Duncan is a good king, noble and full of the qualities associated with kingship, although he is perhaps too trusting. The monarchy was under considerable strain during the time that Macbeth was composed. The gunpowder plot was a part of very recent history (it happened in 1605, Macbeth was first performed in early 1606). The ‘divine right of kings’ is rubbished today, but in Shakespeare’s time it was very much accepted and regicide was the most heinous of crimes. Macbeth is supposed to be a warning to James I about his own position. England was mourning the death of Elizabeth I, whose reign had been a glorious one, and James was not popular. James was a vocal proponent of the divine right of kings which stated that the king’s power came directly from God and that he did not have to answer to any Earthly authority. The concept of the divine right of kings died out after the 1688 revolution.

Male/Female Roles

The characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth explore and subvert traditional male/female roles. Lady Macbeth can either be seen as linked to the witches in a feminist bid to overthrow the balance of power, or as a representation of the evil side of Macbeth, helping him to realize his darkest desires. Her character is at times rather one-dimensional, but this is relieved by the guilt that appears through her subconscious as she nears her death. She uses her femininity, rather than emasculating herself, like the recently dead Elizabeth. However, her "unsex me" speech in Act I scene iv implies that she wishes to rid herself of feminine characteristics and become a sexless character (like the witches, perhaps). A strong female character in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century will always have part of Elizabeth in her. We must see Lady Macbeth as evil, but also as intelligent, manipulative, ambitious and powerful. She is a Caledonian Cleopatra, skewing the traditional role system with her particular type of majesty.


Evil is a concept which is difficult to define, especially in relation to Macbeth. The witches are evil, but they are not actively evil: they do not act, but they suggest actions and manipulate situations with evil consequences. Ambition is difficult to separate from evil in the play. Whether Macbeth’s actions are evil or merely the result of hubris and the influence of the witches is open to debate. Lady Macbeth is a more obviously evil character, yet her guilt in the sleepwalking scene shows that she is not a purely malevolent character or that there is a pure nature beneath, rebelling against her sin. Further confusing is the weakness of the ‘good’ characters. Macbeth and his wife are charismatic and forceful, whereas only Macduff amongst the ‘good’ characters is explored in any detail. It is important to remember that ghosts and witches existed to the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, and that evil, which now is a rather more symbolic concept, had a much more real and therefore ominous meaning for them. If pagan rites were by then undermined to an extent by Christianity, then there was still the problem of Hell.


Lady Macbeth’s madness is brought about by the guilt of the crimes she has committed. The notion that one’s sins caught up with one was not a new concept, but Shakespeare is visionary in his Freudian understanding of the working of the subconscious. Lady Macbeth fears the coming of darkness, and recognizes the insubstantiality of her one candle in the fight against it. The sleepwalking scene is gentler in its portrayal of her lunacy. For perhaps the first time in the play, Lady Macbeth seems gentle and feminine. Shakespeare is cleverly allowing the audience to begin to feel sympathy for her, just as she is about to die. Obviously the concept that it is the ‘true self’ that shines through during fits of madness is being utilized by Shakespeare to add greater depth to Lady Macbeth. Instead of the Machiavellian monster seen earlier in the play, she seems reduced and lost.

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