In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, we meet numerous characters, but only a handful of them are truly important. 

The protagonist and tragic hero of the play is Macbeth. When we first meet him, he is a well-respected Scottish nobleman and loyal to King Duncan, who is also his relative. However, a prophecy ignites Macbeth’s ambition and makes him kill the King. He gradually becomes a cruel tyrant. This eventually leads to his moral destruction, the loss of his wife, and eventually his life.

Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife and partner in crime. She fully supports his ambition and presents herself as an unusually strong woman for her time. This is seen when she is bossing around her husband or commanding evil spirits to remove her feminine characteristics. However, as guilt catches up with her, she commits suicide.

The three witches function as catalysts for Macbeth’s ambition as their prophecy predicts that he will become king. In reality, though, the witches appear to be tricking him, simply because they enjoy bringing down a great man like Macbeth. Their wild and masculine appearances as well as their strange way of speaking underline how they do not belong to the human world. 

King Duncan appears to be a good ruler, but his greatest weakness is his naivety. He was fooled by the traitor Cawdor, and he is fooled by the Macbeths. Since a king was considered God’s representative on Earth, killing a king was such a monstrous crime that it would lead to the entire universe collapsing into chaos. This is exactly what happens in Macbeth.

Another innocent victim of Macbeth’s ambition is his friend and fellow general Banquo murdered because the witches made a prophecy for him too: Banquo is to be the father of future kings, which Macbeth sees as a threat. However, Banquo’s ghost returns to haunt him. Macbeth goes to see the witches for the second time and receive another prophecy, but he fails to interpret it correctly.

King Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, is the one who eventually overthrows Macbeth. As the rightful heir, this is his right as well as his duty, and he thereby restores order. He is assisted by Macduff, a nobleman whose family has been brutally killed on Macbeth’s orders after Macduff turned against him. Macduff kills Macbeth, as predicted by the witches.

If you need an overview of the central characters, see our character map.