The Character of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's Play
The Shakespearian play ‘Macbeth’ is one the four greatest tragedies,
encompassing witchcraft, crime and punishment, evil temptations,
guilt, remorse and above all, greed for power. ‘Macbeth’ was probably
written in 1606 when Shakespeare was in his early 40s. His other three
great tragedies had already been written, and his reputation was
established. King James ruled England, having assumed the throne when
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. Aspects of ‘Macbeth’ seem to be
calculated to flatter King James. James was known to be a fan of
witchcraft and was also a descendant of the historical Banquo. The
vision of the line of kings that Macbeth sees in Act IV implies that
the Stuart dynasty (James' line) will continue to rule indefinitely.
At the time when Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’, England had very
different opinions as to modern times. The role of women in society
was significantly low and they were much less powerful than men, who
held all public and political votes. There were distinct gender roles
and a women’s sphere of legitimate power was located in the home.
Women were not allowed to act on stage and so the presence of a
‘women’ on stage assuming control outside the domestic sphere was
striking. During Shakespeare’s time women were also thought to assume
power illegitimately through evil forces, which is why Lady Macbeth is
presented as an evil and cruel woman yet at some points, she is
portrayed as pitiful and pathetic. Many women were accused of being
witches and were also executed during the reign of James I.
Manhood in Macbeth is tied to ideas of strength, power, physical
courage and force of will. However, Lady Macbeth’s view of Macbeth is
weak, cowardly and timid. She feels that he is not able to commit evil
as she can. He is too kind and caring to commit evil but does not lack
ambition. Significantly, Lady Macbeth emasculates her husband
repeatedly, knowing that in his desperation to prove his manhood, he
will perform the acts she wishes. In this way, she exercises power
through him; therefore it is an indirect power.
Shakespeare's ‘Macbeth’ focuses on the changing character of Macbeth
and his increasing greed for power. Many factors contribute to the
changes in Macbeth throughout the play, which cause the character to
deteriorate from a man with nobility, good intentions and a brave and
loyal soldier to one who is ruled by ambition and greed. It is up to
the audience to decide how much he is influenced by the witches'
prophecies, the manipulating of his wife, or his own ambition.
The play is introduced with the scene of three witches who say they
will meet Macbeth. The first witch enquires about the time they should
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (Act...