Your GCSE English Literature exam will include one section on Macbeth. You will be asked about Shakespeare’s presentation of either a character or a theme in Macbeth. In your answer you will need to analyse a short extract in detail and refer closely to the rest of the play. To help you revise for success in your exam, we’ve prepared this GCSE revision guide on characters in Macbeth. In this post you will find everything you need to know about the characters, as well as some key quotations to remember. Use this guide alongside our Macbeth Themes GCSE revision guide to ensure you’re ready to ace your exams.
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- Shakespeare initially presents Macbeth as a warrior hero. The audience hears how Macbeth and Banquo bravely won a battle to save Scotland from rebels and invaders. We hear this even before we see Macbeth on stage. Duncan thinks Macbeth is great and the audience does too.
- The first time we actually see Macbeth on stage the audience sees a more flawed character. When he is confronted by the witches his reaction is naïve and dangerous.
- Macbeth is far too ambitious. This ambition grows and overwhelms his character. The witches’ prophecies quickly lead him to thoughts of killing Duncan. Once he has come to terms with his guilt he will do anything to keep the crown. He mistreats all of his subjects and murders anyone who gets in his way.
- He is far too easily influenced by the witches and then by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth initially thinks about killing Duncan to realise the ambition of being king. His conscience is then easily overcome by a combination of the witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Shakespeare quickly shows us Macbeth’s fatal flaws – extreme ambition, naivety and weakness. Fatal flaws are key weaknesses of a tragic character that contribute to his/her downfall from a high social position. Macbeth’s flaws make him a classic tragic character.
- In the first half of the play Macbeth does wrestle with guilt for the murders of Duncan and Banquo. Macbeth hallucinates before Duncan’s murder and, most dramatically, at the banquet following Banquo’s killing.
- Once Macbeth regains control of his mind, Shakespeare shows that he has become an evil tyrant. By this point Macbeth is capable of murder without a second thought.
- Macbeth ends the play as a totally different character from the start. He’s a tyrant hated by all of his subjects. He also loses his relationship with Lady Macbeth due to their terrible crimes. His death at Macduff’s hand is the final betrayal of the witches’ prophecies that exploited Macbeth’s fatal flaws and destroyed him.
- “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself”
- “Two truths are told, as happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme.”
- “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more… say from whence you owe this strange intelligence? Or why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.”
- “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature?”
- “The service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part is to receive our duties; and our duties are to your throne and state children and servants, which do but what they should, by doing every thing safe toward your love and honour.”
- “Prithee, see there! Behold! Look! Lo! …If charnel-houses and our graves must send those that we bury back, our monuments shall be the maws of kites.”
- “I will be satisfied: deny me this, and an eternal curse fall on you! Let me know.
- “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? … art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”
- “To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done: the castle of Macduff I will surprise; seize upon Fife; give to the edge o’ the sword his wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls that trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool; this deed I’ll do before this purpose cool.”
- “Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane, I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm? Was he not born of woman?”
- Shakespeare introduces Lady Macbeth with two key soliloquies, which show her as a powerful and evil character. They also, however, demonstrate naivety in her belief that she can command and control the supernatural for her own ends. Unpicking these opposing ideas can be key to a question covering Lady Macbeth.
- Lady Macbeth’s intelligence and power over Macbeth is clear from their first meeting at the beginning of Act II. She quickly persuades Macbeth to follow through with his idea to murder Duncan. The detailed planning and the cover up are all driven by her, not Macbeth.
- However, she underestimates the supernatural and its power.
- Lady Macbeth is calm and unfazed by the terrible crimes they commit. She is initially in control and seems not to have any guilt.
- This changes. Macbeth resumes control and becomes more evil, while Lady Macbeth loses her control and sanity (presumably because of guilt). The audience does not see much of her in the second half of the play. Eventually we hear she has committed suicide.
- It is important to consider gender roles in medieval and Shakespearean societies. Women and men were thought to have very distinct personality traits and roles in society. Lady Macbeth’s powerful, manipulative and evil character was shocking to the contemporary audience. The supernatural’s influence to undermine gender roles provides further evidence of its power.
- “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature: it is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it”
- “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty!”
- “Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear; and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round”
- “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!”
- “Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, like the poor cat i’ the adage?”
- “When you durst do‘t, then you were a man; and, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man… I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.”
- “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! – One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t – Hell is murkey!”
- Banquo starts the play in a similar position to Macbeth. He is a warrior hero and a loyal subject to King Duncan.
- Banquo and Macbeth form a formidable team. The audience hears that they have supported each other well in battle. Duncan rewards Macbeth heavily, suggesting he played the most important role in winning the battle. The audience is impressed with both characters bravery in the first scenes.
- Quickly – from Act I scene III – Banquo and Macbeth go in very different directions. While Macbeth is lured into the witches’ trap, Banquo is sceptical and shows common sense in dismissing the prophecies.
- Banquo is wary of Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’, which further endears him to the audience.
- He is shown to be a wise and loyal character. Shakespeare shows us the right way for a medieval noble to behave.
- Banquo is the first character to be really suspicious of Macbeth in Act III Scene I.
- The positive presentation of Banquo makes his murder all the more horrific.
- Shakespeare had to make Banquo a heroic character. His descendants would reign as kings of Scotland in the future. The king in England when Macbeth was first performed – James I – was also James VI of Scotland. He was, therefore, seen as a descendant of Banquo. Shakespeare made sure his king would like the character.
- “What are these so wither’d and so wild in their attire, that look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, and yet are on’t? Live you? Or are you aught that man may question? …you should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.”
- “That trusted home might yet enkindle you unto the crown, besides the thane of Cawdor. But ‘tis strange: and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.”
- “Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all, as the weird women promised, and, I fear, thou play’dst most foully for’t”
- “O, treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Thou mayst revenge. O slave!”
- Duncan provides an early example of a legitimate and reasonable king.
- He is, however, by no means perfect. He is quite naïve in trusting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when they mean him harm.
- It could also be argued that he is too reliant on his thanes. There is an interesting context point on Scottish kingship here. At the time of Macbeth the thanes had a lot of power. Kings of Scotland needed to rely on their support in order to rule.
- The Shakespearean audience viewed the natural order of the world and society as very important. You can find out more about this natural order to society in our Macbeth Themes Revision Guide. Duncan provides that natural order as the legitimate king of Scotland. His murder is shocking. The audience knows the kingdom is in for trouble after his death.
- His innocence and naivety makes his murder all the more shocking to the audience.
- “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!”
- “No more that thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, and with his former title greet Macbeth.”
- “What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.”
- “O worthiest cousin! the sin of my ingratitude even now was heavy on me”
- Note that you can also use quotes from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth referring to Duncan and the murder (shown in their sections of this guide).
- The witches provide Shakespeare’s direct representation of the supernatural.
- Their shocking and unusual physical appearance further highlights Macbeth’s folly in trusting them. The audience sees their evil force on stage even before anything is said.
- They are powerful and controlling. The witches know which characters to manipulate and exactly how to do it – preying particularly on Macbeth’s fatal character flaws.
- The witches revel in the mischief and chaos they cause.
- Shakespeare makes them speak in riddles and concoct potions on stage to ensure they appear sinister to the audience.
- There was a widespread belief In the supernatural throughout Shakespearean times. People thought the supernatural was always attempting to undermine the natural order. Audience members might be worried this could happen in their lives.
- “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
- First Witch: “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
- Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
- Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”
- First Witch: “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
- Second Witch: Not so happy, yet much happier.
- Third Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none: so all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!“
- “Double, double toil and trouble”
- ”He will not be commanded”
- Note that you can also use Macbeth and Banquo’s quotes for the witches (shown in their sections of this guide).
- We do not see Macduff too often in the play. In some ways he is similar to Banquo in that he provides an example of a righteous and loyal noble. He is a strong warrior who stands up for what is right in the end.
- Macduff finds Duncan’s body following the murder.
- He is loyal to Duncan and Malcolm who are the legitimate kings of Scotland. Macduff is so loyal that he leaves his family vulnerable to Macbeth.
- Macduff is driven and remorseless in his search for vengeance after his family is murdered by Macbeth. The ambition to destroy Macbeth is presented as positive and contrasts with Macbeth’s extreme ambition.
- He is the only man who can kill Macbeth and still adhere to the witches’ prophecy.
- After discovering Duncan’s body – “O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!”
- To Lady Macbeth following the murder of Duncan – “O gentle lady, ‘tis not for you to hear what I can speak: the repetition, in a woman’s ear, would murder as it fell.”
- “each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face, that it resounds as if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out like syllable of dolour.”
- “Bleed, bleed, poor country! Great tyranny!”
- ”He has no children. All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?”
- “But, gentle heavens, cut short all intermission; front to front bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself; within my sword’s length set him; if he ‘scape, heaven forgive him too!”
- “Hail, king! For so though art: behold, where stands the usurper’s cursed head: the time is free: I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl, that speak my salutation in their minds; whose voices I desire aloud with mine: hail, King of Scotland!”
- Malcolm is the legitimate heir to Duncan.
- He is first shown to be naïve and a little cowardly as he flees when his father is killed.
- Malcolm is away from the action for much of of the play. His absence allows Macbeth to enact his tyrannical will in Scotland.
- Shakespeare does present Malcolm’s intelligence and maturity later in the play when he tests Macduff. He also shows some self-awareness in emphasising his own character flaws and the difficulty of being king.
- The audience sees his final development as a character by the end of the play. His return to Scotland to reclaim the throne and ensure Macbeth faces justice shows strength and power. He returns at the right time to defeat Macbeth.
- The play finishes with a demonstration of Malcolm’s loyalty to his nobles. He rewards those who have helped him rid Scotland of Macbeth by making his thanes into Scotland’s first earls.
- Scotland’s natural order is restored with Malcolm’s victory. The legitimate king is on the throne. The audience understands that Scotland can recover from Macbeth’s tyranny.
- “What will you do? Let’s not consort with them: to show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy. I’ll to England.”
- “Macduff, this noble passion, child of integrity, hath from my soul wiped the black scruples, reconciled my thoughts to thy good truth and honour. Devilish Macbeth by many of these trains hath sought to win me into his power, and modest wisdom plucks me from over-credulous haste: but God above deal between thee and me!”
- “Let every soldier hew him down a bough and bear’s before him: thereby shall we shadow the numbers of our host and make discovery err in report of us.”
- “our power is ready; our lack is nothing but our leave; Macbeth is ripe for shaking, and the powers above put on their instrument”
- “My thanes and kinsmen, henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland in such an honour named.
Macbeth Characters – Final Thoughts
Make sure you learn about how the characters are presented in Macbeth, as well as some key quotations for each character. You may have noticed that many of the quotations in this guide also appear in our guide to the themes in Macbeth. This will be really helpful for you. You can learn quite a few core quotations that you can use to answer questions on multiple characters and themes. This minimises the number of quotes you need to learn.
Once you have learnt the information in this guide you should try plenty of practice questions. We’ve linked to the past papers for the main exam boards below. Do as many practice questions on the characters in Macbeth as you can. Mark your own answers using the mark schemes and see how you can improve. Marking your own practice exams is one of the best ways to revise and will ensure you do well in your exams.
Remember to contact us directly if you have any specific questions about Macbeth’s characters, or about any aspect of your GCSE English exams.