William Shakespeare wrote the play Macbeth in 1606. The play tells the story of a man who is so ambitious that he commits treason and murder. His actions are predicted by three “weird sisters”, and he is also encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, to perform the evil acts that will result in his ultimate demise. Throughout the play the perception of Macbeth’s character and morality are quite different than the reality that the reader is ultimately confronted with.
Macbeth is initially presented to the reader as a hero. He has been fighting courageously alongside Duncan, his king, in defense of Scotland. When the king learns of Macbeth’s fearlessness and aggression in battle, he exclaims “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!” (Act I ,Scene ii) The king then rewards Macbeth’s bravery and loyalty by bestowing upon him the title of Thane of Cawdor. Unfortunately Macbeth has ambitions of becoming the king himself. This brave hero then gives in to his ambitious desire by committing murder. In so doing we realize that Macbeth is, in reality, a coward. Lady Macbeth actually accuses him of being one because of his hesitation to kill the king. But the cowardliness is in the performance of the act, rather than in the reluctance to act.
Duncan is not only Macbeth’s king and friend, he is also his distant cousin. Duncan trusts Macbeth as a family member and is very grateful for his loyalty. The king refers to Macbeth as “a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust” (Act I, Scene iv). He declares this trust and gratitude when he states “But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine on all deservers. From hence to Inverness, and bind us further to you.” (Act 1, Scene iv). Macbeth continues to pledge his friendship and allegiance to the king by responding “the service and the
loyalty I owe, in doing it, pays itself” (Act I Scene iv). At this point, Macbeth expects the king to declare him to be the next in line for the throne. When Duncan names his own son, Malcolm as his heir, Macbeth allows his wife to influence his actions. Macbeth, while professing his devotion and friendship to Duncan, is in reality the worst kind of enemy that Duncan could have; one that pretends to be a friend.
Macbeth does seem to have had some conscience. He initially hesitates to perform the actual killing and tells Lady Macbeth, “We will proceed no further in this business: He hath honour’d me of late (Act 1, Scene vii). His wife has already expressed her opinion that Macbeth was not up for the task when she said, “yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” (Act 1, Scene v). We are led to believe that Macbeth is essentially a good man. However, he allows himself to be manipulated and pressured into committing premeditated murder. Macbeth does later regret his actions, but not enough to stop the evil that he has put in motion. He is overtaken by his ambition, and arranges additional murders of others who are in line for the throne. A seemingly good man is actually a very evil one.
As the play unfolds we realize that the main character is, in fact, a study in contradictions. We initially perceive that Macbeth is a brave hero, a loyal friend, and a fundamentally good man. The reality is that he is a coward, a traitor, and an evil person. At the beginning of the play, the reader admires Macbeth, but ultimately learns to loathe him. This is definitely a case of appearances being deceiving.