Macbeth the central idea or theme appears to me to be this. A noble character, noble alike in potentiality and fruition, may
yet be completely overmastered by mysterious, inexplicable temptation; and if he be once subdued a curse not to be forgone is for ever upon him. Temptation begets sin, and sin yet further sin, and this again punishment sure and inexorable. The illustration of this central idea is to be found in the rise and fall of Lord and Lady Macbeth.
To them temptation comes in the guise of ambition, the subtlest form in which it can approach high souls. Of the supernatural
setting in which it is exhibited there will be more to say here-after; for the present note that once the murder of Duncan
is committed there is never any hope of regress -- sin leads to sin with remorseless fatality, until the end is utter ruin of
the moral sense or even of reason itself; so that death comes almost as a relief, though it be a miserable death, without
hope of repentance.
Such a story is a proper theme for tragedy, because it depicts strong human natures battling with and overcome by destiny; had they been weak natures
the disproportion between the forces would have been too great, and we should have had pathos and not tragedy.
Starting from this central idea, the power of Shakespeare's treatment of it is most clearly manifest in the contrasted
results of similar circumstances on two characters of different mould and fibre -- one that of a man, the other of a woman;
one realizing itself in action, the other in thought.
first Macbeth comes before us it is as a mighty warrior -- he is spoken of as "valour's minion", "Bellona's bridegroom,
lapp'd in proof"; by performing prodigies of personal valour he has saved the country on one day from a civil and an alien
foe. This is the noble side of him; away from the battlefield his greatness is gone, he sinks to the level of quite common
men. Lady Macbeth herself expresses this in a passage which has been misunderstood:
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
"The milk of human kindness" -- that is clearly not 'a tender nature', of which Macbeth never shows a trace, but rather
'the commonplace ordinary qualities and tendencies of humankind'. 1 As for Lady Macbeth, it is not easy to accept
the traditional stage view of her, originated probably by Mrs. Pritchard, as a sheer human monster, and the evil genius of
her husband's soul. Hers is both a subtler and a nobler nature than his. Living a woman's solitary life, she has turned her thoughts inward; she, too, is a conqueror and has won her triumphs, not in war, but in the training of her intellect and the subjugation of her will. And withal, she is a
very woman still:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 't is to love the babe that milks me;
Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done 't;
and that despairing cry of horror: "Yet who would have
thought the old man to have had so much blood in him".
Macbeth addresses her in language of love, and she too is wrapped up in him. Her immediate impulse to crime is
ambition for her husband rather than herself, and in the banquet scene she stifles agonies of remorse to save him from
Thus the antithesis between the two is that between the practical life and the intellectual, and the effects of this difference are everywhere apparent. Macbeth is bold and resolute in the moment of action; he can kill a king, and he has a curious gift of ready speech throughout, which avails
him to answer unwelcome questions. But when there is nothing to be actually done he is devoid of self-control; he cannot wait nor stand still; he becomes a prey to countless terrible imaginings; he is wildly superstitious. In all this Lady Macbeth is the exact converse; she has banished all
superstition from her soul; she is strong enough of will to quell her husband's cowardly fears; she can scheme and plot,
but she cannot act; she must leave the actual doing of the deadly deed to Macbeth; at the moment of discovery she
The emotional effects of their crime are totally different on the pair. In Macbeth it is purely fear; there is no word of
sorrow or sense of sin, only a base dread lest he should be found out and lose what he played for; if the fatal blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
he is willing to "jump the life to come". In time this fear assumes terrible proportions; it drives him to new murders; he slaughters Banquo, he slaughters the family of Macduff; finally he becomes a craven and bloody tyrant; even his old love for his wife is swallowed up in selfishness; when her
death is told him he cannot stay to mourn: "She should have died hereafter". Only in the last hour of battle does he
for one moment recover something of his old brave spirit. With Lady Macbeth the curse works itself out, not in fear but remorse; it impels her husband to fresh deeds of blood: she has no hand in any murder but the first. But her sin is ever present to her: awake or dreaming she can think of
nothing but that awful night, and the stain upon her hand and soul. At last her overtasked brain breaks down; we
witness her mental agony in the sleep-walking scene: "Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will
not sweeten this little hand: oh! oh! oh!" And then she dies, a voluntary and most wretched death.
The other personages of the play are completely subordinate to the two central figures. Either they are mechanical,
necessary to the incidents and episodes by which the plot moves on, such as Ross and Siward; or else they serve to
intensify by character-contrast our conception of Macbeth's nature. It is noticeable that Lady Macbeth in this respect,
as in others, is entirely isolated. But Macbeth sins both as subject and as lord; in the one relation Banquo and Macduff,
in the other Duncan and Malcolm are set over against him. These are loyal, he is treacherous; these are king-like, he is
1. Cf. note ad loc, and Moulton's Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. E. K. Chambers. Toronto: Morang Educational Co., 1907. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2013. < http://shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethdifferences.html >.