Characterization of Macbeth

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might be familiar with the protagonist of Shakespeare's 'Scottish Play,' but what do you really know about Macbeth? Get better acquainted with one of literature's most notorious figures in this lesson on the characterization of Macbeth!

Meet Macbeth

Have you ever run for class president or gone out for an athletic team, but felt insecure about your chances of success? When we first meet the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is full of confidence and bravery. Throughout Shakespeare's infamous 'Scottish Play,' though, this tragic protagonist has his own battle with insecurities--one that he ultimately loses. Before we jump into characterizing Macbeth, however, let's take a quick look at the two types of characterization we'll be dealing with.

Direct and Indirect Characterization

When we're working with portrayals of characteristics through straightforward statements from the characters or the narrative voice, this is known as direct characterization. On the other hand, if we're looking for indirect characterization, we'll find the portrayal of an individual's characteristics through his or her thoughts, words, interactions, deeds, or appearance (i.e. dress, posture, expressions, etc.). Now that we have an idea of the kinds of characterization we're working with, let's use them to figure out what makes Macbeth tick.

Bloody Ambitions: Characterizing Macbeth

Valour's Minion

Despite what many think of him by the play's conclusion, Macbeth's brave and noble reputation (literally) precedes him in Shakespeare's drama. Before we even come face-to-face with Macbeth, a sergeant returns from a recent battle to directly characterize him: 'For brave Macbeth -well he deserves that name - / Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel, / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like valour's minion carved out his passage.'

When Macbeth does eventually take the stage, his bearing and interactions with King Duncan indirectly characterize him as the mighty and noble Gaelic chieftain you'd expect (think William Wallace). However, after he first hears the Weird Sisters' pronouncement of his royal ascendancy, we soon learn that Macbeth's ambitions for greater power are a major driving force of his character. And by the end of Act I, he's already reduced Duncan's son, Malcolm, to a mere obstacle. 'The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, / For in my way it lies.'

Unmann'd

Despite becoming a minion to his ambitions rather than to valor, several of Macbeth's words and actions indirectly reveal that he's actually quite nervous at the prospect of taking his kingship by force. He originally thinks of leaving everything to Fate when he says, 'If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir.' Nonetheless, there's only one problem with his plan of inaction: Lady Macbeth, whose own cold ambitions permit her to do anything except leaving things to chance.

She certainly has no qualms with directly calling her husband a pansy ('unmann'd' Act III, Scene IV), even going so far as to say his 'flaws and starts / …would well become /A woman's story at a winter's fire.' Even Macbeth admits to being 'bound in / To saucy doubts and fears,' in addition to having to regain his masculinity after his quivering encounter with Banquo's ghost. Nevertheless, it's not just his insecurities, but also Macbeth's dependence on his wife's treachery and the Weird Sisters' prophecies that would've made him less than a man in the eyes of Shakespeare's earliest audiences.

Damn'd

With its haunting ghosts and apparitions, dismembered bodies, and the gratuitous murders of even women and children, Macbeth is by far one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespearean tragedies. And with Macbeth as the catalyst for most of this mayhem, it's easy to see why his rival Macduff might directly claim 'Not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn'd / In evils to top Macbeth.'

  • Misplaced Trust

After visiting the Weird Sisters again in Act IV, Macbeth finally begins to realize that 'damn'd (are ) all those that trust them.' Macbeth takes their original declaration of his eventual kingship as a good omen, but also sees the one concerning Banquo and his royal heirs as a threat. This leads him to great lengths of paranoia, resulting in the assassinations of Banquo and many others; even after he and his wife already murdered King Duncan.

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