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How does Macbeth Change throughout the Play?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3085 words Published: 22nd Jul 2021

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Throughout the course of the play, Macbeth’s character changes from good to evil. As the audience we are given ample opportunities to look at the way in which he changes and the influences that help bring about the shift in character. Shakespeare also uses dramatic devices to highlight Macbeths change. In this essay the influences that Macbeth was exposed to and the effect that Shakespeare’s use of dramatic devices has on the audience’s understanding will be explored.

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A soliloquy is a classical literary technique it is the act of speaking while alone, especially when used as a theatrical device that allows a character’s thoughts and ideas to be conveyed to the audience. In a play, soliloquies are important because these are the thoughts of the character and he/she will always be telling the truth. The soliloquies let the audience keep up with how the main characters are thinking so that the writer can create the image that there are many sides to every character. Shakespeare uses soliloquies to give us an insight as to what Macbeth is thinking, they are un-edited thoughts and opinion that he is not saying to anyone else. As Shakespeare does not use a narrator who can explain what Macbeth really thinks, it is important for Macbeth that he uses soliloquies; as he is a complex character, his entire personality changes throughout the course of the play. Soliloquies are a window directly into his thoughts and emotions. Without them, we would only know, as much as the other characters and by knowing more there is sometimes some dramatic irony which therefore gives the audience power.

Macbeth has a few fatal flaws which allow him to receive the title of a traditional tragic hero. The first is his “…vaulting ambition,” and arrogance. This is a result of his hubris, tragic greed and pride. It is these excessive qualities which usually lead to the downfall and ultimately the death of a tragic hero in classical tragedy. After temptation from his wife and witches to perform murder Macbeth, makes this fall from a brave and noble general. This hubris is seen in many of Shakespeare’s other tragic plays where there is always a tragic hero who realises the error of their ways when it too late. This is seen in plays such as ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Hamlet’.

In William Shakespeare’s tragic play ‘Macbeth’, the state of mind of Macbeth deteriorates throughout the play as we see the transformation of Macbeth, from hero to villain. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth and Banquo are told to have been fighting in the battle. Macbeth is then hailed as brave Macbeth, as a hero because he has killed the rebel McDonald and is continuing to face the Norwegian troops successfully. Then we are told that Macbeth has triumphed again capturing the traitor Cawdor, obtaining ransom and a favourable peace treaty from the King of Norway. ‘For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name -‘ is used by a Sergeant to describe his actions in battle.

‘O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’ are used by the King. This shows that Macbeth really was a hero; as such, a compliment from the King was considered a great honour. The King, Duncan sentences Cawdor to death and rewards Macbeth with his title.

He becomes a tyrant due to his ruthless ambition to be King, spurred on by some interfering witches putting ideas into his head by predicting that he will be King and Lady Macbeth, his bossy wife. Macbeth feels less and less guilty about the murders he has committed but Lady Macbeth’s mind deteriorates throughout the play, and slowly the locked up guilt drives her mad.

In Act 1 Scene 3 the three witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, Glamis and finally King. The belief in the existence and power of witches was widely believed in Shakespeare’s day, as confirmed by the witch hunt craze. The practice of witchcraft was seen to undermine and threaten the established order of religion and society, and so was not tolerated. The belief of the majority during the seventeenth century suggests that the witches are powerful figures who can exercise great power over Macbeth. Also King James the First took a great interest in witches, having many killed, however most importantly he believed in witchcraft and its power. The three witch characters in ‘Macbeth’ are seen as evil. It could be concluded that they were responsible for creating Macbeth’s evil desire for the throne, therefore the audience may be influenced by Shakespeare’s portrayal of the witches and believe his representation of them.

Macbeth’s character begins to develop in the way he reacts to the witches prophecies. The witches planted seeds of ambition in his mind and he lets them fester until he begins to believe them. Later in the scene Macbeth is actually announced Thane of Cawdor. In a soliloquy Macbeth ponders upon what the witches have predicted

‘This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill cannot be good. If ill why hath it given me earnest of success commencing in a truth?’

At this point Macbeth is trying to convince himself that there is nothing wrong with what has happened and that if it were evil then something good would not have come from it. The fact that repetition is used emphasises the main theme of the play, the balance between good and evil. When evil prevails everything takes a turn for the worst reminding us to choose good over evil. He then goes on to say: ‘My Thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical’. This quotation shows that Macbeth’s idea to murder Duncan is still only a fantasy and is not reality, indicating he is unsure and may need persuasion either way. At this point in the play he is in doubt or sitting on the fence. Banquo then interrupts Macbeth during his speech saying ‘Look how our partner’s rapt.’ This could symbolise how there is a direct contrast as now Banquo is the symbol of good and Macbeth’s integrity is in question. Macbeth then says: ‘If chance will have me king then chance will crown me without my stir’. From this quote we can see that Macbeth is willing to let fate take its course, and accepts that what will be, will be. The witches’ prophecies make him believe he will be crowned without having the act noble. However this is not what happens, Macbeth feels the need to direct his destiny to ensure his place on the throne.

The next soliloquy is short and it deals with Macbeth’s views on who was the currant heir to the throne – the Prince of Cumberland.

“-The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my Way it lies.”

At this point Macbeth is filled with anger and jealousy. Macbeth is stating that the Prince of Cumberland is in the way of him and the throne. Macbeth knows he must deal with the prince somehow, or else he will be beaten by him. At the end of the speech his tone is more calm and controlled as he maintains his decency and morality by masking what lies beneath. “Let not light see my black and deep desires”. It is apparent that he is surer than in the previous speech as no questions are asked, showing his state of mind is less doubtful. Although he is angry, especially at the beginning of the speech, Macbeth seems clearer in his mind about his plans concerning gaining the throne. However he is still aware that it is wrong to think such ‘black’ thoughts. The main change in Macbeth’s character from the previous speech is that he is more certain in his mind and in his actions. He is more decisive and in addition he is becoming increasingly deceptive.

In the next soliloquy, in Act I Scene 7, Macbeth finds himself struggling with his conscience, over the possibility of regicide. He is troubled that the consequences he would face were enormous, and that there are many reasons why he should not murder Duncan. At the beginning of the soliloquy he has made no decision as to whether “the deed” will be carried out and at the end of the soliloquy he is still undecided.

Macbeth is speaking as his servants are preparing for Duncan’s arrival at Macbeth’s castle. This is also a time when Macbeth realises that what the witches predicted is coming true. The soliloquy opens with a euphemism of the word murder “If it were done.” Macbeth uses this, and other, euphemisms because murderous thoughts are alien to him. Macbeth is depicted by the language to be a very moral and conscientious man. The euphemisms show that the “horrid deed” disgusts him, because he knows that regicide is a serious sin punishable by eternal damnation. There is also an example of alliteration in this speech:

“If th’ Assassination Could trammel up the Consequence, and catch, With his Surcease, Success”

The sibilance used in this quotation draws attention to ‘surcease’ and ‘success’. The use of these words is ironic because, it is very rare that death and success are related to each over. Macbeth is willing to sacrifice the afterlife for greatness, now, in this life. At this point Macbeth is clearly giving the idea considerable serious thought. He goes on to list all the decisions why he shouldn’t kill Duncan. This shows he is still logical in his decisions and he is aware of how traitorous it is for a ‘host’ and ‘kinsman’ to kill the king. He should be the one person who should risk his own life to stop such a thing happening to the king whilst he is in his house ‘Not bear the knife myself’ .In this soliloquy Macbeth reveals to the audience his lose morals, because the theme of this speech is that he regards murder as worthwhile and thinks there is nothing wrong with it if you benefit. However Macbeth recognises that it is his ambition to become King that will lead to his downfall.

“But in these cases We still have Judgement here, that we but teach Bloody Instructions, which, being taught, return To plague th’ Inventor.”

Macbeth is now aware that his bad deeds will come back and “plague” him; this is a factor which occurs in most of Shakespeare’s tragedies – where the main character contributes to his own downfall. At this point in the play the audience may start to really dislike his character. He is showing no signs of doubt. It shows he can not differentiate between good and evil because he is so ambitious he is focused only on becoming King and it does not matter to him how he achieves his goal.

During the next soliloquy the murder is immanent; Macbeth is waiting for the bell which is the signal for him to go a kill Duncan. This is a very edgy and tense time for Macbeth his mind is tormented and so he begins to hallucinate, and he sees a dagger.

“Is this a Dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my Hand?”

Having this speech just before the murder creates an air of apprehension. There is a sense that there is no going back. The bell which Lady Macbeth rings is a sign for the act of murder to begin; this adds to the intensity of the speech and creates suspense.

Macbeth is now more recognisable as evil. The bell signals the beginning of the end for Macbeth, his character can never return after this night, and his deeds become more and more gruesome and evil as the play progresses. It now seems that he is eager to murder Duncan; “Come let me clutch thee.” This shows that Macbeth is anticipating how the murder will be carried out. Instead of contemplating whether he will murder Duncan, he is now deciding how to murder Duncan. Macbeth is no longer using the reasoning, which separated him from animals, and has reduced himself to the level of an animal. The animal, which is mentioned, is the wolf, which in Macbeth’s age, was a symbol of witchcraft and evil, again showing that Macbeth is now predominantly evil.

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His lack of reason is shown by the less frequent use of euphemisms. Even though Macbeth still uses some euphemisms, his conscience is scorched, and during this soliloquy he uses the word murder for the first time. Macbeth himself seems to have an exceptionally low view of himself at this point; he compares himself to a rapist, a ghost and a wolf.

“The Wolf, Whose Howl’s his Watch, thus with his stealthy Pace, With Tarquin’s ravishing Sides, towards his design moves like a ghost.”

Macbeth despises himself for what he is about to do, it shows weakness in his character because he is willing to sacrifice any sort of morals which he had before to satisfy his greed.

At the end of the speech a rhyming couplet is used to emphasise the murderous deed as Macbeth hopes the bell does not wake Duncan for with it comes his death.

“- Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a Knell, That summons thee to Heaven or to Hell”

The next soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1 is a reflective one as Macbeth is now king, you would have thought that at this point he would be content having achieved his goal. This soliloquy contains thoughts of Banquo as Macbeth feels threatened by him, as the witches told him that Banquo will “get kings not be one” meaning his sons will become kings, this scares Macbeth. In this speech a lot of Banquo’s qualities are listed like how wise, brave and noble he is. There are definitely some similarities between Banquo and Macbeth at the beginning of the play. Macbeth still has a very high view of himself, even though he is now a murdering tyrant.

“My Genius is rebuk’d, as it is said Mark Antony’s was by Ceasar.”

This shows how Macbeth sees himself as a genius and also compares himself to previous great emperors such as Mark Antony. Nevertheless, deep into the story Macbeth still refers back to what the witches said, it is obvious they were a big influence on the play and on Macbeth’s actions.

“They hail’d him Father to a Line of Kings. Upon my Head they plac’d a fruitless Crown, And put a barren Sceptre in my Gripe”

Here it is said by Macbeth that the witches had told him that Banquo would have sons who would become Kings, and he would not have children who would become heir to the throne. Macbeth feels bitter and jealous because he has fought and given up so much to become king and now he feels it was all pointless, perhaps he is beginning to regret all his evil deeds. “For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d”. The fact that Macbeth has referred to King Duncan as ‘gracious’ shows that he still has respect for him and may be starting to regret his deeds. This speech is essentially saying Macbeth knows that he has sacrificed a great deal but is still not a lot better off, and still it is Banquo who is prophesied to be the happy one – with his children being part of a long line of Kings. Macbeth is beginning to see his own demise and feels; regret and fear and traces of guilt for the murder of Duncan. However outwardly he is still confident, happy and able to carry out murders if he feels it can save him.

In the soliloquies found in Act 5, Scene 3 the speech provokes sympathy for a now wrecked and broken man. As the first words are “I am sick at heart” this is quite a ground breaking statement as it is Macbeth declaring he is depressed and he is emotionally troubled. Perhaps his heart is ill due to it being polluted with regret and with all the evil he has committed, and for what? There is no material gain for Macbeth and definitely no emotional gain. There a slight hint of suicide about this speech as Macbeth says “I have liv’d long enough”. He uses colours again to symbolise how he is feeling at the time and also autumnal metaphors, mentioning “the Yellow Leaf” which implies that he has passed his time and is a wilting leaf whom is dying and will drop to the ground and be forgotten. This is on the whole a sad soliloquy as it is shows the audience Macbeth’s absolute regret and his acceptance that what he has done did have consequences, in that he has lost all his honour, he is not loved, he is incapable to be obedient and is lonely – without a friend in the world.

“As Honour, Love, Obedience, Troops of Friends, I must look not to have”

There is a significant alteration in Macbeth’s character now as he now no longer possesses the desire to do anything with his life, he has lost all ambition and any drive towards anything, his attitude is extremely pessimistic.

The final soliloquy just reiterates what was said in the previous soliloquy. It talks about the death of Lady Macbeth, life and the fragility of it. An excellent example of just how demoralised Macbeth is at this stage of the play is his reaction to the news that his wife has died. His reaction is not mournful and there are not even any signs of sadness, he merely says that now is not a good time for her to die and there would have been an appropriate time for he to pass away.

“She should have di’d hereafter; There would have been a Time for such a Word” The final lines of the soliloquy probably reflect his view on life: “it is a Tale Told by an Idiot, full of Sound and Fury Signifying nothing.”

Throughout the play we see a complete and extreme change of Macbeth’s character, with a few aspects remaining constant. In the beginning, he is a faithful and loyal servant of the King but this soon changes. Both the witches and Lady Macbeth help his ambition develop and fester in his mind. In the beginning Macbeth is determined to prove to his wife that he loves her and his worth as a man. However, from this point onwards Macbeth’s ambition motivates him and overcomes his conscience, making him increasingly determined that nobody is going to stand in his way. He no longer needs Lady Macbeth’s persuasion and involves her less and less in his business. Nothing else appears to matter to him except his kingship and he is prepared to do anything to keep it, despite the fact he knows it is wrong. He reached the height of his wickedness when he mercilessly slaughtered Macduff’s family, women and children. By the end of the play he has turned into a evil, slightly mad, tyrant and his determination to keep hold of his crown eventually costs him his life.


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