Wells and Nolan

Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Welles' 1948 film adaptation of the play, Macbeth

Macbeth is the main character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1607?). The character was based upon accounts found in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of Britain. Macbeth is a Scottish noble and a valiant military man. At the urging of his wife, he commits regicide and becomes King of Scotland. He thereafter lives in anxiety and fear, unable to rest or to trust his nobles. He leads a reign of terror until defeated by the rightful heir to the throne in the final act.


Shakespeare's protagonist is based upon characters found in the narratives of Kings Duff and Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587).[1]

Role in the playEdit

Macbeth is Thane of Glamis, later Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. He is the central character of the Shakespearean play Macbeth.

Military manEdit

The tragedy begins amid a bloody civil war where the first introduction to the Scottish General Macbeth is given by a wounded soldier. A colourful and extensive exaltation of Macbeth’s prowess and valour in battle is illustrated. When the battle is won, largely due to the skillful leadership of Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo, King Duncan honours his Generals with high praise and awards Macbeth with the title of a traitor awaiting execution, the Thane of Cawdor.

After the first meeting with the witches in Act 1 Scene III, it soon becomes apparent that Macbeth has already begun to consider murdering Duncan and taking his place. (In medieval times and in the Elizabethan era, plans to murder royalty were punishable by death). Also, in an aside at the end of Act I Scene III he states “If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir” and “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day” this demonstrates that he is considering the possibility that the kingship will fall into his lap by luck alone and that he will not have to take any action in order to fulfill the last prophecy. Macbeth continues thinking about the prophecies; ignoring Banquo’s sound advice that “oftentimes to win us to our harm these instruments of darkness tell us truths…to betray us in deepest consequence”.


At home with his wife Macbeth displays another dimension to his character. Lady Macbeth’s plan is to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan. This is apparent when she says “…I may pour my spirits in thine ear; and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round”. She feels that Macbeth “art not without ambition” but is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. Lady Macbeth plans to be the brains behind the assassination of Duncan — and, eventually, the throne.

Macbeth has concluded not to kill Duncan. The decision however, is short lived. Macbeth says nothing to his wife to substantiate his claim. He fails to communicate the ethical arguments he made against murder. Instead he merely says, “He (Duncan) hath honoured me of late”. When Lady Macbeth pulls out all the stops with a vivid analogy of killing her own baby while nursing and by insulting Macbeth’s manhood, she convinces him to carry out the deed. Here Macbeth shows a very different side to his character. The cut-throat, strong, confident General has no retort for his wife’s degrading accusations. He allows Lady Macbeth to head the plan for Duncan’s murder. Macbeth simply follows her lead. Could this mean that Macbeth was manipulated by both the witches and his wife? Or did he act on his own free will intending to kill Duncan all along? The driving forces behind Macbeth’s decision remain an ongoing debate.

He also hears voices that say “Macbeth shall sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep”. He acknowledges that only the innocent sleep and that sleep is “the balm of hurt minds”. His innocence is forever lost and his actions hereafter will be eternally tainted. Despite his many murders on the battlefield, Macbeth is too afraid to go back to Duncan’s chamber and frame the guards as per the plan. It is Lady Macbeth who must complete the crime. The psychological effect the assassination will have on the Macbeths is foreshadowed in this scene. Despite Lady Macbeth’s attempt to “stop up the access and passage to remorse” it is impossible for her and her husband to simply ignore the effects of pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder.

When the castle is awakened with the news of Duncan’s death there is a dramatic change in Macbeth’s attitude toward the murder. Surprisingly he is now able to take his wife’s advice and “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t”. Macbeth’s indecision becomes a thing of the past. He is able to show false remorse for the death of Duncan and in an outburst of rage and loyalty to the King, he slays the alleged murderers “who are steeped in the colours of their trade”.

King of ScotlandEdit

In Holinshed, Macbeth reigns ably for ten years before being challenged by Macduff and Malcolm. In Shakespeare, however, Macbeth's reign appears to be immediately one of tyranny and murder. Macbeth trusts no one, fearing for the security of his throne, and plants spies in the houses of his nobles to watch their movements. As the play progresses, Macbeth sinks further into murder Despite Lady Macbeth’s practical advice to move on, stop the killing and enjoy his new role, Macbeth becomes “stepped in blood so far that he can wade no more.” He is obsessed with the witches and their prophecies. Macbeth is at an all time low when he ruthlessly has the innocent Lady Macduff, her young son and their entire castle brutally murdered. This is a fatal mistake, as Macduff will now seek revenge. In Act V, after Lady Macbeth commits suicide, Macbeth begins “to be aweary of the sun, and wish th’ estate o’ the world were now undone”. He has no fear and no real reason to live. In his famous “Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrowsoliloquy he contemplates the meaning of life with vivid metaphorical imagery. He also claims that he has lost all his friends, family and honour. By the end of the play Macbeth is duped by the witches' second set of prophecies when “great Birnam Wood move to High Dunsinane” and finally when Macbeth is killed in battle by Macduff.

External linksEdit

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