Is Macbeth a Villain or a Victim?
Should Shakespeare's Macbeth Be Portrayed as a Villain or Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero and Victim?
If you have seen Macbeth performed on stage several times you will realise that no two Macbeths are ever played in quite the same way.
Of course, both actors and directors will have their own views on how Shakespeare's Macbeth should be portrayed, they may show him as being strong or weak, courageous or cowardly, basically good or basically evil.
In Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare created two characters who might be interpreted in such very different ways, it is up to the actor, director, or indeed the reader or audience to judge.
In this hub I compare Macbeth the villain and Macbeth the victim, or tragic hero. Please take the quick poll at the end to indicate how you perceive Macbeths character to be.
Macbeth the Victim
Do we view Macbeth as being tricked by the witches into murdering Duncan, as being driven to his fate by evil out side of himself? Is Macbeth a man whose fate is ordained and who is simply fulfilling his destiny? If we do, then his guilt is greatly lessened.
But surely Macbeth has the power to choose. The witches may encourage him, but something inside Macbeth makes him listen to them. His path may be foretold, but he chooses to follow it.
If we see Macbeth as a man driven to kill the King because of unbearable pressure from his ambitious wife, then his guilt may also be lessened. But then our respect for Macbeth is diminished as he appears as something of a hen-pecked husband. On the other hand if Macbeth is deeply in love with his wife, and kills out of fear of losing her love, we may feel pity at his dilemma.
Yes, we can see the witches and Lady Macbeth as influencing Macbeth but they do not force him.
Was Macbeth basically a good and decent man, not driven but rather tempted by the witches and Lady Macbeth to commit a crime that he knows is wrong, and which is completely out of character?
Being human, and an ambitious man, did Macbeth find the temptation of the crown just too hard to resist? Maybe he gave in to temptation after a fierce struggle with his nobler instincts and resolved to murder the king. But his conscience was at war with his desire and his soul cut in two by the conflict and he is horrified by that part of himself that could contemplate such a foul act.
When he does kill the king, the horror of it almost drives him mad, he has murdered his own peace and innocence by killing Duncan.
But, whatever anguish Macbeth suffered over killing Duncan, he was desperate not to be revealed for what he is, which is perhaps why he killed the grooms.
And, if Macbeth was basically a decent man, why then did he go on to kill the noble Banquo?
Was he haunted by the prophecy that Banquo’s line will become kings, but his own will not? Or perhaps his fears are different and he suspects that Banquo knows but is remaining silent.
Either way, Macbeth himself wasn’t entirely happy with the task of having Banquo killed and persuaded the murderers that they had a personal grudge against Banquo.
When Banquo’s ghost haunts him, it may be Macbeth’s conscience working through his imagination, to produce a fearsome picture of his awful deeds, and the only escape from these terrible pictures is further action. The witches warn Macbeth to beware Macduff, but Macduff has fled and Macbeth decides to strike immediately at the Thane through his family.
Surely even a basically honourable Macbeth is in danger of losing all of our sympathy now?
What possible reasons could he have for such a horrible act? The witches had made him drunk with power by telling him to be bloody, brave and bold, making him believe he is invulnerable, almost immortal. But they have also caused him great anguish by showing that Banquo’s line will be kings. He has sacrificed his soul for that issue and frustrated, he lashes out brutally.
As the enemy forces gather and his own men desert him, Macbeth starts counting the cost of his crime. He has lost his friends, his reputation and his honour. Everything that would make old age worth living has been destroyed. And, when he learns of his wife’s death Macbeth says little. Perhaps he has lost the capacity to care, or has no time to mourn with the enemy advancing, or perhaps his grief goes beyond words?
Having lost his wife and seen the terrible truth about his own life, Macbeth still finds the courage to go on living. When Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, Macbeth dares fate itself and leaves the stronghold to fight in the open. Face to face with Macduff, the memory of the terrible wrong done him stays Macbeths arm. He reels with horror when he realises that Macduff is the one man who can kill him. The witches have lured him to this moment. Macbeth faces up to the terrible truth; he curses the witches but does not blame them. Perhaps at heart he knows that there is only one person to blame, himself.
Knowing the outcome, Macbeth fights like the heroic warrior that he once was. This time, he has nothing to win, which makes his courage more awesome.
Macbeth, the victim of the witches, of his wife, of himself, dies well.
Macbeth the Villain
A villainous Macbeth is less caught up and carried along by events. Instead he is a man who would have done exactly the same even if he had never met the witches or his wife had not urged him on. His lust for power is enormous and Lady Macbeth and the witches simply strengthen his determination.
This Macbeth reacted with fear when the witches told him the future, not because he was taken aback or disturbed at his reaction to the witches’ prophecy, but because the witches knew his secret ambitions.
Depending on how villainous Macbeth is, he either starts plotting immediately, or deceives himself, pretending to have a conscience that he knows is lacking. When he weighs the pros and cons of assassination during the banquet at his castle, he is more concerned about being found out than the evil of the deed itself. He knows that Duncan has been a good King and that the people’s wrath against the murderer, if he was caught, would be enormous. Afraid for his own skin rather than his soul he decides against killing Duncan. But when Lady Macbeth comes up with a good plan he jumps to agree.
Having killed Duncan he returns to Lady Macbeth, full of triumph, but then starts to panic when he realises that it is no small thing to kill a king. But by morning his fears seem to have disappeared and he cold bloodedly murders the ‘guilty’ grooms. He acts the grief stricken host, playing it up loud and strong.
Later Macbeth cunningly plots to destroy Banquo and his line. He has no feeling of loath for himself or for the men he has hired. Perhaps he almost enjoys the intrigue. If he has trouble sleeping it is purely due to the worry about wiping out all threats to himself.
When the ghost of Banquo appears at the evening banquet, Macbeth feels fear and defiance, but no or very little guilt, and although shaken he quickly recovers. He cannot see, or does not care, that Lady Macbeth is deeply disturbed. Instead, his mind concentrates on ways to cement his power. Any who stand in Macbeth’s way must be crushed.
The witches feed his hunger for security and power and although Macduff has escaped his net his family are made to pay.
Holed up in Dunsinane while the forces of good march against him, Macbeth bullies and blusters. Carelessly he asks the doctor how his sick wife is. He seems almost unconcerned with her illness and turns to the important business of war. When he learns of her suicide there is little or no grief.
Even if we find Macbeth a hateful villain he still arouses awe. To reject life, as Macbeth does, but to go on fighting and striving anyway, takes remarkable courage.
Macbeth needs it for Birnam Wood has indeed come to Dunsinane. But he still has the witches’ final promise that he is beyond the power of ordinary men.
Only Macduff can expose that promise for what it is, and he does. Macbeth throws his shield away, he doesn’t need it any more for the real shield was the witches’ promise.
Thus Macbeth dies without ever seeing how evil he has been, without understanding why his life has been meaningless because it has been devoid of honour and human kindness.