Macbeth in Macbeth

Macbeth

Macbeth is a complex character who changes throughout the course of the play. He is clearly a brave warrior and leader at the start of the drama but he falls victim to the Witches' predictions. It is unclear whether they plant ideas in his mind or whether they simply highlight thoughts that he has already had. In a series of soliloquies he repeatedly questions himself about his motives for killing the King but is eventually persuaded to continue by his forceful wife.

Having committed murder he finds himself caught in a spiral of evil from which he can see no escape. His actions become less heroic and more cowardly as he continues to murder and terrorise others in order to hold on to his power. Towards the end of the play, when he realises that he is doomed, he briefly returns to his old heroic self.

Macbeth, featuring labels that highlight him as ambitious, brave, changeable and having a guilty conscience
How is Macbeth like this?EvidenceAnalysis
AmbitiousAt the start of the play, Macbeth is Thane of Glamis. He quickly becomes the more powerful Thane of Cawdor and then murders his way to become and remain King of Scotland. The Witches' predictions seem to waken the ambition already in him and he is spurred on by his wife.The prince of Cumberland: That is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'er-leap, / For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires, / The eye wink at the hand. Yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (Act 1 Scene 4) Macbeth is clearly worried by the strength of his own ambition which he refers to as black and deep desires. He knows there will be obstacles in his way but is determined to get round them. He just hopes that nobody will see what he is up to which is why he wants the stars to stop shining.
BraveAt the start of the play, Macbeth shows that he is a mighty warrior when he leads the Scottish troops to victory over an invading force. Duncan, the King, rewards him by making him Thane of Cawdor. At the end of the play, when he knows he is about to die, Macbeth regains some of his old bravery, as he faces Macduff in single combat.For brave Macbeth-- well he deserves that name -- / Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like Valour's minion carved out his passage / Till he faced the slave, Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseamed him from the nave to th'chaps, / And fixed his head upon our battlements. (Act 1 Scene 2)The Captain describes Macbeth's actions on the battlefield particularly when he seeks out and kills the traitor Macdonwald. The Captain uses a number of strong verbs and adjectives to show how brave Macbeth has been: 'brandished', 'smoked', 'carved', 'unseamed', 'fixed'.
ChangeableMacbeth keeps changing his mind about whether to murder Duncan or not. This is particularily so in the early part of the play. His ambition conflicts with his sense of loyalty and morality. Lady Macbeth is key to persuading him and keeping him determined.We will proceed no further in this business. / He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon. I am settled and bend up / Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat. (Act 1 Scene 7) Macbeth has just spent a difficult time convincing himself that killing the King is wrong. He tells Lady Macbeth that he will not carry out the deed. Within the space of a couple of minutes she argues the case for Duncan’s death and Macbeth is, once again, set on murder.
Guilty conscienceThroughout the play, Macbeth is tormented by thoughts of the evil things he has done. However, he is caught in a spiral of evil and does not seem able to stop himself.(seeing the GHOST) Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! / Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; / Thou hast no speculation in those eyes / Which thou dost glare with. (Act 3 Scene 4) Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth alone, showing his overactive imagination triggered by a guilty conscience. Although he is now a king, Macbeth cannot command his own emotions and feels irrevocably set on this course of action. The court thinks he is going mad.

Social and historical context

James I (and VI of Scotland)
James I (and VI of Scotland)

A king in Shakespeare's time was thought to rule by 'divine right'. This meant that God had chosen that person directly to rule over others. The killing of a king (known as regicide) was therefore considered to be just about the worst crime that anyone could commit. That is why Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan seemed so horrific to an audience of the time and why the murderer has such a guilty conscience. The new King on the throne of England, James I (also known as James VI of Scotland), was paranoid about assassination attempts. This was unsurprising, since the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up the King and Parliament had taken place just months before Macbeth was first performed.

Analysing the evidence

quote
Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw.(Act 2 Scene 1)
Question

Why are these thoughts key to Macbeth's future character and actions?

How to analyse the quote:

"Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw." (Act 2 Scene 1)

  • 'dagger' / 'a dagger of the mind' - the Macbeths intend to use a dagger as the murder weapon. After the murder Macbeth's conscience will continue to stab him - just like a dagger
  • 'I have thee not, and yet I see thee still' / 'I see thee yet' - Macbeth's mind is very confused as he tries to hold the non-existent weapon
  • 'fatal vision' / 'false creation' - is the dagger something conjured up by evil spirits or Macbeth's own conscience?
  • 'this which now I draw' - Macbeth compares the imaginary dagger to the one he is actually holding

How to use this in an essay:

Macbeth is again having doubts about murdering Duncan and sees a vision of the intended murder weapon - a 'dagger of the mind'. He is not totally certain at this stage whether the dagger has been sent by evil spirits to torment him ('fatal vision') or whether it has been invented by his own overactive imagination and his guilty conscience ('false creation'). Although he can see it clearly he cannot physically hold it ('I have thee not, and yet I see thee still' / 'I see thee yet'). So he grasps the real dagger which he is carrying ('this which now I draw') as his troubled mind begins to fill with images of evil and thoughts of death.