Macbeth’s development throughout the play
The main character of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the nobleman and warrior Macbeth. What we know about him is based on three things: what he does; what he says; and what others say about him. All these elements change over the course of Shakespeare’s play. Note that there is no narrator in a play, unlike in short stories or novels.
We never learn anything about Macbeth’s physical characteristics, but we hear of his inner characterisation before we first meet him, and it is all praise. In Act 1, Scene 2, a sergeant who has fought alongside Macbeth against a rebel army refers to him as “brave Macbeth” (1.2.18). Shortly after, 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.
As we read on, the description of how fiercely Macbeth fought for his king and country reveals another characteristic: Macbeth is a warrior. 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 important 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 to us that Macbeth may already be influenced by their evil powers at this early stage.
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 by their prophecy, 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 coming true. As well as being a soldier, he is also a thinker. On top of that, the witches’ prophecy has just provided him with a motive for killing his king: he believes he will gain ultimate power.
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 the following 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)