is a play that explores the nature of evil, ambition, and the qualities of kingship. Macbeth has been so consistently successful conceptually and theatrically because we can all relate to the eponymous hero's hubris (in Greek drama this 'hubris' is the arrogant ambition that leads to the tragic hero's ruin). The play's pace allows us to become caught up in the series of actions that led from Macbeth the ambitious Thane of Glamis to Macbeth the murderous King of Scotland. Lady Macbeth is the catalyst in Macbeth's downfall, urging him on to further monstrosities at all times. In her words she becomes the vocalization of his most hidden and wild passions, speaking what he dare not think. Shakespeare's skill in this play is in demonstrating that it is how passions are used, rather than the passions themselves, which determine whether they are good or bad. Lady Macbeth can be seen as the representation of evil, taking Macbeth's qualities: ambition (he is striving to carry out his duties to the best of his abilities) and bloodthirstiness (he wants to destroy the enemies of the country he loves), and turning them into instruments of wickedness.
It is said that evil cannot exist without will behind it. Lady Macbeth is the force which allows Macbeth to act without will. The famous 'dagger' scene (Act II, Scene i) allows us to see the effect of his wife's will upon him. We are unsure whether he speaks out of madness, sleep or mere passion. His inactivity is turned into action in seconds as the image of the phantom dagger - representing his wife's urging hand or the allure of murder itself - makes the theoretical act a reality.
The play asks the audience to question the interrelationship of men and women. Lady Macbeth is held up by many feminists as a heroic figure, insinuating her way into the very highest circles through her own intelligence and manipulation. Lady Macbeth uses the traditional male/female roles to her advantage, rather than letting them use her. When her husband seems hesitant, or unable to carry out the latest monstrosity, she calls into question his virility; he is compelled to follow her command or risk her condemning him as feminine and weak. She asks, "What, quite unmanned in folly?" just as elsewhere she asserts provocatively, "When you durst do it, then you were a man".
Macbeth is a courageous man. He is portrayed as violent and proud, destroying the enemies of Duncan. It is because of this bravery that we know how vile he finds the deeds that he commits. He is a tragic hero, his 'tragic flaw' ostensibly being hubris, although susceptibility to the influence of the evil and the pagan cannot be ignored. We should remember that Macbeth was written in the reign of James I who himself wrote about demonology. This was, after all, a time when witches and their influence were taken extremely seriously. However, regardless of his wife and the witches, the emotions that Macbeth elicits could be said to be more complex and contrary than those felt for Shakespeare's other tragic heroes such as Hamlet or Othello. Macbeth's flaw leads him to carry out the most heinous of crimes. When Hamlet and Othello die, our feelings are predominantly those of sympathy and pity. Yet when valiant Macbeth dies, beheaded by his enemy Macduff, we feel somehow that one who raised himself so high should not die so low, no matter how much he might have deserved the fate. Of course, this is the essence of successful tragedy. We are drawn into the hero's mind in his soliloquies and by experiencing his torments and temptations with him we grow to understand the conflicting natures of man. Yet, for many, Hamlet is never a convincing vigilante, and Othello falls prey of Iago's devices to a degree of absurdity. They are crippled by fate, their 'tragic flaws' never wholly deserving suffering, the loss of their lovers and death.
Macbeth, meanwhile, is never such an innocent. By nature he is a fierce warrior and a respected leader - and killer - of men. His demise, like his rise to power, is bloody. Because we can understand the way in which his wife's will took his hubris and turned it into a dark and destructive force, and sympathize with the limited remorse he shows, even if this remorse does not extend so far as to help him restrict his evil deeds, we feel a mixture of emotions as he dies. His actions are genuinely vile, more so than those of any other Shakespearean tragic hero except perhaps Coriolanus, and yet he brings out a degree of sympathy in his audience because there is an essential logic behind them. It is perhaps this conflict between nobility and depravity that makes Macbeth so compelling and in another sense the least cathartic of Shakespeare's great tragedies.
Empson describes ambiguity as the root of great literature. Macbeth is rife with ambiguity. In the relationship between Lady Macbeth and her husband, the former fulfills the commanding male role, whilst the latter is submissive and accommodating. Macbeth himself is a mixture of hero and villain. Our response to his actions and his subsequent death is ambiguous. We both condemn him and sympathize with him. Crucially, the characters that are supposed to represent good (Duncan, Banquo, Malcolm) are insubstantial and weak, allowing us to relate all the more to Macbeth's charisma and valor.
The main source for Macbeth is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Shakespeare seems to have combined two historical figures, Donwald, who murdered King Duff in 967AD; and Macbeth, who murdered Duncan in 1040AD.