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Essay: Macbeth’s Essential Character Traits and Mental Condition

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Macbeth’s Essential Character Traits and Mental Condition as a Basis for the Forms of Expression and the Power of his Imagination

To be able to better understand Macbeth’s motives as well as the forms of expression and impacts of his imagination, a presentation of his most important characteristic features shall be provided here. At the same time, in this context the development of his mental condition also becomes a major topic.

Macbeth is generally an ambivalent character who is being pulled back and forth by opposite inclinations. He is not introduced as a prospective felon, a person that differs from the norm, but as a pugnacious representative of good and as a pioneer of order, which, ironically, he is going to destroy later on as his own counter-image. Thereby, the possibility of reversal into the opposite is being implied from the very beginning – by the “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” of the witches (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, l.9); not as a secret flaw of the individual Macbeth, but as a potential that lies inside any powerful human (Suerbaum, p.127, ll.8-14).

Ironically, he also thus becomes a traitor – just like the old Thane of Cawdor, whom he has fought for the exact same reason in the beginning – but he is even more of a coward since he abhorrently abuses the trust that the king now tragically puts in him entirely and murders him single-handedly in the most treacherous way, whereas the old Cawdor has ‘only’ allied with the Norwegian king against Duncan.

Just like his wife, he possesses a sheer invincible ambition for leadership which seeks to overcome any obstacle to advancement and does not shun the danger of overreaching himself (see Breuer, p.364, ll.15-20). This passion is so intense that one can almost describe him as being consumed with ambition, or even as being possessed by megalomania. He even explicitly admits this prior to his final decision of killing the king: “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself / And falls on th’other.” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, l.25-28). This ambition functions as a demonic engine which starts up Macbeth and, thus, the entire plot (see Deutschbein, p.241, l.20ff.). “[…] his passion for power and his instinct of self-assertion are so vehement that no inward misery could persuade him to relinquish the fruits of crime, or to advance from remorse to repentance.” (Bradley, p.294, l.30-33). His ambition, then, is what empowers him to greatness, but at the same time it becomes his doom since it would subsequently cause his demise (see Deutschbein, p.242, l.19-21).

Additionally, Macbeth is being introduced to us in the first scenes as, on the one hand, a bold and fearless man of action, but also, on the other hand, as a man of fantasy who, with his rich, lively imagination, is receptive to the impressions of nature and his (social) environment and who is sensitive and easily impressionable. Therefore he easily gets in touch with sensations of the supernatural and is accessible for supernatural fear (Bradley, p.295, l.5-7 / see Schücking, p.71, l.14-18). Unlike Banquo, he does not simply possess an inner firmness; instead, he carries something indefinite and unreal in his essence1, a hidden willingness for mischief (Wiese, p.93, l.3-5).

The report of the “bleeding captain”, which highlights Macbeth’s warlike cruelty and glorious heroic deed – “Till he faced the slave, / Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops, / And fixed his head upon our battlements.” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 2, l.20-23) – anticipates his upcoming bloody deeds and constitutes an antithesis to his very suddenly-arising fear as a reaction to the witch-prophecies (Unterstenhöfer, p.165, ll.1-7).

Here it becomes clear that, strangely enough, he is not afraid of any real danger – as has become evident in his splendid surprise victory in the battle against the rebellion – but all the more of the delusional constructs of his irritable fantasy (see Neis, p.53, l.13-14). Paired with his increased sensibility for the irrationality and morbidity of evil is the clarity and farsightedness of his intellect, which lets Macbeth clearly recognize the significance of his outbreak from the moral and state order and makes him an interpreter and analyst of his own experiences and deeds (Suerbaum, p.129, l.7-12).

Nevertheless, especially this richness of his nature makes Macbeth – similar to Othello or Hamlet – inwardly ambivalent and, eventually, brings about his tragic end (Deutschbein, p.258, l.15-17), since his imagination and its dangerous abundance is ultimately what makes him slide into the path of evil. He becomes a slave to evil without actually wanting to. As it were, he lacks the solid ground on which he is building (Wiese, p.93, l.10-13). Thus, though Macbeth by all means possesses a clear capacity to differentiate between good and evil, the “horrible imaginings” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.140) still entrap him deeper and deeper into his doom (Wiese, p.93, ll.16-19).

He exhibits a peculiar dual nature: On the one hand he possesses certain demonic dispositions, on the other hand he has a strong consciousness of the existence of the world of values, which is the fundament of his social bonds for him. Surely, before the temptation caused by the ‘weïrd sisters’ he was considered an “honest” man as Malcolm implies later (see Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3, l.12-13). Even Macduff was, according to Malcolm, very fond of him: “you have loved him well” (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3, l.13).


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