William Shakespeare


To what extent can we sympathise with Macbeth by the end of Act I?

Macbeth is probably the most well known Shakespearian tragic hero. As an admirable, but flawed character, it is very easy to sympathise with this eponymous character as his actions and reactions lead to the warping of his mind. His wife, Lady Macbeth, and the three Weird Sisters have a very important part to play in his corruption and during our studies of the play, we have come to form our own opinions as to how sympathetic Macbeth is during Act I.

Admittedly, in Act I, Scene 1, suspicion of Macbeth is inevitable. The witches state, "There to meet with Macbeth", and this evokes intrigue and doubt as to Macbeth's good heartedness. This is because it's the first time he's mentioned in the play and he's mentioned by witches. It makes one wonder why witches would wish to consort with our noble and heroic protagonist.

However, we get the chance to learn what the people around him think of him during Scene 2, as they discuss his character and deeds. Ross thinks of him as "Bellona's bridegroom", or the husband of the goddess of war, signifying Ross believes him to be god-like and an awesome fighter. The Captain's opinion is that Macbeth is "Like Valour's minion". This example of personification literally means Macbeth is 'bravery's favourite', in other words, extremely courageous, or the embodiment of bravery. Even the King (Duncan) has words of praise for him, voicing "O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman". Calling him his cousin shows Duncan thinks of Macbeth as family, and holds him in high regard. All of this puts Macbeth under a lot of pressure to do the right thing and stay in favour. At this point, we feel generally sympathetic, but that one little seed of doubt sown by the witches has not been proven wrong yet.

In Scene 3, we finally meet Macbeth and Banquo as the witches confront them. They tell Macbeth he will be King and the Thane of Cawdor (which came true). Macbeth is hugely interested in what they have to say because he will be king.

"…why do I yield to that suggestion,

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs"

Macbeth has just thought about killing the king, and the thought makes him feel that odd sick feeling when one is nervous and a bit scared. His humanity gains him points for sympathy, but him immediately thinking he must kill the King loses even more points. At this point, we feel very little sympathy towards him.

Macbeth loses even more sympathy points in Scene 4, as he gets annoyed that Malcolm shall become king, not him.

"…that is a step

On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap

For in my way it lies."

He must either forget about his ambitions and plans or do something to get rid of Malcolm as he's in the way of his glorious future. His decision is made:

"Stars, hide your fires

Let not light see my black and deep desires"

Basically, he's asking God to not let anyone discover his ambitions. The term "black and deep desires" makes it seem as though he is contemplating something, but what, we don't know yet. Macbeth is not a very likeable character at this point.

No other real pointer towards whether or not we should feel sorry for Macbeth is given until Scene 7, in which his wife goads him, manipulating him. She questions his manhood "Was hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?" She even questions his love for her "From this time, should I account thy love" Basically, she's ruthless and manipulative because as soon as she heard of the prophecy she desired the murder of Duncan and to bully and push at Macbeth. However, Macbeth isn't so willing to go through with it anymore, plagued by worry. He almost aborts the crime: "We will proceed no further in this business" It takes Lady Macbeth's steely sense of purpose to push him into the deed. He still has doubts, though "If we should fail?" Lady Macbeth seems very confident in him now:

"We fail?

But screw your courage to the sticking-place,

And we'll not fail."

She begs him to tighten his courage to the limit, using a lute metaphor. She then goes on to lay out her plans she's thought over to destroy Duncan. At this point, Lady Macbeth's pushing and pulling at the eponymous man's mental state and emotions gains him the sympathy of many.

To conclude, until we meet Lady Macbeth, we feel practically no sympathy for Macbeth. He seriously considers murder and treason just because three witches tell him he shall be king. However, just as he is about to give up, his wife steps in and manipulates him into going ahead and killing Duncan. Macbeth knows what he plans to do is wrong, and fully acknowledges the future consequences. His aside comments reveal awareness he may be causing a cycle of violence that will inevitably destroy him. Macbeth is not a completely sympathetic character at this point in the play, but is not yet an unsympathetic one. He's tempted and tries to resist. His resistance, however, is not strong enough to stand up to his wife's sheer power over him. If anything, Macbeth is human.

-Hilary Newth