Macbeth is a tragedy that tells the story of a soldier whose overriding ambition and thirst for power cause him to abandon his morals and bring about the near destruction of the kingdom he seeks to rule. At first the conflict is between Macbeth and himself, as he debates whether or not he will violently seize power, and between Macbeth and his wife, as Lady Macbeth urges her husband toward a course of action he is hesitant to take. Once Macbeth stops struggling against his ambition, the conflict shifts. It then primarily exists between Macbeth and the other characters, in particular Banquo and Macduff, who challenge his authority. Macbeth is the protagonist in the sense that he is the main focus of the narrative and that audiences frequently have access to his point of view. However, as he often acts against his own best interests, as well as the best interests of the other characters and his country, he is also the antagonist. The characters who oppose Macbeth and eventually defeat him do so in order to restore order and justice.
The play actually opens with the consequences of someone else’s ambition. In the first scene, audiences hear about the bloody conflict that resulted from the rebellion led by the Thane of Cawdor. The rebellion foreshadows the consequences of overreaching one’s role. The conflict is initiated when Macbeth encounters the witches who prophesize that he will become first the Thane of Cawdor, and then the King of Scotland. As soon as he learns that their first prophecy has come true, he is awakened to the possibility of the second also being realized. As Macbeth marvels to himself, “Two truths are told/As happy prologues to the swelling act/ Of the imperial theme” (1.3.128-130). In a crucial turning point in the play, Macbeth is faced with a choice: to take decisive action to claim the crown as his own, or to simply wait and see what happens. Every choice he makes, and every thing that happens for the rest of the play stem from his decision here. Macbeth feels ambivalence, as he wants to be king but also knows that he owes Duncan loyalty both “as his kinsman and as his subject” (1.7.13).
The tension between duty and ambition sharpens when Lady Macbeth learns of the prophecy that her husband will become king, and immediately begins strategizing ways to bring about the fulfilment of the prophecy. Now Macbeth is torn between loyalty to Duncan and loyalty to his wife, who does not appear to feel any shame, doubt, or remorse about the dark act she is plotting. She is eager to “pour my spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear/And chastise with the valor of my tongue/All that impedes [him] from the golden round” (1.5.25-27). The audience has the sense that Lady Macbeth may have been longing for just such an opportunity where she can put her intelligence and strategic ability to good use. Lady Macbeth successfully manipulates her husband into taking action, telling him, “when you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49). This initial conflict over whether or not he can kill his king, which exists both between Macbeth and himself and between Macbeth and his wife, is resolved when Macbeth acts, murdering Duncan and then seizing power after the more obvious heirs flee in fear of being accused of the crime.
After the murder, the conflict resides primarily in the opposition between Macbeth and the individuals who mistrust his power and how he got it. Having damned himself by killing Duncan, Macbeth will stop at nothing to hold on to his power. At the start of Act 3, the audience learns that Banquo is suspicious of whether Macbeth may have achieved power through nefarious means. Perhaps because he knows that Banquo has reason to mistrust him, and certainly because he fears that Banquo’s heirs are a challenge to his lineage, Macbeth arranges to have Banquo and his son murdered. Both Macbeth and his wife have changed: Macbeth, formerly hesitant, is now completely firm and decisive, and Lady Macbeth, formerly impatient and bloodthirsty, now thinks it would be fine to leave matters well enough alone. For example, she explicitly tells him that he “must leave this” (3.2.35), while he explains that “things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (3.2.55). The murder of Banquo furthers the heightens the conflict. Macbeth is clearly a tyrannical figure, and that the plot will revolve around him being removed from power and punished for his crimes.
The expository speech between Lennox and the lord in Act 3, Scene 6 clarifies that political loyalties have shifted and that Macbeth is now viewed as a usurper who needs to be deposed. We see that Macbeth’s rule is disastrous for Scotland as a whole, as Lennox laments the fate of “this our suffering country/Under a hand accursed” (3.6.49-50). Macbeth’s horrific order of the murder of Macduff’s wife and children creates a more specific personal conflict within the broader one; Macduff now has a case for a personal vengeance against Macbeth. Spurred by his rage and grief, Macduff vows to “Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself/Within my sword’s length set him” (4.3.234-235). Macduff’s declaration of personal enmity against Macbeth sets the stage for the final conflict between the two, and for Macbeth’s defeat. A positive outcome becomes impossible for Macbeth as he gradually loses his authority, power, and eventually his wife.
Ultimately, Macbeth’s overreliance on his belief he is fated to be king leads to his downfall, since he arrogantly misinterprets the witches’ prophecies, believing that they promise him glory while in fact the prophecies predict how he will be defeated. While the audience has long understood that the witches are untrustworthy and up to no good, Macbeth only realizes this fact when facing his own death. He laments that the witches “palter with us in a double sense/That keep the word of promise to our ear/And break it to our hope” (5.8.20-22). Although he blames the witches, his own ambition is equally to blame. He heard what he wanted to hear and believed what he wanted to believe from the first moment he met the witches. Yet Macbeth is not entirely unsympathetic, as he had several powerful forces inciting him to action, and for a long time truly believed he was following his fate. His death resolves the political and social conflict, since the legitimate king can now return to power and restore order to Scotland. The play’s brief falling action allows for the promise of a brighter future under Malcolm’s new reign.