If you’re going to discuss Macbeth’s reign you need to have absolute clarity about what was expected of a King and the extent to which he fell short of this ideal.
The term most commonly used to describe Macbeth by those he governs is ‘tyrant’ so let’s start by getting clarity on what a tyrant is. The dictionary tells me that in Ancient Greece the word tyrant was synonymous with usurper – in other words someone who had seized power without any legal right to do so. The more common understanding of the word tyrant is of a ruler who is oppressive and unjust; one who exercises their power in a harsh cruel way. Tyrants lack moral fibre; they are selfish and arbitrary, acting on whim or impulse and having no care for the impact of their behaviour on their subjects. They demand absolute obedience, disregard both law and custom and are thus often also described as dictators.
Now, let’s see how much of this applies to Macbeth.
Well first off, he is undoubtedly a usurper. He commits the ultimate crime of regicide, thus challenging both the Great Chain of Being and the Divine Rights of Kings. As cousin to the King and a renowned warrior, once Malcolm and Donalbain flee the country he is the next obvious choice to ascend to the throne so he doesn’t exactly ‘seize’ power but he certainly criminally manouvers his way into the position.
However, his behaviour once he achieves his goal of becoming King is unquestionably oppressive and unjust. For starters he’s terrified that his crime will be uncovered (obviously if this happened he would be removed from the throne, disgraced and sentenced to death). Macbeth was there when Banquo proclaimed that he wouldn’t rest until Duncan’s murderer was caught and punished “in the great hand of God I stand, and thence against the undivulged pretence I fight of treasonous malice“; add to this the fact that Banquo heard the witches prophesy and later repelled Macbeth’s offer “if you shall cleave to my consent…” proclaiming that he wanted to keep his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear” and it’s easy to understand why Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat “to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo stick deep“; not to mention the fact that according to the witches Banquo’s children will be Kings (a sore point for Macbeth who has no living children but who hates the thought of having gained a “fruitless crown” and “barren sceptre” which will not pass to his descendants).
So is he decision to hire murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance tyrannical? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that they are innocents who have committed no crime. However, Macbeth is not yet acting on whim or impulse – in its own twisted way his decision to murder them makes absolute sense. Furthermore he appears to still be able to recognise the essential immorality of his actions commenting “Banquo thy soul’s flight, if it find heaven, must find it out tonight” which is reminiscent of his earlier lament “hear it not Duncan for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell“. He’s still capable of this odd advance-remorse but it’s not powerful enough to stop him from committing these crimes. It also important to recognise that the impact of Banquo and Fleance’s deaths (except Fleance gets away) would have minimal impact on the vast majority of his citizens. It will make the nobles more fearful yes but it won’t throw all of Scotland into turmoil.
So murderer, yes. Tyrant? Not quite. Not yet.
The Banquet scene is a pivotal moment however. He’s only just been crowned King but his odd behaviour will ring all sorts of alarm bells amongst the nobles who witness his fit and who are dismissed so hurriedly by Lady Macbeth “stand not upon your going but go at once“. Macbeth is already so paranoid of a rebellion against his rule that he spies on all of his nobles – he admits to his wife “there’s not one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d“. He’s also deeply suspicious of Macduff who has refused an invitation to the banquet. Macbeth now appears to be completely losing his grasp on the difference between right and wrong: he proclaims that he now has so much blood on his hands that “returning were as tedious as go o’er” and a ghostly shiver of foreboding slithers down our spines as he observes “we are yet but young in deed“.
Our sense that Macbeth’s behaviour is plunging the entire country into turmoil only really solidifies at the very end of Act Three when two minor characters (Lennox and one so minor that he is just called “a lord”) meet in a forest near Macbeth’s castle. They discuss Malcolm’s gracious welcome into the English court and Macduff’s decision to go and beg Malcolm to rouse an army against the tyrant Macbeth. It’s clear that Macbeth is deeply unpopular as they recount the official story of how Duncan and Banquo met their deaths, sarcastically concluding that “men must not walk too late” and once they both feel certain that the other also regards Macbeth as a tyrant they openly criticise his rule, describing the current state of affairs in Scotland with Macbeth as King vividly as they pine to “give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights, free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives, do faithful homage and receive free honours, all which we pine for now“. Both feel confident that once Malcolm realises how dire things are in Scotland he will return at once to save his beloved country – they imagine “some holy angel” flying to the English court to inform him and pray that “a swift blessing may soon return to this our suffering country under a hand accursed“.
Interestingly all of this happens before Macbeth orders the murders of Lady Macduff and her children. If we accept what these men say at face value then it appears that Macbeth is not looking after the poor (give to our tables meat) and that the entire country lives in a state of paranoia and insomnia, unable to sleep for fear that they will be murdered in their beds. Those who pay homage to Macbeth are doing so not because they want to (they don’t respect Macbeth) but because they are afraid not to and this is a sure sign of a tyrant – one who controls his citizens through fear. It’s not clear to what extent all of the things they say are true however; the rumour mill must really have gone into overdrive after Macbeth’s performance at the banquet because suddenly his bizarre behaviour has morphed into “free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives” – I don’t remember him pulling a knife on anybody in that scene, do you? Nonetheless most of what they say if not entirely factually accurate is based on fact so we can certainly conclude that at this point he is widely considered a tyrant by his subjects.
His really tyrannical behaviour kicks in with his decision to have Lady Macduff, her children and all of Macduff’s servants murdered as punishment for his disobedience. If we revisit the definition of a tyrant for a moment, a tyrant is someone who (1) demands absolute obedience; (2) one who acts on whim or impulse in a cruel and arbitrary way; (3)one who disregards both law and custom and who lacks any moral fibre.
Now lets apply this to his latest decision. First of all, Macbeth is reacting to Macduff’s refusal to offer absolute obedience and to the witches warning to ‘beware Macduff’. Secondly, the order to murder Macduff’s wife and children once he receives the news that Macduff has “fled to England” is arbitrary impulsive and cruel. Macbeth himself admits that he’s going to ignore both conscience and logic from now on, instead acting immediately on his desires “henceforth the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand“. He also makes this decision just after he admits that the witches cannot be trusted “infected be the air whereon they ride and damned all those that trust them“. Thirdly, Macbeth is profoundly contravening both custom and morality in murdering innocent women and children. So why does he do it? Probably to send out the message that those who disobey him will have his wrath visited not only on their heads but also upon their loved ones. It’s a very oppressive way to safeguard your power but it’s also frighteningly effective (I wonder if Shakespeare had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince“ on how to maintain power – certainly Macbeth here obeys the law that the end justifies the means!)
So does he remain a tyrant for the rest of the play? Well for the forces of good the answer is quite simply yes – Macduff even before he hears of the deaths of his loved ones vividly describes how “each new morn new widows howl; new orphans cry; new sorrows strike heaven on the face“. He believes that “not in the legions of horrid hell can come a devil more damned in evils to top Macbeth” and Malcolm then goes on to list the vices he associates with Macbeth “I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name“. [Many of these are undoubtedly true – he has been false, deceitful, and now with his latest behaviour impulsive and deliberately cruel. However, we’ve seen no evidence that he has ever been unfaithful to his wife (luxurious = lustful) or that he is particularly greedy (avaricious) – other than his greed for the throne there have been no reports that he has seized either land or wealth off his subjects]. During the battle to overthrow Macbeth we learn that those who obeyed Macbeth through fear rather than loyalty are now deserting him and switching sides. The idea that Macbeth is not morally fit to rule is memorably described by yet another random minor character Angus who proclaims that “those he commands move only in command nothing in love: now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief“. It is thus not entirely surprising that once defeated, Malcolm dismisses Macbeth as nothing more than a “bloody butcher“.
So was he a tyrant to the bitter end?
Yes and no…
He accepts that he deserves neither honour nor respect from his subjects, thus showing an awareness of his impact on his subjects “I have lived long enough…and that which should accompany old age as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but in their stead curses, not loud but deep“. Yet in the very next breath he orders his servant to “hang those that talk of fear“. That’s pretty extreme even by his standards.
His refusal to surrender means that more people will die but for Macbeth it is more honourable to “die with harness on our back” than to “play the Roman fool” and commit suicide. He recognises that running away is no longer an option “They have tied me to a stake I cannot fly but bear-like I must fight the course” and sees his determination to “fight til from my bones my flesh be hacked” as a return to his former glory on the battlefield.
It’s weird to think of a tyrant as having a code of honour but oddly that seems to be the case in the dying scenes of the play. It’s also weird to think of a tyrant as someone with any trace of morality in him but when Macduff challenges Macbeth, Macbeth reveals traces of his former self by making reference to his guilty conscience “of all men else I have avoided thee: but get thee back, my soul is too much charged with blood of thine already“.
So I guess we can conclude that Macbeth is an oddly likeable tyrant? Who knew such a thing existed!