John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Character Studies

March 22, 2011 in Essay

Macbeth, of all Shakespeare plays, has unusually flat characters, The only real personalities are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a Couple: The Character of their Marriage

In his marriage with Lady Macbeth, Macbeth shows himself to be a traditional modern man. He is like the 1950’s businessman who moves ahead up the corporate ladder, aided by his loving wife, his partner behind the scenes. At the beginning of the play, actors often play the Macbeths as very much in love, as very sexually attracted to each other. One critic even said that the Macbeths are Shakespeare’s happiest married couple (the only competition are Kate and Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew).

Some years ago, perhaps it was on April Fool’s day, The Wall Street Journal, published a little article headlined, “Macbeth Lands Top Job in Scotland,” with the subheading, “Wife Said to be Motivating Factor.” The marriage partnership as an institution that works to further the career ambitions of the husband is a feature of the early modern and modern eras, though somewhat less so in what people call our postmodern era. (A charming recent film based on Macbeth, Scotland PA, similarly shows Macbeth and his lady as partners in bed, in crime, and in business. They kill their Duncan in order to steal his idea for a fast food hamburger chain, what turn out to be a wildly successful chain of “Macbeths” burgers and fries.)

Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth does push her husband to move quickly into his future. She tells Macbeth that his letters letting her know of the witches’ prophesy “have transported me beyond/This ignorant present, and I feel now/ The future in an instant.” And this future depends upon murdering the rightful king.

Lady Macbeth knows her husband. Yes, he is a warrior, a military hero who just before the play begins had personally killed the chief rebel against the king by cutting him from the navel all the way up to the jaw (“from the naves to the chops”). He is capable of great violence, but also of great sensitivity. (This combination of seeming opposites makes for an interesting literary character. Tony Soprano is just such a Macbeth-like sensitive tough guy, haunted by dreams, even seeing a psychiatrist—and Macbeth also seeks a kind of psychiatric help for his mad wife, in vain asking a doctor, “Cant thou not minister to a mind diseased?” (V.iii.40)

After reading Macbeth’s letter about the witches’ prophecy, Lady Macbeth talks to her imagined husband in soliloquy, “Yet I do fear thy nature./ It is too full o th’ milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way” ( I.v.16-18), Lady Macbeth wants them to be the young couple who get ahead in a hurry, who find the nearest way to success. Macbeth is sensitive psychically in that he sees witches and even a ghost (of dead Banquo, which only he sees): he is a kind of spiritual person, for he does see spirits! The hallucinated dagger he sees (“Is this a dagger that I see before me”), and his long and thoughtful soliloquies, show how easily he is drawn into the introverted world of his own thoughts. In some ways he is like Hamlet, so comfortable with thought that he could easily fail to act.

Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth’s sensitive introversion and suggests it indicates an unwelcome feminine side, too much “milk” of human kindness—milk of course being associated with females. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth, with his feminine side, is especially vulnerable to suggestions that he is less than a real man. After a long soliloquy Macbeth convinces himself to give up the plan of murdering the king, “That but this blow/Might be the be-all and the end-all” he says to himself, “here/But here, upon this bank and shoal of time/We’d jump the life to come.” (I.vii.4-7). But Macbeth knows the murder will not be the be-all and end all (a phrase apparently coined by Shakespeare), that the deed will have inevitable consequences. So he tells his wife, “We will proceed no further in the business.” (I.vii.31) But Lady Macbeth knows how to work her husband. First she uses language that suggests sexual impotence: “Art thou afeard/To be the same in thine own act and valour,/ As thou art in desire?” (I.vii.39-41) (She is subtly suggesting that if you desire something (be it sexual satisfaction or the kingship) and are unable to act, then you are less than a real man. Then she calls him a “coward,” “letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon’ I would’/ Like the poor cat in the adage” (I.vii.44-45). She is referring to an adage that would have been known to Shakespeare’s audience (who lived in a world full of proverbs): “The cat would eat fish and would not wet her feet.” She attacks his manhood, comparing him to a scared female cat (even today men have their manhood disparaged by being called a “pussy.”)

Macbeth protests, “peace/I dare do all that may become a man/ Who dares do more, is none” (I.vii.45-7). But Lady Macbeth knows how to play this game, and even more explicitly attacks his masculinity. (This not altogether admirable motivational device is occasionally used by women still today.) “When you durst do it,” she says, “Then you were a man/And to be so much more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man” (I.vii.49-51). She finally she convinces him “to screw [his] courage to the sticking place” (I.vii.61) —a metaphor derived either from tuning a violin or shooting a cross bow.

After killing the king, Macbeth tells his wife “I have done the deed,” and the words “do” “done” and “deed” echo through the play. These words often have a sexual context in Shakespeare’s comedies (as in the phrase “do the deed of darkness”), but for the Macbeths the deed of darkness becomes murder, not sex. And so the play is a tragedy, not a comedy.

Lady Macbeth tries to console Macbeth later on with a powerful truism: “what’s done is done” (III.ii.12). And later, in her madness, she tells herself the same thing: “what’s done cannot be undone” (V.i.64). While what she says is true, in both situations it offers little consolation. At first Lady Macbeth claims, “A little water clears us of the deed” (II.ii.64), but Macbeth suspects differently, saying, “To know my deed were best not know myself.” (II.ii.72). But Macbeth hardens, and after Macbeth’s the commissioned killing of Banquo, he tells his lady, “We are yet but young in deed” (III.iv.143).

For the Macbeths time itself is gradually destroyed, most obviously though their inability to sleep, for sleep is the natural way of defining time, of separating days into days and nights. Thus shortly after the murder of the King, Macbeth heard a voice, his inner voice, cry, “Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep.” (II.ii.34-5). When Macbeth is told his wife is dead, he responds with detachment, “She should have died hereafter/ There would have been time for such a word” (V.v.17-19), which leads him to his great depressed soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Once he and his wife were truly a couple. But finally, he cannot even mourn his once beloved wife. She is dead, and his life is just a meaningless succession of tomorrows, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.


Macbeth is, first of all a war hero, the courageous hero of a battle that takes place just before the play begins. A modern psychologist might even speculate that the experience of this violence and death contributes to his subsequent aberrant behavior, that his encounters with the witches and subsequent homicidal actions come about through a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. In any event, as a war hero (unlike King Duncan or the King’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain), he epitomizes masculine strength. Macbeth is also a man propelled by ambition. Once the possibility of being king is mentioned, the possibility of he being the man who leads all other men, he (and his wife) can almost think of nothing else.

But Macbeth is also sensitive and unusually imaginative. He is clearly an introvert. While he can act in battle, his natural turn of mind is towards himself, and thus his soliloquies reveal the poetic depths of his imagination. He speaks about a third of the lines in the play, much of them in soliloquy, and so we see how inward his vision is. Once Lady Macbeth is dead, Macbeth is really the only fully developed character on stage, as Shakespeare does not try to individualize or give personalities to Malcolm, Macduff, Banquo, or any of the other characters in the play.

At the beginning of the play, in a human way, Macbeth tries to draw back from murdering the king, and then he even expresses remorse for the deed. He knows his own nature and says that if he has to face what he has done, it is best he not know himself. And so he, over time, tries to repress the sensitive side of his nature. So he hardens, first in killing his friend Banquo because the witches prophesied that Banquo and not Macbeth would have descendents who were kings. But even then his guilt shows in that he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost. But he loses all humanity, becoming a twisted parody of a “real man” when he decides to kill Macduff’s wife and children just because Macduff has joined Duncan’s son Malcolm in England. Before commissioning these murders, he announces his change of heart, saying, “from this moment/ The very firstlings of my heart/ Shall be the firstlings of my hand” (IV.i.47-9). There’s to be no more introspective thought and feeling, no indecision, no guilt for killing Lady Macduff and her babies. Now he is a pure man of action, and so he is unable at the end even to express real grief for the death of his wife.

Macbeth’s character does change during the play. At first he is in conflict and full of self-doubt. Before murdering the king he hallucinates a dagger in the air, such is the power of his imagination. And after the murder, he can no longer sleep. Not being able to sleep is a traditional sign of guilt, so we can’t quite dismiss Macbeth as a psychopath, because a psychopath would not feel guilt for his evil deeds. Similarly, only Macbeth (and the audience) sees Banquo’s ghost. That he sees and is tormented by this ghost shows the power of Macbeth’s imagination and the fact that he cannot escape feelings of guilt. These feelings of guilt are one thing that make us able to sympathize with him, even as we condemn him. So at the beginning of the play Macbeth is not fully evil, as are Iago in Othello, Richard III, or Edmund in King Lear. Macbeth is a character who is gradually drawn into evil, who gradually loses his soul.

And so Macbeth finally embraces evil without self-doubt and, apart from lack of sleep, becomes more sure of himself, no longer full of guilt. This transformation is complete in the final scenes, when Macbeth returns to the battlefield to fight Duncan’s forces (including Macduff). Now Macbeth is full of energy, comfortable to be on the battlefield as he was before the beginning of the play, not thinking and feeling but just fighting, trying to kill and not be killed. He has returned to the one place he is comfortable: the battlefield.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is the only other developed character in the play. She primarily is defined in terms of her marriage, and her principle gift is her ability to influence her husband. Perhaps she controls her husband through her beauty and sexual attractiveness, and they do seem very happy to see each other in their first scene together. But Lady Macbeth certainly also controls through her language, making fun of his manhood and emphasizing her own “masculine” strength.

At the beginning she seems more ambitious for Macbeth than he is for himself (acting out the old fashioned role of the woman behind the man). She wants Macbeth to be King so she can be his “dearest partner of greatness” (I.v.11). In the early part of the play, Lady Macbeth does seem to be or at least think herself to be stronger than Macbeth. Thus Macbeth tells her “undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males” (I.vii.74-5). Perhaps the inappropriateness Lady Macbeth seeming more masculine than her husband is shown most vividly by her statement that she would dash the brains out of a baby nursing at her breast rather than break an oath such as Macbeth has made to kill the king. (Her troublesome “masculine” character is perhaps also paralleled by the fact that the three female witches have beards.)

Lady Macbeth is not as introverted or psychologically sophisticated as Macbeth. After she drugs the guards so Macbeth can murder the King, she suggests she could easily have committed the murders herself, saying, “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t” (II.ii.12-13). The King is symbolically her father, but she takes no time to examine her own imagination (as Macbeth does constantly). After the murder, she counsels Macbeth not to think about it, as if such a repression could easily be accomplished. And when she sees that Macbeth has brought the bloody daggers with him rather than leave them as evidence to implicate the King’s guards as the murderers, she tells him to carry them back. He cannot, so grief stricken is he. But Lady Macbeth takes the daggers, claiming with easy words, “The sleeping, and the dead,/Are but as pictures” (II.ii.52-3. )She returns shortly with bloody hands and almost childlike in her naiveté, says, “A little water clears us of this deed: How easy is it then” (II.ii.66-7).

Her psychological progress over the course of the play is opposite of Macbeth’s and more dramatic. While he succeeds somewhat in repressing his guilt, Lady Macbeth (never conscious of it at the beginning) is overtaken by it and driven mad. A little water does not wash away the blood, and she exhibits the obsessive-compulsive symptom of constantly seeming to wash her hands. Macbeth had been a war hero, and so was somewhat hardened by the sight of blood; also, he dealt with his feelings of guilt early and explicitly, rather than just ignoring or repressing them. Lady Macbeth instead falls apart as a character, descends into memorable madness (her mad scene is one of the great actress moments in Shakespeare), and takes her life. And she takes her life offstage. While the Macbeths once acted the archetype of the power couple, by the time she dies, they have gone their separate ways.

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