Here’s an essay on Macbeth’s violent nature that I wrote as a mock exam practice with students. Feel free to read and analyse it, use the quotes and context for your own essays too!
It’s also useful for anyone studying Macbeth in general, especially with the following exam boards: CAIE / Cambridge, Edexcel, OCR, CCEA, WJEC / Eduqas.
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This course includes:
- A full set of video lessons on each key element of the text: summary, themes, setting, characters, context, attitudes, analysis of key quotes, essay questions, essay examples
- Downloadable documents for each video lesson
- A range of example B-A* / L7-L9 grade essays, both at GCSE (ages 14-16) and A-Level (age 16+) with teacher comments and mark scheme feedback
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Starting with this speech, explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character. (Act 1 Scene 2)
Debate: How far is Macbeth violent? (AGREE / DISAGREE)
Themes: Violence (break into different types of violence)
Focus: Character of Macbeth (what he says/does, other character’s actions towards him and speech about him)
PLAN — 6–8 mins
Thesis – Shakespeare uses Macbeth to make us question the nature of violence and whether any kind of violent behaviour is ever appropriate
Point 1: Macbeth has an enjoyment of violence
‘Brandished steel’ ‘smoked with bloody execution’
‘Unseam’d him from the nave to’th’chops’ ‘fixed his head upon the battlements’
Context — Thou shalt not kill / Tragic hero
Point 2: Macbeth is a violent character from the offset, but this violence is acceptable at first
‘Disdaining Fortune’ ‘valiant cousin/ worthy gentleman’
‘Worthy to be a rebel’
Context: Divine Right of Kings / James I legacy
Point 3: The witches and Lady Macbeth manipulate that violent power
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’
‘Will these hands never be clean?’ ‘incarnadine’
‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’
Context: Psychological power — Machiavelli / Demonology
(Point 4) Ultimately, Macbeth is undone by violence in the end
Hubris — ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d’
‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’
Context: Violence for evil means is unsustainable, political unrest equally is negative and unsustainable — support James
Macbeth is certainly portrayed as a violent character from the offset, but initially this seems a positive trait: the Captain, Ross and others herald him as a great warrior, both an ally and valuable asset to Duncan and his kingdom. Furthermore, Duncan himself is overjoyed at Macbeth’s skill in battle. Yet, as the play progresses and Macbeth embarks upon his tragic fall, Shakespeare encourages us to question the nature of violence itself, and whether any kind of violence is truly good. Ultimately, Shakespeare demonstrates that Macbeth’s enjoyment of violence works against him, as it is manipulated by the evil forces at work in the play, and it ends in destroying not only himself but his entire life’s work, reputation and legacy.
Firstly, Macbeth is established as a character who embraces violence, though he uses it as a force for good in the sense that he defends Duncan and his Kingdom against traitors and the King of Norway’s attack. In the play, it is interesting to note that Macbeth’s reputation precedes him — despite being the central focus of the tragedy, we do not meet him until Act 1 Scene 3, and so this extract occurs before we have seen the man himself. The Captain’s speech begins with the dramatic utterance ‘Doubtful it stood’, creating a sense of tension and uncertainty as he recounts the events of the battle to Duncan and the others. Yet, the tone of the speech becomes increasingly full of praise and confidence as he explains how Macbeth and Banquo overcame ‘Fortune’, the luck that went against them, and their strong willpower enabled them to defeat ‘the merciless Macdonwald’, the alliteration serving to underscore the Captain’s dislike of the man, while the adjective ‘merciless’ implies that the traitor himself was also cruel and violent. The sense that Macbeth enjoys the violence he enacts upon the traitor is conveyed through visual imagery, which is graphic and quite repellent: ‘his brandish’d steel… smoked with bloody execution’ and ‘he unseam’d [Macdonwald] from the nave to th’chops’. The dynamic verb ‘smoked’ suggests the intense action of the scene and the amount of fresh blood that had stained Macbeth’s sword. Furthermore, the verb ‘unseam’d’ suggests the skill with which Macbeth is able to kill — he does not simply stab the traitor, he delicately and expertly destroys him, almost as if he’s a butcher who takes pleasure in his profession, and indeed at the end of the play Macduff does call him by this same term: ‘the dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’. Interestingly, much of the violence that occurs in the play happens offstage, Duncan is murdered in between Acts 2.1 and 2.2., as are Banquo and Macduff’s family. Even in this early scene, the audience hear about the violence rather than experiencing it directly. This suggests perhaps that for a Jacobean audience at a time of political instability, Shakespeare wanted to discourage the idea or enjoyment of violence whilst still exploring the idea of it in human nature and psychology. Furthermore, a contemporary audience would be aware of the Biblical commandment ‘thou shall not kill’, which expressed that violence and murder of any kind was a sinful act against God. Therefore, we can see that Macbeth is established as a tragic hero from the offset, though he is a successful character and increasing his power within the feudal world, this power is built upon his capacity for and enjoyment of violence, which will ultimately cause him to fail and in turn warn the Jacobean audience against any kind of violence in their own lives.
We could also interpret Macbeth as inherently violent, but under control of his own power at the beginning of the play, an aspect of himself which degenerates under the influence of evil. Though he is physically great, he is easily manipulated by the witches and Lady Macbeth, all of whom are arguably psychologically stronger. The use of chiasmus in the opening scene — ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ is echoed by Macbeth’s first line in Act One Scene 3: ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’. Delving deeper into the meaning of these lines also reveals more about Shakespeare’s opinions on the inherent nature of violence; though the language is equivocal and can be interpreted in many ways, we can assume that the witches are implying that the world has become inverted, that ugliness and evil are now ‘fair’, what is seen as right or normal in Macbeth’s violent world. Macbeth uses similar lines, but with a different meaning, he is stating that he has never seen a day so ‘foul’, so full of gore and death, that was at the same time so ‘fair’, so good in terms of outcome, and positive for the future. Shakespeare is perhaps exposing an inherent paradox in violence here, that war and murder is thought by many to be noble if it leads to a positive political outcome. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth encourages and appeals to Macbeth’s sense for violence by directly associating it with masculinity and male traits that were considered noble or desirable in the Jacobean era. She questions him just prior to Duncan’s death, stating ‘I fear thy nature is too full o’th’milk of human kindness / to catch the nearest way’, using ‘milk’ as a symbol of femininity to imply his womanly and cowardly nature, while in turn asking evil spirits to ‘unsex’ her and fill her with ‘direst cruelty’. In this sense, it could be argued that Shakespeare is commenting on the connections between nature and violence, perhaps a Jacobean audience would have understood that Macbeth fighting for the king was an acceptable outlet for his violence, whereas Macbeth using violence for personal gain and Lady Macbeth’s wish to become more masculine, and therefore more violent, are all against the perceived view of natural gender and social roles of the time. Overall, we could say that the culture itself, which encourages Machievellian disruption and political vying for power through both women and men stepping out of the social norms of their society, encourages more violence and evil to enter the world.
Alternatively, it could be argued that Shakespeare uses Macbeth’s success through violence to criticise the nature of the Early Modern world, and so it is not Macbeth’s violence itself which is at fault, but the world which embraces and encourages this in him. Duncan responds to the Captain’s speech by exclaiming ‘valiant cousin’ ‘worthy gentleman!’, demonstrating his extreme faith in Macbeth’s powers. The Captain additionally terms him ‘Brave Macbeth’, stating ‘well he deserves that name’, suggesting that the general structure of the world supports violent and potentially unstable characters such as Macbeth, enabling them to rise to power beyond their means. Interestingly the downfall of Macbeth is foreshadowed early on in this extract, as the term ‘worthy’ is also applied to the traitor in the Captain’s speech, when he states Macdonwald is ‘worthy to be a rebel’, the repetition of this adjective perhaps subtly compares Macdonwald’s position to Macbeth’s own, as Macbeth’s own death also is similar to the initial traitors, with his own head being ‘fixed…upon the battlements’ of Inverness castle. Through this repetition of staging and terminology, we realise that the world is perhaps at fault more than Macbeth himself, as it encourages a cycle of violence and political instability. Though there is a sense of positivity in extract as Duncan has succeeded in securing the throne and defeating the traitor, the violent context in which this action occurs, being set in 11th century feudal Scotland, suggests the underlying political unrest that mirrors the political instability of Shakespeare’s own time. The play was first performed in 1606, three years after James I had been made King of England (though he was already King of Scotland at this time), and in 1605 there had been a violent attempt on his life with the Gunpowder Plot from a group of secret Catholics who felt they were being underrepresented. Shakespeare’s own family were known associates of some of the perpetrators, so it is likely that he intended to clear suspicion of his own name by creating a play that strongly supported James I’s Divine Right to rule. In this sense, we can see that the concept of a cycle of violence that is created through political instability is integral to Shakespeare’s overall purpose, he is strongly conveying to the audience that not only is Macbeth’s personal violence sinful, but the way in which society encourages people to become violent is terrible and must be stopped, for the good of everyone.
In summary, Macbeth is established from the offset as a violent character, who takes pride and pleasure in fighting and killing. However, Shakespeare is careful not to make this violent action central to the enjoyment of the play (until the very end, when Macbeth himself is defeated), to force us to engage with the psychology of violence more than the physical nature of it. Though the women in the play are passive, Lady Macbeth and the witches prove to incite violence in Macbeth’s nature and lead ultimately to more evil entering the world. Finally, we can interpret the violence of the play as a criticism of the political and social instability of Jacobean times, rather than it being purely Macbeth’s fault, Shakespeare is exploring how the society itself encourages instability through the encouragement of Machiavellian ideas such as power grabbing, nepotism, greed and ambition.