Having submitted to his ambition to gain the Crown by whatever means, Macbeth murders Duncan, a guest in his castle, and thus relentlessly commits him to a career of Evil that leads him to ruin. He can never turn back and seek redemption. Once set upon his course, he moves from one act of violence to another in an effort to protect himself from inevitable disaster. Fear and hatred provoke him to plot the murder of Banquo and his son, for Banquo cannot help suspecting Macbeth’s complicity in Duncan’s death, and Banquo’s offspring instead of Macbeth’s are destined to rule. Enraged at Macduff’s failure to support him, he sends assassins to wipe out his family and by this act of cruelty makes certain of Macduff’s merciless revenge. In the vain endeavor to ensure the security of the throne that he has obtained through violence, Macbeth adds evil to evil until his name is a cliche for tyranny and iniquity.
Yet Shakespeare does not make a monster out of Macbeth. To have done so would have robbed him of any sympathy and removed him the area of tragic interest. When the play opens he is a hero returning from the victorious defense of his country. Undoubtedly he has thought about his chances of gaining the throne, for the witched echo things in the dark recesses of his mind, but he shrinks from the violence required to seize the Crown. He is willing to show patience and wait, “If chance will have me, King, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” 25. He is near of kin to the King and under the laws of Scotland, he may be chosen to succeed Duncan. It is only when Duncan creates his son Malcom Prince of Cumberland and nominates him as his successor that Macbeth is ripe for murder.
Lady Macbeth is made of sterner stuff than her husband, but she is something more than cold-blooded virago portrayed by some actress. Swept away with ambition for her husband’s aggrandizement, and with an opportunity suddenly placed before her, she is willing to stifle every good impulse that might keep him from the Crown that means the supreme accomplishment of her hopes for him and for herself. In her monologue in Act I, Scene 5, she deliberately chooses Evil as her course and invokes the powers of darkness to be her aids. Henceforth she will herself be Macbeth’s evil genius. Still, she remains a woman, a woman intent upon helping her husband, through that aid she may be wicked. She retains some shreds of human feelings. She might have slain Duncan had he not looked so much like her father. She suffers remorse over her deeds and that remorse drives her to the self-revelation of the great sleepwalking scene and eventually to her hinted suicide.
Shakespeare is not interested in abstractions but rather in living human beings and the effects of their deed upon their characters. In Macbeth Shakespeare reveals the tragedy that befalls two people who elect to follow a course of Evil for the satisfaction of their own ambition. They are people whom the audience will recognize as not beyond their comprehension as living personalities. Though their places may be exalted and their actions beyond those of normal human experience, their feelings and motivations are within the realm of ordinary human understanding, and the spectator can experience the catharsis of pity and fear that comes from identification with the protagonist of a tragedy.
The corrosive effect of Evil upon Macbeth is cumulative until the great scene near the end of the play he receives news of Lady Macbeth’s death. Numb with accumulated horrors, he no longer feels any great emotion, even at the death of his wife who had been his strength, he merely thinks bitterly that she could have chosen some more convenient time, “She should have died hereafter” 177. For Macbeth, the world has turned to ashes and he pours out his disillusionment in his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” 177 speech.