How does Shakespeare present Macbeth to the audience? Is he portrayed as a hated tyrant or a tragic hero?
A tragic hero is a person with good morals in a dramatic tragedy and is seen as an important figure but is destined for a downfall or defeat because of their tragic flaws. In my opinion, this describes Macbeth perfectly and therefore I will be arguing that Macbeth is a tragic hero rather than a hated tyrant. There are several ways that the play can be interpreted, with Macbeth either being an innocent and noble person who is led astray by others due to his own personality flaw, or that he is evil from the beginning and uses the witches’ prophecies as an excuse to behave in the way that he does. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition and the fact he can be easily influence. The deception of outside forces such as Lady Macbeth significantly develop these flaws which allows the audience to sympathize with Macbeth as some might argue that his downfall was generated by others.
At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as a good and noble character who is loyal to the King. This can be seen when the Captain states ‘For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name’ (act 1, scene 2) and implies that the characters in the play think very highly of Macbeth. The descriptions of Macbeth during the battle reinforce this point as demonstrated by the Captain’s description of Macbeth and Banquo on the battle field: ‘As cannons over charged with double cracks so they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe’. The quotation suggests that Macbeth fought in the battle with true strength of character and also proves his loyalty to the King and Scotland because he prepared to die for king and country. His heroic and courageous nature is further evidenced by the fact that the King rewards him with the title Thane of Cawdor: ‘What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won’. Additionally, Macbeth’s circle of acquaintances consists of Banquo, Ross and other Thanes. They are all considered noble people and held the Kings approval which reinforces the idea that Macbeth’s character is one of honour and good morals. Lastly, his integrity is illustrated in his first reaction to the witches’ prophecy when he declares ‘and to be King stands not within the prospect of belief’. This proves that Macbeth wasn’t ambitious about being King at the beginning of the play and that he had a clear conscience and he was happy with his position of Thane of Glamis.
In my opinion, the outside forces in the play such as Lady Macbeth and the witches (supernatural) encouraged Macbeth to do wrong and significantly develop his tragic flaws. Throughout the play Shakespeare develops this theme making us question whether he is following his own path or being influenced by evil forces. In Act 1, scene 3, the witches’ trigger Macbeth’s ambition with their prophecy. This is evidenced in the quotation ‘This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good’, highlights that Macbeth doesn’t dismiss the witches’ prophecy as he should if he were truly loyal to the king, and that he can be easily persuaded to do wrong for his own gain. Another example of this is in Act 5, Scene 6, when the witches predict that Macbeth shall rule as long as Birnam Wood never reaches his castle. In Macbeth’s eyes, this is an impossibility and he allows himself to be persuaded that he will remain King as he begins to believe that he’s indestructible. Shakespeare uses strong visual imagery to show how evil forces trick Macbeth to follow the wrong path and forget about own morals.
Shakespeare uses language and scenery as a technique to link Macbeth with evil forces and potential lack of integrity. The beginning of the play starts with thunder and lightning meaning that the audience instantly associate Macbeth with evil and the witches state ‘Fair is foul, foul is fair’. This is language which Macbeth then mirrors by saying ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’. He also develops this through the use of the theme light and dark as light represents goodness and dark represents evil. For example, the witches are described as ‘instruments of darkness’ and when Macbeth’s ambition starts to rise and he realises how evil his intentions are becoming he cries ‘stars hide your fires, let not light see my dark and deep desires.’
Additionally, Shakespeare highlights Macbeth’s lack of morals by contrasting his reactions with the character of Banquo. He uses Banquo to convey the path that Macbeth should be taking for example the differences in how he and Macbeth react to the prophecies of the weird sisters. Banquo says ‘and oftentimes to win us to our harm The instruments of darkness tell us truths’ showing that he is suspicious and knows the witches should not be trusted. Macbeth immediately starts to think about being King. He should have waited for fate to lead him to his destiny rather than stepping in and making it for himself.
Shakespeare highlights Macbeth as a tragic hero by showing his reluctance to kill Duncan and his guilt once he has done it. His soliloquy ‘is this a dagger which I see before me ‘shows Macbeth struggling with his conscience. This is a key theme in the play, appearance and reality are starting to blur, showing his moral conflict and emotional turmoil. I believe this proves Macbeth not to be a natural villain. The audience would have little sympathy for Macbeth if it wasn’t for his soliloquy’s showing us the how much he us struggling in his mind and his heart. In this instance, Macbeth is tormented by guilt. Shakespeare has the murder happen offstage so that he can focus on Macbeth’s tormented mental state. Macbeth’s guilt is additionally emphasized when he is unable to state ‘Amen’ as he’s too ashamed to speak with god after committing murder. All these points allow the audience to sympathize with Macbeth as they see his struggles and good qualities and reinforces the fact that he still has integrity at this point in the play.
Shakespeare further personifies Macbeth’s guilt with vivid images, for example the references to blood, the vision of the dagger and Banquo’s ghost. Before killing the King, Macbeth imagines a bloody dagger. The blood covering the dagger represents Macbeth’s guilty conscience. Blood is used throughout he play as a striking image of Macbeth’s guilt as afterwards he believes his crime to be so wicked that the blood he has spilt will make “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red”. Shakespeare also uses similes such as ‘I had else been perfect, whole as the marble, founded as the rock’ to convey strong images of how Macbeth feels he is weakening. Shakespeare also personifies Macbeth’s guilt through the use of Banquo’s ghost, showing that his anxieties are getting the better of him. His mental state is becoming unbalanced as he talks to himself in front of his guests. Shakespeare uses alliteration to emphasise how tense he has become, ‘but now I am cabined, cribbed, confined’. All of these techniques help the audience to see Macbeths struggles and that he is not simply an evil tyrant from the start.
With regard to the outside forces within the play, Lady Macbeth is one of the most significant influences on Macbeth as she uses all of her passion and strength of character to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan. Shakespeare portrays her character as far more ambitious and evil than Macbeth. ‘I have given suck and know ……. And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done this’. The image of a mother murdering her innocent child emphasises how evil she is. One of the key ways she persuades him to murder Duncan is to insult his manhood as is highlighted here: ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. She also suggests regularly that she is stronger that her husband as proven in this quotation “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white”. Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to become more deceitful, the following metaphor highlights this: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t”. The animal imagery also implies Lady Macbeth’s vicious and forceful character.
Shakespeare develops Macbeth’s character deterioration into a hated tyrant through the way he reverses Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s roles. At the start of the play Lady Macbeth shows us that Macbeth isn’t naturally evil ‘thy nature is too full of the milk of human kindness’ as she questions his ability to kill Duncan. Throughout Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth is the one who sees violence as the answer and it is she who comes up with the murder scheme, while her husband is racked with so much guilt and indecision that he doesn’t think he’ll ever allow himself to sleep again after committing murder, as suggested here: “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more”. However, once Macbeth assumes power as King and starts to see the success his actions bring, he begins plotting murder against Banquo’s and Macduff’s family without consulting his wife at all which signifies a growth of strength in Macbeth’s character as he no longer needs the input of his wife. The swopping of roles can be proven when Macbeth says to his wife in act 3, scene 2: ‘And make our faces vizards to our hearts, disguising what they are’, as earlier it was Lady Macbeth who told her husband to disguise his true intentions. By Act 3, Scene 4 Lady Macbeth and Macbeth never appear on stage at the same time. This signifies that Macbeth is now acting on his own. Also, by the final act of the play Lady Macbeth is the one who is walking in a daze, seeing visions, and racked with guilt just as Macbeth was following the murder of Duncan as proven when she cries ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ whiles mentally trying to scrub invisible blood from her hands.
Eventually, the outside forces combined with the fact that Macbeth is easily influenced lead to Macbeth’s ambition consuming him. Throughout Act 5, Macbeth is always referred to as a tyrant by the other characters in the play as shown when Malcom cries: ‘This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest’. However, the main event that changes the audience’s view of Macbeth is the murdering of Macduff’s family. The senseless murder portrays Macbeth to be a hated tyrant as he’s willing to kill anyone in order to maintain his ambition. Macbeth’s loyalty to Scotland is replaced with images of him causing death and disease across the land, something which he recognises himself ‘the water of my land fill her disease, and purge it with a sound and pristine health.’ At the end of the play, Shakespeare uses animal imagery to portray Macbeth as evil and inhuman. Macduff states ‘Turn hell hound, turn!’, symbolizing Macbeth’s complete character deterioration.
To conclude, I believe Macbeth to be a tragic hero as he owns several good qualities and is lead to his downfall as a result of his tragic flaws and the deceptions of outside forces. Shakespeare reminds the audience in Scene 7 and 8 of Act 5 of all of Macbeth’s good qualities and tragic flaws when Macbeth tells Macduff ‘But get thee back, my soul is too much charged with blood of thine already.’ The quotation implies that Macbeth feels guilty about the many lives he has taken and refuses to take another, meaning that even after all the terror caused by Macbeth the audience can still sympathize with him at the end of the play. Lastly, the following quotation reminds the audience that Macbeth is a great solider and that at the beginning of the play he was seen as loyal to the King and a great man: ‘Yet I will try the last. Before my body, I throw my war like shield.’ All of struggles and suffering show that he was a good man, ruined by his own flaws, ambition, pride, and an inability to hold onto his morals when others persuade his otherwise.