The proposition that “Macbeth is a villain in whom there is little to admire” is an inadequate judgement of Macbeth’s character. Macbeth is not consciously and naturally malevolent, and there are many aspects of his character and his downfall which serve to support this. Macbeth was not only a victim of his own actions, but also of the human condition and the extremely powerful forces of both his wife and fate. Throughout the play the audience undoubtedly experiences feelings of horror at Macbeth, but we are also driven, through an understanding of his character, to admiration and sympathy. This would not be the case if Macbeth was a totally vile and reprehensible villain, and thus the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is clear.
Macbeth was certainly no villain to begin with. He is introduced to us as a man of great honour, nobility and strength of morals. He is held in high regard by King Duncan, who addresses him as “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman”- so highly, in fact, that Macbeth is granted a promotion over Banquo (who seems to be of an extremely worthy and loyal character). But there is a fatal difference between Macbeth and Banquo- Macbeth’s ambition and lust for power. He is a man with an unsurpassable desire to advance himself. He himself identifies this quality while he contemplates an action that he is wholly repulsed by; “I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting Ambition which o’erleaps itself, And falls on th’ other.” This “Vaulting Ambition” is what makes Macbeth vulnerable and leads him to commit possibly the most vile deed he can imagine, setting him on a path of destruction. There is a temptation to use the fact that he could comprehend the vileness of his deed as a reason as to why we should condemn Macbeth as even worse a villain. But this is a simple view that does not take into account Macbeth’s later torment or give credit to Shakespeare’s intention to create a true – to-form tragedy. Macbeth is not a ruthless, callous villain devoid of all pity and humanity, and there are several issues in the play that serve to illustrate this.
Firstly, Macbeth had an extremely active conscience and recognition of human moral values. His conscience put up a great deal of resistance to the prospect of murder, and after the act it continued to torment him until his death.
In Act one scene seven, Macbeth voices the terrifying images which deter him from crime – the protestations of his deepest self. He tells himself that by killing Duncan he would be committing a triple murder; “He’s here in double trust; First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, that his virtues Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against The deep damnation of his taking -off…” Macbeth can fathom the damnation that will follow the deed, and he is unprepared to face it. He also sees his ambition as doomed to miss it’s mark and pictures himself ending up on the other side of the murder, floored by it’s consequences; “Vaulting Ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other”. The images are so extremely clear, intense and disturbing and Macbeth is so speculative that it is clear that he is not a natural villain. These are not the reservations of a ruthless, unconcerned, killer. We are reminded of Lady Macbeth’s criticism of Macbeth’s nature when she began to contemplate the murder of Duncan on her own in scene five of Act one; “Yet do I fear thy nature. It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way.” Lady Macbeth doubts her husband’s ability to carry out the murder of Duncan on his own. It...
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