Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are undoubtedly one of the most memorable husband-wife duos in the history of literature. As the main characters in Shakespeare’s renowned tragic play, both characters meet untimely ends because of their lust for power. Ambition is the keystone of both their personalities-but while Lady Macbeth is cunning and ruthless from the beginning, Macbeth must be bullied into action. When he does begin his bloody reign, he finds there is no end to the number of dissidents who must be violently dealt with. His death comes about through his own lack of forethought; he overreaches himself. Lady Macbeth commits suicide. But who is to blame for this tragedy? Is Lady Macbeth, the callous instigator, to blame for the body count? Or is Macbeth, the reluctant killer who nevertheless murders more with each passing day, at fault? I postulate it is Macbeth. By continuing to kill after he has achieved his goal, failing to feel guilt by the tale’s end, and murdering innocents to send a message, Macbeth emerges as far more morally corrupt than Lady Macbeth.
It is true that Lady Macbeth is the one who begins the slaughter by encouraging Macbeth to kill Duncan, the king of Scotland. Without her nudge, Macbeth probably would not have committed that fateful first murder. He might not have even acted on the prophecy at all, but instead waited to see if it would come true. He demonstrates his reluctance several times: notably, “We will proceed no further in this business,” he declares. (I.vii.31) To this, Lady Macbeth only unleashes a barrage of emasculating arguments, including, “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.” (I.vii.49-51) Macbeth, harangued into action, kills Duncan and secures the throne, leading to the rest of his tyrannical reign. His guilt over his evil acts shines through most memorably when he hallucinates seeing Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. Nevertheless, it is Macbeth who decided to kill Banquo, not Lady Macbeth. It is Macbeth who orders his lackeys to slaughter Macduff’s defenseless family. It is Macbeth who continues to kill long after he has achieved his ends, for the mere purpose of eliminating suspicion and possible enemies. Because he begins to kill based on doubt and insecurity, rather than to reach a tangible goal, Macbeth exhibits more moral corruption than his wife.
By the end of the play, Macbeth has changed from an honorable but ambitious general into a monstrous, unfeeling tyrant. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, changes from ambitious and cunning to weak and guilt-wracked. She and her husband display opposite character arcs; while he grows more emboldened by each new murder, she becomes more sensitive to the enormity of their acts over time. This guilt leads to her death, ostensibly by suicide. Meanwhile, Macbeth kills with increasing impunity, and in the end eagerly charges into battle against the do-gooders. By the end of Macbeth, we also see Macbeth’s stunted capacity for emotion. He orders the extermination of Macduff’s family to send a message. And when he hears the news of his wife’s death, he does not feel pain, but instead launches into a melancholy diatribe against the futility of life. He says,
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty place from day to day,
…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
Macbeth’s downward spiral exhibits more moral corruption than his wife because he ceases to place value on human life. While she comes to that realization (painfully), he moves away from it.
Lastly, Macbeth, unlike Lady Macbeth, murders innocents. This is graphically shown when the murderers, sent by Macbeth, slay Macduff’s child, pursue his wife, and proceed to massacre the rest of his helpless family. “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes/ Savagely slaughtered,” Ross says to Macduff. (IV.iii.204-205) Macbeth, when he gets the idea to carry out the foul deed, displays nothing but cold calculation and even excitement. He declares,
…From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
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’ th’ sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line.
And indeed, he never shows remorse for the act. Lady Macbeth had nothing to do with this; she did not sanction it, and it is doubtful she knew about it. She could not even kill Duncan herself, even though she wanted to be able to do so; I believe she would have balked at the prospect of slaying Macduff’s family. Macbeth shows no such compunction. Thus, he demonstrates extreme moral corruption.
By the end of the play, Macbeth is dead-beheaded. His fall from worshiped warrior to despised tyrant is difficult to watch, but a weak will does not absolve him of his sins. Lady Macbeth may have led the proverbial horse to water, but Macbeth drank of it far too deeply. Because of his continued desire to kill, his merciless slaughter of Macduff’s family, and his inability to feel guilt-or much of anything-about his crimes by the play’s end, Macbeth’s evil nature and lack of a moral center come to dominate him.