Macbeth is a classic example of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Macbeth’s character evolves from a noble war hero to a violent individual, who will willingly kill in order to gain power. There are three main points that contribute to Macbeth s demise; firstly the prophecies, which are told to him by the witches, secondly how Lady Macbeth influences him, and finally how Macbeth’s ambition drives his desire for power. Macbeth is a tragic hero in that he is initially portrayed as a hero, though he has a fatal flaw, ambition. Several events, in a chain reaction, lead to his demise. Macbeth is recognised as a tragic hero as he compromises his honour and negates moral responsibility in order to attain power and the position of King. The fatal flaw in Macbeth s character can be identified at several points in the play through certain characteristics of Macbeth including greed, arrogance, superstition and paranoia which all lead to his tragic death. The reason that many of the characters die is that they have a flaw, which leads them to their downfall. However, not every character deserves this fate. For example, Duncan s flaw is that he is too trusting, though he does not deserve to be killed for this.
We are introduced to the three witches at the start of the play. They are predicting a meeting with Macbeth. The fact that the prediction comes true strengthens some claims that the witches have a strong role in the events of the play. The following line used by the witches can be seen as a general summary of the play: fair is foul and foul is fair .
Macbeth is then introduced to the reader as a hero in that he has had victory in war. Macbeth s battles with Macdonald are reported to King Duncan, who has a very positive attitude towards Macbeth, shown by Duncan pronouncing Macbeth Thane of Cawdor . This positive attitude towards Macbeth is ironic when we later see how Duncan is murdered.
The meeting of the witches and Macbeth on the battlefield demonstrates the power the witches have; they can either predict the future, or they can make it. This meeting can arguably be seen as the first link in the chain reaction that eventually leads to Macbeth s death. Macbeth is initially confused when he hears that not only will he become Thane of Cawdor, he will also be the future King. Banquo is told thou shalt get kings, though thou be none. . Both men are eager to discover more about their future as they question the witches about the prophecies made.
Before the witches’ first prophecy, Macbeth is very close to Duncan and would never think of killing him. When the thought of murdering Duncan crosses his mind, after he finds that he has just been named Thane of Cawdor, he cannot believe what he has been told
However, Macbeth has a “vaulting ambition” that gradually masks his moral responsibility, with the help of his persuasive wife, Lady Macbeth. Our first introduction to Lady Macbeth shows the difference in character between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Initially Lady Macbeth is the one who has all the big future plans, whereas Macbeth seems to follow these ideas, not add to them. Lady Macbeth therefore has a very strong influence on Macbeth as he decides to go ahead with the plan to murder Duncan. She exerts a lot of power over Macbeth and even calls him a “coward” which shows just how determined she is and how much ambition she has. After persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan she thinks of performing the act herself but shows a sign of humanity and cannot kill him as Duncan resembles her father. On the eve of the murder, Macbeth has visions of a flaming dagger. It is the first of many visions that occur in both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth uses her cunning techniques to convince Macbeth that killing Duncan is the right thing to do. Macbeth follows this persuasion and eventually believes that killing Duncan is something he has to do. However, he begins to panic after he has committed the crime as a result of realising that he has done wrong. We learn from this murder that Macbeth truly had faith in the king and was very loyal, but under the forces of his wife’s persuasion and his own vaulting ambition, he is put in the evil frame of mind for just long enough to kill Duncan. He agrees that they must “catch the nearest way” and kill Duncan though just before he does so, he thinks of several reasons not to kill Duncan:
After the murder, Lady Macbeth shows just how strong a person she really is by attempting to calm Macbeth. She takes the daggers that Macbeth had brought with him and smears them with blood. Lady Macbeth then screams in horror “What! In our House!” to take away suspicion from Macbeth. However, when she finds out that Macbeth has killed the guards, she faints. It is likely that Lady Macbeth faints as she is shocked by the actions of the previously shy Macbeth. However, Banquo is suspicious of Macbeth, and Macbeth knows this. Macbeth realises that Banquo s “Wisdom that doth guide his valour / To act in safety” will cause Banquo to want to turn Macbeth in for his crime. Macbeth knows he must kill Banquo, as the throne will pass to Banquo’s sons otherwise. Macbeth starts showing hatred towards Banquo while he is convincing the two murderers that killing him is right. Macbeth actually shows signs of relief when the murderer calls him to the door during his banquet to inform him of Banquo’s death. Macbeth s last statement to the murderers, “Tis better thee without, than he within”, shows that Macbeth is relieved that Banquo is dead. Unlike with the murder of Duncan, Macbeth doesn t perform the murder himself; he instead hires murderers to do the job.
Macbeth then has further visions. Once the murderer notifies Macbeth that the deed is done, he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting at the table. This causes Macbeth to panic, making people increasingly suspicious of him.
“Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth: beware/ Macduff/ Beware the thane of Fife.”
As Macbeth hears this prediction, he believes that he must kill Macduff. However Macduff flees to England, so Macbeth has his family killed. Macbeth’s fear is starting to consume him. He can no longer sleep and is ravaged by guilt over what he has done. Fear and guilt are also consuming Lady Macbeth; she is slowing losing her sanity as a result of her not being able to handle what has happened to Duncan:
Here Lady Macbeth is trying to wash out what she sees as being blood on her hands. Blood on the hands is an extended metaphor throughout the play referring to the guilt that cannot be removed from both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. At the start Lady Macbeth was the one pushing Macbeth to kill
Duncan but as the play goes on she becomes weaker as Macbeth becomes stronger.
Macbeth is told by one of the witches that he can’t be killed by any man born of woman, which gives him confidence that the English will not defeat him. He is also told that he will not be defeated until the trees of Birnam Wood move towards his castle in Dunsinane. Macbeth puts all his faith in these prophecies. He follows what the witches say as he needs to be told how to live his life now, he cannot make his own decisions anymore.
Lady Macbeth s role in the play gradually becomes smaller and smaller which reflects the decline of importance of Lady Macbeth to Macbeth. She eventually kills herself, as she is unable to remove the “damned spot”. When Macbeth hears the “cry of women” he asks “What is that noise? . He feels so little towards her that when he is informed that she has just died, he simply states “She should have died hereafter , meaning that she would have died anyway. His loss of feeling towards his wife is most likely to have been caused by his change in personality: Death has become so familiar to him that even the death of his wife doesn t shock him.
Towards the end of the play, Macbeth wishes for a normal life for which he would have lived to an honourable age but he recognises that he has denied himself this. When Macbeth discovers that the prophecy of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane has come true, he fights on as he has faith that he cannot be killed by anyone woman born. When Macbeth hears that Macduff was “Untimely ripped” from his mother s womb he realises what that he shouldn t have put faith into the witches predictions. By this time it is too late to change anything so he fights on, only to be killed by Macduff.
Macbeth starts out a heroic man with good intentions, but his whole attitude completely changes because of the murders he commits. Malcolm gives the following description of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the end of the play:
“This dead butcher and his fiend like queen”.
Macbeth s relationships with many characters are broken or become weak. He loses trust in people and kills for fear of losing his power. Lady Macbeth started his killing streak but after the first murder, killing seemed to be the only solution to maintain power. It was Lady Macbeth who introduced the concept of murder to Macbeth though it was Macbeth who followed the witches prophecies, which lead him to his fate. Macbeth has a conscience throughout the entire play shown by the hesitation in killing Duncan, by the hallucinations of the dagger and by the ghost of Banquo. This is also evident in his terrible dreams, which goes with Macbeth s own claim that he has “murdered sleep”. Macbeth can never obtain peace of mind because he always has a conscience, which enables him to recognise the negative side of his actions.