The Macbeths, in my opinion, are deliberately portrayed as the potential of good people to change under specific circumstances. In this situation, however, the motivation for crime is not ‘for the good’ of anyone but the Macbeth”s themselves, it is in the name of ambition and ultimately greed.
How then can their actions be justified? Personally I believe they can’t, but this does not make them necessarily totally evil. Characters in the text, namely the doctor in act five scene one and Malcolm, act five scene nine, voice both aspects of this argument. The doctor seems to forgive her actions, not proclaiming her innocence, but judging her guilt as recompense for her crimes –
‘God, God Forgive us all. Look after her;Order now
Remove from her all means of annoyance’
Malcolm in scene nine however, gives a conflicting verdict. He convicts Macbeth as a ‘butcher’ and Lady Macbeth ‘fiend-like’. Malcolm, though, is in a position of bias for three reasons; Macbeth had murdered his father; he has just committed treason, and witnessed high treason without taking judicial action; The Lords may not see his point of view, making them hesitate their support of Malcolm in his reign, or might take action against Malcolm’s rights as heir apparent to the throne.
So whom then do we believe? The diagnosis of a doctor to a tyrant concerning his wife, or the after-death tribunal of an enemy, made by Malcolm? For my part I believe that there is some element of truth in both sides of the argument.
I personally do not think Macbeth is evil until after he murders Duncan. After all, a man is not necessarily evil to have evil thoughts, and that is all he does until after the murder. In fact he decides not to kill Duncan twice, one time Lady Macbeth persuaded him otherwise, the other a hallucination of a dagger pointing towards Duncan”s chamber persuades him to carry out ‘the deed’. Even then at the last possible moment, he debates with himself whether or whether not to kill Duncan.
Finally the ringing of the bell by Lady Macbeth concludes the argument for Macbeth, and he enters Duncan”s room. We do not see in the play what happens inside Duncan”s chamber during the murder, but we understand the implications of his entrance.
Up until this point his hand is forced in his actions or, in fact, they are attained fairly by him. He achieved his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, yet he did not ‘play most foully for’t’ – it was given to him righteously.
After Duncan”s death, however, we see a new ruthlessness in Macbeth, he firstly kills ‘Those of his chamber, as … they had done’t’. Later he orders the death of his best friend Banquo and his son Fleance when he guesses Banquo’s suspicion of him as Duncan”s murderer. Even this he does evilly by persuading two men that they hate Banquo enough to murder him themselves.
The height of Macbeth”s evil is, however yet to be seen. Hearing of Macduff”s desertion, he orders the death of not Macduff but his wife and children, who pose no threat whatsoever to Macbeth as they are on Macbeth’s side, not yet persuaded against his rule. At this point Macbeth is most certainly a butcher, definitively killing people needlessly and brutally – i.e. he becomes a butcher not just by shedding blood, but by shedding blood in an unrighteous manner.
After this event though we see, although no apparent reform in Macbeth, no occurrence of evil doings on Macbeth”s part, and we glimpse in act 5 what a good king Macbeth could have been in the right situation. If, for example, Macbeth had been rightful heir to the throne, Duncan need not have been murdered, and Macbeth might not have turned evil. It can also be argued, though, that Macbeth was not evil but only needed one more straw to break the camel’s back and become the inevitable tyrant.
So in conclusion to the evil tendencies of Macbeth, it seems that he started off as a loyal supporter to the king, but driven by ambition and his wife, he was forced to rise higher in Scotland”s hierarchy of power by evil means, leading in fact to his downfall. Whereas Macbeth seems to grow more evil throughout the play, Lady Macbeth seems to move in the other direction.
She appears, in the beginning of the play, to be a conscienceless character, giving an eerie feel to her suggestions, manipulations and admonishment in her conversations with Macbeth. She seems preoccupied with the idea of trying to ‘look like th’innocent flower but be the serpent under’t’ and declares that all Macbeths apparent qualities are in fact flaws. She considers him ‘too full o’th’milk of human kindness’ to murder Duncan and condemns him for it. She determines to change Macbeth in order to make him kill Duncan. The first time she tries she partially succeeds, and Macbeth intends to carry out ‘the deed’. He changes his mind, though, when he is confronted with the reality, when Duncan is in his residence.
Killing, to Macbeth as with many thanes, lords and warriors who fight in wars, is not in itself immoral, but murder of a person in his house and therefore under his sanctuary breaks all the laws of honour he has – not only is Duncan his kinsman, he is also his king.
Lady Macbeth again gives a cold and sinister argument, adamant that if she had sworn so as Macbeth had she would ‘pluck my nipple from his boneless gums and dash the brains out … so … screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail’. Macbeth again is set to kill Duncan.
Yet again, however, Macbeth is irresolute concerning Duncan’s Murder, but Lady Macbeth again sways his decision deviously, by ringing a bell, as if she cold predict and ‘fix’ these deliberations.
The ringing of the bell by Lady Macbeth is a turning point for her in the play. Suddenly Macbeth shuts her out of his plans telling her to be ‘innocent o’th’knowledge’ of his plans. She now has little if any influence over Macbeth and his actions as king, highlighted by her asking if she could be received by Macbeth in act three scene two previously she would simply walk in, or possibly Macbeth would have come to her. She clasps onto her last effective power in act three, scene four, where she covers for Macbeth and his sighting of Banquo’s ghost, claiming nothing was wrong.
After this, though, Lady Macbeth is not seen until the start of act five. We can only assume that during this time, she has thought much about recent affairs, and that this is the source of her guile, for she sleepwalks in act five scene one, indirectly confessing her sins and is evidently disturbed by a newfound conscience.
She is troubled and wishes all her thoughts banished. This is symbolised by a spot presumably of blood which she repeatedly commands ‘out damned spot’ and asks ‘will these hands ne’er be clean?’. She also believes her conscience cannot be cleared – ‘what’s done cannot be undone’, and the smell of blood on her hands cannot be masked by ‘all the perfumes of Arabia’.
After this episode, Lady Macbeth is said to have committed suicide, it would seem due to her guilt. This shows that she is not less guilty but certainly less evil, as one would expect no remorse of crimes from an evil ‘fiend like queen’.
In conclusion, Lady Macbeth appears to grow less evil as the play progresses, coinciding with the amount of influence she has over Macbeth and other related issues. This gives us an example of justice – Lady Macbeth atones her crimes, and therefore goes to her grave not peacefully, she committed suicide but in a better light than Macbeth. Macbeth, however, after the banquet scene act three scene four does not seem to assume any responsibility for his actions, and no apparent guilt upon their result apart from his wife’s death which does leave the memory of a man who was an evil tyrant.
Therefore I believe the Macbeths are not totally evil, and that they change throughout the text. Malcolm”s statement at the end ‘This dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’, is partially correct, but quite literally only tells half the story.
Macbeth does show himself to be a butcher, when he kills not Duncan there is a reason for his death, however unjust it may be but when he murders, Duncan”s guards, and has Banquo, and Macduff’s wife and children murdered.
Lady Macbeth shows she is a fiend when she convinces Macbeth against his will to murder Duncan, commencing Macbeths descent to evil. Other aspects, though, are not evil in the Macbeth’s. Macbeth is shown at the end of the text to be a great leader, and Lady Macbeth shown to be guilty for her crimes.
So what, in fact is the answer to the question ‘Are the Macbeths totally evil?’. Personally I believe that it is a matter of one’s own opinion to what level the Macbeths’ evil extends. I think, however, that most would agree that though they certainly show streaks of evil, huge qualities of leadership are shown in Macbeth in the events preceding the play, and towards the end, but circumstances were not kind. Lady Macbeth also shows merits such as argument and persuasion, which can certainly be regarded as qualities then and indeed now.
So even though the Macbeths may be primarily evil, they are shown to have better elements therefore ruling out the possibility of total evil.