Macbeth: Man of Established Character


Macbeth is presented as a mature man of definitely established
character, successful in certain fields of activity and enjoying
an enviable reputation. We must not conclude, there, that all his
volitions and actions are predictable; Macbeth's character, like
any other man's at a given moment, is what is being made out of
potentialities plus environment, and no one, not even Macbeth
himself, can know all his inordinate self-love whose actions are
discovered to be-and no doubt have been for a long time-determined
mainly by an inordinate desire for some temporal or mutable good.
Macbeth is actuated in his conduct mainly by an inordinate desire
for worldly honors; his delight lies primarily in buying golden
opinions from all sorts of people. But we must not, therefore,
deny him an entirely human complexity of motives. For example, his
fighting in Duncan's service is magnificent and courageous, and
his evident joy in it is traceable in art to the natural pleasure
which accompanies the explosive expenditure of prodigious physical
energy and the euphoria which follows. He also rejoices no doubt
in the success which crowns his efforts in battle - and so on. He
may even conceived of the proper motive which should energize back
of his great deed:

The service and the loyalty I owe, In doing it, pays itself.
But while he destroys the king's enemies, such motives work but
dimly at best and are obscured in his consciousness by more
vigorous urges. In the main, as we have said, his nature violently
demands rewards: he fights valiantly in order that he may be
reported in such terms a "valour's minion" and "Bellona's
bridegroom"' he values success because it brings spectacular fame
and new titles and royal favor heaped upon him in public. Now so
long as these mutable goods are at all commensurate with his
inordinate desires - and such is the case, up until he covets the
kingship - Macbeth remains an honorable gentleman. He is not a
criminal; he has no criminal tendencies. But once permit his self-
love to demand a satisfaction which cannot be honorably attained,
and he is likely to grasp any dishonorable means to that end which
may be safely employed. In other words, Macbeth has much of
natural good in him unimpaired; environment has conspired with his
nature to make him upright in all his dealings with those about
him. But moral goodness in him is undeveloped and indeed still
rudimentary, for his voluntary acts are scarcely brought into
harmony with ultimate end.

As he returns from victorious battle, puffed up with self-love
which demands ever-increasing recognition of his greatness, the
demonic forces of evil-symbolized by the Weird Sisters-suggest to
his inordinate imagination the splendid prospect of attaining now
the greatest mutable good he has ever desired. These demons in the
guise of witches cannot read his inmost thoughts, but from
observation of facial expression and other bodily manifestations
they surmise with comparative accuracy what passions drive him and
what dark desires await their fostering. Realizing that he wishes
the kingdom, they prophesy that he shall be king. They cannot thus
compel his will to evil; but they do arouse his passions and stir
up a vehement and inordinate apprehension of the imagination,
which so perverts the judgment of reason that it leads his will
toward choosing means to the desired temporal good. Indeed his
imagination and passions are so vivid under this evil impulse from
without that "nothing is but what is not"; and his reason is so
impeded that he judges, "These solicitings cannot be evil, cannot
be good." Still, he is provided with so much natural good that he
is able to control the apprehensions of his inordinate imagination
and decides to take no step involving crime. His autonomous
decision not to commit murder, however, is not in any sense based
upon moral grounds. No doubt he normally shrinks from the
unnaturalness of regicide; but he so far ignores ultimate ends
that, if he could perform the deed and escape its consequences
here upon this bank and shoal of time, he'ld jump the life to
come. Without denying him still a complexity of motives - as
kinsman and subject he may possibly experience some slight shade
of unmixed loyalty to the King under his roof-we may even say that
the consequences which he fears are not at all inward and
spiritual, It is to be doubted whether he has ever so far
considered the possible effects of crime and evil upon the human
soul-his later discovery of horrible ravages produced by evil in
his own spirit constitutes part of the tragedy. Hi is mainly
concerned, as we might expect, with consequences