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Who is Macbeth?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman who becomes a murderer in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. He is often portrayed as a conflicted man who allows ego to win him over, leading to several unjust acts. Despite his initial description as a heroic and honorable general, the character becomes a testament to the dangers of human weakness in otherwise great men.

In the play, the general is at first highly honored by King Duncan of Scotland for his valiance during a large civil war. Macbeth, also titled the Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, believes a prophecy by three witches that he will become king, however, and plots with his wife to murder Duncan when he stays at their castle. Great scholarly controversy exists regarding the relationship of the Thane and his wife, their marriage and partnership. Until the late 20th century, traditional productions depicted the wife as conniving, manipulative, and the downfall of her gullible husband. After the rise of feminism in the west, many modern productions show the couple differently, as a dynamic team perfectly matched in their desire to seize power.

After his murder of Duncan and subsequent rise to the throne, Macbeth is plagued by constant paranoia and guilt. In the course of hearing the prophecy of his own kingship, the Thane also hears that his friend Banquo will father a line of kings in the future. Power-hungry, the main character kills Banquo and attempts to kill his son, Fleance. After this, he goes almost totally insane, being haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered. Feeling suspicious of another noble, Macduff, the new king slaughters Macduff's entire family and everyone in his castle.

Most of the nobility defects from the crazed king, and joins the rebellion of Macduff and King Duncan's son, Malcolm. In a final battle, Macbeth is killed shortly after receiving word that his wife has committed suicide. He gives a famous final soliloquy before being beheaded by the valiant Macduff.

The character is usually described as being flawed by ambition, but this interpretation is not without controversy. His willingness to believe in the witches' prophecies is often depicted as being a tendency to excuse immorality by claiming the outcome was fated. Yet the character's ambition seems at times uncertain, and he frequently needs pep talks from his wife to continue along their agreed course of action.

Modern interpretations of the character frequently make the distinction between ambition and narcissism. In many ways, Macbeth displays symptoms of a narcissistic personality: he is deeply insecure and requires constant attention and reminders of his greatness. Characteristic of narcissists, he blames his actions on the prophecy rather than his own choices of immorality. He also believes himself to be indestructible, made certain by prophecy that no ordinary man can kill him.

However his fatal flaw is best termed, almost all theories suggest he is quick to toss his own better judgment aside in order to gain power. The character is unique in that he is clearly villainous, but maintains an active and tormented conscience. The complexity of the character makes it one of the most sought-after roles in the Shakespeare canon, and many great actors have undertaken the Thane of Glamis' part in the four centuries since the play was written.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon292237 — On Sep 18, 2012

Was Macbeth a hero or villain?

By GrumpyGuppy — On Nov 13, 2010

@gardenturtle: Macbeth was published in the First Folio, which was a collection of some of Shakespeare’s best works. First Folio was put together by Shakespeare’s friends in 1623.

The first performance of Macbeth was between 1603 and 1605 as a gift to King James I of England.

By GardenTurtle — On Nov 13, 2010

When did the Macbeth play come out?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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