Teaching Macbeth: Duality, Role Reversal, & Psychological Complexity

Teaching Macbeth: Duality, Role Reversal, & Psychological Complexity

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play about dualities. The theme of duality is introduced in the first scene of the play when the Weird Sisters ominously declare, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.12). The theme gets reinforced near the end of the play when the witches exclaim, “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

The theme of duality is related to many other prominent themes: duplicity, two-facedness, deception and self-deception. For example, the theme of duplicity and two-facedness is most evident when Lady Macbeth advises her husband about how to greet King Duncan when he arrives at their castle. Lady Macbeth compares her husband's face to an open "book" where even strangers may "read" his internal thoughts and feelings: “Your face, my thane, is a book where men / May read strange matters” (1.5.73-74). So Lady Macbeth advises her husband to put on a façade of gracious hospitality which will conceal their evil intentions: “Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it” (1.5.76-78).

These passages reveal an important difference between the personalities of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth possesses a unified personality: his external facial expressions correspond with his internal thoughts and feelings. By contrast, Lady Macbeth possesses a talent for duplicity or two-facedness: the external façade which she presents to the world need not faithfully reflect her interiority!

Yet the most important dualities in Macbeth are the dualities internal to each character’s personality. In this blog post, I hope to show that Shakespeare constructs each of the main characters as a container of personality traits which either complement or conflict with one another. That is, each character gets depicted as an embodiment of internal balance or internal division, psychic harmony or psychic splitting.

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore the theme of duality with your students, you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Macbeth. The 200-page resource packet includes worksheets, discussion questions, and answer keys for every scene in Macbeth. Save yourself hundreds of hours of prep time while amplifying student engagement with this Complete Teaching Unit on Macbeth!

 Teaching Resources for William Shakespeare


Internal Duality: Macbeth's Early Equilibrium

In Macbeth, Shakespeare constructs characters who possess dualistic personality traits which initially balance one another out. For example, Macbeth’s ambition for power is initially balanced by his strong moral conscience. Thus, Lady Macbeth fears that her husband will be unwilling to pursue the quickest route to the throne because she recognizes that his "ambition" is tempered by his "human kindness":

I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily (1.5.16-22)

Here, Lady Macbeth explicitly acknowledges that Macbeth is ambitious; but she also recognizes that he possesses a strong moral sensibility. She asserts that he would pursue “high” goals by using virtuous or “hol[y]” means: “What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily” (1.5.21-22). In the early scenes of the play, then, Macbeth is shown to possess competing character traits — ambition and a strong moral conscience — which balance one another out, and prevent the protagonist from acting too rashly.

At other times, however, a character’s traits combine in such a manner that they propel the character towards disastrous actions. Indeed, each of the characters in Macbeth is defined by a trait that may initially seem “fair”; but when that trait is combined with a second trait, the fair trait turns into a “foul” one. In the case of Macbeth, this becomes evident when Lady Macbeth attempts to stifle her husband’s “kindness” so that his “ambition” can have unfettered reign over his actions....


Exploiting Macbeth’s Fragile Masculinity

Attempting to persuade her husband to kill the king, Lady Macbeth exploits what she defines as a division or inconsistency in her husband’s personality. She insinuates that Macbeth is afraid to be the same in his “act[ion]” as he is in his “desire”:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
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’ th’ adage? (1.7.43-49)

Here, Lady Macbeth does not fault her husband for lacking the ambition or “desire” to pursue a higher position (1.7.45). Instead, she faults her husband for lacking the resolve — or, as she later puts it, the “courage” — to act on his ambition (1.7.70).

When this approach fails, Lady Macbeth proceeds to question Macbeth’s masculinity. She attempts to make her husband feel insecure about his masculinity by defining manhood in terms of a person’s willingness to take action:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. (1.7.56-58)

Here, Lady Macbeth asserts that Macbeth will qualify as a “man” only after he has killed Duncan. She defines manhood in terms of a willingness to take action regardless of whether such action is moral. She also suggests that if Macbeth were to become more than what he already is — i.e. if he were to become more than a thane, if he were to become king — then he would be even more masculine: he’d be “so much more the man” (1.7.58). In sum, Lady Macbeth is trying to manipulate her husband into acting immorally by provoking insecurity about his masculinity. Does this manipulative tactic end up working? Will Macbeth fall for it?


Macbeth's Disequilibrium: The Split Between “Eye” and “Hand”

Macbeth seems to realize that he will need to repress a certain side of himself if he wishes to go through with killing King Duncan. Speaking in apostrophe to the natural world, Macbeth asks for the darkness to create a separation between what his “eye” sees and what his “hand” does:

Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.57-60)

Here, the “eye” is a metonym for a person’s capacity to engage in moral reflection, while the “hand” is a metonym for the capacity to take action. Macbeth recognizes that the “eye” of his conscience would “fear” to “see” what he’s planning to do. So he welcomes a separation between eye and hand, knowledge and action. When he tells his “eye” to “wink at the hand,” Macbeth is effectively telling his conscience to turn a blind eye to his immoral actions.

Imagery related to eyes and hands will return in the scene when Macbeth is making his final preparations to kill Duncan. In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth sees a dagger hovering in mid-air, making itself available to his hand:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? (2.1.44-51)

Why is the dagger oriented toward Macbeth’s hand? While the dagger is visible to Macbeth, it is not visible to the play’s audience. So the dagger could be interpreted as a projection of Macbeth’s mind. Like the witches’ prophesy, the dagger seems like an invitation — or, better, an internal temptation — to undertake a certain action.

However, temptation need not equate to fate or determinism. For Macbeth possesses the ability to resist temptation. Soon enough, the eye of Macbeth’s conscience attempts to warn him against temptation by coating the dagger in blood:

I see thee still,
And, on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. (2.1.57-59)

In the second half of the play, the symbol of blood will become a central motif which recurs several times. Alas, Macbeth does not heed the warning constituted by this bloody premonition.

As he departs for Duncan’s bed chamber, Macbeth says, “I go, and it is done” (2.1.75). If Macbeth does kill an innocent man like Duncan, will the event be “done”? In what sense might the event continue?


Responding to Regicide: Remorse vs. Indifference

After he kills Duncan, Macbeth is so disoriented that he returns to his own chamber holding the bloody daggers which belong to Duncan’s bodyguards. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband to plant the daggers on the bodyguards, Macbeth replies, “I’ll go no more. / I am afraid to think what I have done. / Look on ’t again I dare not” (2.2.65-67). Here, again, Macbeth enforces a separation between eyes and hands, knowledge and action. He cannot bear to “look” upon what he has “done.” So it is Lady Macbeth who ends up returning to Duncan’s bedroom and planting the daggers on the king’s bodyguards.

As the two conspirators reflect upon the regicide, Macbeth invokes the symbol of blood to express his feelings of guilt and remorse. He asks whether the water in an entire ocean would be enough to cleanse his guilt:   

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.78-81)

Macbeth’s guilt runs so deep that he says it would be enough to turn all of the oceans red. By contrast, his wife feels very little guilt and exclaims that a “little water clears us of this deed. / How easy it is, then!” (2.2.86-87).


Are Evil Deeds Ever "Done"?

Yet on the morning after the regicide, Macbeth commits two additional murders without hesitation. Although the Macbeths had framed Duncan’s bodyguards as being responsible for his murder, Macbeth takes the precaution of killing them in their sleep. Nor does Macbeth waste any time in admitting that he “did kill” the bodyguards (2.3.125).

Significantly, Macbeth’s need to kill the bodyguards reveals that his plan to commit regicide was not “done” when Duncan died. Although Macbeth had hoped that the murder could be “done quickly,” he comes to learn that the doing of an evil deed can rarely be completed in such a neat and clean manner (1.7.2). Instead, the event remains open, ongoing, unfinished. And Macbeth’s immoral act will exert an irreparable impact on his personality.…

Does Macbeth’s action seem consistent with his character? In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth was overcome with guilt and expressed genuine remorse for having killed Duncan. Yet in Act 2, Scene 3, which takes place just a few hours later, Macbeth proceeds to kill two more innocent people! Does this suggest that the first murder has begun to transform Macbeth’s personality? If so, how has he changed? Is he finding it easier to kill innocent people? Losing touch with his humanity?

Macbeth explains that he killed the bodyguards because his “violent love” for Duncan outran the breaks of his “reason” (2.3.129-130). But why does Macbeth really kill the servants? Merely to cover up his first murder? Or is there some truth to his claim that the second murder was motivated by deep-seated and irrational emotion? Perhaps the remorse and anger that Macbeth felt toward himself was redirected outwards onto Duncan’s bodyguards?

How does Lady Macbeth respond to this event? The news that her husband has murdered two more innocent people causes Lady Macbeth to faint. She must be carried back to her bedroom by an assortment of other characters. Is she merely pretending to faint? If she has really fainted, does this suggest that her personality has also begun to change? Are we finally witnessing her humanity?


Role Reversals: Macbeth as Director

After the Macbeths have usurped Duncan’s throne, Lady Macbeth perceives that her husband continues to feel guilty about the murder and is unable to sleep soundly. In an attempt to relieve his worries, she counsels her husband to forget about the events of the past: “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard. What’s done is done” (3.2.13-14). Lady Macbeth says “[w]hat’s done is done” in the hope that her husband will stop dwelling upon past events which cannot be changed — events which she believes are already “done.”

Ironically, however, the very word “done” rings with the name of their first murder victim, Duncan. The word gets repeated so many times throughout this play that it seems to echo or reverberate without end. What is Shakespeare’s message about how people’s actions come to define them?

Macbeth responds to his wife’s advice by saying, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it” (3.2.15). Macbeth’s response makes clear that he does not believe their work is “done.” Indeed, his assertion that they have “not killed” their slippery enemy implies that the killing has not ended and must continue. Shakespeare’s message would seem to be that Macbeth’s decision to kill Duncan not only causes him to lose sleep but turns his life into a living nightmare where the regicide never ends and he must commit a potentially endless series of crimes to cover it up.…

In the meantime, Macbeth begins to worry that his good friend Banquo — who had accompanied him during his first encounter with the witches — will reveal that he murdered Duncan and usurped the throne. So Macbeth hires three destitute men and, using the same tactics of persuasion that his wife had used upon him, persuades them to murder Banquo.

Macbeth tells his wife that “there shall be done / A deed of dreadful note” (3.2. 48-49). Interestingly, Macbeth protects his wife from any knowledge of the precise nature of the “deed” he’s planning. In an astounding speech, Macbeth calls upon the forces of darkness to help him perform the deed:

Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. — Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse. —
Thou marvel’st at my words, but hold thee still.
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.
So prithee, go with me. (3.2.51-63)

When they were conspiring to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth had played the director (“eye”) while Macbeth had played the actor (“hand”). But by now their roles have reversed. Or, to be more precise, Macbeth is now playing the role of director; and he is protecting his wife from having to see or reflect upon what he’s plotting.

Macbeth speaks in apostrophe to the “night,” asking it to cover up the pitying “eye” of daylight and to “cancel” the “great bond” which keeps him “pale.” The “great bond” could refer to Macbeth’s attachments to friends like Banquo and Fleance — or it could refer to his moral conscience. Either way, he must repress an important side of himself if he’s to proceed with killing a close friend.

Relegating Lady Macbeth to the role of an audience member, Macbeth expects his wife to “applaud the deed” because he thinks that he’ll be fulfilling the role of a man of action which she had scripted for him. Ironically, though, Macbeth has conscripted a group of other men to perform this latest deed on his behalf. And when she hears about it, Lady Macbeth will be horrified by the lengths to which he has taken his role, attempting to kill not one but five people.

But what’s most impressive about the speech above is how Shakespeare uses the sounds of Macbeth’s words to reinforce the content of his message. Macbeth uses an unusually large number of c- and k- sounds in words like “come,” “scarf,” “cancel,” “keeps,” “thickens,” and “crow.” These sharp consonants are suggestive of cutting and slicing. Thus, even as he councils his wife to remain innocent of the knowledge, Macbeth utters words which sound out exactly what he’s planning. Can evil have a poetry? If so, this is it!


A Man of Action: Wading in Oceans of Blood

Whereas the murders of Duncan and his bodyguards had taken place off stage, the murder of Banquo — and the attempted murder of his son, Fleance — will take place on stage in front of a stunned audience. If we had previously been encouraged to sympathize with the protagonist’s tortured psyche, the staging of this latest murder works to shift our sympathy away from his increasingly deranged and tyrannical character.

After learning that his friend Banquo has been killed, Macbeth observes that his guilt has become so immense that it would be nearly impossible to repent or become absolved. So he decides to keep killing until he feels secure in his position as king:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted before they may be scanned. (3.4.168-172)

 Here, Macbeth resolves that the circuit between “head” and “hand” will be direct and swift. There will be no more “scann[ing]” by the eye of conscience; now, the faintest flickering of an idea or suspicion will lead to immediate action.

In this way, Macbeth transforms himself from a man of conscience into a man of action who is cut off from his own feelings and moral compass. When he is told that Macduff has fled to England, Macbeth begins to suspect the Thane of Fife of disloyalty. So he resolves to take action immediately:

To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th’ 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. (4.1.169-175)

Again, Macbeth resolves to eliminate the gap that usually exists between thought and action. He exclaims that, from now on, he will act immediately, before he can reflect upon whether his actions are just or moral.

The preeminent Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has observed that Macbeth is a play about how a person’s actions can transform their personality. In her Harvard lecture about this play, Garber observes, “[I]n this case the murder comes not at the end of the play, but near its beginning. The play becomes an examination not of whether he will do the deed, but of what the deed will do to him.” (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. 204.)

How has Macbeth been transformed by his deed? In Act 1, Macbeth is filled with moral scruples which served as breaks on his desires; but by Act 4, Macbeth is apparently willing to kill innocent women and children merely to punish a fellow thane whom he suspects of disloyalty. It reveals that Macbeth has stooped to an unthinkable level of heartlessness and inhumanity.


Lady Macbeth: “What’s Done Cannot Be Undone”

But if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have undergone a role reversal, what happens to the character of Lady Macbeth?

In the second half of the play, Lady Macbeth comes to embody the conscience which her husband has repressed. Earlier in the play, Shakespeare had dropped a series of hints that Lady Macbeth was possessed by a troubled conscience. In Act 2, for example, Lady Macbeth fainted when she heard that her husband had murdered Duncan’s bodyguards. And in Act 3, Lady Macbeth has to be protected from the knowledge that her husband is plotting to murder Banquo as well as the family of Macduff.

Yet by Act 5, Lady Macbeth has learned about all of those murders and feels an enormous amount of guilt and grief. While sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth ponders, “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (5.1.36). Not only has Lady Macbeth begun to walks in her sleep, but she reenacts everything that took place on the night when she and her husband conspired to murder Duncan. It is now Lady Macbeth who feels tormented by the inability to wash the blood off her hands: “Out, damned spot, out, I say!” (5.1.36).

Thus, by the play’s end, the character who possesses a guilty conscience is not Macbeth but his wife, Lady Macbeth. Earlier in the play, a seemingly heartless wife had dismissively said, “What’s done is done”; but in the sleepwalking scene, a tormented sleepwalker laments, “What’s done cannot be undone” (3.2.14; 5.1.71). Feeling remorseful about all the pain and death they’ve caused, Lady Macbeth comes to regret what she has done and wishes she could change the past. She is unable to rest easily and now wishes that she could go back in time and undo everything.…

In this play about dualities, the ultimate duality is the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They’re a childless duo whose personalities remain complimentary even as they undergo a role reversal. 

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is an valient soldier whose ambition is checked by a strong moral conscience. So Lady Macbeth plays the role of the merciless planner (the “eye”) while Macbeth plays the role of the blind actor (the “hand”). She confronts what they’re conspiring to do without wincing or batting an eye; and he calls upon the forces of darkness to prevent his conscience from seeing what his hand will have done.

But by the end of the play, the two main characters have switched roles. Lady Macbeth is now the embodiment of a restless conscience; and Macbeth marches heartlessly forward toward his blood-soaked destiny. Needless to say, their cruel deeds have left both characters undone.


Teach It Today…

If you’re a teacher who’d like to explore these and many other topics with your students, you’ll definitely want to check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Macbeth. The 200-page resource packet includes worksheets, discussion questions, and writing tasks for every scene of Macbeth. It also features worksheets on Shakespeare's life, the Globe Theater, early-modern English, iambic pentameter, and lots more. Best of all, every single page comes with a teacher's answer key!

Save yourself hundreds of hours of prep time while motivating your students to be highly engaged. Check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Macbeth!

Macbeth Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

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