The play ‘Macbeth’ was written by William Shakespeare in 1606. Although the play is fictional, it is loosely based on an actual Scottish king who ruled from 1040-1057. Macbeth did overthrow Duncan, but Duncan was a poor king to the point of being a tyrant and a military failure. After Duncan had died Macbeth did become king but he was seen as a tyrant because the Elizabethan English could not comprehend a king whose power had not come hereditarily. The major theme within the play is the fight against evil.
This is shown not only on the battlefield but within Macbeths own head, struggling between his thoughts. Macbeth’s lust for power, encouraged by the witches and Lady Macbeth leads to murder and the destruction of Scotland. But in the end good prevails when Malcolm takes over as king and Macbeth’s evil causes his own undoing and downfall. The question is, however, is Macbeth inherently evil, mad or simply easily persuaded by the influences in his life.
The first time that we are properly introduced to Macbeth he is portrayed as a good, brave soldier. This is clearly shown when the sergeant talks about him, calling him “brave Macbeth”. This gives an immediately positive impression to the audience about Macbeth. This is then amplified with comments about his “brandish’d steel” showing that he is passionate, “which smoked with bloody execution” proving how much of a skilled swordsman he is, and “like valour’s minion carv’d out his passage” which shows how determined he is to be loyal to his country.
Because Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife, it is expected that she will know Macbeth and the type of person he is. She shows her feelings about Macbeth’s character very well in her speech after she has read his letter to her. She is worried that Macbeth will not step up to the challenge of becoming king “yet I do fear thy nature” showing that Lady Macbeth doubts Macbeth has the evil within him to make him do the tasks which would make him king. She then comments on how she believes him to be “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”. This truly gives a vivid picture of goodness and innocence by the person who should know him best.
Just by using the word ‘milk’ she portrays him as pure because of the whiteness of the milk; also milk is used to feed babies, therefore associating him with something small and innocent. It is not only Lady Macbeth who praises him, the King also shows that he thinks well of Macbeth. He calls him “Worthy Gentleman” and he also makes him Thane of Cawdor “with his former title greet Macbeth”. This shows that Duncan has a lot of faith In Macbeth and thinks him worthy of becoming thane of a second area. He also has a loyal friend in Banquo. Banquo refers to him as “my noble partner” and later addresses him as “worthy Macbeth”. These compliments also come from someone who is close to Macbeth so should therefore be able to judge the type of character which Macbeth has.
The very idea of murder leaves Macbeth very scared and uncomfortable.”Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair”, shows that the thought (“horrid image”) of killing Duncan frightens Macbeth (“doth unfix my hair”). Again when he says “and make my seated heart knock at my ribs” it shows that he understands killing the king would be morally unacceptable. He shows that he feels guilt about his thoughts “let not light see my black and deep desires”. Clearly Macbeth was originally honourable, feeling guilty just to think about killing Duncan. When Lady Macbeth brings up the idea of murder, Macbeth does not agree immediately. First, he says “We will speak further”, which although it shows he is considering murder as a possibility, confirms he has not yet decided to do it yet. He then goes on, after a long soliloquy where he weighs up either possibility, to decide that he will not do it “we will proceed no further in this business”. This shows that Macbeth had originally decided that he was not going to murder Duncan. It is only when his wife taunts him and calls him a coward that he finally agrees to it.
Macbeth shows guilt. Directly after he has committed the murder of Duncan, Macbeth claims to have heard a voice “sleep no more! Macbeth doth murder sleep”, indicating immediate regrets. The guilt appears to be engulfing him because he genuinely believes that he heard a voice meaning that his whole mind is filled with guilt and can think of nothing else. He carries on with his guilt as he says “will all great Neptune’s oceans wash this blood clean from my hand?” thus he thinks he will never be free from the blood, (or the guilt) on his hands.
He says at the sight of his hands “they pluck out mine eyes” showing that he cannot bear to see any proof of what he had just done. He shows guilt again right at the end of the play for killing Macduff’s family “Of all men else I have avoided thee….. My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already” , these final words of remorse make him seem truly sorry for all that he had done in the past. He also shows that he truly loves and cares for his wife, Lady Macbeth. When he hears he cry out he says “I have almost forgot the taste of fears”, indicating that Macbeth does not fear death for himself but when Lady Macbeth might be harmed he fears for her, showing his caring side.
A possible excuse for Macbeth’s evil behaviour is that he acted out of madness. The question of madness is followed throughout the play; it is first mentioned when Banquo asks “have we eaten on the insane root?” Macbeth’s erratic thoughts begin however, just before he murders Duncan. He sees a floating dagger “art thou a dagger of the mind”. The pressure and guilt of the murder are clearly getting to him. He then begins to get paranoid “Thy very stones prate of my whereabout”. He is so frightened that somebody will discover what he is about to do that he starts to picture objects around him noticing what he is doing.
Not only does he believe that the stones are listening, he also talks to the floor “Thou sure and firm set earth”. This clearly shows his personification of non-living objects which makes it seem that he was not in a clear state of mind when he murdered Duncan, so therefore can be partially forgiven. After Killing Duncan he hears voices “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘sleep no more!'” which adds to all of Macbeths imaginings and makes him appear more mad. He then see’s Banquo’s ghost at his Banquet “thou canst not say I did it”. He is imagining Banquo’s body coming back to haunt him which shows that all of the bad things he does remain in his thoughts and drive him crazy. He also questions his own sanity “proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” It seems that even he believes that he might be going mad.
Macbeth is clearly influenced by the witches. This will be understood by a Shakespearean audience as they would have seen the witches as evil. They are the first characters introduced into the play, and the first to mention Macbeth “There to meet with Macbeth”. Macbeth’s first words in the play are “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” which is very similar to the witches’ “Fair is foul and foul is Fair”. This shows a psychic connection between them, and poses the question was it destiny that caused Macbeth do what he did? Because if it is then can Macbeth really be blamed for his actions if he had no say in the matter? The Witches are the ones who plant the image of becoming king into Macbeth’s mind when they tell him their third prophecy “that shalt be King hereafter.”
This has a serious impact on Macbeth as is shown when he says “stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more”. This proves that the witches have influenced Macbeth because he is keen to know more and is clearly very interested in becoming king. This is seen when Banquo warns Macbeth “To win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths”. When Macbeth returns to try and find them, it becomes very obvious that they influence many of his decisions. Firstly, he returned to find them, therefore they must be important to him. Secondly, directly after the apparitions have finished, as the first witch said “Beware Macduff” he then says to himself “The very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand” and in the next scene Murderers come looking for Macduff and kill his family.
This illustrates how much of an effect the witches have on Macbeth because it is unlikely that he would have hired people to kill Macduff had the witches not warned him about them. The witches also give Macbeth a confidence in which he would have otherwise not had. This is shown in the final battle against Macbeth when he says “thou wast born of woman, but swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn”. The witches told Macbeth that “none of woman born can harm Macbeth” therefore he may not have fought so bravely had the witches not told him that. They also said “laugh to scorn” in the apparition which shows that Macbeth is thinking of what the apparitions had said.
Another influence on Macbeth is his wife, Lady Macbeth. Because they are married it is likely that some of her character will influence Macbeth and she is clearly evil. When she says “fill me…top-full of direst cruelty” she wants to be full of evil so that she can persuade Macbeth to do what it takes to kill Duncan. “Unsex me here” She wants to become a man so she can fight, also by doing this she sheds all gentleness and kindness associated with womanhood.
She later on shows the depth of her evilness when she says that she would have killed her own child “I would…dash the brains out”. It also shows her as opposite to Macbeth because she refers earlier to him as being “milk” which is used to nourish babies as opposed to dashing their brains out. The murder of Duncan is the turning point for Macbeth, when he begins to become evil and it is Lady Macbeth who decides that that is what he has to do “O never shall sun that morrow see!” Macbeth does intend not to do it “we will proceed no further” but she persuades him against his decision by patronising him and making him feel guilty “live a coward”. This proves that if Lady Macbeth had not persuaded him, he probably would have not killed Duncan and would not have done all the other evil tasks.
At the start of the play there are references to Macbeth at war which show how he has a violent nature. This is shown when the sergeant is telling Duncan about the war, “which smok’d with bloody execution”, this gives the impression that his sword did not go long without being thrust into another person making Macbeth appear bloodthirsty. He goes on to say “which ne’er shook hands”. This portrays Macbeth as remorseless, savage and barbaric.
Although it was Lady Macbeth who first spoke the plan of killing Duncan aloud, Macbeth does seem very interested in the idea of becoming king, and before anyone else mentions it he does consider murdering Duncan. He talks of “horrible imaginings” and “murder” this shows that the first thing he thinks of when he hears the prophecy is murder. Even when Lady Macbeth suggests murder, he does not dismiss the idea, he merely says “we will speak further” this shows that with little persuasion he thinks of murder as a possibility.
When Malcolm is pronounced next in line for the throne, Macbeth thinks incredibly dark thoughts “my black and deep desires”. This shows evil in his mind that nobody has forced or persuaded him to think. Just before the murder of Duncan, Macbeth shows he is perfectly conscious of what he is doing and begins to show some evil in his speech “hear it not Duncan, for it is the knell that summons thee to heaven or hell”. This makes Macbeth come across as dark because he is talking about the murder he is about to commit, and showing no remorse, also as he is not talking directly to Duncan and more to himself, he comes across as devious.
After the murder of Duncan he appears to become increasingly evil. As soon as he has killed Duncan he then kills the two guards, “that I did kill them”, with no thought or influences. This indicates just how quickly he has gone from being very indecisive and unsure about the murder of Duncan, to killing two more people without a second thought. He then goes a step further and kills his good friend Banquo. This is made worse by the fact that he had not been influenced by either the witches or his wife. Lady Macbeth did not even know as she says “here’s our chief guest”. He then starts to act maliciously; he makes a toast to Banquo “to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss” this makes Macbeth appear very remorseless considering he had just murdered his good friend.
Next he kills Macduff’s family, although the witches did warn him against Macduff he had no reason to kill all of his family but he does. “He hath kill’d me mother”. This shows that murder has no longer become such a shocking event and he is starting to kill more people. Another sign of Macbeth’s increasing tendency to evil is the rising number of people that are insulting him. By the end of the play he is known commonly as ‘the tyrant’ and other insults such as “his title hangs loose about him, like a giants robe upon a dwarfish thief”. This implies that Macbeth is small-minded and has taken on a role that is too big for him, he is also called “thief” which implies that he has usurped the crown.
Macbeth’s evil is shown to have leaked out into Scotland. Ross shows sympathy for the country “poor country” which implies that the country is hurt or injured. He carries on to say “where nothing but who knows nothing is once seen to smile”. This means that anyone who is aware of what is going on is unhappy.”the deadmans knell is there scarce ask’d for who” which shows that so many people are dying that death and funerals have become and everyday event. All this not only shows that Macbeth’s evil is spreading throughout the country but also that he is a bad king.
To conclude, the fundamental question is whether Macbeth was evil, weak and easily led astray, or was suffering from a psychological disorder? It seems clear that Macbeth started out as a superficially good person, but his burning ambition to become king plus persuasion and guidance from Lady Macbeth and the witches led him down darker paths. The witches stoked his latent desire for power. His wife encouraged him to commit the first critical murder, after which the taboo was broken and the others came easily. That they did come so easily is a strong argument for his being essentially evil.