Shakespeare appears to model Macbeth on Aristotelian tragedy. At the start of the play he is portrayed as a loyal, honorable, valiant warrior, whereas this is juxtaposed at the end with an evil, slightly deranged, tyrant. Eventually his determination to keep hold of the crown and ‘vaulting ambition’ (his harmatia) leads to his downfall and ultimately costs him his life. Some people argue that Macbeth is destroyed by ‘fate’- he succumbs to the influence of the prophesying witches (and Lady Macbeth too). They argue that Macbeth would never have become a murderous despot without the malign actions and influence of the witches. As they introduce him to the idea of being king, Macbeth becomes ambitious and increases his lust for power. Whereas others argue that Macbeth was destroyed by ‘circumstance’ and by his individual actions- he chose to listen to them and produces the idea of regicide. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after the ascension of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne. It appeals to many of his interests, for example it echoes his fascination with the supernatural and its ability to trick people in its power. Both regicide and political murders were prominent in his life and so he recreates both of these in his play. Shakespeare does this in order to encapsulate the idea of the insecurities of a king’s position by both people and the supernatural. The audience may admire Macbeth for his bravery to stand up and stare imminent death in the face. He was an audacious individual who had the courage to take on an entire army.
After Shakespeare’s opening with the witches to suggest that fate hangs over Macbeth and controls him, immediately Shakespeare uses the captain’s speech in Act 1 Scene 2 as a vehicle to establish Macbeth as brave and accomplished nobleman (of ‘high-born noble status’) and subsequently a tragic hero, conforming to Aristotle’s model. The speech reveals the battle was very close indeed. Firstly, Shakespeare uses the epithet ‘Brave Macbeth’ to suggest how bravely he fought his way to the ‘merciless Macdonald’. The alliteration draws our attention to this phrase and suggests his sheer strength to overcome anyone. Macbeth is also shown as fierce especially when he ‘unseamed him from nave to the ‘chaps’. ‘Unseamed’ means ‘unpicked’ and has connotations of skill and craft, but I also believe that the visceral image conveys to the audience the ease at which he split him open and gives us a sense of his fearlessness. Shakespeare describes both armies as ‘two spent swimmers that do cling together/And choke their art.’ The use of the simile shows the chaos and bloodiness of the battle and conveys Macbeth’s courage to the audience. The adjective ‘spent’ shows that he was tired, but still carried on fighting and therefore his resilience and boundless energy. Shakespeare uses a caesura, ‘well he deserves that name’ to foreground the name of Macbeth and this suggests that Macbeth has not just been handed his name but has earnt it. Shakespeare was greatly influenced by Aristotle and Macbeth is sufficiently high-born to count as a ‘person renowned and of superior attainments.’ Shakespeare contrasts Macbeth with Macdonald and states that Macbeth ‘like Valour’s minion carved out his passage/Till he faced the slave.’ ‘Minion’ means a servant and perhaps shows that Macbeth is the servant of bravery, which makes him seem heroic. This is directly contrasted to Macdonald, who is described as a ‘slave’. A modern audience would interpret this in a different way to a 17th-century audience because nowadays people are not used to a rebellion. At the time, loyalty to the King was very important and was widely recognised by everyone. This is because of the contemporary belief in the Divine Right of Kings, where it states that the King was appointed by God. Consequently, someone who was loyal to the King was greatly respected and appreciated. Macbeth is established as the honourable killed of a usurper, but this also foreshadows the way he himself will usurp.
In comparison to the Captain’s speech where Macbeth is portrayed as valorous, Macbeth’s soliloquy and intimate and conspiratorial dialogue with Lady Macbeth establishes the doubts and misgivings of the regicide and the manipulation enforced by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s worry is expressed when he dwells on committing ‘bloody instructions.’ ‘Bloody’ has connotations of cruelty and suggests the sheer brutality of their actions. Bloody creates an image of being smeared in red blood and the blood foreshadows his guilt. Macbeth should be stopping the murderer, rather than ‘bearing the knife himself at his host’. This antithetical image captures Macbeth’s unnatural act, which he is aware of and perhaps may cause the audience to feel less sympathy for him as he knew the consequences- he should protect Duncan, not betray and references the underlying issue of the price of usurpation. Macbeth even states his actions may ‘plague th’ inventor.’- a proleptic image as this does happen. The Gunpowder Plot shows an attempted regicide, motivated by religion and James’ severe measures against Catholics. The traitors were executed and one of the conspirators, Catesby, was a nobleman from a distinguished family. His role in the Gunpowder Plot came as a shock to King James, who regarded Catesby as one of his nearest subjects and some people believe that Catesby was a model for Macbeth. Murder was considered a crime and a sin, but at the time people believed in the Divine Right of Kings and therefore a murderer who assaulted a King took not only a human life, but acted against God’s will and would produce ‘unnatural results’- the audience witnessing this would have been shocked and disturbed, especially after an assassination attempt (Gowrie Conspiracy) of King James in 1600, which captured the public’s attention. Subsequently Macbeth is hubristic (a tragic hero) as he goes against natural order by committing regicide. Macbeth believes that only ‘vaulting ambition’ urges him on, which he compares to a horse leaping over an obstacle. As for the horse and rider, what is on the other side of the obstacle is unknown. This is another proleptic image of ambition ending in disaster. Some argue that the witches give him a false sense confidence and that he is invincible and subsequently cause him to commit actions that he would otherwise not do. This could cause the audience to feel catharsis because he has become a victim of the witches’ game. Macbeth’s thoughts here are interrupted by Lady Macbeth’s questions- the split pentameter conveys how she intrudes on his private thoughts. Shakespeare illustrates how Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth through the use of puns. Macbeth utters that he ‘dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do more is none’ to enforce the idea that he is masculine. Due to the alliteration here, its plain monosyllables emphasized by the iambic pentameter, he appears to the audience to be firm. Lady Macbeth results in manipulating and mocking him, through saying ‘When you durst do it, the you were a man.’ She mocks Macbeth with the verb ‘durst’ and insults him using the pun on ‘man’. I believe that his hamartia is his uxoriousness and also his circumstance with Lady Macbeth, who is manipulative and convinces him to commit regicide. The 17th-century audience would have considered this unnatural also- in the Renaissance, the home was viewed as a microcosm of the state, with the husband as ruler and the wife and children as subjects.
Shakespeare uses Act 3, Scene 2 to present the switch from Macbeth’s rise to fall- his peripeteia. The language and imagery reflects what helped him rise, but also what will bring about his fall. He makes an exclamation about his mind being ‘full of scorpions.’ The metaphor ‘full of scorpions’, an inverted emotive image emphasising the mental confusion and angst of Macbeth himself, suggests he is being attacked and being forced to kill the King. Scorpions have connotations of deceitfulness, poison and viciousness and I believe this could be partly referring to Lady Macbeth, especially when she convinced him to commit regicide. This is a deliberate attempt to abdicate responsibility and suggests that Macbeth is being attacked. Macbeth uses imagery of witchcraft frequently, such as ‘ere the bat hath flown/His cloistered flight’. The repetition of ‘ere’ makes it sound like an incantation and his language has become defined by witchcraft. At the time, witches were credited with diabolical powers: they could predict the future. However, there was Jacobean wariness of the supernatural, most clearly advocated by King James in his 1597 publication Daemonologie. Many of Shakespeare’s audiences at the time would have believed in witches as evil servants of the devil. The witches predict that Macbeth will be King, but also Banquo’s descendants will seize the throne, hence why Macbeth murders not only him but attempts to murder Fleance, as they threaten his position. Here it could be argued that due to the witches’ predictions that Banquo’s descendants will be King, Macbeth commits another murder. He cannot stop the cycle of murder that his unnatural killing of Duncan unleashed. Shakespeare shows the audience that there is no such thing as a clean murder. One crime leads to another and then to another, without bringing Macbeth to security which he hopes to achieve (in fact his situation has worsen- ‘Macbeth is murdering sleep’).This ultimately brings about the reversal in fortune (peripeteia). Having gained the crown, he loses it again in a bloody conflict. This is reflected in the play structure, with the banquet in Act 3 representing the highpoint of Macbeth’s fortunes, but also the beginning of his downfall. Macbeth is constantly worried about this and cannot stop thinking what will happen next. However, the audience at the time would have thought that the witches were trying to trap him and his fate is controlled them¬¬¬¬. Macbeth claims ‘a deed of dreadful note’ shall be done. The alliteration here helps to emphasise the horrific act to be committed and foreshadows Macbeth’s evil intentions for Banquo and his son, but also it seems as if he is casting a spell to ensure his plans are successful. Macbeth considers the night as ‘seeling’. ‘Seeling’ has connotations of concealment and a sense of healing. He uses imagery of the night hiding his deeds and wants the night to ‘scarf up the tender eye’. This suggests he wants the night to conceal the murder in the darkness. Shakespeare juxtaposes images of tenderness with the savage and violent image of tearing up Banquo’s life. Macbeth is willing to let his ‘good things of day’, which metaphorically represent his former self, ‘droop and drowse’- an image which suggests good deeds are at an end. Macbeth takes charge of the situation here and concludes that Lady Macbeth is ‘marvell’st at his words’, suggesting Lady Macbeth is surprised at Macbeth’s plan and eagerness (a clear contrast from Act 1, Scene 7) in a positive way and I believe that she approves and is enthusiastic.
Towards the end of the play, the previously intrepid Macbeth is shown by Shakespeare to have become a dejected and empty figure, uttering a speech full of nihilistic images about the fragility and futility of life. Macbeth utters ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’ Both the rhythm and choice of words here emphasises the difficulty in stopping time and the repetition of tomorrow gives the audience a sense of tedium and that tomorrow creeps in a ‘petty pace’ from one day to the next and just as useless as all of the previous days. Time is personified here and ‘creep’ is a sluggish movement. Macbeth presents time as a slow-moving predator, as if time is out to get him. The alliteration of ‘petty pace’ and ‘day to day’ helps to emphasise the disgust Macbeth feels. Macbeth remarks ‘Out, out, brief candle’ and compares life to this and due to this shows the insignificant nature of life. Macbeth uses a short-burning candle as a metaphor for a brief life and the use of the spondaic foot denotes Macbeth’s urgency. He is starting to doubt the witches’ ‘equivocation’ now, which ‘lies like ‘truth’. This is a paradox and captures the ‘truth’ of the witches. Equivocation is the use of deliberately misleading half-truths. It was seen at the time as a diabolical use of language that distorted the truth and damned men’s souls to hell. Equivocation is a major theme of the play and Macbeth is frequently troubled by it, fearing the Witches may have lied to him. The witches’ predictions of greatness are true but what they don’t tell Macbeth is the price he’ll have to pay. His potent soliloquy captures this view and he presents the anagnorisis that makes his trajectory as a tragic hero complete. This is conveyed most explicitly through Macbeth’s extended metaphor of life as ‘a walking shadow’, an image suggesting the tenuousness of life generally. Shakespeare uses a very appropriate theatrical analogy for the audience (‘poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’) to succinctly show that he has achieved nothing by emoting passionately. Macbeth understands his narcissistic actions by ‘strutting’, but also ‘fretting’ indicates his murderous actions are attempts to give him security. Therefore as an audience we recognise his self-knowledge and regret and sympathise with a pitiful, isolated figure.
Overall, Macbeth is a prime example of a tragic hero- his character transfers from a somewhat war-like hero to an evil murderer and a broken man. Shakespeare’s advocates to the audience the insecurities faced by a king and I believe Macbeth is a victim of fate (mainly by the witches). Perhaps, then, we should listen to Paulo Coelho’s verdict, ‘I can control my destiny, but not my fate. Destiny means there are opportunities to turn right or left, but fate is a one-way street. I believe we all have the choice as to whether we fulfil our destiny, but our fate is sealed.’ Consequently, the audience is bound to sympathise with Macbeth because of being exploited by the witches and manipulated by Lady Macbeth. On the other hand, they may also admire him for his resilience to continue persevering in fighting and taking risks, even with his inevitable defeat.