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Character - Macbeth



There are over 20 named characters in Macbeth, plus various other roles. The starting point is to sort out who they are, how they develop and how they relate to each other. Characters can be interpreted by directors and actors in very different ways – Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most striking example, but other characters are also open to a variety of presentations. What is important is to have the evidence to support your views. If you can see that a character's words or actions can be explained in more than one way, do say so. You may then say which interpretation you prefer and why. It is helpful to identify the key scenes in which the development of a character or the relationship between characters can be traced.


As Macbeth is the main protagonist in the play, there are many scenes which help to illuminate his character.

Act One Scenes 1-2

As in many Shakespeare plays, we hear about the main character before we see him on stage. The important facts we get are:

  • The obviously evil witches are planning to meet with Macbeth – why? Have they detected a potential for evil within him which they may work on, or is he an innocent victim picked at random? You must decide this for yourself, on the evidence of the rest of the play.
  • Macbeth has shown amazing courage in the battle and virtually been the saviour of Scotland. He is called 'valiant', 'worthy' and 'noble' by Duncan, and is referred to as 'Bellona's bridegroom' – as if he is like a god.
  • But he is also portrayed as savage: he rips one of his enemies apart as if he is an old garment: "unseamed him from the nave to the chaps". He decapitates the man and puts his severed head on a spike on the battlements as a trophy.

We can thus see two possible sides to Macbeth emerging: the noble upholder of his King, and the bloodthirsty man who seems to be trying to replicate 'Golgotha' – the horrific place where Christ's crucifixion took place.

Act One Scenes 3 – 4

We see Macbeth's response to the witches' greetings and prophecies. Guilt and fierce ambition are uppermost.

  • Banquo asks "Why do you start…?" The word 'start' meant to jump guiltily.
  • Macbeth's imagination immediately takes off, jumping to thoughts of 'murder'.
  • Notice the number of 'asides' which shows he dare not reveal his real thoughts.
  • His frustration is clear when Duncan proclaims Malcolm as his heir: "Stars hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires." This is the first time in the play that Macbeth invokes darkness, which is symbolic of evil.

Notice that all of these thoughts occur to him before he speaks to Lady Macbeth. It is Macbeth himself who first thinks of murdering the king. However, we can sympathise with Macbeth to an extent as he suffers from merely contemplating what he might do; the 'horrid image' (of himself murdering the king)makes his hair stand on end, and his 'seated heart' knocks at his ribs in terror. The prospect of murder horrifies him.



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