Lord Macbeth is the title character and titular main protagonist turned primary antagonist 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.
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 his former ally 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 colorful and extensive exaltation of Macbeth’s prowess and valor in battle. Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo, encounter the three witches, who prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and, shortly afterward, King, while Banquo will produce a line of kings, though he himself will never rule. When the battle is won, largely due to Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo, King Duncan honors his generals with high praise and rewards Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor.
After the first meeting with the witches, it 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 that the kingship will fall into his lap by luck alone, and that he will not have to take any action to fulfill the witches' last prophecy: “If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir”. Macbeth becomes fixated on the prophecy, 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”.
When he returns home, Lady Macbeth tries to convince him to kill Duncan. Macbeth at first refuses, but changes his mind when she accuses him of cowardice. Giving in to his ambition, he kills Duncan and plants evidence of the regicide on two guards, whom he also kills. He 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”. The king's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, fear they will be blamed for Duncan's death and flee the country. Macbeth is then crowned king.
Macbeth becomes a tyrant, brutally stamping out any real or perceived threats to his power. He believes himself to be beyond redemption, “in blood stepp'd in so far, that, ... returning were as tedious as go o'er”. Macbeth decides to hire two murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance, with a third murderer sent later to assist. Banquo is murdered, but Fleance survives. Macbeth goes to the witches for counsel, and they tell him that he will not be defeated "until Birnam wood move to high Dunsinane", and that "no man of woman born" may harm him. Macbeth takes this to mean that he is invincible. Nevertheless, Macbeth decides to get rid of Macduff, and sends assassins to kill him and his entire family. Macduff escapes harm, but his wife, her young son and their entire household are brutally murdered. Macduff swears revenge and joins forces with Malcolm to overthrow Macbeth.
In Act V, Lady Macbeth is overcome with guilt; she dies and it is later postulated that she committed suicide. Now completely alone, Macbeth laments that life is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." By the end of the play Macbeth learns that the witches' second set of prophecies have hidden meanings: Malcolm's army carries shields made from Birnam wood to Macbeth's fortress in Dunsinane, and Macduff reveals that he was prematurely removed from his mother's womb, meaning that he technically was not "of woman born". Beaten but still defiant, Macbeth declares, "Lay on Macduff, and damned be he who first cries, hold, enough!" In the ensuing duel, Macduff kills Macbeth and cuts off his head.
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.
In the 1991 film Men of Respect, the character of Macbeth is transported from the Scottish Highlands to the Mean Streets of New York. Macbeth; now called Mike Battaglia (John Turturro) is a low-ranking member of a crime family run by a Duncan-esque character and he plans a mob styled hit.
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.