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Examination Questions on Macbeth

Question: Describe the character of Macbeth in brief.

Answer: The development of the character of Macbeth in this play is the history of a struggle, fierce and prolonged, between the power of good and the power of evil found in each human heart. And a sharp fight it is, too, in this case, before the evil finally prevails. Schlegel's idea that Macbeth, with his noble nature, is irresistibly forced to crime by a supernatural power, wholly external to him, cannot, we think, be supported from the text. Upon his very first appearance, in the interview with the Weird Sisters, Macbeth displays a signal weakness -- a susceptibility to impressions of the imagination, which by contrast with the matter-of-fact Banquo, is the more marked.

While Banquo, in amazement, questions the report of his own eyes, Macbeth drinks in their words, and when, almost immediately, one prediction is fulfilled, looks forward to the time when "the golden round and top of sovereignty" shall encircle his noble brow. Now begins the conflict -- "This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good." Already is he so shaken by that "thought whose murder yet is but fantastical, that function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not." And when recalled to consciousness by a reproof from the observant Banquo, he shows still further weakness -- in the desire to conceal his guilty thoughts, he sinks still lower and stoops to falsehood. All which things seem to us inconsistent with Schlegel's view.

We think with those commentators who believe Macbeth's sin the offspring of his own heart. Mr. Hudson's presentment of the progress of this leaven of evil seems to us excellent. He thinks that from the moment of meeting with the Weird Sisters, the idea of hastening the fulfilment of the third prophecy by the murder of Duncan was constantly before his mind; that the subsequent hesitation was due to the curious conscience of the man, powerfully active, though hiding itself under the mental disturbance which it occasioned; that there was needful yet another force before conscience could be made to yield -- his domestic affections were enlisted, his manhood and valor impeached by the woman he loved -- than which nothing is harder for a soldier to bear. When Lady Macbeth has thus made it a theme of domestic war and reduced the matter to this alternative -- he must either do the deed or cease to live with her as wife, then and then only does he fully resolve to murder Duncan. He goes through this first crime with an assumed ferocity borrowed from his wife; but, as soon as this is done, he oversteps her designs and stains his hands still deeper in the blood of the helpless grooms.

From this time forth, conscience, in imaginary terrors, becomes the instigator to new murders. Having given others cause to suspect him, he, in turn, suspects them, and seeks safety and peace in using the sword -- every thrust of which adds a new wound to the agony he already suffers. Such is the horrible madness to which crime has driven him. Slaughter is heaped upon slaughter, the most innocent are the chief victims. Trusting implicitly in the equivocal prophecy of the Weird Sisters, yet never losing sight of his own freedom, he rushes on with the blindness of desperation -- forgetful alike of friends, of wife, of God -- to the dreadful punishment which awaits him. And when it finally comes, we feel a stern satisfaction in the knowledge that justice, which we saw almost appeased in the restless agony at the death of his wife, is now fully satisfied.

In the powerful conscience and vivid imagination of Macbeth, we recognize a tinge of Hamletism, and therefore the comparison and contrast drawn between the two characters by Gervinus, is specially interesting to us. Herein is brought out strikingly one decided characteristic of Macbeth, upon which Hudson does not dwell. Macbeth is placed over against Hamlet as the man of action, opposed to the man of thought. Conscience is found equally strong in both, -- but with this difference, that in Macbeth it has not only to reflect and doubt, but to do, to struggle --active to the last. Imagination too -- a common heritage -- while holding Hamlet back, urges Macbeth on, since to him "present fears are ever less than horrible imaginings." The essential difference between the man of thought and the man of action is seen in the results. In Hamlet's case, everything urges to the murder of Claudius -- still, he hesitates; while Macbeth slays the innocent Duncan in the face of consience and every external consideration.

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How to cite this article:
Bowman, N. B. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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On Macbeth and Hamlet

"The proportions of thought and action in the two natures are, indeed, reversed; thought with Macbeth is as occasional and transient as action with Hamlet. For Hamlet thought is the staple of existence; and action is rarer and more difficult than with Macbeth, though, when once aroused, it is hardly less headlong and instinctive. Under ordinary circumstances they would not have understood each other; Macbeth would have called Hamlet a driveler, and Hamlet would have dubbed Macbeth a savage. But one can conceive of their meeting in special moods upon rare occasions when their hearts might have flowed together in the coalescence of an absolute sympathy." O. W. Firkins. Read on...


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