(Click the character infographic to download.)
Shakespeare may have asked it first, but Stephen Schwartz set it to music: "Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them"? Is Macbeth, like Elphaba, a good (or at least neutral) person driven to evil acts? Or is he just bad to the bone? To answer that, you have to decide whether he's acting out of free will—or whether he's simply a victim of fate.
When Macbeth hears the witches' prophesy, he's super interested in what they have to say—obviously, since they're saying that he's about to become king. But he's also terrified by his "horrible imaginings" —his hair stands on end and his heart races, "knock[ing] at [his] ribs." "My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical," says Macbeth, "Shakes so my single state" (1.3.152-153).
This doesn't sound like a man who's excited to start busting out with the treachery. In fact, he sound like he's horrified by his own thoughts—and haven't we all had some horrifying thoughts now and then? (Okay, maybe not as horrifying as regicide.) The difference is that most of us don't act on those horrifying thoughts. So why does Macbeth?
Maybe he's simply controlled by outside forces. After all, the three witches prophesize that Macbeth will become king, and they also know the exact circumstances of Macbeth's downfall, which suggests that Macbeth has no control over his own fate. What's more, the weird sisters' words clearly prompt Macbeth into action and we often get a sense that Macbeth is acting against his own will, as though he's in a trance. Think about the first time Macbeth encounters the witches —he's twice described as being "rapt" (1.3.56,60).
Even after this encounter Macbeth, at times, seems to move through the play in a dreamlike state, as when he follows a "dagger of the mind" toward the sleeping king's room just before he commits his first murder (2.1.50). So, maybe Macbeth is nothing more than a victim of fate: his fate made him a murderer. It's similar to saying that your brain tumor made you do it, or the evidence that some criminal behavior has genetic roots.
On the other hand, maybe not. In the play, we clearly see Macbeth deliberate about murder, and the witches, we should point out, never say anything to Macbeth about murdering Duncan. When Macbeth first hears the sisters' prophesy, his thoughts turn to "murder" all on their own. So, perhaps Macbeth has had inside him a murderous ambition all along and the three witches merely a dormant desire.
More proof? Take the moment when he thinks about whether to kill Banquo: "To be thus [king] is nothing;/ But to be safely thus.—Our fears in Banquo/ Stick deep" (3.1.52-54). Here, we see him having already accomplished his goal but still deciding to kill more. Again, is this fate? Or is this now his very own choice?
The beauty of literature is that it doesn't have to be black or white. Maybe Macbeth is "fated" to become king, but how he comes to the crown is entirely up to him. Or, may Macbeth is simply a figure to dramatize the ambiguity of human will and action. Why do people do the things they do, even when they know their actions are wrong?
On the other hand —maybe Macbeth is propelled by fate, maybe by his own dark desires, or maybe … just by his nagging wife.
At the beginning of the play, Macbeth treats Lady Macbeth as an equal, if not more dominant partner. In fact, when Macbeth waffles and has second thoughts about killing Duncan, his ambitious wife urges him on by attacking his masculinity. (Apparently, that's a strategy that never gets old.) When Macbeth says "we will proceed no further in this business" (1.7.34), Lady Macbeth responds by asking, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act of valour / As thou art in desire?" (1.7.43-45).
In other words, Lady Macbeth asks if Macbeth is worried that his performance of the act of murder will be as weak as his "desire" to kill the king. There's also a dig at Macbeth's sexual performance at work here because Lady Macbeth implies that Macbeth is afraid his performance of killing the king will be just as weak as his performance in the bedroom (his sexual "desire").
Either way, Lady Macbeth insists her husband is acting like an impotent "coward" (1.7.47). Killing the king, like satisfying one's wife, says Lady Macbeth, will confirm Macbeth's masculinity: "When you durst do it, then you were a man" (1.7.56).
Macbeth, as we see, buys into this notion that "valour," however cruel, is synonymous with masculinity. "Prithee peace," he says, "I dare do all that may become a man" (1.7.50-51). Macbeth clearly associates manhood with the capacity for murder (and the ability to satisfy his wife). Perhaps this is why Macbeth assumes the dominant role in his marriage only after he kills Duncan. (It's also interesting that, when Macbeth plans the murder of Banquo —rejecting his wife's input in the matter altogether —he taunts his henchmen about proving their manhood (3.1). We can't help but wonder if Macbeth's ideas about what it means to be a "man" ultimately contribute to his downfall.
Macbeth may be satisfied to be a mighty warrior when the play starts, but, once he murders Duncan, he's willing to do anything necessary in order to secure his position of power. It gets easier and easier for Macbeth to commit heinous crimes. Killing a grown man (or two) is one thing, but then he orders the murders of Macduff's family, including his children. But he's just looking out for his own best interests, right? As he says:
For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (3.4.167-170)
Basically, Macbeth is doubling down: you can't be a half-way murderer. It's all or nothing. But this selfishness, Macbeth's acting for his own good, ultimately makes him a hated "tyrant." He's come a long way from being a beloved thane. As the play progresses, Macbeth's justifications for his actions become increasingly thin. By the end, Macbeth is a hollow shell of the man he once was, and the whole kingdom celebrates his death.
Fate? Or simply an ambitious man destroyed by own ego?
One last thing. Our character analysis wouldn't be complete without a look at Macbeth's super famous Act 5 speech, when he hears that his wife is dead. We're going to quote the whole thing, because it's so awesome:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.20-31)
Here, Macbeth is summing up his life's work and concluding that it's nothing. All this struggle—the murder, the plotting, the self-questioning, the eternal damnation—and the world ends up exactly where it began: Malcolm will be king, and no one will remember Macbeth except as an evil, blood-thirsty traitor. Does this make Macbeth into a tragic hero? At end, are we able to feel sympathy for Macbeth, led astray by his ambition and fate? Or is he callously dismissing his wife's death, and saying that we might as well be vicious, since it all doesn't matter in the end?
Here's a final, mind-blowing moment: both Magneto and Professor X have delivered this speech in spectacular but very different ways. One of them seems to fit with the first interpretation, and one with the other. Which do you agree with?