Macbeth the protagonist


Macbeth develops throughout the play

The protagonist of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the Scottish nobleman and warrior Macbeth. Throughout the play, he develops dramatically. 

Macbeth’s qualities are highlighted in the beginning of the play 

We hear of Macbeth before we first meet him, and it is all praise. In Act 1, Scene 2, a sergeant who has fought alongside him refers to him as “brave Macbeth” (1.2.18). King Duncan refers to him as “valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!” (1.2.26). Right from the start, we understand that Macbeth is a brave soldier, a nobleman, and the King’s relative.

When killing Macdonwald, the rebel leader, Macbeth “unseam’d him from the nave to the chops, / And fix’d his head upon [the] battlements.” (1.2.24-25). This suggests that brutally killing people is no problem for Macbeth, at least when it happens in battle.

However, as we read on, we see a more reflective side of Macbeth’s character. We finally meet him when he and Banquo encounter the witches. The very first words Macbeth speaks are: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” (1.3.39). This line tells us two things about him. First, these words echo the words of the three witches when we first met them: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (1.1.12). This suggests that Macbeth may already be influenced by their evil powers.

Second, the line shows us a rather reflective side of Macbeth. Banquo is the one who reacts like a soldier to the witches’ prophecy: He remains calm and practical. In contrast, Macbeth seems stunned into silence, and from Banquo we learn that Macbeth looks scared: “Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” (1.3.53-54). Already now, Macbeth seems to be thinking ahead, considering the potential consequences of the prophecy. As well as being a soldier, he is also a thinker.

In Act 1, Scene 5, we see the private side of Macbeth as Lady Macbeth reads aloud a letter her husband has sent her where he lovingly refers to her as “my dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11). Lady Macbeth broadens our understanding of Macbeth’s character even further in her soliloquy, which she addresses at her husband as if he were there:

Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false. (1.5.16-21)

Lady Macbeth’s description shows that Macbeth is an ambitious man, but one who prefers to succeed honorably. In Lady Macbeth’s mind, this makes him weak, but she is more than ready t...

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