Lord Macbeth is the title character and protagonist of William Shakespeare's Macbeth (c. 1603–1607). The character is based on the historical king Macbeth of Scotland, and is derived largely from the account in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of Britain.
He is portrayed throughout the play as an antihero. Macbeth is a Scottish noble and a valiant military man. After a supernatural prophecy, and at the urging of his wife, Lady Macbeth, he commits regicide and becomes King of Scotland. He thereafter lives in anxiety and fear, unable to rest or to trust his nobles. He leads a reign of terror until defeated by Macduff. The throne is then restored to the rightful heir, the murdered King Duncan's son, Malcolm.
Role in the play
The tragedy begins amid a bloody civil war when Macbeth is first introduced by a wounded soldier, who gives a colourful and extensive exaltation of Macbeth’s prowess and valour in battle. When the battle is won, largely due to Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo, King Duncan honours his generals with high praise and rewards Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor.
After the first meeting with the witches, in Act 1 Scene III, it soon becomes apparent that Macbeth has already begun to consider murdering Duncan and taking his place. (In medieval times and in the Elizabethan era, plans to murder royalty were punishable by death). Also, in an aside at the end of Act I Scene III he states “If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir” and “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day” this demonstrates that he is considering the possibility that the kingship will fall into his lap by luck alone and that he will not have to take any action in order to fulfill the last prophecy. Macbeth continues thinking about the prophecies; ignoring Banquo's advice that “oftentimes to win us to our harm these instruments of darkness tell us truths…to betray us in deepest consequence”.
At home with his wife, Macbeth displays another dimension to his character. Lady Macbeth’s plan is to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan. This is apparent when she says “…I may pour my spirits in thine ear; and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round”. Macbeth has concluded not to kill Duncan. The decision, however, is short-lived. Here Macbeth shows a very different side to his character. The cut-throat, strong, confident general has no retort for his wife's degrading accusations. Could this mean that Macbeth was manipulated by both the witches and his wife? Or did he act on his own free will intending to kill Duncan all along? The driving forces behind Macbeth’s decision remain an ongoing debate.
He also hears voices that say “Macbeth shall sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep”. He acknowledges that only the innocent sleep and that sleep is “the balm of hurt minds”. His innocence is forever lost and his actions hereafter will be eternally tainted. Despite his many murders on the battlefield, Macbeth is too afraid to go back to Duncan's chamber and frame the guards as per the plan. It is Lady Macbeth who must complete the crime.
In Holinshed, Macbeth reigns ably for ten years before being challenged by Macduff and Malcolm. In Shakespeare, however, Macbeth's reign appears to be immediately one of tyranny and murder as he trusts no one. As the play progresses, Macbeth sinks further into murder. Despite Lady Macbeth’s practical advice to move on, stop the killings, and enjoy his new role, Macbeth is “in blood stepp'd in so far, that, returning were as tedious as go o'er”. He is obsessed with the witches and their prophecies. Macbeth decides to hire two murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance, with a third murderer sent later to assist. Though Fleance escapes, Banquo still dies. Later on, Macbeth has the innocent Lady Macduff, her young son and their entire household brutally murdered. This is a fatal mistake, as Macduff will now seek revenge. In Act V, Lady Macbeth is believed to have committed suicide. By the end of the play Macbeth is duped by the witches' second set of prophecies when “great Birnam Wood move to High Dunsinane” and finally when Macbeth is killed in battle by Macduff.
In the comic book series Kill Shakespeare, Macbeth is a very minor character. In the story, he is in a power struggle with Richard III, but he does not realize that his wife Lady Macbeth is plotting with Richard behind his back. Lady Macbeth eventually kills Macbeth in order to gain control of his armies to aid Richard in his plot to kill William Shakespeare.
On stage and film, Macbeth has been portrayed by many notable actors, including Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Alan Cumming, Sam Worthington, Orson Welles, Ian McKellen, Toshiro Mifune, Nicol Williamson, Jon Finch, Daniel Day-Lewis, James McAvoy, Jeremy Brett, Patrick Stewart, Ethan Hawke, Michael Fassbender and Kenneth Branagh.
- Bevington, David. Four Tragedies. Bantam, 1988.