Using Macbeth’s soliloquies and speeches, show how the character changes throughout the course of the play.
At the beginning of the play Macbeth is an ambiguous character. Although we are not introduced to him until Act 1, Scene 3 we get an impression of him as he his mentioned by the other characters.
His name is first mentioned by the witches in the opening lines – ‘Here to meet Macbeth’- which connects him with evil and this makes us more curious about him. This is because in Shakespearean times witches were regarded as evil and to be found guilty of being a witch was an offence punishable by death.
However, in the next scene the Captain describes Macbeth as a fearless and loyal soldier and calls him, ‘Brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name.’ This is obviously a complete contrast to the information we can gather from the first scene.
In his first line, Macbeth says, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ This echoes the witches’ ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ which they mentioned earlier in the play. This again connects Macbeth to the witches and evil but it also makes us think about his character. ‘Foul and fair’ are complete contrasts of each other and this reflects Macbeth’s character at this stage. We know he is ‘foul’ because of the connections between him and the witches and also because of his ruthlessness, which is evident from the opening scenes. ‘He unseamed him from the nave to th’chaps.’ However we also know he is ‘fair’ because he is described as a brave and loyal soldier and faithful servant of the King and it is obvious the King trusts Macbeth. ‘More is thy due than more than all can pay.’ This adds to his ambiguous nature as we do not know which side of his character is a true reflection of him.
His character begins to develop in the way he reacts to the witches prophecies. The witches have planted small seeds of ambition in his mind and he lets them fester until he begins to believe them. ‘If chance will have me King, why chance my crown me without my stir.’ It is Lady Macbeth who manipulates him into turning his ambition into action.
Before killing Duncan, in Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth is struggling with his conscience. In his soliloquy there are several references to heaven and hierarchy. For example, ‘Will plead like angels, trumpet tongued against.’ This reiterates the fact, to both Macbeth himself and the audience, that killing the King is an act against God, because of the belief, at the time, in the Divine Right of Kings.
Throughout the soliloquy, Macbeth is building up arguments into why he shouldn’t kill Duncan, ‘Besides, this Duncan/Hath borne his faculties so meek,’ showing that, at this point, his conscience is deeply troubled by this problem. However, in the opening lines he suggests that if there were no consequences to the murder he would commit it without regret. This is backed up by the quotation, ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well, ’twere done quickly.’
This is where Macbeth’s ruthlessness and ambition first begin to take over his conscience. This could be because of Lady Macbeth’s influence on him. At this stage in the play they have a very close relationship and Macbeth is largely influenced by his wife. It is Lady Macbeth who he confides in over the witches prophecies and who he first discusses killing Duncan with. ‘This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness.’ This shows he trusts his wife implicitly and that their relationship is very close as they appear to tell each other everything. It is Lady Macbeth who finally persuades Macbeth to commit the deed which shows that she has control over him.
By the end of the soliloquy, Macbeth has convinced himself that killing Duncan is the wrong thing to do, as throughout it he has built up all the arguments against it. For example, he says, ‘First, as I am his kinsman and his subject.’ Also, he never speaks directly of killing Duncan. Instead he uses euphemisms such as ‘th’assassination’ which suggests that he doesn’t want to face up to what Lady Macbeth’s proposition involves. Both of these things imply that his conscience is deeply troubled and he doesn’t want to commit this crime.
This shows he is still a noble and loyal servant of the King. He tells Lady Macbeth ‘we will proceed no further in this matter.’ At this stage we see the weakness of his character, as he lets Lady Macbeth manipulate him, and we see that Lady Macbeth is the more dominant partner in their marriage. She exploits his love for her – ‘From this time, such I account thy love’- and tells him he is cowardly – ‘Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’ At this point, Macbeth shows how weak his character is. Although he has just thought of many powerful reasons why he shouldn’t kill Duncan he does not use any of these to argue against his wife. This shows he is either a very weak man or, is completely under Lady Macbeth’s control.
After Macbeth has committed the murder, it is again Lady Macbeth who is in control. As Macbeth struggles with his conscience, ‘I thought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more: Macbeth does murder sleep,” ‘ Lady Macbeth dismisses his hallucinations and begins to take control of the situation, telling Macbeth to ‘Go get some water/ And wash this filthy witness from your hand’. She also instructs him to ‘Go carry them (the daggers) and smear/The sleepy grooms with blood.’ This shows that she is still the ‘driving force’ of their plan as she is the one keeping calm and is determined for them to succeed.
The relationship begins to change at the end of Act 3, Scene 2 where he is planning the murder of Banquo and Fleance; Macbeth begins to take more control. He tells her, ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.’ The use of the word ‘innocent’ reminds us of Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth to ‘Look like th’ innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.’ This clearly shows how their roles have been reversed; Macbeth is now giving his wife instructions and has arranged Banquo’s murder without any persuasion from her.
This shows he is becoming more ruthless and is determined nothing will stand in his way. He no longer needs Lady Macbeth’s advice or evil ideas and the fact that Macbeth does not tell his wife about the murder could suggest two different things. It could be that Macbeth no longer trusts his wife enough to share this with her or, it could be that he still deeply loves her and wants to protect her so would no longer want her to be involved in this evil business.
Throughout this soliloquy, Macbeth is constantly referring to darkness. For example, ‘Come, seeling night’ and ‘Whiles night’s black agents.’ This could have a number of meanings. Firstly, it could reflect the change in Macbeth’s character as he has become more evil and now has a darker nature. He no longer needs persuasion from his wife to arrange a murder and now appears to have more confidence in himself. This is reiterated by the two rhyming couplets at the end of this soliloquy, ‘drowse/rouse’ and ‘still/ill’ and the fact there are no questions at all during the whole speech. This is unusual as Macbeth is usually asking questions of his wife to reassure himself. However, the fact that Macbeth has hired murderers to kill Banquo suggests that Macbeth, although a much more evil character than at the beginning of the play, still has a small amount of conscience as he cannot face killing his ‘best friend’ himself.
The constant references to darkness could also hint at the ‘dark’ and evil deed which is about to happen (The murder of Fleance and Banquo). This is added to by several words connected with murder, such as ‘ bloody’ and ‘tear to pieces.’ The whole speech hints at darkness and evil which suggests that there are worse things to come.
After the murder has been committed Macbeth is deeply shaken and Lady Macbeth takes control of the situation once more. He is full of worry and guilt about the murder as, firstly, Banquo was his best friend and Macbeth betrayed him and, secondly, he learns that Fleance has escaped, which sends him into a panic, ‘But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in, To saucy doubts and fears.’ It is possible that all these emotions within Macbeth caused him to hallucinate this image of Banquo, as he is the only character at the banquet who sees the ghost. This is similar to the way in which he reacted to Duncan’s murder and this shows a reappearance of Macbeth’s conscience. After both murders he has been consumed with guilt and it is Lady Macbeth who has taken control and made Macbeth ‘pull himself together.’
This shows that, although Macbeth’s character has become much darker and more evil since the beginning of the play, his transformation into a totally evil tyrant is not complete as he is still slightly troubled by his conscience. This is strengthened by the fact that Macbeth avoids naming the deed and again uses euphemisms such as ‘dispatched’ and ‘the like.’ Again this suggests he is feeling guilty and therefore does not want to face up to what he has done. Lady Macbeth attempts to calm the Lords present at the banquet by saying, ‘My lord is often thus, And hath been from his youth.’ This suggests she still loves Macbeth and is therefore trying to protect him but it could be that she values her position as queen and by protecting Macbeth she is also protecting her title.
As after Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s manhood, ‘Are you a man?,’ but here we see how his character has changed. Instead of letting his wife manipulate him, as we saw previously in the play, Macbeth stands up to her and ‘answers her back.’ ‘Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that/Which might appal the devil.’ We see he has become a stronger character and is more sure of himself. Here we see that although the Macbeth’s have achieved what they wanted, Macbeth is full of guilt and both are afraid of losing the power they now possess. At this point in the play, Macbeth is determined nothing else will stand in his way, ‘For mine own good,/All causes shall give way,’ but Lady Macbeth’s anxiety is what eventually sends her mad. This is the last point when the Macbeth’s are seen together on stage and this reflects the change in their relationship. At the beginning of the play they have a very close marriage; they share everything with each other but this begins to deteriorate as Macbeth involves his wife less and less in his dealings.
In Act 5, Scene 1 when we see Lady Macbeth sleep-walking there is a complete reversal of roles between Lady Macbeth and her husband. Now she is the one racked with guilt and hallucinating whilst her husband is the one keeping a clear head and in control of the situation. Her language is broken and fragmented showing her delicate state of mind, ‘Out damned spot! Out I say! One, two.’ Also, sleep is a recurring theme in this play. It was after Duncan’s murder when Macbeth thought he heard ‘a voice cry, “Sleep no more:”.’ It is ironic that it is now Lady Macbeth losing sleep and this shows how completely their roles have changed.
The murder of Macduff’s family really highlight the levels Macbeth has sunk to, ‘The Castle of Macduff I will surprise/ Seize upon Fife, give to th’edge o’ th’ sword/ His wife his babes and all unfortunate souls/ That trace him in his line,’ as there is not a clear or necessary reason for it. This is his lowest point during the play and seals his fate as a tragic hero.
It is Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth learns of his wife’s death. Just before this, he says ‘I have almost forgotten the taste of fears.’ This shows he feels invincible and again there are no questions in his speech both which show his confidence. This is ironic because he would have previously questioned himself and turned to Lady Macbeth for help, but this speech, just before he learns of her death, emphasises the fact he is independent and no longer needs her.
After he receives the news, Macbeth does not mourn his wife’s death; instead he has a brief moment of reflection on life and death, ‘Out, out, brief candle/Life’s but a walking shadow.’ However, he remains sensitive and this is emphasised by his description and use of alliteration, repetition and imagery. For example, ‘Life’s but a walking shadow.’ This makes him appear to be thoughtful and quiet and for a moment he seems to lose all his ambition as he realises that is own death is near, ‘All our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.’
Throughout the play we see a complete and extreme change of Macbeth’s character, with a few aspects remaining constant. Both his ambition and ruthlessness remain with him throughout, being introduced in the first couple of scenes and eventually becoming his fatal flaw.
In the beginning, he is a faithful and loyal servant of the King but this soon changes. Both the witches and Lady Macbeth help this 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. 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.