In this article you will learn about the archetypes in Macbeth by William Shakespeare, a play containing various archetypes commonly seen in literature throughout the ages.
What are the Archetypes in Macbeth?
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of many literary archetypes.
Macbeth exemplifies the tragic hero – a man with heroic qualities who begins as a seemingly good man but who, because he makes one fatal mistake, is destined for tragedy.
He succumbs to his own ambition, a character flaw which, when unchecked by some and actively encouraged by others (his wife specifically), he is unable to control. Instead of being a force for good he ultimately uses his qualities for negative ends, resulting in tragic consequences.
Lady Macbeth is both the archetypal mentor who guides and encourages others, and archetypal temptress, who uses temptation to allure another into doing their bidding, going against their own better judgement.
In these guises she identifies the flaw in Macbeth – his ambition – and uses it to achieve her own ends.
In the witches we see archetypal tricksters who deceive and trick others for their own purposes, as well as archetypal villains used by the author as evil devices to move the plot forward.
In Banquo we see the archetypal wise old man, known for his wisdom, intelligence and sound judgement.
In Malcolm we see the ‘good’ hero, the foil to Macbeth’s tragic hero, who is on the side of good and ultimately avenges his father’s death. In Duncan we see the innocent, easily persuaded by others and gullible but good at heart.
In the plot rather than the characters we see the archetypal fall and tragedy of the ‘hero’ Macbeth from the position of having everything he wants in the world to losing it all due to his own faults and failings.
We also witness the classic archetypal battle of good versus evil, where those on the side of good must fight to avenge the evils done to those who cannot defend themselves and must fight to defeat the forces of evil in order to put things in their right order again.
Macbeth Book Summary
- Following victory in battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will be made Thane of Cawdor and later become King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s descendants will also be Kings of Scotland.
- When Macbeth is duly made Thane he wonders if the other prophesy that he will be King will also come true.
- Encouraged by his wife Lady Macbeth he murders the current King Duncan and seizes the throne for himself.
- Worrying about the third prophecy, he has Banquo and his sons murdered too.
- Haunted by visions of Banquo, Macbeth visits the witches again and they prophesy that the only person he need fear is Macduff, that nobody who woman has given birth to can harm him and that only when Birnam Wood moves will he be defeated, leaving Macbeth feeling invincible.
- Macduff tries to convince Duncan’s son Malcolm to fight Macbeth and, on their way to Macbeth’s castle, they disguise themselves with branches from Birnam Wood.
- With the wood now appearing to move the witches prophecy has come true.
- Lady Macbeth, having descended into madness, commits suicide.
- Macduff reveals he was born by c-section, making the second prophecy come true, and he kills Macbeth. Malcolm is restored to his father’s throne.
Macbeth Archetype Examples
- Tragic Hero
- Wise Old Man
- The Fall
- The Tragedy
- Good vs Evil
Want more literary archetypes?
Go check out our extensive list of archetypes in literature to find out more about the characters seen in literature throughout the ages.