in Drama, English Literature, Shakespeare

Here’s a detailed breakdown of three major characters in Macbeth: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and The Witches. It’s primarily tailored towards students at GCSE or A-Level studying AQA, CIE, Edexcel, WJEC, OCR, CCEA, or Eduqas but it’ll help with anyone studying the Shakespeare play in a wider context too!


For a full breakdown of characters (Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan, The Porter, Lady Macduff, etc) and more lessons on Shakespeare, Macbeth, and Literature essay writing, visit our website where you can find the full Macbeth course.

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Macbeth

  • A Scottish war general — a captain in King Duncan’s army
  • Thane (lord) of Glamis at the beginning of the play, then promoted thane of Cawdor after the traitor is destroyed, then finally King after Duncan is murdered
  • A ‘brave’ soldier with a ‘noble’ reputation — in favor of King Duncan after defeating the traitor who opposed him at the beginning of the play
  • Powerful in war, but unstable in political situations
  • A dynamic character who changes throughout the play
  • Destructively ambitious, but also full of guilt after committing murder
  • Conflicted internal psychology — revealed through soliloquies
  • Abandoned by God/goodness when he starts to commit terrible acts
  • Susceptible to evil forces, such as Lady Macbeth’s ruthless ambition and the Witches’ manipulation
  • Very much in love with Lady Macbeth, which enables him to be manipulated by her
  • Starting the murder of Banquo, he takes less direction from the evil forces and is more actively evil, deciding to commit evil acts by himself without the input of Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth

  • Macbeth’s wife; lives with him in their castle at Inverness
  • No children, but expresses hatred towards motherhood
  • Has a desire to be more masculine, as she equates masculinity with power and femininity with weakness
  • Physically weak but psychologically stronger (at first) than Macbeth. She uses her skill with words to manipulate and persuade him into taking power
  • Unlike Macbeth, she fully embraces evil and asks it to give her power and courage
  • Occasionally shows a weakness; such as not being able to kill Duncan as he looked too much like her own father
  • Descends into madness by the beginning of Act 5 — starts sleepwalking and having visions, dies offstage (commits suicide)
  • Important in the first Three Acts of the play, but fades into the background for much of Act 4 and dies partway through Act 5 after suffering a breakdown
  • A dynamic character who changes throughout the play. Very sure of herself at the beginning and very confused by the end

How to read and understand Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’

The Witches + Hecate

  • The three witches always appear onstage together, out on the heath in 1.1/1.3/3.5; (moorland — a cold, dark, misty setting) / in a dark cave with a cauldron in 4.1. They seem able to control the elements and are always associated with extreme weather conditions — thunder, lightning, rain.
  • Appear in female form, but look distinctly unnatural — they have beards; they speak in trochaic trimeter and rhyming couplets (unlike the human characters, who mostly use blank verse)
  • The Witches are ‘instruments of darkness’ — evil works through them. They encourage revenge, suffering, ambition, power, and disaster. They prey on the evil aspects of human nature — our selfishness, our fears, and our desire for power.
  • Concoct potions and make predictions about the future, which all seem to come true — it is unclear whether they are seeing the future or whether they are influencing it through their prophecies. We question whether they only observe fate, or whether they can change it through their spells and words.
  • Mysterious to the audience, and would have been genuinely frightening to spectators in Shakespeare’s time — they reflect real historical beliefs of witchcraft representing evil forces in the world.
  • Macbeth only meets the witches twice (1.3 / 4.1), but they are the first characters we encounter in Act 1 Scene 1.
  • Provide the inciting incident for Macbeth — plant the seeds of doubt and power in his mind. Also indirectly affect Lady Macbeth, who wishes to embrace the darkness in return for power.
  • Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, appears briefly in 3.5 to scold the witches for wasting their time on Macbeth. She gives them guidance on how to manipulate and torture Macbeth further, which they later do (with Hecate there) in 4.1

Thanks for reading! We also have a whole category dedicated to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; be sure to check it out by clicking this link.

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