Throughout the preliminary scenes of the tragedy the character of Macbeth is portrayed as a brave and noble soldier. He does not seem the kind of man who could come up with the ludicrous notion of committing such a horrifying act as murder. However we soon witness “brave Macbeth” rapidly propelled into the obscure world of darkness and evil. Overwhelming confirmation that Macbeth has succumbed to the witches’ prophecies arrives when Macbeth reveals “the greatest is behind”.
We also witness the transformation from a brave and admired gentleman to a traitorous villain.
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His downfall is caused by his strong and powerful “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” to succeed in becoming king and his wife, Lady Macbeth’s, incessant goading. Macbeth’s personal obsession over the kingship eventually shows a certain kind of egotism. Ultimately Macbeth, the man once looked upon by king Duncan as a “valiant cousin and worthy gentleman”, and Lady Macbeth, are, in the concluding paragraphs of the play, described as a “dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”.
Preceding the unlawful death of the king, Macbeth stated understandable uncertainties about committing such a crime, which indicates he has a sensible mind and conscience and is not lacking in morals. On the night on which Macbeth is supposed to be perpetrating the “bloody business” he is still expressing strong doubts. The assassinator expressed great guilt that Duncan was staying over night at his castle “in double trust”. Macbeth articulated how as Duncan’s “kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed; then, as his host” he should “against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.” At one stage Macbeth proclaims to Lady Macbeth his reluctance to go ahead and will “proceed no further in this business” as Duncan “hath honoured me of late”.
Macbeth’s unwillingness shortly vanishes as he becomes “settled”, in spite of his guilt, and chooses to commit the crime of murdering the king. Immediately prior to the murder, however, Macbeth experiences a “fatal vision” when he sees a dagger before his eyes and asks the infamous question “is this a dagger I see before me?” The hallucination is “a dagger of the mind, a false creation” and the first of many to come in which Macbeth’s subconscious guilt is expressed.
An additional display of his repentance is when he wants darkness to envelop his actions and requests “stars hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires”. Despite the noticeable fears Macbeth has he continues with the plan. Subsequently he is filled with regret and remorse for his actions and instantaneously registers his own evil as he states to his wife how he had “most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.” He is intensely aware of his wickedness and “shall sleep no more!” as he is “afraid to think what I have done”.
In extreme juxtaposition to Macbeth however, his ruthless wife, Lady Macbeth exhibits no feelings of remorse and is miserably lacking in the morals of her husband whose nature she fears is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness”. She is excessively ambitious and at times appears unbelievably heartless displaying the more sinister side to her character when Macbeth wants to discontinue with her malevolent campaign.
She endeavours to encourage and motivate Macbeth further by questioning his masculinity and argues that Macbeth would be “so much more the man” for killing Duncan. Lady Macbeth asserts that in order for one to succeed in being “crowned withal” they must screw their “courage to the sticking place”. It seems that she is completely and utterly obsessed with the concept of Macbeth becoming king and declares how “these deeds must not be thought of after these ways; so, it will make us mad” signifying her awareness of their evil actions and how she ironically believes they can be easily forgotten.
The morning after the cold blooded murder of the King, Macbeth commences with the charade that he must continue as a consequence of his deeds. He seems genuinely shocked at the news he receives and pretends to grieve for the King, even paying compliments to Duncan in an effort to conceal his liability for the murder. So convincing is the act he puts on that no one would even envisage him having a part to play in the brutal murder of their beloved King, even less that he could have planned and carried out the murder himself.
However, the cracks soon begin to show in his calm, collected exterior as his behaviour worsens and he starts acting more recklessly. He is filled with fear and anxiety and hurriedly kills the guards. He becomes obsessed by his fears and professes to his wife “o, full of scorpions is my mind.” Later Macbeth ironically states “There’s nothing serious in mortality: all is but toys: renown and grace is dead, the wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of.” demonstrating, where appearance is he is lying, he truly feels there is now no reason for him to live. Proof of the continual guilt, anguish and remorse that Macbeth is feeling is expressed when he pronounces to Lady Macbeth that “Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep in the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly.”
Macbeth is afraid that any future son of Banquo may become King eliminating any chance of himself becoming King and that his “genius is being rebuked”. Secretly Macbeth orders two murderers to slaughter his faithful friend Banquo. He keeps the truth from his wife telling her only that she must continue to be “innocent of the knowledge” exemplifying a considerable change of character from the man who once needed a great deal of goading to perpetrate such an act as murder.
Subsequently Macbeth’s character change is displayed further in the banquet scene where he seems to be becoming progressively disturbed and deranged. He experiences a hallucination, certain that he can see ” the ghost of Banquo”. He is sure “the table’s full” but there is a seat unoccupied and as he paces to and fro in desperation and uncertainty he confesses how he feels that “murders have been performed too terrible for the ear.” After the banquet the panic of Macbeth’s guilt is vividly evoked by the repetition of the word “blood” when Macbeth declares “it will have blood; they say, blood will have blood:”. The banquet scene demonstrates an unexpected revelation of Macbeth’s guilt, which is now beginning to become more public.
Macbeth soon comes to believe that it would be best if he acted before thinking about the consequences pronouncing that the “strange things I have in my head that will to hand, which must be acted ere they may be scanned” showing visibly the extreme anxiety and fear that he is feeling. These feelings are displayed further when Macbeth is so full of remorse he can no longer sleep. His “strange and self abuse is the initiate fear that wants hard use” illustrates further his beliefs that his delusions are simply the product of a beginners fear, and that he needs greater experience of evil deeds. It appears as if Macbeth is ‘addicted’ to killing.
Macbeth’s behaviour detiorates further when he is reduced to murdering innocent women and children, encouraged by his malevolent desire to intimidate and terrorise. These actions, for which he has no excuse, only further highlight the change that Macbeth has undergone from such a brave and “valiant cousin” to the character we now see before us. Macbeth’s mind is so occupied with horrors that he has forgotten what real fear is and the only emotion he shows is indifference to everything, including the death of his wife. He truly believes he has forgotten “the taste of fears”. On receiving the news of Lady Macbeth’s departure he impassively declares “she should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word”. Perhaps this is not quite the reaction one would have expected had Lady Macbeth died during the initial scenes of the play when Macbeth referred to her as “my dearest chuck”.
Macbeth’s unavoidable demise was completed with clear feelings of despondency. He states how he believes he has “lived long enough” and claims that “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage”. The impact of his unspeakable deeds has resulted only in his longing for death.
Lady Macbeth suffers similarly and transforms from the dominant, uninhibited woman who convinced Macbeth to commit the treacherous deed of murder into a scared, tormented woman overflowing with guilt and remorse for the actions she encouraged. Subsequent to the murder she becomes mentally disturbed and increasingly deranged. Lady Macbeth is ignored by her husband and descends further and further ultimately concluding in her death.
Immediately after the murder Lady Macbeth faints, although she is described as “seeming to faint”. Was it a part of her act? If not then it seems she is already experiencing anxiety and fears about what she has induced. She later appears to have a strong feeling of isolation and alienation, enquiring “How now, my lord! Why do you keep me alone?” This seems strange as she was once such an independent woman who needed no one. She soon feels scared when it becomes apparent that Macbeth is no longer confiding in her and she has obviously lost her power over him.
Lady Macbeth, like her husband, also finds sleeping difficult and is “troubled with thick-coming fantasies, that keep her from the rest”. When the murder had initially been committed she dismissively declared that “a little water clears us of this deed” but later questions “will these hands ne’er be clean?” revealing the extent of her remorse. These thoughts later result in Lady Macbeth becoming ill. When Macbeth enquires about her to the doctor treating her he refers to her only as “your patient” displaying how Lady Macbeth has deteriorated so much that he wishes to distance himself even further from his wife. Her behaviour goes downhill from there on and concludes in her committing suicide.
In general both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have, by the end of the play, altered so much that you would hardly recognise them as the two characters that we perceived at the beginning of the tragedy. Macbeth appeared as a brave soldier who we witnessed turn into pure evil personified. Lady Macbeth began the play as a dominant, strong and independent woman and concludes the play as a pathetic, fragile creature. Both characters received the titles of a “dead butcher and his fiend like queen”. As a reader we cannot help but feel some compassion towards both central protagonists, however, it seems that both characters deserved their fate as we observe what happens when you choose the wrong path and descend into the world of darkness.