Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of the great tragedies of English literature, featuring ambitious characters undone by their own lust for power, and the struggle between destiny and choice. Like many stories, Macbeth has many elements of the Joseph Campbellian Hero’s Journey, where a character must come from humble beginnings and follow a certain path to his destiny. Furthermore, Macbeth features one of literature’s greatest temptresses – Lady Macbeth – whose own ambition causes Macbeth himself to make the many tragic mistakes he will make over the course of the play. The supernatural also plays a role in Macbeth, as the three witches confront Macbeth with a prophecy that hangs over his head just as much as Lady Macbeth. These elements contribute to make Macbeth a decidedly unusual hero’s journey, with many abrupt and tragic changes to the heroic myth as applied to an extremely flawed hero.
The character of Macbeth is a general in the army of the King of Scotland, Duncan; after a visit with three witches, who prophesy that he will kill Duncan and become King himself. Regardless of the prophecy, Macbeth believes he may be granted the kingship on his own merits: “If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir” (I.iii.137-138). Given the opportunity that has been offered him, however, and with the encouragement of his conniving wife Lady Macbeth, he eventually decides to follow through with it and gain the kingdom. However, this is not as much of a victory as he may think, as he starts to doubt his own agency and the threat of his possible death.
According to Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey, or monomyth, tells the same fundamental story no matter its iteration: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Campbell, 1949, p. 23). In the case of Macbeth, however, this story is twisted to a certain extent; Macbeth is an honorable man at the start of the play, but soon becomes torn apart by his own doubt, his fear at the fulfillment of the prophecy, and the process of growing mad with power.
In the beginning of the play, having defeated the forces of the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth finds the three witches, who tell him the prophecy that will allow him to become king. This incident is known as the 'Call to Adventure,' the event or information that is received that starts him into a journey of the unknown (Campbell, 1949, p. 41). This also counts as the Supernatural Aid, the otherworldly force that assists him on his journey – in this case, it is the witches’ prophecy that arms him with information about the future. His own ascension to the position of Thane of Cawdor could also be considered the Crossing of the First Threshold – the first step into his adventure to the throne and the end of the story.
The use of the witches as the Supernatural Aid in Macbeth plays into the effectiveness of the character as designed to actualize the desires of the real protagonist. The Supernatural Aid is just meant to be a guide or helper in the hero’s quest; they grant the hero with artifacts or tools they can use to achieve their goals and win their quests:
“What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance—promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost; that it supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within or just behind the unfamiliar features of the world” (Campbell, 1949, p. 69).
Macbeth’s witches and their prophecy, however, do not provide a protective or benign power per se, but merely an assurance that his rise to the throne will come with the inevitable murder by someone not born by a woman (Lucy and Jaggard, 1905, p. 20). The witches’ prophecy does offer him a guide to becoming king, however, with the promise that he will ascend to power. Their roles as supernatural beings are made clear – they cast spells and tell very prescient details that allude to their legitimacy as magical creatures (e.g. Macbeth’s ascension to the Thane of Cawdor immediately after being told that by the witches). Their aid, however, is somewhat conditional and ambiguously helpful – it tends to define Macbeth’s journey more than aid it, as he feels he must fulfill the prophecy (Kranz, 2003). To that end, the witches present a Supernatural Aid that may not be very helpful at all.
One element of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth that is most definitely present in Macbeth is the Woman as Temptress – in this case, it is Macbeth’s conniving wife, Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is an interesting, if abrasive and unfriendly, character whose own feminine power constantly emasculates Macbeth - eventually, he kills Duncan more for her own benefit than his, and frequently questions whether or not he actually chose to kill him or whether or not he was manipulated (Burnett, 1993). In the play, she clearly is the power behind Macbeth, as he is too cowardly to make decisions on his own, whereas she is confident in her own choices. “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” says she, equating her status as a woman with the murder she is about to be an accessory to (I.v.45-46). Here, Lady Macbeth is one of the driving forces behind Macbeth's own pride; despite being controlled by her, he still feels as though he deserves the crown - he merely pushes himself to kill Duncan faster than he normally would have (Chamberlain, 2005).
The ‘woman as temptress’ step in Campbellian monomyths involves the hero being confronted with things that please them at the cost of failing their quest or changing their priorities to suit those of the temptress. In the case of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s ambitions more or less coincide with his – they both want to be king, but Lady Macbeth pushes him a bit further to do the deed than he might have typically been prepared for. Macbeth, unlike many other successful heroes, succumbs to the temptations of the woman, as she proves to be a domineering and alluring presence in his life (Levin, 2002). According to Campbell, “The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total master of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master” (1949, p. 101). However, in Macbeth, the woman is master of the hero, as she is able to manipulate him effectively and expertly, getting him to kill Duncan and ascend to the throne. Lady Macbeth is impatient with the hero for his lack of resolve in fulfilling his goal, while her tactics also get him killed in the end; she believes that Macbeth is "too full o' the milk of human kindness" to take what he wants (I.v.1). This leads to a treatment of the woman as temptress that is decidedly unconventional; she both helps him achieve his goals and leads him to his doom.
Other elements of the Campbell monomyth are present in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s constant prodding and his own scheming to take Duncan’s place at the throne lead him to eventually kill Duncan and take his place on the throne. This is the stage known as the Belly of the Whale; here, he is reborn from Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor and loyal servant of the king, to King Macbeth, ruler over all of Scotland. This is the point when Macbeth permanently changes as a character from good to evil, from brave to tyrannical, and so on. Another stage matched in Macbeth is the Atonement with the Father, in which Macbeth must finally own up to the responsibility he played in Duncan’s death; this comes near the end of the play, where MacDuff faces off against Macbeth to reclaim the throne he took unjustly. This is where the main story of Macbeth differs from the Campbellian monomyth, as Macbeth is killed in this duel and beheaded; there is no Return from the Threshold or Apotheosis, where the main character achieves their quest and moves on to a divine state. Macbeth merely dies, which is a good thing, as Macduff allows stability to return to Scotland after Macbeth’s disastrous rule.
Macbeth’s journey does not follow the standard hero’s journey as outlined by Campbell; like many tragic characters, Macbeth could be said to be a failed hero. His Supernatural Aid are the three witches that provide him with the prophecy that leads him to kill his king and paves the way for his own destruction. While he is given a guarantee by the witches that all the things mentioned will come true, his death is something that he overlooks. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth plays the role of the Woman as Temptress; attempting to stoke his hunger for power by getting him to kill Duncan sooner rather than later, she forces Macbeth to accelerate his plans because of his lust for power. To that end, she helps him accomplish his goals, but also betrays him by forcing him along this path in the first place. Because of this, Macbeth is afforded a short, ignominious reign before being soundly defeated and killed by the very people he was meant to govern. The abrupt stopping of the hero’s journey to kill the hero without redemption is another indicator that the structure of Macbeth falls somewhat outside the realm of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.
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Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chamberlain, S. (2005). Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in
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Kranz, D. L. (2003). The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth. Studies in
Philology, 100(3), 346-383.
Levin, J. (2002). Lady MacBeth and the daemonologie of hysteria. ELH, 69(1), 21-55.
Lucy, M., & Jaggard, W. (1905). Shakespeare and the Supernatural: A Brief Study of Folklore,
Superstition, and Witchcraft in 'Macbeth, ''Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Tempest,'. At the Shakespeare Press, Jaggard.
Shakespeare, W. (1991). Macbeth. Chelsea House.