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The Progressive Character of Macbeth

Kenneth Deighton.

The character of Macbeth, as presented in the play, is a progressive one. As the plot proceeds his few good qualities disappear, while the evil become more and more developed. His career is a downward one. He goes from good to bad, and from bad to worse.

At the commencement we must notice:

1. His Bravery.

The wounded sergeant bears ample testimony to his heroism when fighting against Macdonwald and Sweno.

"For brave Macbeth — well he deserves that name —
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave." I. ii. 16-20.

And again, Ross speaks of him as
"Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof." I. ii. 54.
We may notice, too, Macbeth's own words when speaking of himself:

"I dare do all that may become a man,
Who dares do more is none." I. vii. 47, 48.

2. His Kindness.

His wife knew well this feature in his character, and says of him:

"Yet I do fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness,
To catch the nearest way." i. v. 14-16.

From the time that Macbeth met the witches, the evil points in his character assert themselves.

3. His Ambition.

That there were evil thoughts of an ambitious nature in Macbeth from the beginning we may be sure. No sooner have the witches greeted him with

"All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!"

than he starts.

Ban. "Good sir, why do you start: and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?" I. iii. 50-52.

It was his evil conscience that made him start. When he is informed that Duncan had made him Thane of Cawdor, he at once gives way to the temptation suggested by the words of the witches, and allows his ambitious thoughts to have full sway:

"Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?" I. iii. 134-137.

The words of Lady Macbeth in i. vii. clearly show that ambitious designs had been discussed at some point prior to the events recorded in I. iii:

"Was the hope drunk Wherein you dress'd yourself?" I. vii. 35.

"Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both." i. vii. 52.

When Duncan proclaims Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, and Macbeth finds himself face to face with crime if the object of his ambition is to be attained, he says:

"That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, For in my way it lies." I. iv. 48.

And later on:

"I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition." I. vii. 25-27.

4. His Treachery.

At first he regards the idea of acting treacherously to Duncan with horror:

"My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise." I. iii. 139-141.

He appears to be half determined to give up the project; but when he meets Lady Macbeth the fall soon comes. She knows well the weak points in his character, and at once he is taunted with cowardice, irresolution, and weakness. She shows him how easy it will be to perform the deed, now that the time and place "have made themselves," and at last he gives way:

"I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know." i. vii. 79-82.

5. His Tyranny.

When once he has attained the object of his ambition, Macbeth's character undergoes a change. He is no longer the cautious and hesitating plotter, but becomes bolder and more energetic in his scheming. He now takes to bloodshed readily. Lady Macbeth's taunts are not required now to spur him on. He plans the murder of Banquo in a most careful and business-like manner. He tells the murderers:

"I will advise you where to plant yourselves;
Acquaint you with the perfect spy o' the time,
The moment on't; for 't must be done to-night." III. i. 129-131.

He, who was so cautious over the murder of Duncan, without any hesitation or thoughts of the hereafter, puts Lady Macduff and her children to death.

6. His Imaginativeness.

Throughout the play we have evidence of Macbeth's lively imagination. He imagines he sees the blood-stained dagger:

"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?" II. i. 33, 34.

He fancies he hears voices.

"Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep.'" II. i. 99, 100.

He alone of all the company sees the Ghost of Banquo at the banquet.

He is greatly affected by the words of the witches. Towards the end he says of himself:

"The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't." V. v. 10-13.

The characters of Macbeth and Richard III have frequently been compared by commentators. The following is a summary of the remarks of Hazlitt upon this point:

1. Both are aspiring and ambitious.

2. Both are murderers, usurpers, tyrants.

3. Both are courageous, cruel, treacherous.

4. Both are conscience-stricken at the end, but die fighting bravely.

5. Richard is cruel by nature. Macbeth becomes so through accidental circumstances.

6. Richard is from his birth deformed in body and mind. Macbeth is full of "the milk of human kindness," and at first is frank, sociable, and generous.

7. Richard needs no prompter, but wades through a series of crimes to the height of his ambition from the ungovernable violence of his temper and a reckless love of mischief. Macbeth is tempted to the commission of guilt by golden opportunities, and by the instigation of his wife.

8. Richard has no mixture of common humanity in his composition, no regard to kindred or posterity. Macbeth is not destitute of feelings of sympathy, is accessible to pity, ranks the loss of friends, of the cordial love of followers, and of his good name, among the causes which make him weary of life.

The great German authority, Gervinus, has contrasted the characters of Hamlet and Macbeth. The following is a summary of his remarks:

1. Hamlet is called upon by the "honest ghost" of his father to do a righteous deed. Macbeth is tempted by doubtful riddles, by the powers of evil, to do an unjust and unnatural deed.

2. Nature and reason spur Hamlet on. Nature and reason restrain Macbeth.

3. Hamlet, though urged to action, lingers, in the hope that the result may arise of itself. Macbeth, who is advised to wait, snatches at the result beforehand.

4. Hamlet, though he loads himself with reproaches of cowardice, yet remains inactive, and never does justice to himself. Macbeth surpasses himself through the demands of his wife upon his manliness.

5. Hamlet, once fallen into inaction, sinks deeper and deeper. Macbeth, hurried on by the thirst for action, grows bolder and more energetic.

6. Hamlet has a morbid dread of bloodshed, and remains lax and weak-hearted. Macbeth advances boldly in open defiance of the higher powers.

7. Hamlet's indecision, anguish of conscience, and his moral insecurity stand entirely opposed to that godless and flagitious "security" in which Macbeth, having entirely lost his early true-heartedness, appears almost devilish.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: With an Introduction and Notes. Ed. Kenneth Deighton. London: Macmillan and Company. 1896. Shakespeare Online. 10 Sept. 2013. < >.


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