Was Macbeth a Sympathetic Character?
Sometimes a fictional evil character isn’t actually evil. The characters seen as wicked will sometimes have reasons behind everything they do. This makes them more sympathetic, setting them apart from typical villains. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, Macbeth gets 3 prophecies from a group of witches, one of which claiming he will become king. After a chain of events that lead him to believe the witches, he stops at nothing so he’s sure he will become king. Macbeth is a sympathetic character because he was deceived, pressured, and was fearful.
Many people who have read or seen Macbeth would believe that Macbeth is an evil villain with no sympathy. However, this is not the case, as he has many reasons to be seen as a sympathetic character, a tragic hero. One of the biggest things that sets him apart from true villains, is that a villain is devoted to wickedness or crime. He didn’t want to kill the king, he only does what he’s told is necessary to take the crown and become the new king. According to Kumaresan, Macbeth contemplates murder and anarchy and his mind symbolises it. He suffers a state of division due to conflicting impulses for and against murder’ (168). Although he did commit the murder, he was conflicted about it. Typical villains’ don’t feel any remorse or sorrow for their actions, they don’t think about the others involved, but he has these emotions. He doesn’t want to go to such lengths as to kill the king, but he wants to be the new king. He’s loyal to King Duncan and doesn’t want to harm him, but he has to do what is needed.
For example, Macbeth was deceived by the witches, ‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!'(Shakespeare 1.3.50). He was deceived by the witches, they only told a partial truth. The witches are said to ruin lives for the sake of doing so. When they gave him his prophecies, they were only truthful about the first two. This led him into a downward spiral, as he began to believe the witches. He did everything in his power to make sure those prophecies come to fruition. He started hallucinating due to the witches, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,//Which was not so before’ (Shakespeare 2.1.46-47). The last time he saw the blade, it was dripping with blood, thus prompting him even further to killing the king. The witches went further when they said, The pow’r of man, for none of woman born//Shall harm Macbeth’ (Shakespeare 4.1.80-81). The witches told Macbeth to be wary of Macduff, but then said that nobody born from a woman will harm Macbeth. This was deceiving him and leading him to his downfall because at this time, it was rare to not be born normally. Macbeth didn’t know that Macduff was ripped from his mother’s womb, thus not being woman born.
Macbeth was also pressured, usually by his wife, but sometimes by his own being and ambition. His wife began questioning and judging him, When you durst do it, then you were a man;//And to be more than what you were, you would//Be so much more than the man. (Shakespeare 1.7.49-51). Lady Macbeth wants to be the queen, because she gets her power through Macbeth. She begins coming up with plans to kill King Duncan and stops at nothing to make sure Macbeth goes with the plan. This includes questioning his strength and courage, which he takes great pride in. She began to feel like he wouldn’t do what was needed, Only look up clear. To alter favor ever is to fear.//Leave all the rest to me’ (Shakespeare 1.6.70-71). She is telling Macbeth to not worry about the deed that is to be done, that she has it all handled. He is disturbed by her sudden behavior, and she continued to manipulate him. She makes him feel weak by judging his courage, Was the hope drunk//Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?//And it wakes now, to look so green and pale (Shakespeare 1.7.35-37). She is questioning his courage, and using words like green and pale to make him feel humiliated for not doing what’s needed to take the crown.
Most villains don’t show emotion during their reign, but Macbeth shows fear and guilt many times after his murders. he is afraid during a party and shouts, Behold! Look! Lo! How say you?//Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.//If charnel houses and our graves must send//Those that we bury back, our monuments//Shall be the maws of kites. (Shakespeare 3.4.69-73). He saw the ghost of Banquo after the murderers came back from killing Banquo. Macbeth was hallucinating and was afraid to face what he had done. He was already drowning in guilt with the regular nightmares and hallucinations, yet continued killing to keep his undeserved throne. Booth says, In the entire dagger soliloquy he is clearly suffering from the realization of the horror of the ‘bloody business’ ahead. He sees fully and painfully the wickedness of the course he has chosen, but not until after the deed, when the knocking has commenced, do we realize how terrifyingly alive his conscience is (20). He wasn’t acting completely numb to these fearful emotions, he spent a lot of time going on about how this deed was so horrible, even though he believed it was needed. After realizing that Fleance could return for revenge any time, Macbeth tells his wife, We have scorched the snake, not killed it;//She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice//Remains in danger of her former tooth (Shakespeare 3.2.13-15). He is talking about Fleance, Banquo’s son. Macbeth fears that Fleance will come back to avenge Banquo’s death, ending the reign of Macbeth.
In conclusion, not all fictional characters who are seen as evil are actually evil. Macbeth was a sympathetic character because he was deceived, pressured, and fearful. Tragic heroes and villains do have differences.
Booth, Wayne C. “Macbeth as tragic hero.” The Journal of General Education 6.1 (1951): 17-25.
Kumaresan, P. “Claudius and Macbeth: A Comparison between a Villain and a Tragic-Hero.”
Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies 3.5&6 (2012).
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Holt Elements of Literature: Sixth Course,
Holt, Rinehart And Winston, 2005.