The proposition that ‘Macbeth is a villain in whom there is little to admire’; is an inadequate judgement of Macbeth’s character. Macbeth is not consciously and naturally malevolent, and there are many aspects of his character and his downfall which serve to support this. Macbeth was not only a victim of his own actions, but also of the human condition and the extremely powerful forces of both his wife and fate. Throughout the play the audience undoubtedly experiences feelings of horror at Macbeth, but we are also driven, through an understanding of his character, to admiration and sympathy.
This would not be the case if Macbeth was a totally vile and reprehensible villain, and thus the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is clear. Macbeth was certainly no villain to begin with. He is introduced to us as a man of great honour, nobility and strength of morals. He is held in high regard by King Duncan, who addresses him as ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’;- so highly, in fact, that Macbeth is granted a promotion over Banquo (who seems to be of an extremely worthy and loyal character).
But there is a fatal difference between Macbeth and Banquo- Macbeth’s ambition and lust for power. He is a man with an unsurpassable desire to advance himself. He himself identifies this quality while he contemplates an action that he is wholly repulsed by; ‘I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting Ambition which o’erleaps itself, And falls on th’ other. ‘; This ‘Vaulting Ambition’; is what makes Macbeth vulnerable and leads him to commit possibly the most vile deed he can imagine, setting him on a path of destruction.
There is a temptation to use the fact that he could comprehend the vileness of his deed as a reason as to why we should condemn Macbeth as even worse a villain. But this is a simple view that does not take into account Macbeth’s later torment or give credit to Shakespeare’s intention to create a true – to-form tragedy. Macbeth is not a ruthless, callous villain devoid of all pity and humanity, and there are several issues in the play that serve to illustrate this. Firstly, Macbeth had an extremely active conscience and recognition of human moral values.
His conscience put up a great deal of resistance to the prospect of murder, and after the act it continued to torment him until his death. In Act one scene seven, Macbeth voices the terrifying images which deter him from crime – the protestations of his deepest self. He tells himself that by killing Duncan he would be committing a triple murder; ‘He’s here in double trust; First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself.
Besides, this Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, that his virtues Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against The deep damnation of his taking -off Macbeth can fathom the damnation that will follow the deed, and he is unprepared to face it. He also sees his ambition as doomed to miss it’s mark and pictures himself ending up on the other side of the murder, floored by it’s consequences; ‘Vaulting Ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other’;. The images are so extremely clear, intense and disturbing and Macbeth is so speculative that it is clear that he is not a natural villain.
These are not the reservations of a ruthless, unconcerned, killer. We are reminded of Lady Macbeth’s criticism of Macbeth’s nature when she began to contemplate the murder of Duncan on her own in scene five of Act one; ‘Yet do I fear thy nature. It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. ‘; Lady Macbeth doubts her husband’s ability to carry out the murder of Duncan on his own. It is quite obvious that she is correct to have such suspicions, for by the end of his own soliloquy he has decided against the murder.
He tells Lady Macbeth; ‘We will proceed no further in this business: He hath honoured me of late Despite this apparent resolve, just 49 lines later Macbeth has changed his mind and is set on murdering the King. Lady Macbeth was extremely influential in turning him around. He would not have committed the murder if it weren’t for her. Lady Macbeth is an element of extreme power. Macbeth’s ambition and conflicting morals make him hopelessly vulnerable to Lady Macbeth’s terrible resolution and unnatural, daunting, power.
She begins by frankly questioning his ambition; preying upon his weakness as a man of pride and challenging his determination, valour, courage, and preparedness to fight for what he desires: ‘Art thou afeared To be the same in thine act and valor as thou art in desire? ‘; She even questions his manhood, so that he feels the need to tell her; ‘I do all that may become a man, Who dares do more is none’;. He is still morally cognitive and has deep reservations; committing the murder would be inhumane. His conscience has not yet been put aside.
But now Lady Macbeth, sensing that all the fruits of her ambition are at stake, shows a degree of determination and commitment to the cause that Macbeth must match if he is to maintain his own sense of purpose. She tells him that she would have dashed the brains out of her own infant ‘had (she) so sworn as (Macbeth) had done to this. ‘; He would be lesser than herself if he were not to show such determination. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth establishes a plan for the murder, telling him that they will be able to escape without suspicion.
The act closes with Macbeth saying; ‘I am settled…to this terrible feat…Away, and mock time with fairest show. ‘; So Macbeth’s ambition has overcome his conscience. But he is still not a villain. When the time comes for him to commit the murder there is no glorious determination. He carries it out under a haze of consciousness, hallucinating a dagger before him that leads the way to Duncan’s chamber.
This ‘dagger of the mind’; (as he calls it) is symbolic of the feelings inside of him, which cry out against the deed- the feelings which he felt the need to hide; ‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know. ; This brings us to a significant aspect of Macbeth’s attempt to attain the Kingship. Macbeth thought that he could ‘mock time’; and overcome any consequences of the deed. In his soliloquy before Lady Macbeth got the chance to exert her influence over him, he explained that the murder would not ‘…be done when ’tis done. But this is what he greatly desired. Macbeth wanted the ultimate benefits of Duncan’s death, but not to have committed the murder. He wanted the single blow to be ‘the be-all and the end-all’;, allowing him to carry on a normal, secure, existence as King.
He desired this so greatly and had such vaulting ambition that when Lady Macbeth created a plan that seemed to place his imagined better state within his reach, he was unable to resist. While we can see and find reason in his condemnation for this, we can not brand him a villain for it. This is because it was simply his humanity that made him vulnerable. It is part of the human condition for man to try to predict and plan and control his destiny. That is man’s fate, and it is a struggle which, if he is to realise himself as a man, cannot be avoided.
Thus, while we certainly despise his actions, we can identify with Macbeth’s ensuing struggle, and even have an element of admiration for the terms on which he accepts it. Immediately after Macbeth kills Duncan, he realises the futility of the act. He is in a feverous state and there is no sense of glory in the completion of the task. As he staggers from the scene he mutters in despair; ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst. ‘;. This is not a ruthless, callous villain who is now thrown into a state of remorse.
The full horror of how he has betrayed himself for an imagined state hits him, and he says; ‘…I am afraid to think what I have done. We get our first glimpse of a man tormented by consequences that he thought he would be without and trapped by time that he thought he could overcome; ‘Sleep no more! he cries. Macbeth knows that without sleep he will not lead a full life, and will be subject to a tormented mind without the relief of the veil of slumber. He inherently senses the turmoil to come, while Lady Macbeth is the essence of self-control and reason, seemingly devoid of any regret.
Later, when Macbeth returns with Lennox from the room of the murder, the audience is given an insight of what is to come; ‘…from this instant There’s nothing serious in mortality…The wine of life is drawn. Macbeth’s struggle to hold his own against an overwhelming sense of the inevitable begins. Macbeth becomes more determined, delving deeper into ‘evil’;, as the play moves on and he realises that he can’t escape time or the consequences it forces him to endure. Macbeth comes to feel that he is working against time- or that time is working against him.
We recognise this as an element of the human condition, and pity it. He knows and values what he risked in attaining the position of King, and now that he has actually suffered what he wanted to overleap, the idea that he will be denied the prize is unfathomable. When he decides to kill Banquo and Fleance, it is an attempt to ease his insecurity; ‘To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus…Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, And put a barren sceptre in my gripe.
Macbeth wants to be rid of the scorpions in his mind, and he thinks that murdering Banquo and Fleance, who could deprive him of the throne, will achieve this. Thus it is his disillusionment with the existence that he imagined to be so fulfilling which drives him to his second and less innocent murder. But instead of being able to enjoy secure peace, Macbeth is confronted by his evil deed when Banquo’s ghost appears to him at the banquet. He is terrified by it; ‘Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves Shall never tremble’;. This is more proof of his conscience and the guilt which plagues him.
This intense guilt is such that a villain would not be tormented by. He has embarked upon his course in an attempt to exercise his own free will, and will allow nothing to get in his way. Unsatisfied still, he moves immediately on to the next threat- MacDuff. Macbeth knows that he has taken the unwithdrawable path, and there’s no turning back; ‘I am in blood Stepped in so far, that…Returning were as tedious as go o’er’;. He now chooses to traffic with the forces of evil knowingly, and understands that he may well have to pay the price.
In scene four, when he discovers from Lennox that MacDuff has fled to England, he makes a pact to become resolute; ‘Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits: The flighty purpose never is o’ertook, unless the deed go with it. From this moment, the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand…But no more sights! ‘;. Macbeth resents the operation of time and how in this case he was too late to kill MacDuff. In his new resolve he plans to act on his feelings right away so that he gains more control and hopefully evades time.
This marks a major point in the struggle between man and his destiny- the human condition which Macbeth’s new determination symbolises. The terms on which he accepts the struggle have changed. But although the audience will despise Macbeth for his ruthlessness and find justice in his death, they also will also understand the necessity of his actions as those of a tragic hero, and admire the way in which Macbeth refuses to let his inevitable fate consume him in a way that would not do his character justice.
In his soliloquy ‘Out, out, brief candle…Signifying nothing’; (Act 5 Sc. , ll. 23-28), Macbeth shows how he feels trapped by time, which is forcing him to endure. He is lamenting another aspect of the human condition. This is that we are all trapped by time, which ‘Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time…to dusty death’;, and that ‘Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing’;. The audience identifies with him and can’t help but pity him. We all at times feel trapped and disillusioned with life, and often fear that it is meaningless.
By voicing our own feelings, he captures our understanding and sympathy, and thus his death is made more tragic. Despite his inescapable fate, Macbeth professes; ‘I’ll fight ’till from my bones my flesh be hackt. ‘; By fighting until the end, he keeps some degree of control by not retreating. He has nothing more to lose, for he has forgone all the things that usually go with the crown and old age. He embraced the equivocal prophecies of the witches and trafficked with evil, and is paying the price. So, proud as he is, he chooses to battle it out until the end in an attempt to remain resolute, bold and warrior-like.
Although he undoubtedly deserves his ultimate death, it is admirable that he never released his grip on life. It was his inevitable fate to struggle for control of his own life, and the terms on which he accepted this struggle were consistent with the role of a tragic hero; to illustrate how man can become a victim of his own actions and also external forces. Macbeth is an example of a person who was overcome by evil, but we would not feel his tragedy like we do if he was simply a villain. He was necessarily worthy of our admiration.