last updated: 24 January 2019 (approximate reading time: 3 minutes; 586 words)
Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s best known plays. Traditionally, it is viewed as one of the playwright’s tragedies, but looked at through a modern day lens, it could be viewed as a crime story or a political thriller.
In simplicity, the story revolves around the most basic of crimes, murder—in this case, the murder of the king (hence the ability to view it as a political thriller). Let’s ask the five questions and take a look at the central kernel of the story.
question one: Who is the Main Character?
question two: What Does Macbeth Want?
To be king of Scotland
question three: What is Keeping Macbeth From Getting What He Wants?
Scotland already has a king—Duncan—a man revered by his subjects.
question four: What Must Macbeth Sacrifice to Get What He Wants?
It seems there is nothing that Macbeth isn’t prepared to sacrifice. He is happy to ignore his values. He will abandon his friends—indeed, he will happily kill them. And he has no concern about his wife’s state of mind and physical wellbeing.
question five: What is At Stake?
For Macbeth, power and status are at stake. If Macbeth fails, then he simply fails to achieve his ambition to acquire power and status through any means.
However, for Scotland, the stakes are higher. For Scotland, the wellbeing of the entire nation is at stake.
There’s clearly a dichotomy here—what is at stake for the lead character is at odds with the position he seeks. In modern analyses of the play, Macbeth’s pure selfish motivation is more troubling since it’s seen as less compelling. This may go some way to explaining why modern retellings of the story imbue Macbeth with less ignoble motives, for instance implying some greater motive as a quasi-Scottish nationalist.
As I said at the top, at its most basic Macbeth is a crime story—Macbeth kills Duncan, the king.
Clearly the title of the play suggests that Macbeth is the protagonist. There’s certainly a good argument that he is the protagonist—he is the prime character whose actions drive the story. But you could construct an argument that Macbeth is not the main character. While he certainly has most time on stage, his actions—at least initially—are not driven by his needs and desires, but rather by:
- the prophecy of the three witches, and
- his wife.
If we’re going to play this game and entertain the notion that Macbeth is not the protagonist, then I would argue that role falls to Macduff—the man who restores order to Scotland.
If we look at the five questions, but from Macduff’s perspective, we can answer the questions thus:
- wants to remove a tyrannical king and so bring order to Scotland
- the impediment to his goal is Macbeth; the tyrant is king and is murdering people (including Macduff’s family) to stay in power
- Macduff will sacrifice his life—Macbeth has taken everything else
- if Macduff fails, then he leaves a tyrant as king and Scotland is lost
The stakes for Macduff are noble and align with the interests of Scotland as a whole.
However, I would still put Macbeth as the protagonist—he is the character who drives the action of the story. While Macduff restores order, this resolution is not necessary to finish the story—it’s just more dramatic.
And while the stakes for Macbeth are ignoble, the play is fundamentally a story about the ambition of one man. It is therefore Macbeth’s story and the ignobility of his stakes simply makes Macbeth’s fall seem satisfying.