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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS - DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

MACBETH

Macbeth is a character of powerful contradictions. He is a man who, for the sake of his ambition, is willing to murder his king and his best friend. At the same time, he has a conscience that is so strong that just the thought of his crimes torments him. In fact, even before he commits his crimes the thought of them makes him miserable.

Is Macbeth a horrible monster or is he a sensitive man-a victim of witches and his own ambitions? Or is he both? If he is both, how can the two sides of his nature exist side by side?

To answer those questions, let's first look at what he does. Then we will look at how he feels about what he does. In the play, of course, the two go together.

His actions are monstrous. If Macbeth were a criminal brought to trial, the list of the charges against him would be long:

1. He murders his king, who is also a relative. The crime is treasonous and sacrilegious, since every king is set on his throne by God. Macbeth's guilt is even blacker because the King was his guest at the time of the murder. A host has responsibility to protect his guest.

2. He hires men to kill his best friend, Banquo. He wants the men to kill Banquo's young son, Fleance, too, but Fleance escapes.

3. He sends men to kill Macduff's wife and children.

4. Having taken the crown by murder, he keeps it by deception. He plants spies in all the nobles' homes and spreads lies about Malcolm, who should rightfully inherit the throne.

5. More crimes are referred to but not specified. Macbeth rules by terror, since he does not deserve-or have-anybody's loyalty. Describing Scotland under Macbeth's rule, Macduff says, "Each new morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face..." (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 4-6).


So Macbeth does horrible things, but that is not the whole story. Macbeth is different from some of Shakespeare's other villains like Iago (in Othello) and Richard III. The latter enjoy doing evil; they have renounced what we think of as normal ethics and morality. Macbeth's feelings are more complicated. In the beginning of the play, at least, he appears to have a conscience that tells him what he's doing is wrong. Or is he just afraid of the consequences of his actions?

He is never able to enjoy the crown he has taken. He experiences nothing but anguish. Is that simply because he is afraid of losing the crown, or is his conscience bothering him?

None of these questions is answered directly in the play. Each reader has to form his or her own opinion, based on the text.

Let's look at how Macbeth feels about each of the crimes we listed before:

1. Killing Duncan horrifies Macbeth. Before the murder, he tries to tell Lady Macbeth that he will not go through with it. She has to goad him into killing the King. After committing the murder, Macbeth seems almost delirious. He says that "...all great Neptune's ocean [will not] wash this blood / Clean from my hand" (Act II, Scene ii, lines 60-61).

2. When he murders Banquo, Macbeth is still in torment, but the cause of his anguish seems to have changed. He is afraid of Banquo, because Banquo knows about the witches and because the witches predicted that his descendents would be kings. Banquo's death, he says, will put his mind at rest.

3. We are never told how Macbeth feels about the murder of Macduff's wife and children. Their killing gains him nothing. He has good reason to fear Macduff, but slaughtering his enemy's family is pointless.

Macbeth seems to order their murder for spite, out of a feeling of desperation. Despite the witches' new prophesies, which appear to be reassuring, he is afraid of losing the crown. Since he cannot get at Macduff directly, he lets loose this senseless violence.

4. The spies Macbeth plants show how desperate and paranoid he is. He sees enemies-real or imagined-everywhere.

5. The other unspecified acts of violence serve no purpose, as far as we can see, beyond terrifying his subjects so much they won't resist him. Macbeth is striking out at random, and his moral sense seems to have entirely disappeared. The brave hero we met in Act I, who at least seemed honorable, is completely twisted.

You can see how much his crimes have cost Macbeth. His reaction to Lady Macbeth's death is a sign of complete despair- all feeling is dead in him. His famous speech upon hearing of her suicide-"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..." (Act V, Scene v, lines 17-28)- is less an expression of grief than it is a speech about the utter meaninglessness of life.

You wonder how all this has happened. If he was so horrified by first the idea and then the fact of Duncan's murder, why did he do it? And why commit the other crimes?

Apparently his ambition is stronger than his conscience. The witches tempt him with the idea of becoming king. Lady Macbeth helps him overcome his natural hesitation to commit murder. But Macbeth himself chooses between his honor and the crown-and between salvation in the next world and material gain in this one.

Once he has killed to get the crown, the other crimes seem inevitable. In order to keep what he has taken, Macbeth learns to lie and kill as a matter of course. His values become totally confused. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" to him now; he has lost track of the difference.

All that seems left in the end is his pride. You respect him when he fights to the death rather than be displayed as the monster he is. But some people think that if Macbeth had not been so proud he would not have wanted to be king to begin with, and that if he had been humbler he would have repented.

Another aspect of Macbeth is his active imagination. Considering Duncan's murder, he can vividly picture all the possible consequences. His imagination pursues him throughout the play. He's continually reliving his crimes and fantasizing about present and future dangers. Nothing Lady Macbeth can say will quiet his mind.

At times he seems crazy-or haunted.

Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air. After the murder, he hears voices. And later he sees Banquo's ghost. You are never quite sure if these are hallucinations-the imaginings of a sick mind-or if they are apparitions, like the witches. You begin to wonder how real they are.

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