Macbeth's Transformation

Macbeth's Transformation

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There can be no play without characters to tell the story. In Shakespeare's plays, though he borrowed many of his stories, the characters are his own inventions based on various sources. Although there is no mention anywhere in the text of the play of any of Macbeth's physical characteristics, such as height or hair and eye colour, we do see a psychological progression from 'brave Macbeth' (1.1.16) to 'dead butcher' (5.9.36). The playwright, through the actor playing the role, gives us an almost diagrammatic study in the destruction of a man and his reputation, as well as the rebirth of Scotland.

Unlike many other Shakespeare plays, the eponymous hero does not make his entrance until the third scene of Act I. When the play opens, we are given only a brief sketch to whet our expectations. The witches are the first characters we see, and if Shakespeare intended to grab our attention, this opening surely does it. They are 'real' in the sense that we can actually see them, but they are also supernatural in that we believe witches belong to the world of evil spirits and sing-song spells. In lines 7-8, they inform us that they are to meet Macbeth upon the heath - nothing else. But we must wonder: why Macbeth? Why on the heath? What do they want?

The following scene takes us to a battlefield. King Duncan receives details of a fight between his forces and the rebels forces led by Macdonald and troops from Norway. The Captain tells the King that 'brave Macbeth' (1.2.16) met the traitor Macdonald with his sword drawn and killed him in a very horrible and gory manner. Thus our first description of Macbeth is that of a brave, loyal soldier defending his King and country from those who would take the throne and enslave the people. The King is so pleased with Macbeth's performance that he gives Macbeth the traitor's title, Thane of Cawdor, calling him 'noble Macbeth' (1.2.67). Thus we are led to believe that Macbeth is a good man, loyal, courageous, and determined. He has proven his valour and is duly rewarded by the King.

Immediately following, however, we are shown the witches for the second time in three scenes, effectively framing Macbeth the soldier with witches, which could imply that Macbeth is no ordinary warrior. When Macbeth enters, his opening lines echo those of the witches in the first scene:

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Witches. Fair is foul and foul is fair … (1.1.12)
Macbeth. So foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3.36)

Obviously, then, there is some link between Macbeth and the witches. At this point, however, we do not know the nature of the relationship, only that the witches intend to meet Macbeth, but the implication is that this is an unholy alliance.

It is not long before we witness the meeting. While Macbeth's friend, Banquo, stands near him, the witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and 'king hereafter' (1.3.43). Macbeth is startled by what he hears. He knows he is already Thane of Glamis, but does not know, as we do, that Duncan has promoted him to Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, and we as well, are surprised by the promise of kingship. Banquo's prophecy is even more fantastic: he will be the father of kings but not king, and will be greater and happier than Macbeth! Yet, just like us, Macbeth wants to know more. Why did the Weird Sisters address him as Cawdor and king? Where did they get their information? Why deliver the prophecies on the heath? We know about the heath and Cawdor, but we do not know the source of the other prophecies. Is it possible that the witches are able to tell the future?

When Ross and Angus enter to proclaim Macbeth's promotion, the announcement comes as a surprise to him, and temporarily our attention is diverted since the two men merely state what we have already seen. More subtly, however, as Macbeth believes the event to be a fulfilment of a prophecy, we note somewhere in the back of our minds that we do not have any information about Macbeth that would allow us to understand how he could become king, especially since we are unaware of any problems with the present King. What Shakespeare is doing here with Macbeth is comparable to peeling an onion: this character will be revealed layer by layer.

In the next few lines it becomes apparent that Macbeth not only has thought about being king, but he also believes what the witches tell him is true:

Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:
The greatest is behind …
Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. (1.3.115-116, 126-128)

Macbeth knows that in order to become king, Duncan must die, by natural or unnatural means, and this last thought strikes him with panic and fear while he debates the good or bad of the prophecies. That he did not dismiss them right away as ridiculous indicates that in spite of his bravery as a soldier, Macbeth is not totally committed to Duncan. He has ambitions for himself, and if anything stands in his way, he will probably eliminate it. Macbeth's change has begun.

When Macbeth presents himself before Duncan, however, he pledges his 'service and loyalty' (1.4.22) to Duncan without reservation. Once Duncan announces he has made his eldest son, Malcolm, his heir and Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth's response is immediate:

… that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. (1.4.48-50)



As rapidly as we are thrown into the events of the play, we are shown that Macbeth not only loves his King and country, but also himself. It still remains to be seen what action he will take.

We do not have to wait long, because the next scene takes us to Macbeth's home where we meet his wife, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband in which we learn more about him. Apparently in an effort to find out more about the prophecies, Macbeth has had the witches investigated and has

… learned by the perfectest report that they have more in them than mortal knowledge. (1.5.2-3)



It is clear that after calling the witches 'imperfect speakers' (1.3.68), Macbeth has now changed his mind. Macbeth also mediates and interprets the prophecies and conveys his version to his wife which differs to the one we know.

Macbeth calls Lady Macbeth 'my dearest partner of greatness' (1.5.9-10) and here it seems he is sincere. Lady Macbeth, however, is determined that her husband becomes king and in her speech, implies he lacks the qualities necessary to assassinate Duncan without remorse or regret. She waits anxiously for Macbeth so that she can spur him on to regicide. She is so bent on the 'golden round' (1.5.26) that she prays for supernatural help to devoid her of any feminine traits and reinforce her 'fell purpose' (1.5.44). When her husband arrives, she begins her campaign by greeting him with the two titles he has and implies the third - king.

The rest of scene involves Lady Macbeth telling her husband to 'Leave all the rest to me' (1.5.71). These six words not only implicate Lady Macbeth in the murder of Duncan, but they also cause us to wonder if the pair will succeed in their act of assassination. Given that Macbeth has shown some doubt, perhaps the plan will fail.

Duncan arrives at the castle and while the King eats dinner and prepares to sleep peacefully, Macbeth is still debating how he can achieve the crown without getting caught or punished. His wife joins him in this reverie, and severely rebukes him for his confusion. She tells him that he is less than a man if he does not carry out the murder, and that she, a mere woman, has more strength of purpose than he. As Lady Macbeth unfolds the details to her husband, she is also telling us the plan and implicating us as we sit helpless in the audience. The two are in agreement as we move closer and closer to the murder of the King.

In the opening scene of Act II, the murder is committed. In the short space of eight scenes, Shakespeare gives us all the information (and a bit more) that we need to understand the character of Macbeth. We have seen him at his best and at his worst. We have witnessed his succumbing to the entreaties of his wife, and we have seen him go off to kill not only the King, but also any witnesses to the act. Everything that happens from this point forward will be based on our observations: Macbeth seizing the crown; the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his Queen; the murders of Banquo, Lady Macduff and the children; the death of Lady Macbeth; Macbeth's defeat and death.

Macbeth will consult the witches once more and since he believed their prophecies at the beginning of the play, we know that he will believe the Apparitions that he forces them to conjure. However, we also know that because of his inability to think clearly, he will not understand their true meaning and arrive at his own erroneous conclusions. But this character in the person of the actor tells more than one story.

According to Machiavelli in The Prince, the ends of political power justify any means taken to achieve them. Macbeth clearly shows not only the action of unbridled ambition, but also its results. Perhaps one of the reasons for the play's continued popularity is its portrayal of a politician that we can all recognise in our present day systems.

The character of Macbeth also serves as a metaphor for birth and death on several levels. On the one hand, Macbeth marks the birth of a new political ideology and the death of a tradition. On another, Malcolm's creation of the first Scottish earls from the thanes marks the birth of a new society, while Macbeth's death signals the end of the old. Still further, the childlessness of the Macbeths compared to the families of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff reflects these societal changes. Perhaps most uniquely, Macbeth lacks any sub-plot and therefore, there is no comedy (except the Porter, 2.3) to offset the intensity of the tragedy nor is there any thread of bawdiness (except the Porter, 2.3 and the witches, 1.3 and 1.4).

Although Macbeth is the shortest of all of Shakespeare's plays (2,108 lines), the playwright does not take any shortcuts in developing Macbeth as a human being who, when given a choice, chooses his own gain instead of his people's welfare. He also puts himself before any consideration of family or the community that is comprised of those families. We are presented not only with a soldier who killed his way to the throne of Scotland, but also a man who could be our next-door neighbour. And that, with the warning of the witches, is really scary.
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