The Tragedy of The Villain

Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.

The regicide in Macbeth, and the opposing reactions to it of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both before and after the act is committed, are central to the play. Macbeth is introduced as a noble warrior, who is then misguided by external forces that play on his tragic flaw: over-ambition. When the three witches first tell Macbeth that he will become king, he realizes the ramifications instantly, and has mixed feelings about them:

Two truths are told,/As happy prologues to the welling act/Of the imperial theme…This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,/Why hath it given me earnest of success,/Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:/If good, why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/Against the use of nature? Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings:/My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man that function/Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is/But what is not. (1.4 127-42)

In this very complicated early speech, Macbeth reveals that he is glad that he will have earnest success, but has an unnatural fear regarding the king’s murder. At first, he resolves not to take part in it, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,/Without my stir. (1.4 145-7)” Yet in the next scene, when face-to-face with King Duncan, Macbeth reveals a desire for power so deep and dark that it could lead him to regicide, “Stars, hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires:/The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,/Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4 50-3)” This manner of contradiction and ambiguity characterize Macbeth’s language in the period of time between hearing the prophesies of the three witches and speaking with Lady Macbeth. This reaction – desiring power, yet fearing ramifications – is deeply human.

Lady Macbeth’s reaction to the prophecy of the three witches is much different. While Macbeth is ambivalent about what he has to do and whether or not he will do it, Lady Macbeth is immediately resolved. She thinks that Macbeth must murder the king, and that he is too weak to do so without her coaxing:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be/What thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature;/It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great;/Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it…Hie thee hither,/That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;/And chastise with the valour of my tongue/All that impedes thee from the golden round,/Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crown’d withal. (1.5 16-30)

A chief difference we see in the attitudes of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to regicide before it happens, is that Macbeth thinks it is unnatural, “Against the use of nature,” while Lady Macbeth thinks it is natural, “Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/To have thee crown’d withal.” Because of Lady Macbeth’s remorseless reaction to regicide, we view her much less sympathetically than we view Macbeth.

However, when Macbeth first speaks with Lady Macbeth after they have both become aware of the witches’ prophesies, Lady Macbeth immediately orders Macbeth to kill Duncan, “Look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under’t, (1.5 65-6)” and Macbeth does not become enraged by this as he would if it were a shocking suggestion. Instead, he replies, “We will speak further. (1.5 71)” The next time we see him, he gives a soliloquy beginning with, “If it were done when ‘t is done, then ‘t were well/It were done quickly, (1.7 1-2)” suggesting that he has been convinced by Lady Macbeth’s brief persuasion to commit regicide. This easy persuasion could imply that he was self-resolved to kill Duncan, but he continues, still in jumbled language:

But in these cases/We still have judgment here that we but teach/Bloody instruction, which, being taught, return/To plague the inventor: this eve-handed justice/Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice/To our own lips. 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 murder shut the door,/Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan/Hath born his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/The deep damnation of his taking-off;/And pity, like a naked new-born babe,/Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed/Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,/That tears shall drown the wind. (1.7 7-27)

Here, he acknowledges that he still has judgment in whether he should kill Duncan – that it is not merely a matter of fate; that he should not do it because he is Duncan’s subject and host; and that the horror of such a deed, particularly against Duncan, will be returned upon him. Yet he ends the speech saying that he wants to do it because of his ambition, but does not have the will, “I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself/And falls on the other. (1.7 23-5)” At this, Lady Macbeth, the spur to Macbeth’s intent, enters, and Macbeth finally confronts her about her malicious intent, saying, “We will proceed no further in this business;/He hath honour’d me of late. (1.7 31-2)” But Lady Macbeth will not back down. She takes over their deliberation with some of the strongest language of the play:

Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?/And wakes it now, to look so green and pale/At what it did so freely? From this time/To be the same in thine own act and valour/As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that/Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,/And live a coward in thine own esteem,/Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’/Like the poor cat I’ the adage? (1.7 35-45)

As Lady Macbeth uses this kind of coaxing in three consecutive, 15 line speeches, Macbeth can only ask questions, “If we should fail?…That they have done it?” Lady Macbeth pacifies all his fears, and he becomes resolved, yet still afraid, “I am settled, and bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat./Away, and mock the time with fairest show:/False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (2.1 79-83)”

Even after this, just before the regicide, Macbeth is still timid, “Thou sure and rim-set earth,/Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear/Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,/And take the present horror from the time,/Which now suits with it, (2.1 55-61),” while Lady Macbeth is bold, “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;/What hath quench’d them hath given me fire. (2.2 1-2)” When the regicide is committed, Macbeth is paranoid, and Lady Macbeth is excited, and each think they hear a manifestation of their feelings in a single noise: Lady Macbeth thinks she hears an owl screech, “It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,/Which gives the stern’st good-night,” at the same moment Macbeth thinks he hears a voice cry, “’Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.’” This again reflects the fact that Lady Macbeth thinks the regicide is a natural act while Macbeth thinks it is unnatural. Because of this, Macbeth immediately has remorse, “This is a sorry sight [Looking on his hands], (1.2 21)” while Lady Macbeth has none, “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight (1.2 22)…My hands are of thy color, but I shame/To wear a heart so white. (1.2 65-6)”

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth then go about covering up the deed in their respective internal states. In Macbeth’s fear, he kills the king’s guards, who he had framed for the murder. In Lady Macbeth’s calm and cunning, she pretends to be entirely ignorant of the regicide, “Woe, alas!/What, in our house? (1.3 95)” At the end of this act, the play insists that Macbeth was right, that the regicide was unnatural, as a storm follows, in which, “A falcon, towering in her pride of place,/Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d…And Duncan’s horses – a thing most strange and certain -/Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,/Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,/Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make/War with mankind…’T is said they eat each other. (2.4 10-20)” In this, we still feel sympathetic for Macbeth and unsympathetic for Lady Macbeth because of the humanity of their reactions after the unnatural regicide: we can sympathize with Macbeth’s fear, but not with Lady Macbeth’s calm.

However, after the storm has calmed, and Macbeth is king, he gains some of Lady Macbeth’s composure, and his vaulting ambition begins to consume him as he turns against his friend, Banquo:

To be thus is nothing;/But to be safely thus, -Our fears in Banquo/Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature/Reigns that which would be fear’d: ‘t is much he dares;/And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,/He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/To act in safety. There is none but her/Whose being I do fear; and, under him,/My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,/Mark Antony’s was by Caesar. (3.1 48-58)

While both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conclude that Banquo must die, they do so independently, and Macbeth arranges his murder before discussing it with Lady Macbeth, reflecting that the villainous ambition she instilled in him is now out of her control.

When Macbeth finds out that his murderers did not succeed in killing Banquo’s son, Fleance, he feels his fate slipping from his hands, “But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in. (1.4 24)” The alliteration in this line stresses Macbeth’s feeling of confinement to the fate he created for himself, the fate of the tragic villain. In accepting this fate, Macbeth changes his view of the regicide: he is no longer appalled by it, instead, he decides to pursue the bloody path on which it has set him, “I will to-morrow,/And betimes I will, to the weird sisters:/More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,/All causes shall give way: I am in blood/Steppe’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

When he visits the three witches, the only message of theirs that he can decipher is that Macduff is a danger to him. With his reaction to this, we see that he has lost his humanity, and is determined to continue down the path of villainy: “The castle of Macduff I will surprise;/Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o’ the sword/His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls/That trace him in his line.” This merciless act is committed as Macduff is forming an offensive on Macbeth with Malcolm and Ross. When word reaches these three, Malcolm tells Macduff to, “Dispute it like a man,” to which Macduff responds, “I shall do so;/But I must also feel it as a man.” This beautiful sentiment puts valor and humanity on their side, against Macbeth.

The murder of Macduff’s family also leads to a change in Lady Macbeth’s reaction to the regicide and its ramifications, as is seen in her problematic sleepwalking episode, “The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?-What, will these hands ne’er be clean? -No more o’ that my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with this starting. (5.1 48-50)”  Lady Macbeth’s subconscious ramblings show that even she has become troubled by the villainy of the regicide, and wants Macbeth to turn back. She now has the complexity of reaction that she lacked and Macbeth had at the beginning of the play, which could have stopped the tragic fall from the beginning. But it is too late, Macbeth has become too consumed by the over-ambition she aroused in him for her to stop it, and Macbeth goes on killing remorselessly. As Caithness points out, he has lost the power to control himself, “Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him/Do call it valiant fury, but, for certain,/He cannot buckle his distemper’d cause/Within the belt of rule. (5.3 15-7)”

When Macbeth hears Lady Macbeth’s scream as she dies, he reflects only on the change he has gone through:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:/The time has been, my senses would have cool’d/To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair/Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir/As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horror;/Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,/Cannot once start me. (5.5 9-14)

He has become so villainous that even the death of Lady Macbeth – the element that most brought his villainy forth – cannot stop him in his fall, cannot bring back his humanity. Indeed, in the shadow of his ambition, all life has become lightless, and his reaction to death has become inhuman, “Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing. (23-8)”

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is characterized by valor and contemplation. The idea of regicide appalls his nature, but Lady Macbeth plays on his vaulting ambition to get him to do it. We sympathize with Macbeth because ambition is a deeply human trait. We continue sympathizing with Macbeth after the regicide, when he is remorseful and trying to cover up for himself, because these are two distinctly human reactions to folly. It is when his ambition consumes him and he weighs his success greater than human life, as the quote that begins this paper shows, that we stop sympathizing with him.

Lady Macbeth begins the play as an unsympathetic character. Her ambition is despicable from the beginning. She has no internal conflict with regicide, and no remorse afterward. However, when she sees the haunting ramifications of the act, and how they have gotten out of her control, her internal conflict becomes greater than that of any other character in the play, and it kills her. Each character’s human reaction to murder draws our empathy with it, from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth and finally to Macduff.

Yet Macbeth remains the tragic hero throughout the play because he begins as the most deeply human character, and through Lady Macbeth’s cajoling of his tragic flaw, he becomes the least human. Of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Macbeth is the only tragedy of a villain, but it works because of this: Macbeth, like every other tragic hero, battles with, and is overcome by, a destiny that is deeply rooted in human nature. We sympathize with his fall because we can see his flaw in ourselves, can imagine reacting to the events of the play in the same way he does, fear sharing his tragic fate, and are thus terrified when we see it acted out.


Of all the tragedies, Macbeth is the only tragedy of a villain. This seems problematic, but works because Macbeth battles with, and is overcome by, a destiny that is deeply rooted in human nature. Like Othello, Macbeth is introduced as a noble warrior, who is then misguided by outside forces play on his tragic flaw. Macbeth, through the foreshadowing of three witches and the cajoling of Lady Macbeth, becomes obsessed with power to the point that he kills his king and best friend to get it and keep it. It seems difficult to reconcile these villainous actions with a tragic hero, but we as readers have sympathy for Macbeth when he is frightened after murdering King Duncan. As in the other tragedies, it does not matter if it was the tragic hero’s folly that started his downfall, we sympathize with the tragic hero because his tragic destiny is rooted in human nature and thus feels inevitable: in Hamlet’s case it is revenge; in Lear’s case it is misjudgment of character; in Othello’s case it is mistrust/jealousy; in Macbeth’s case it is a desire for power; and in every case, the tragic end, brought about by deeply human flaws, feels destined.

Among the tragedies, the idea of destiny is dealt with in a unique way in Macbeth, where the three witches intervene and seem to bring about the actions of the play. On the surface it seems that Macbeth would not act as he does if it were not for the future-telling of the three witches: he would not tell his wife, she would not encourage him to murder Duncan, he would not do so, and not spiral into a murderous rampage. But it is not that simple. It seems like Shakespeare has used the witches to make the matter of destiny and free will a bit more complex in the play, introducing outside forces that may or may not act on the human characters, much like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By doing so, he forces the readers to think about what free will really means. Is it controlled mysterious forces? Can foreknowledge change the future? Macbeth plays with this paradox endlessly.

In the first scene of the play, it seems like the witches are planning something when speaking of Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair;/Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1 10)” But Macbeth becomes the thane of Cawdor in the second scene, “”No more that thane of Cawdor shall deceive/Our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death,/And his former title greet Macbeth. (1.2 65-6).” This is before the witches tell Macbeth he will become thane of Cawdor, so they are not actually telling him the future, just telling him what has happened in his absence, and there foreknowledge does not change the future. The physical reality of the witches also comes into question for both Banquo and Macbeth, Banquo saying, “Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten on the insane root? (1.3 83-5)” and Macbeth saying, “Nothing is/But what is not…If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me. (1.3. 141-6)” But, even before Macbeth speaks with Lady Macbeth, we get a glimpse of his true desires, “Star, hide your fires;/Let not light see my deep and dark desires, (1.4 50-1)” meaning he has the capacity to fulfill his destiny, but whether that capacity would be realized without the witches seems unclear.

It is clear that the witches can either read the future or know enough about the present to manipulate the future: they play on Macbeth’s tragic flaw, making him think he is invincible when the say he can die of no man woman born, giving him security – man’s chiefest enemy; and if the king weren’t murdered, his sons would not flee, and they would become king, instead of Macbeth.

Key question: was the king’s murder unnatural – Lady Macbeth damning the murder of Duncan when she sleep walks.

Like Othello, Macbeth is introduced as a noble warrior, who is then misguided by outside forces that play on his tragic flaw: Othello is jealous, Macbeth is over-ambitious. By the end of their respective plays, both Othello and Macbeth become entirely consumed by their flaw – acting on it’s part entirely – to the point that they seem sociopathic; yet we sympathize with their downfall, even when Othello commits spousal murder and Macbeth commits regicide. After Macbeth murders King Duncan, and speaks these words: “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!’/Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,/The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,/Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,/Chief nourisher in life’s feast; – (2.2 38-43)” we sympathize with his fear and are afraid for him. This is because of his very human reaction to the promise of power and the coaxing of Lady Macbeth.

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