Initially reacting to the three witches’ prophecy with scepticism, upon the realisation of that which they promised, or foresaw, Macbeth’s character undergoes a series of fundamental transformations. From a loyal and heroic warrior, he becomes a treacherous and cowardly murderer. From a cautious initiate into evil, one who is, indeed, seemingly goaded into crime by his wife’s taunts, he becomes evil, itself; acting with violence and impunity against any at all, real or imagined, threats and obstacles. Thoroughly believing all that which the three sisters had prophesized, Macbeth gradually forgoes caution, no longer making the effort to conceal his crimes. After all, the witches had told him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (Act IV, scene 5, l. 80) and that “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him” (ll. 91-93). In Act V, Scene 5, however, the unthinkable happens as Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane, heralding the downfall of Macbeth.
Act V, scene 5 is, as may have been deduced from the introductory paragraph, the turning point of the play, that one scene where everything comes to a head. At the outset of the scene, Macbeth orders his men to hang his banners on the castle walls, confidently expressing conviction in his own immunity, his invincibility. The castle will hold and he will not be harmed, not only because the wood can never come to the hill but because no mortal, no man of woman born, has the power to harm him. At the height of his confidence in his own immortality, however, he learns of Lady Macbeth’s death. Reality is trying to break into Macbeth’s delusions and illusions but he staves it off and, in his own way, escapes confrontation with the reality of his wife’s death:
She should have died hereafter
There would have been time for such a word.
Macbeth is not acting as unfeelingly to his wife’s death as these lines would suggest. Instead, as he stands at a crossroads between mortality and immortality (will he die or will his interpretation of the prophecy prove true) he rejects the thought of immortality, of the inevitability of death. Added to that, with what he is confronting at the moment, he cannot, at the psychological and emotional levels, deal with his wife’s death.
Macbeth, as evident in the two lines quoted in the preceding – in his reaction to his wife’s death, has changed. Earlier in the play, he was seemingly entirely dependant on Lady Macbeth, it was her ambition which drove him to action, and her words which mapped out the nature of his acts. He is no longer dependant on her, he takes direction from his own counsel and follows his own inclinations to the extent that he does not even pause to consider the implications of her death.
The fact that Macbeth has distanced himself from reality, is living within the context of his illusory interpretation of the witches’ prophecy is further evidenced in the following:
- Out, out, brief candle
- Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
- That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
- And then is heard no more (Act V, sc. 5, ll.22-25)
Macbeth’s words are ironic. The average span of human life, the very fact of mortality, is objectionable to him and, believing that his end will not come anytime soon, speaks from the vantage point of an immortal. He belittles mortals whose lives and tales of life are “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (ll. 24-25). The humble king’s servant has become an arrogant, self-deluding `immortal,’ or would be immortal.
In this scene, Macbeth comes across as that which he has become: an arrogant, self-deluding fool. His downfall, his end, is staring him in the face, his castle is surrounded and many of his men have deserted him. Yet, he is utterly convinced that he is invincible and that no man has the power to harm him and that the laws of nature must be transgressed for his downfall to come about. When contrasted with the soldier whose victories were enabled by his realistic outlook, by his careful evaluation of risks, the extent to which he has undergone a character change is clear.
In the final analysis, the importance of this particular scene rests on the fact that not only is the reader/audience allowed an insight into Macbeth’s thought processes and confronted with the man which he has become but, that this scene is the final one in which Macbeth is able to hold fast to his illusions, arrogance and belief in his own invincibility.