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Juxtaposition of Characters in Shakespeare's Macbeth

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Character Juxtaposition: The Twoness of Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth relays the tale of a Scottish general, at first presenting a seemingly brave and noble warrior. Macbeth is eventually prompted by ambition to seek the throne upon hearing a prophecy from a trio of supernatural forces, ultimately resulting in his kingship and consequent death. While the tragedy centers around the dualistic battle between good and evil, many two-folded conflicts exist within the play, resulting in the congruence of King James’s monarchy with Macbeth’s. By applying dualism to characters in the play, Shakespeare provides a comparative extension of the English crown, specifically through the juxtaposition of characteristics of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to those of other figures within the play, as well as to those of themselves.

The thematic development of the twoness throughout Macbeth can be linked to the dualism of politics during the time the play was written. Most likely composed in 1606 during the early reign of King James I, Shakespeare not only uses Macbeth to pay homage to his king’s Scottish lineage, but crafts the play as a mirror-image of the duality faced by James during his rule. With his coronation as England’s king in 1603, James held onto his Scottish crown, making him ruler of both countries. Macbeth “simultaneously incorporates an uneasy attitude of hostility toward Scotland along with a vision of union between the two countries,” reflecting the conflicting nature of James’s regime (Bevington 1259). The King’s resolute desire to unite both his kingdoms, combined with the notion that “Scotland was a constant worry on England’s northern border” (Bevington 1259), no doubt shaped an inner conflict within James. Shakespeare’s Macbeth juxtaposes both Macbeth and his wife with other characters in the play and with each other, and this technique can be seen as a manifestation of King James’s inner dualistic conflict over Scotland and England.

As an extension of King James’s inner struggle over two countries, the dualism of Macbeth’s character in the play is found in the juxtaposition of Macbeth’s evil characteristics with his humane qualities. Macbeth evinces a dualism within himself, much like King James. Macbeth constantly fluctuates between his murderous plots and his self-doubt and despair. In his soliloquy, Macbeth observes, “He’s here in double trust; /First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, /Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, /Who should against his murderer shut the door, /Not bear the knife myself” (1.7.12-16). Here it seems as though Macbeth realizes the depravity of his plot, yet he still commits murder out of his desire to become king. He ends his speech by proclaiming, “I have no spur /To prick the sides of my intent, but only /Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself /And falls on th’ other” (1.7.25-8). Macbeth is too ambitious to allow his conscience to stop him from murdering his way into power, yet too morally conscious to be happy about his evil actions. Much of his behavior throughout the play is an equivocation because he never quite takes one position over the other, but exists as both good and evil. This duplicity of character relates to James’s hesitation to choose one country over the other.

The duality of Macbeth’s personality is not only juxtaposed with King James’s own two-sided conflict, but it gives Macbeth’s character something that other Shakespearean villains lack-humanity. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth illustrates the negative effects that ambition and guilt can have on a man who lacks strength of character. Though Macbeth may be seen as irrevocably evil, his weakness of character separates him from Shakespeare’s other villains, who are all strong enough to conquer guilt and self-doubt. Macbeth, though able to carry out corrupt and evil schemes, is ill-equipped for the psychological consequences of his crimes. He is completely subject to choice and free will, and his options are not much different from the audience’s daily choices in life, adding to the human qualities of Macbeth’s character. In essence, “we discover a hidden similarity between Macbeth’s dramatic situation and everyday life. The everyday incidents that we might take as examples of ethical thinking come to us as a tale told,” relating Macbeth to the audience in a way unseen in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (Keller 42). His human qualities present a character that is indeed evil, but capable of guilt and remorse at the same time, illustrating yet another dualistic tension within the mind of Macbeth. While Shakespeare undoubtedly did not consider his own king evil or corrupt, he relates the basic notion of inner conflict to King James through the juxtaposition of Macbeth’s character.

In addition to the binary personality of Macbeth, his relationship with Banquo also serves a dualistic function. Each character takes a different fork in the road, and this bifurcation is also an extension of King James’s struggle to rule two opposing countries. Upon hearing the witches’ prophecy in Macbeth, Banquo says to them, “If you can look into the seeds of time /And say which grain will grow and which will not, /Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear /Your favors nor your hate” (1.3.58-61). Banquo’s indifference to the Weird Sisters’ mystical predictions conveys to the audience that he is unwilling to fall prey to the powers of the supernatural. Banquo “strongly resists the blandishments of fortune as well as its buffets” when he chooses to disregard the witches as untrustworthy (Bevington 1256). Banquo is somewhat tempted by the witches’ words later in the evening, but he never fully entertains the idea or magnitude of power the prophecy suggests. Though Banquo is later murdered, his character remains untainted from guilt or evil because he ultimately chooses to resist the temptations of the otherworldly innuendos.

Macbeth, on the other hand, represents the other prong of the fork in that he wholly believes in the divination and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He begs of the Weird Sisters, “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more,” hinting at his gullibility, as well as his deep desire for power (1.3.70). Almost immediately Macbeth determines that he will have to reach his way to the throne using murder and conspiracy, though none of the witches relay this method to him. Later, in the first scene of Act Four, Macbeth seeks the witches again and implores them to prophesize his fate a second time. His eagerness for power and ambition overshadows his rationality, and he fulfills the prediction himself. Macbeth “is ripe for [the witches’] insinuations: a mind free of taint would see no sinister invitation in their prophecy of greatness to come” (Bevington 1256).

In the great irony of Macbeth, the Elizabethan audience would have recognized that the protagonist of the play did not have to murder Duncan to become king since Scotland did not have a patriarchal lineage line to the throne during this time. Rather, Macbeth deemed the witches trustworthy and followed the path opposite Banquo’s, eventually leading to his own death as a tainted man. As mentioned, “Scotland was a constant worry on England’s northern border…and, from an English point of view, manifesting the kind of tyranny that the English especially feared,” alluding to the notion that King James had before him two contrasting paths to chose from–England and Scotland (Bevington 1259). The metaphor displayed through the different roads taken by Banquo and Macbeth in relation to fate correlate to King James’s struggle to steer the paths of both Scotland and England.

Lady Macbeth also delineates the reign of James through the juxtaposition of her character with that of the witches. Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare correlates Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters through a series of subtle characteristics, and through this he also incorporates James’s reign into the play. The Weird Sisters resemble the Three Fates of Greek mythology, who weave the fabric of human life and have the power to cut the thread to end it. Much like the Fates, the witches act as puppeteers, seeming to manipulate Macbeth’s extreme ambition. Likewise Lady Macbeth dictates the scene of Duncan’s murder, controlling and exploiting Macbeth’s sense of manhood as one may control a puppet. Lady Macbeth and the witches are also linked to each other by obscure gender roles. When Banquo sees the Weird Sisters, he asserts to them, “You should be women, /And yet your beards forbid me to interpret /That you are so,” implying a blurred gender image of the witches (1.3.45-7). Similarly, Lady Macbeth takes on manly characteristics by taking control to plan Duncan’s murder, and the “sexual aversion…allies Lady Macbeth with the witches or weird sisters” (Bevington 1257).

Lady Macbeth is further aligned with the Weird Sisters after reading Macbeth’s letter relating the first prophecy. She summons, “Come, you spirits /That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here /And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full /Of direst cruelty,” once again adding a masculine tinge to her character by scorning her female traits and requesting to be “unsexed” (1.5.40-3). In addition to gender-bending, Lady Macbeth’s incantations directly juxtapose her with the witches. During the time Macbeth was written, the invocation of evil spirits was considered a heinous offense and “although Lady Macbeth never obtains the epithet of witch during the play, she would have been considered a witch according to the Witchcraft Statute of 1604. Whether or not the evil spirits actually materialized, the conjuring of evil qualifies as witchcraft. The very act of summoning demonic powers transforms her into the witch of the 1604 Statute” (Levin 30). The resemblance of Lady Macbeth to the Weird Sisters in Macbeth establishes a connection with King James because of his ties to the supernatural. In 1598 King James wrote Daemonologie, and heing was “keenly interested in witchcraft” (Bevington 1259). Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of the female protagonist with the witches not only sparked the King’s interest in the play, but the coupling of characters allows for further correlation between Macbeth’s and James’s roles as a dual kings.

Perhaps the most apparent, yet complex, duality lies within the chiastic relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In the beginning, the audience views Macbeth as a capable warrior who becomes disillusioned by his ambition for power. He tends to equivocate throughout the first half of the play, telling Banquo the witches’ prophecy “Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (1.3.132). Macbeth is unable to form a definite opinion or position and is plagued by self-doubt, only able to accomplish Duncan’s murder with the prodding of his wife. He illustrates his irresolution right before murdering Duncan. Macbeth hesitates and asks Lady Macbeth, “If we should fail?” (1.7.59).

Upon committing the crime, Macbeth is unable to cope with the psychological guilt and paranoia that results from his actions. The audience recognizes his break with reality when he is harried by Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. Yet, as the play progresses, Macbeth becomes non-equivocal and gains his former sanity. He reverts back into his warrior mode and becomes similar to Lady Macbeth’s indubitable character seen early in the play. After the witches’ final predictions, Macbeth exudes confidence and tells his servant, “The mind I sway by and the heart I bear /Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear” (5.3.8-9). Moments later he relates to Seyton, “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked. /Give me my armor,” and Macbeth is again viewed as a lucid and determined warrior (5.3.32-3). His character progresses from an unsure, pussyfooted figure to one of clear-cut direction.

Lady Macbeth forms a chiasmus, or inverted parallelism, with her husband, providing a reversed duality between the two characters. Within the first couple acts of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is highly unequivocal. She controls and manipulates situations and exists as the brains and the will behind Duncan’s murder. Lady Macbeth overrides her husband’s hesitations and continually goads him about his masculinity, emanating self-assurance and ruthless ambition. She tells her husband, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; /And, to be more than what you were, you would /Be so much more the man,” (1.7.50-2). After her husband’s descent into madness at the banquet, she takes control of the situation and covers for him, relaying to the guests that “My lord is often thus, /And hath been from his youth. Pray you, keep seat” (3.4.53-4).

Later, however, Lady Macbeth mentally deteriorates into a semblance of Macbeth’s earlier persona. She is reduced from a woman of great strength and will to one who sleepwalks throughout the castle, incapable of making a decision, by her desperation to rid her hands of an invisible stain. Lady Macbeth slowly goes insane, and the gentlewoman tells the doctor that “It is an accustomed action with her to /seem thus washing her hands. I have known her /continue in this a quarter of an hour,” to which Lady Macbeth replies, “Yet here’s a spot” (5.1.28-31). She cannot seem to remove the blood from her hands in her mind’s eye, and by the conclusion of the play, Lady Macbeth’s character weakens to such extent that she commits suicide. Like Macbeth, she is eventually unable to cope with the actuality of her crimes. However, instead of gaining decisiveness from her madness like Macbeth, Lady Macbeth fully succumbs to her guilt and allows it to irrevocably break her spirit. By the beginning of the fifth act, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have inverted their roles, with him as the incontestable character and her as the equivocal character. With the use of chiasmus as a literary technique, Shakespeare once again applies a dualistic approach to characterization in the play.

Macbeth incorporates a multitude of themes, fundamentally bringing together a work outwardly concerned with the battle between good and evil. Upon deeper analysis, however, Macbeth exists as a play chiefly threaded with dualistic elements, mirroring the two-sided conflict of King James I. By juxtaposing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with other characters as well as with themselves, Shakespeare amplifies the two-ness of James’s simultaneous reigns over Scotland and England.

Works Cited

  1. Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.
  2. Keller, Gregory J. “The Moral Thinking of Macbeth.” Philosophy and Literature 29 (2005): 41-56.
  3. Levin, Joanna. “Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria.” ELH 69 (2002): 21-55.
  4. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

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Juxtaposition of Characters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (2018, April 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from
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