Macbeth in my opinion is not inherently evil although he does have the potential to be evil. The reason he became evil is because he is easily led by his strong-minded wife Lady Macbeth and the three evil witches. At first Macbeth is unwilling to give in to ambition, but the witches and Lady Macbeth tempt him. The result is a disaster and Macbeth loses everything. He finds that being King gives him no satisfaction. One of the play’s main themes is that when people allow their sense of what is right to be overcome by their ambition, they are doomed to disaster.
The witches are the physical embodiment of evil in the play; they represent temptation. In Act one, scene one the three witches begin the play with evil prophecies, which have the effect of evil as they speak in rhyme. This symbolises that they are plotting when they shall ‘meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain.’
At the start of the play, Macbeth is portrayed as the very loyal and respected subject of the King, fighting courageously for King Duncan’s honour.
‘The service and loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself.’
He is praised and rewarded for his victory and King Duncan gives him the title, Thane of Cawdor.
‘The news of thy success; and when he reads Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight His wonders and his praises do contend.’
However, over the course of the play his attitude begins to change. The turning point of this transformation takes place when he is confronted with the witches for the first time. After meeting the witches he writes a letter to his wife telling her that the witches predicted that he would be ‘Thane of Glamis’, ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘King’. The witches’ words have a powerful effect on him and a twist his thoughts and he starts to change.
Everything that he held dear to him such as loyalty, good friendship, serving his King and law and order have started to change by the compelling influence of the three witches. The seed of evil has been planted in his mind. The witches’ announcement has implications because although they did not mention murder, in order for him to fulfil their prediction he has realised that the only way to secure kingship is to kill Duncan and anyone in line to the throne. However, at this stage in the play he is frightened by these thoughts and as Macbeth speaks his own thoughts in a soliloquy, he tries to reject this first
impulse, declaring that he will leave everything to chance:
‘If chance will have me king, why,
Chance may crown me, without my stir.’
In Act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth is delighted with her husband’s letter. She knows that her husband does not have the evil spirit or ruthlessness that is necessary to carry this deed. She says,
‘Yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full o’the milk of human-kindness…
Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it.’
Lady Macbeth is saying that her husband has the ambition but not the ruthlessness to carry out the murder. It is important to note the relationship that Macbeth has with his wife is very special. They have no secrets and she is his, ‘dearest partner of greatness’. Lady Macbeth understands her husband well and although he has great ambitions, she is also aware that he is an honorable man. She has almost a hypnotic power over him that he cannot resist. Therefore, Lady Macbeth has a powerful hold over Macbeth and she will stop at nothing. She will gladly give up her gentle and tender qualities of a woman and calls for evil spirits to help her:
‘Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here
And fill me from crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty’
In Act 1, scene 7, Macbeth wants to suppress his conscience; he is tormented by the prospect of having to carry out King Duncan’s murder.
‘If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly; if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence.’
This extreme guilt and anguish is present on many occasions in the play. At the beginning of the scene there is a long soliloquy where Macbeth battles with his conscience; he has doubts whether he can carry out this murder. He is anxious that the murder should be quick, without the inevitable consequences of unnecessary suffering. He knows that the crime he is about to commit is wrong and he would have to pay the price,
‘This even-handed justice commends
The ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.’
Macbeth has a vision of the heavenly powers, horrified by this murder. He sees Pity, personified as a, ‘naked new-born babe’. Duncan’s goodness will be ‘like angels, trumpet-tongued,’ if he is murdered and Macbeth will be
condemned to ‘deep damnation’. The images of heaven and hell are linked because Duncan is the rightful King; heaven would be outraged at his murder.
His second major soliloquy builds up to a climax with him tormenting over the moral problem of killing King Duncan, this is in Act scene . He cannot justify that his only motive to kill the King was his, ‘vaulting ambition’. He knows this is morally wrong and reminds himself that he is King Duncan’s kinsman, his host and subject and while staying in his castle he should be protecting the king. He eventually decides not to commit the murder, and tells his wife.
‘We will proceed no further in this business.’
However, he was not prepared for Lady Macbeth’s rage and abuse and she persuades him to carry out the murder. She questions her husband’s courage and calls him a coward,
‘Art thou afeard. To be the same in thine own act and valour …
And live a coward in thine own esteem.’
She insults his virility and declares that she would have murdered her child while it was feeding at her breast, rather than break such a promise as Macbeth had done. Defeated by his wife’s scorn and persuaded by her encouragement, Macbeth agrees to murder his King. She plans the murder and came up with the idea of framing the guards and then killing them. She took advantage of her weak husband and after the murder she takes charge of the situation, while Macbeth is in a state of shock and terror. She greets her husband with pride: ‘My husband’. He has now proved himself in her eyes, to be a man.
Eventually Macbeth started to panic as he heard noises at the door and saw the blood still on his hands and only then had he really realised what he had done. He said,
‘Will all great Neptune’s Ocean
Wash this blood clean from my hand?’
He feels he will never be rid of the guilt. His reaction after the murder is one of horror and remorse. His sense of conscience and fear are not the signs of a truly evil man at this point,
‘I am afraid to think of what I have done.’
From this point onwards Macbeth and his wife have no peace in their lives. Rather than feeling happy and content that they have fulfilled the prophecy, they feel threatened and unsafe. Macbeth is tormented by terrible dreams. He seems to envy Duncan who, he says, ‘sleeps well.’ Banquo is still loyal to Macbeth but cannot dismiss the thought from his mind that Macbeth is responsible for the king’s death. In a soliloquy he says,
‘Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all, as the weird womem promis’d; and, I fear, Thou play’dst most foully for it.’
Macbeth’s ruthlessness is increasing and he no longer seeks the support of his wife. Macbeth keeps secret from his wife the plot to murder Banquo.
‘ Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night.’
Macbeth realizes that his crown is ‘ fruitless’, unless he eliminates any threat, even if it means killing Banquo and his son Fleance. Macbeth’s battle with fate begins, as he deliberately decides to prevent Banquo’s heirs from becoming kings.
It seems that Macbeth’s wickedness grows stronger. It is evident that Macbeth has now committed to the path of evil. Macbeth acknowledges that he has gone so far on the path of evil that it is easy for him to go on as to turn back.
‘ I am in blood, Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’
This is the turning point in the play as Macbeth’s evil actions continue. Ironically, as the number of people are murdered so too does Macbeth find it harder to live with his conscience. He is tormented by visions of Banquo’s ghost and his mind is full of ‘scorpions’. At Macbeth’s celebration banquet, he is given news that Banquo has been murdered. He believes that Banquo’s ghost has come to accuse him of murder. These visions are probably caused by his guilt and he is tormented by the thought that even after death there is no peace. Macbeth ‘has murdered sleep’ as he believes Banquo has risen from his ‘sleep’.
Lady Macbeth cannot cope with the evil she has unleashed and she eventually goes insane. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a symbol of evil like the witches, but at the end she falls victim to evil just like her husband. At the end of the play it is suggested that Lady Macbeth commits suicide as she is riddled with guilt and cannot battle her conscience any more. Over the course of the play there is a role reversal between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth becomes more decisive and ruthless, quick to act and having to coping with emotions of guilt or regret, whereas Lady Macbeth has a nervous breakdown. Her mind is in turmoil. The doctor says she must cure herself because she is suffering from a troubled mind. Macbeth’s anger at this could well be because he knows that both he and his wife are now beyond the help of this world. Only their deaths will ‘ cure’ them. Lady Macbeth says,
‘ Here’s the smell of the blood still: and all perfumes
Of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Of! Oh!’
The witches in the play represent temptation. Macbeth was tempted by their prediction because they echo his own evil thoughts. They contribute to his downfall but the potential for evil is already there. ‘ The temptation is too great, his ambition was all consuming and he was unable to prevent his own fate of doom and evil.
The witches manipulate Macbeth with another set of accurate but damning prophecies,
‘All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be King hereafter.’
The first of which leads to the callous murder of Macduff’s family while he went to London. This was an act of destruction on behalf of Macbeth from the witches. He killed Macduff’s wife and children as he had become an evil twisted man who never thought twice before doing anything.
We cannot forget the fact the at the beginning of the play Macbeth is described as ‘noble’ and ‘valiant’, aware of good and evil, right and wrong. He did try to resist the temptation at first but he was unable to resist and succumbed to Lady Macbeth’s persuasion. His wife and the three witches play upon Macbeth’s weakness and they succeed in manipulating him. Although his downfall was not entirely his own fault, he did choose the path of evil and thus started a disastrous chain of events. Although Macbeth battled with his conscience and deep feelings of guilt, he was unable to retain his good character and ultimately his eventual downfall. What was an honorable and courageous man progressively turned more and more evil throughout the play.