth’s reign as king would be a “fruitless crown” , meaning that he will not have a son and that Banquo and his sons may find a way to overthrow him, Macbeth hires two henchmen to commit the murders, confiding to his wife that he has ordered “a deed of dreadful note” for Banquo and Fleance, and asks her to display high-spirited merriment while entertaining Banquo during that evening’s feast so as to entice him into a deceptive feeling of security . Macbeth’s hired henchmen ambush Banquo and Fleance in a wooded park outside the palace. They succeed in killing Banquo but Fleance manages to evade the murderers. Fleance’s escape infuriates Macbeth, who curses “the worm that’s fled/ Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (Philips et al.).

Fifth fateful decision

Macbeth’s fifth fateful decision is to visit the witches for a second time. His decision is the result of a growing feeling of insecurity about retaining his crown with the passage of time (Daria.no.), especially since receiving a servant-spy’s report that Macduff planned to keep away from the royal court even though such behavior would be construed as treason . Firmly deciding to do what has to be done to retain his crown (“I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er [III.135-137]}, Macbeth meets the three witches in a dark cavern. When he asks them to tell him more about his future, they reply by conjuring up four apparitions (Philips et al.). The first apparition is a helmeted head that warns Macbeth to be wary of the thane of Fife . The second apparition is a child covered with blood, who tells Macbeth he need fear no man who was born of a woman. The third apparition is a child wearing a crown and holding a tree, who informs Macbeth that he is safe until a time when Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. The last apparition is a procession 8 kings wearing crowns. The last king carries a mirror. Banquo’s ghost follows the procession (Philips et al.). Macbeth already knows of Macduff’s hostility, so he acknowledges the correctness of the first apparition’s words. The warnings of the second and third apparitions seem impossible occurrences, so he dismisses them outright (Daria.no.). But when he pleads with the witches to explain more about the meaning of the last apparition, they respond by performing a mad dance and then disappearing (Philips et al.). They do not tell him that the kings are Banquo’s sons.

Sixth fateful decision

Macbeth’s sixth fateful decision is to take revenge on Macduff for his perceived acts of treason: first by not attending court, and second by going to England, presumably to join up with Malcolm and plot an attack against Macbeth. Acting on his orders, Macbeth’s murderers seize Macduff’s castle and murder his wife and children. Macduff’s first reaction on hearing the bad news from Ross is a feeling of profound grief. Malcolm consoles Macduff, urging him to avenge the deaths of his family: “Dispute it like a man” . Macduff vows to do so and make Macbeth pay dearly for his evil act (Philips et al.).

Final fateful decision

Macbeth’s final fateful decision is to fight, rather than surrender to the army led by Malcolm and Macduff. He takes this decision secure in his belief of the witches’ prophecies that no man born of a woman can cause him harm , and the physical impossibility of Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane . But Macbeth soon realizes that the witches had deceived him. First, he is shocked to see Birnam Wood actually move to Dunsinane castle in the form of tree branches that the invading soldiers hold before them to disguise their numbers (Philips et al.). However, he still holds on desperately to the second apparition’s assurance that no man born of a woman could harm him (Daria.no.). As a result, he is devastated when confronted by such a man. While the battle rages between his forces and the invading army, Macbeth comes face to face with Macduff (Philips et al). In response to Macbeth’s taunt that he cannot be killed by any man born of a woman, Macduff replies that his was not a natural birth, but he was separated from his mother by a cesarean section (Novelguide.com) {“from that he was from his mother’s womb/ Untimtely ripped” [V.15-16}. Macduff defeats Macbeth in their personal duel, kills him and cuts off his head while his army overcomes their opponents and captures Dunsinane castle. Holding Macbeth’s severed head aloft in triumph, Macduff proclaims Malcolm king of Scotland. Malcolm responds by praising his soldiers for their victory and inviting them to his coronation ceremony later at Scone . He also heaps scorn and curses on the dead Macbeth and his “fiend-like queen” (Philips et al.). Lady Macbeth, who becomes increasingly insane as a result of the psychological guilt of all the cruel acts she instigated, commits suicide just before the battle begins (Ccs.k12.in.us).

Conlusion

The main theme of the play is power corrupts when fuelled by unbridled evil ambition (Ccs.k12.in.us). Shakespeare develops the play on the fact that no superstition can be extensively spread without having a sound and basic support in human nature (Theatrehistory.com). At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a highly popular man who has a loving wife, secure home, achieved great feats (Johnston), and is held in high esteem by King Duncan who bestowed many distinctions and monetary gifts on him. The seven fateful decisions change Macbeth from a strong, appreciable hero to a morally repulsive, power-hungry villain who will go to any extent to achieve his ambitions (Philips et al.). The witches deceive Macbeth by portraying to him as the design of fate what in reality can only be achieved by his own action (Theatrehistory.com). His fiery ambitions and unchecked passion for power lure him into trading his virtues for extreme discontentment, unsettled emotions and immorality (Daria.no.). At the end of the play Macbeth becomes totally isolated, reviled by everyone, abandoned by his friends, deserted by his wife who takes her own life, and experiences a downfall and mental deterioration so great that he cannot even cope with his own responsibilities. Macbeth’s death is the unavoidable result of all that he chose to do in his life for his own selfish motives, ultimately destroying himself in the process of trying to manipulate fate (Johnston).

Bloodthirsty ambition and an uncontrollable lust for power must be counterbalanced by virtue so that sanity and orderliness can be restored to human existence. Malcolm’s victory in the war, and his subsequent coronation serve to save Scotland, and the play itself, from the disorder and confusion created by Macbeth and his wife (Philips et al.).

References

’ (Shakespeare).” 2007. Web.

“Deep Analysis of the Play.” Ccs.k12.in.us. (N.d). 2007. Web.

Johnston, Ian. “Introduction to ‘Macbeth’.” Malaspina-University College. 2007. Web.

Mabillard, Amanda. “An Analysis of .” Shakespeare Online. 2005. Web.

.” 2007. Web.

“Novel Analysis: Macbeth.” 2007. Web.

Philips, Brian & Douthat, Ross. “” Spark Notes. 2007. Web.

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