In order for this play to be a tragedy, we must feel some sympathy for the protagonist through to the end of the play – that is one of the features of the genre. So, how does Shakespeare retain a degree of sympathy for the “hell-hound” who murders Duncan (his King, kinsman and guest), orders the assassination of his best friend Banquo, and has Macduff’s entire family savagely put to the sword? While the gravity of Macbeth’s crimes cannot be overstated, he is a far more complex character than “this dead butcher”, as Malcolm describes him in his closing speech.
Our initial impression of Macbeth is of a loyal, brave and much respected soldier: “brave Macbeth”, “Bellona’s bridegroom”, “noble Macbeth”. His positive attributes are stressed from the beginning of the play, while he fends off Scotland’s enemies, both internal and external. His basic kindness is also stressed. Lady Macbeth describes her husband as being “full of the milk of human kindness”, and fears that Macbeth may not be ruthless enough to kill the king.
In assessing Macbeth’s culpability, we must keep in mind the influence exercised on him by the witches, who tempt him with the prospects of becoming king: “All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter.” While the witches have no direct control over Macbeth, they aim at his ambition and malevolently use it against him. They achieve their evil goal by drawing out the ambition that is within him from the beginning (his hamartia). Macbeth’s shocked reaction to the prophecy that he will be kings suggests that he already harbours this ambition, that the witches have somehow read his deepest, darkest thought. Effectively, the witches simply toy around with Macbeth’s flaw – ambition.
Macbeth is a reluctant murderer. Upon thorough examination of his conscience, he realises that as Duncan’s kinsman, subject and host, his duty is to protect Duncan,...