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

LADY MACBETH

At the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, seems to have only one opinion about murder: if it helps her to get what she wants, she is in favor of it. For the first two acts of the play, some readers think she is the most interesting character. Their fascination is probably based on her total lack of scruples.

Lady Macbeth is a strong woman. She is a twisted example of the saying, "Behind every great man there's a woman." Once she sees that her husband's ambition has been inflamed, she is willing to risk anything to help him get the crown.

She understands her husband very well:

Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. (Act I, Scene v, lines 17-19)

In other words, she knows that Macbeth's conscience will stand in the way of his ambition.

For the sake of their "prize," she renounces all the soft, human parts of her own nature. In a play so full of supernatural events, we can take her literally if we want to when she calls upon "...spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts..." to "Stop up th' access and passage to remorse / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose..." (Act I, Scene v, lines 41-42 and 45-47).


It is as if she were tearing her heart out to make her husband king.

Lady Macbeth's singleness of purpose seems to prove that she has been successful in emptying herself of human feeling. When Macbeth tries to back out of committing the murder, she treats him with contempt. She questions his manhood and shames him into doing it.

Look at how effortlessly she lies. When Duncan, whom she plans to kill, arrives at the castle, her welcoming speech drips with false graciousness. While Macbeth has horrifying visions, Lady Macbeth seems cool and literal minded. To her, Duncan's blood is just something to be washed off her hands. Worrying over things you cannot alter is a waste of time, she says.

But Lady Macbeth is not as simple as she seems. By the end of the play she has killed herself to escape the horrible nightmares that torment her. Shakespeare seems to be saying that guilt and fear can be suppressed for a time, but they cannot be done away with entirely.

Some readers find Lady Macbeth a fascinating portrait of a horrible murderer. They see her actions as frighteningly amoral, and her madness and death as divine justice. Others see Lady Macbeth as a tragic figure. They are awed by her strength, her determination, and her resourcefulness. To them, the tragedy is that she wastes such qualities on evil deeds. And by the end, when her mind is rotten with madness, they can say she has struggled with her guilt every bit as much as her husband has with his.

BANQUO

We can learn a lot about Macbeth by looking at Banquo. Banquo is a man of integrity. He is brave in battle but cautious in his actions. It is valuable to look at how he and Macbeth react differently to similar circumstances.

At the beginning of the play, they are equals. Macbeth and Banquo are leading Duncan's army-they fight side by side. They seem to be equally brave in combat.

Banquo and Macbeth meet the witches together, and Banquo's response to the prophesies is wiser than Macbeth's. He is skeptical from the beginning. When the witches first appear, he taunts them: "Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate." (Act I, Scene iii, lines 61-62). After the prediction that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor comes true, Banquo is more cautious. He warns his friend not to be won over by small truths only to be betrayed in more important matters. He senses the women are evil, and he expects a trick.

Banquo has an honest and trusting nature. It never occurs to him that Macbeth may want to kill Duncan to make the prophesy come true. Later, even when he suspects that Macbeth killed the old King, Banquo does not suspect that he himself is in any danger.

It is interesting to note that Banquo does have some interest in the things the "weird sisters" promise him. He tells Macbeth that he dreamed about them. He also wonders if, since their prophesy for Macbeth came true, he should hope that his descendents will be kings.

But Banquo refuses to compromise his honor and his integrity to get the things he wants. He is willing to wait for the fullness of time to bring about whatever is coming. Also notice that Banquo, unlike Macbeth, does not hide the fact that he sometimes thinks about the three witches.

So it seems that Shakespeare formed Banquo's character the way he did to show how a man of honor would respond to the kind of temptation that Macbeth gives in to. There is probably another reason why Banquo is portrayed as he is. historically, Banquo was an ancestor of King James I of England. Macbeth was first presented for James. In Holinshed's Chronicles, which was Shakespeare's source for the story, Banquo helped Macbeth murder the king. Many critics believe that Shakespeare changed Banquo's role to please King James.

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