Villain or victim? Is Macbeth a victim of external circumstances or a man solely driven by evil? Essay

Macbeth is the most widely translated Shakespeare play for good reason. The legend of Macbeth is a timeless tragedy, the hero succumbing to his fatal flaw. All Shakespeare’s tragedies focus on this same idea; a single flaw in the person that leads to their destruction, desperation and death. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition, once the flame of his desires is lighted, it grows and engulfs all that it comes into contact with. But what is it that drags our ‘noble’, ‘brave’ Macbeth into the pool of devastation and evil? Is our tragic hero simply a victim of external circumstances, or a man solely driven by evil?

It is clear that throughout the play, Macbeth’s evil actions do not come unprovoked. Macbeth’s ambition was unleashed the second he met the witches. The witches do not stumble upon Macbeth, they plan their meeting upon the heath, and they see the destruction he will cause. Though Macbeth does not immediately appear to believe the prophecies,

‘…to be king

Stands not within the prospect of belief

No more than to be Cawdor.’,

He soon warms to the idea. The witches speak in riddles, and in a different rhythm to Shakespeare’s usual iambic pentameter, emphasising their abnormality and evil. Angus awakens Macbeth to the idea by telling him of the Thane of Cawdor’s downfall and Macbeth’s first thought is of the future,

‘The greatest is behind.’.

This shows Macbeth’s eagerness to be King, indeed it is at the forefront of his mind and he seems hurt and amazed when Malcolm is appointed as Duncan’s successor

‘…That is a step

On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap’,

And already his flaw, his relentless ambition is evident.

Yet Macbeth’s nobility and honour stands in the way of his aspirations. It is then that another, vital external factor comes into play- his wife. It is Lady Macbeth who is determined for Macbeth to kill Duncan, despite Macbeth’s reservations,

‘We fail?

But screw your courage to the sticking-place

and we’ll not fail.’.

It is her who intricately and unscrupulously plans Duncan’s death, and through her keen powers of persuasion entices Macbeth to the deed. Here it is evident that Macbeth was not alone in the massacre, his wife had her part to play. It was her ambition to be Queen and to be powerful, not Macbeth’s, that lured him into this crime, and spawned his own ambitious slaying of others. Nevertheless, as the play further unfolds, it is her that is racked with guilt for their crime and she contributes no further in Macbeth’s villainous ways.

The witches power haunts Macbeth, and their prophecy of Banquo’s descendants becoming King haunts him further. Even when they first discuss the matter upon the heath, it is evident that the prophecy has built a barrier between the two friends. They can not ignore the matter, it plays on their mind so much so that Banquo immediately suspects Macbeth of Duncan’s murder,

‘…I fear

Thou playedst most foully for’t ‘.

The matter of Banquo’s future as the Father of King’s seems to worry Macbeth also. It is only a short period of time before he is already planning his old friend Banquo’s murder too, and perhaps more disturbingly, the death of his young son Fleance. This shows the power of the witches, every word they say vastly influences Macbeth. Soon, we learn of Macbeth’s reliance upon the witches as he goes in search of them when he feels lost.

The witches intentions are clearly to destroy Macbeth,

‘Shall raise such artificial sprites,

As, by the strength of their illusion,

Shall draw him on to his confusion.’,

And with their power, it is hardly surprising they succeed. Their language is consistently evil, their spells include such wicked ingredients as,

‘Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf;

Witches’ mummy: maw, and gulf,

Of the ravined salt-sea shark.’,

Which emphasise their evil and terror. They are an extremely powerful external factor that had the greatest effect on Macbeth. They recognise the villain in him,

‘Something wicked this way comes’,

without seeing him, and with the use of the apparitions, they feed his desires. By speaking in riddles they hold power over Macbeth, for he falls into the trap of complacency, that he knows everything, and that no one can hurt him. Yet behind each riddle lies a truth, which Macbeth -through his own ignorance and idiocy- fails to contemplate. Once they have adequately confused Macbeth they disappear (from the heath and from their cave), and this continues to show the strength and supremacy they behold. Indeed, without the witches, Macbeth may never have been enlightened to the prospect of being King, and would have lived a happy, undisturbed life as Thane of Glamis and Cawdor.

Consistently through the book, personification is used as a form of conveying great evil,

‘Fortune, on his damn�d quarrel smiling’,

‘Sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleave of care’,

‘Treason has done his worst’,

are all factors- neither within Macbeth nor external- that are shown evilly throughout the book. By using personification, Macbeth has made these things more important and powerful, quite like extra external factor’s that Macbeth has to fight. It makes the whole play more evil, treason, sleep and death, all up against Macbeth in this great fight. It increases the sense of evil and terror.

However, perhaps he would not. Perhaps Macbeth was destined for this path. Did Macbeth have all the evil he needed to commit these massacres within him already? There is certainly a strong argument that he did. The witches choose Macbeth. They see something in him which they exploit and ripen, they do not put a spell on Macbeth, they simply awaken him and he feeds on their words. Macbeth believes the witches because he wants to, they proved nothing to him, yet he hung on their every word. They unlocked the evil from within.

The first obvious show of his own evil, is when he kills the guards in King Duncan’s room. It was not part of any plan, and he did not set out to kill them, yet he did. And he, through elaborate lies, pardons his actions,

‘…,my violent love

Outran the pauser reason,’.

This shows that from the very first stages, Macbeth does not think of murder as taking lives but as a commonplace necessity, his conscience has changed and from this point on, the savagery and brutality grows at an alarming rate. It is easy to forget the pace of this change. It takes a matter of day’s after his encounter with the witches before he has taken his first life. He then hurriedly disposes of Banquo, before continuing to murder without reason or ethics,

‘From this moment

The first firstlings of my heart

Shall be the firstlings of my hand.’.

With every murder he loses another fragment of his morality so that by the end, he is more a killing machine than a human being. His reign of terror is all over within a matter of weeks, but within that time he has caused a wave of destruction, terror and misery throughout the whole of Scotland,

‘Alas, poor country!

Almost afraid to know itself.’

(Again, personification here emphasises the scale of the problem within the country.) Yet throughout all this, Macbeth’s conscience has not disappeared. When planning the death of Macduff’s family, he acknowledges that the deed is wrong,

‘Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits,’,

yet he shows no sign of remorse as perhaps the old ‘valiant’ Macbeth would have done.

His dependence of the witches also shows that he alone cannot make decisions, he relies on the witches guidance, as maybe without their direction he would not have committed such acts. After Banquo’s death, as he turns to them, he shows signs of desperation. He is not in control. And at the end of the day, it is ambition that drives him, his dreams from within. At no stage did the witches make him ambitious, they just guided this ambition to evil means. It was in Macbeth’s head and heart as to whether to follow these desires, and he does so without much thought. He chooses to murder.

The arguments for both sides are strong. However, perhaps for my own peace of mind, I would like to believe that Macbeth is the victim. Though he chooses to follow the witches, without their insight, the idea of being King would not have even occurred to him. Without his wife’s encouragement, he may never have been able to commit the first tragic murder itself. At the end of the day, Macbeth was driven by ambition, and though the ambition lay within him, without others, he may never have realised it. At the end of the play, the old ‘noble’ Macbeth seems to be rekindled,

‘I’ll fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked.’,

just as the old warrior would have done (albeit perhaps with less savage and brutal expression). And he himself acknowledges that he was ‘a poor player’ in the witches game. He acknowledges their power. And it is this evil power that I believe made Macbeth the victim here. He was corrupted by circumstances beyond his control, and as a result of this, became the villain that has long been remembered.

In all of us, I think we can find a part of us that does feel sorry for Macbeth, for it deals with issues close to our hearts. We all have ambition, so we can acknowledge his temptation. Perhaps if people related it more to their lives and decreased the importance of the situation it would be easier to understand. It may be a job or promotion rather than the crown that people desire, but what lengths would they go to, to achieve their lifelong ambitions? I don’t know about mine, because they have never been offered to me, but if they were, would I be ruthless like Macbeth? Very possibly, and this is why we can all empathise with him, because in us, we can semi-understand his plight. Indeed we can pity Macbeth for what he has become. But we cannot pardon him. It is clear throughout the play that Macbeth has evil within him, and though others may corrupt him, he still acts with his head and his heart without being forced. All in all, my belief is that Macbeth is both the villain and the victim, an intricate mix of internal and external factors which concocted this spiral of deceit, decline and destruction.