From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare

Author: Thomas Whately  | Date: 1785

From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare

by Thomas Whately *001

EVERY Play of Shakespeare abounds with instances of his excellence in distinguishing characters. It would be difficult to determine which is the most striking of all that he drew; but his merit will appear most conspicuously by comparing two opposite characters, who happen to be placed in similar circumstances:- not that on such occasions he marks them more strongly than on others, but because the contrast makes the distinction more apparent; and of these none seem to agree so much in situation, and to differ so much in disposition, as RICHARD THE THIRD and MACBETH. Both are soldiers, both usurpers; both attain the throne by the same means, by treason and murther; and both lose it too in the same manner, in battle against the person claiming it as lawful heir. Perfidy, violence, and tyranny are common to both; and those only, their obvious qualities, would have been attributed indiscriminately to both by an ordinary dramatic writer. But Shakespeare, in conformity to the truth of history as far as it led him, and by improving upon the fables which have been blended with it, has ascribed opposite principles and motives to the same designs and actions, and various effects to the operation of the same events upon different tempers. Richard and Macbeth, as represented by him, agree in nothing but their fortunes.

The periods of history, from which the subjects are taken, are such as at the best can be depended on only for some principal facts; but not for the minute detail, by which characters are unravelled. That of Macbeth is too distant to be particular; that of Richard, too full of discord and animosity to be true: and antiquity has not feigned more circumstances of horror in the one, than party violence has given credit to in the other. Fiction has even gone so far as to introduce supernatural fables into both stories: the usurpation of Macbeth is said to have been foretold by some witches; and the tyranny of Richard by omens attending his birth. From these fables, Shakespeare, unrestrained and indeed uninformed by history, seems to have taken the hint of their several characters; and he has adapted their dispositions so as to give to such fictions, in the days he wrote, a shew of probability. The first thought of acceding to the throne is suggested, and success in the attempt is promised, to Macbeth by the witches: he is therefore represented as a man, whose natural temper would have deterred him from such a design, if he had not been immediately tempted, and strongly impelled to it. Richard, on the other hand, brought with him into the world the signs of ambition and cruelty: his disposition, therefore, is suited to those symptoms; and he is not discouraged from indulging it by the improbability of succeeding, or by any difficulties and dangers which obstruct his way.

Agreeably to these ideas, Macbeth appears to be a man not destitute of the feelings of humanity. His lady gives him that character:

-I fear thy nature;

It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,

To catch the nearest way.-

Which apprehension was well founded; for his reluctance to commit the murther is owing in a great measure to reflexions which arise from sensibility:

-He’s here in double trust:

First, as I am his kinsman and his subject;

Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,

Who should against his murtherer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself.-

Immediately after he tells Lady Macbeth,

We will proceed no further in this business;

He hath honour’d me of late.

And thus giving way to his natural feelings of kindred, hospitality, and gratitude, he for a while lays aside his purpose.

A man of such a disposition will esteem, as they ought to be esteemed, all gentle and amiable qualities in another: and therefore Macbeth is affected by the mild virtues of Duncan; and reveres them in his sovereign when he stifles them in himself. That

-This Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meekly; hath been

So clear in his great office,-

is one of his reasons against the murther: and when he is tortured with the thought of Banquo’s issue succeeding him in the throne, he aggravates his misery by observing, that,

For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d:

which epithet of gracious would not have occurred to one who was not struck with the particular merit it expresses.

The frequent references to the prophecy in favour of Banquo’s issue, is another symptom of the same disposition: for it is not always from fear, but sometimes from envy, that he alludes to it: and being himself very susceptible of those domestic affections, which raise a desire and love of posterity, he repines at the succession assured to the family of his rival, and which in his estimation seems more valuable than his own actual possession. He therefore reproaches the sisters for their partiality, when

Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown,

And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,

Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,

No son of mine succeeding. If ’tis so,

For Banquo’s issue have I ’fil’d my mind,

For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d;

Put rancours in the vessel of my peace

Only for them; and mine eternal jewel

Given to the common enemy of man,

To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!

Rather than so, come, Fate, into the list,

And champion me to the utterance.-

Thus, in a variety of instances, does the tenderness in his character shew itself; and one who has these feelings, though he may have no principles, cannot easily be induced to commit a murther. The intervention of a supernatural cause accounts for his acting so contrary to his disposition. But that alone is not sufficient to prevail entirely over his nature: the instigations of his wife are also necessary to keep him to his purpose; and she, knowing his temper, not only stimulates his courage to the deed, but sensible that, besides a backwardness in daring, he had a degree of softness which wanted hardening, endeavours to remove all remains of humanity from his breast, by the horrid comparison she makes between him and herself:

-I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash’d the brains out, had I but so sworn

As you have done to this.-

The argument is, that the strongest and most natural affections are to be stifled upon so great an occasion: and such an argument is proper to persuade one who is liable to be swayed by them; but is no incentive either to his courage or his ambition.

Richard is in all these particulars the very reverse to Macbeth. He is totally destitute of every softer feeling:

I that have neither pity, love, nor fear,

is the character he gives of himself, and which he preserves throughout; insensible to his habitudes with a brother, to his connexion with a wife, to the piety of the king, and the innocence of the babes, whom he murthers. The deformity of his body was supposed to indicate a similar depravity of mind; and Shakespeare makes great use both of that, and of the current stories of the times concerning the circumstances of his birth, to intimate that his actions proceeded not from the occasion, but from a savageness of nature. Henry therefore tells him,

Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,

And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope;

To wit, an indigested, deform’d lump,

Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,

To signify thou cam’st to bite the world;

And, if the rest be true which I have heard,

Thou cam’st into the world with thy legs forward.

Which violent invective does not affect Richard as a reproach; it serves him only for a pretence to commit the murther he came resolved on; and his answer while he is killing Henry is,

I’ll hear no more; die, prophet, in thy speech!

For this, among the rest, was I ordain’d.

Immediately afterwards he resumes the subject himself; and, priding himself that the signs given at his birth were verified in his conduct, he says,

Indeed ’tis true that Henry told me of;

For I have often heard my mother say,

I came into the world with my legs forward.

Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste,

And seek their ruin that usurp’d our right?

The midwife wonder’d; and the women cry’d,

O Jesus bless us! he is born with teeth!

And so I was; which plainly signified

That I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog.

Then, since the Heavens have shap’d my body so,

Let Hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.

Several other passages to the same effect imply that he has a natural propensity to evil; crimes are his delight: but Macbeth is always in an agony when he thinks of them. He is sensible, before he proceeds, of

-the heat-oppressed brain.

He feels

-the present horror of the time

Which now suits with it.-

And immediately after he has committed the murther, he is

-afraid to think what he has done.

He is pensive even while he is enjoying the effect of his crimes; but Richard is in spirits merely at the prospect of committing them; and what is effort in the one, is sport to the other. An extraordinary gaiety of heart shews itself upon those occasions, which to Macbeth seem most awful; and whether he forms or executes, contemplates the means, or looks back on the success, of the most wicked and desperate designs, they are at all times to him subjects of merriment. Upon parting from his brother, he bids him

Go, tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return;

Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so,

That I will shortly send thy soul to Heaven,

If Heaven will take the present at our hands.

His amusement, when he is meditating the murther of his nephews, is the application of some proverbs to their discourse and situation:

So wise so young, they say, do ne’er live long.


Short summer lightly has a forward spring.

His ironical address to Tyrrel,

Dar’st thou resolve to kill a friend of mine?

is agreeable to the rest of his deportment: and his pleasantry does not forsake him when he considers some of his worst deeds, after he has committed them; for the terms in which he mentions them are, that,

The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom;

And Ann my wife hath bid the world good night.

But he gives a still greater loose to his humour, when his deformity, and the omens attending his birth, are alluded to, either by himself or by others, as symptoms of the wickedness of his nature....

But the characters of Richard and Macbeth are marked not only by opposite qualities; but even the same qualities in each differ so much in the cause, the kind, and the degree, that the distinction in them is as evident as in the others. Ambition is common to both; but in Macbeth it proceeds only from vanity, which is flattered and satisfied by the splendor of a throne: in Richard it is founded upon pride; his ruling passion is the lust of power:

-this earth affords no joy to him,

But to command, to check, and to o’erbear.

And so great is that joy, that he enumerates among the delights of war,

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries;

which is a pleasure brave men do not very sensibly feel; they rather value


Nobly, hardly fought.-

But, in Richard, the sentiments natural to his high courage are lost in the greater satisfaction of trampling on mankind, and seeing even those whom he despises crouching beneath him: at the same time, to submit himself to any authority, is incompatible with his eager desire of ruling over all; nothing less than the first place can satiate his love of dominion: he declares that he shall

Count himself but bad, till he is best:


While I live account this world but hell,

Until the mis-shap’d trunk that bears this head

Be round impaled with a glorious crown.

Which crown he hardly ever mentions, except in swelling terms of exultation; and which, even after he has obtained it, he calls

The high imperial type of this earth’s glory.

But the crown is not Macbeth’s pursuit through life: he had never thought of it till it was suggested to him by the witches; he receives their promise, and the subsequent earnest of the truth of it, with calmness. But his wife, whose thoughts are always more aspiring, hears the tidings with rapture, and greets him with the most extravagant congratulations; she complains of his moderation; the utmost merit she can allow him is, that he is

-not without ambition.

But it is cold and faint, for the subject of it is that of a weak mind; it is only pre-eminence of place, not dominion. He never carries his idea beyond the honour of the situation he aims at; and therefore he considers it as a situation which Lady Macbeth will partake of equally with him: and in his letter tells her,

This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou might’st not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promis’d thee.

But it was his rank alone, not his power, in which she could share: and that indeed is all which he afterwards seems to think he had attained by his usurpation. He styles himself,

-high-plac’d Macbeth:

but in no other light does he ever contemplate his advancement with satisfaction; and when he finds that it is not attended with that adulation and respect which he had promised himself, and which would have soothed his vanity, he sinks under the disappointment, and complains that

-my way of life

Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf;

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have.-

These blessings, so desirable to him, are widely different from the pursuits of Richard. He wishes not to gain the affections, but to secure the submission of his subjects, and is happy to see men shrink under his controul. But Macbeth, on the contrary, reckons among the miseries of his condition

-mouth-honour, breath,

Which the poor heart would fain deny, but dare not:

and pities the wretch who fears him.

The towering ambition of Richard, and the weakness of that passion in Macbeth, are further instances wherein Shakespeare has accommodated their characters to the fabulous parts of their stories. The necessity for the most extraordinary incitements to stimulate the latter, thereby becomes apparent; and the meaning of the omens, which attended the birth of the former, is explained. Upon the same principle, a distinction still stronger is made in the article of courage, though both are possessed of it even to an eminent degree; but in Richard it is intrepidity, and in Macbeth no more than resolution: in him it proceeds from exertion, not from nature; in enterprise he betrays a degree of fear, though he is able, when occasion requires, to stifle and subdue it. When he and his wife are concerting the murther, his doubt,

-If we should fail,

is a difficulty raised by apprehension; and as soon as that is removed by the contrivance of Lady Macbeth, to make the officers drunk, and lay the crime upon them, he runs with violence into the other extreme of confidence, and cries out, with a rapture unusual to him,

-Bring forth men-children only!

For thy undaunted metal should compose

Nothing but males. Will it not be received,

When we have mark’d with blood these sleepy two

Of his own chamber, and us’d their very daggers,

That they have done it?-

Which question he puts to her, who but the moment before had suggested the thought of

His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt

Of our great quell.-

And his asking it again proceeds from that extravagance, with which a delivery from apprehension and doubt is always accompanied. Then summoning all his fortitude, he says,

I am settled, and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat;

and proceeds to the bloody business without any further recoils. But a certain degree of restlessness and anxiety still continues, such as is constantly felt by a man, not naturally very bold, worked up to a momentous atchievement. His imagination dwells entirely on the circumstances of horror which surround him; the vision of the dagger; the darkness and the stillness of the night; and the terrors and the prayers of the chamberlains. Lady Macbeth, who is cool and undismayed, attends to the business only; considers of the place where she had laid the daggers ready; the impossibility of his missing them; and is afraid of nothing but a disappointment. She is earnest and eager; he is uneasy and impatient, and therefore wishes it over:

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me;

Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell

Which summons thee to heaven or to hell.

But a resolution, thus forced, cannot hold longer than the immediate occasion for it: the moment after that is accomplished for which it was necessary, his thoughts take the contrary turn, and he cries out in agony and despair,

Wake, Duncan, with this knocking: would thou could’st!

That courage, which had supported him while he was settled and bent up, forsakes him so immediately after he has performed the

terrible feat for which it had been exerted, that he forgets the favourite circumstance of laying it on the officers of the bed-chamber; and when reminded of it, he refuses to return and complete his work, acknowledging that

I am afraid to think what I have done;

Look on’t again I dare not.-

His disordered senses deceive him, and his debilitated spirits fail him; he owns that

-every noise appals him.

He listens when nothing stirs; he mistakes the sounds he does hear; he is so confused, as not to distinguish whence the knocking proceeds. She, who is more calm, knows that it is at the south entry; she gives clear and direct answers to all the incoherent questions he asks her: but he returns none to that which she puts to him; and though after some time, and when necessity again urges him to recollect himself, he recovers so far as to conceal his distress, yet he still is not able to divert his thoughts from it....

Nothing can be conceived more directly opposite to the agitations of Macbeth’s mind, than the serenity of Richard in parallel circumstances. Upon the murther of the Prince of Wales, he immediately resolves on the assassination of Henry; and stays only to say to Clarence,

Rich. Clarence, excuse me to the king my brother;

I’ll hence to London, on a serious matter:

Ere ye come there, be sure to hear some news.

Cla. What? What?

Rich. The Tower, man, the Tower! I’ll root them out.

It is a thought of his own, which just then occurs to him: he determines upon it without hesitation; it requires no consideration, and admits of no delay: he is eager to put it in execution; but his eagerness proceeds from ardor, not from anxiety; and is not hurry, but dispatch. He does not wait to communicate to the king his brother; he only hints the thought, as he had conceived it, to Clarence; and supposes that the name alone of the Tower will sufficiently indicate his business there. When come thither, he proceeds directly without relenting; it is not to him, as to Macbeth, a terrible feat, but only a serious matter: and

Sir, leave us to ourselves, we must confer,

is all the preparation he makes for it; and indeed with him it is little more than a conference with an enemy: his animosity and his insolence are the same, both before and after the assassination; and nothing retards, staggers, or alarms him. The humour which breaks from him, upon this and other occasions, has been taken notice of already, as a mark of his depravity; it is at the same time a proof of his calmness, and of the composure he preserves when he does not indulge himself in ridicule. It is with the most unfeeling steadiness that he tells the first tidings of the death of Clarence to Edward, when, on the Queen’s intercession in his favour, he occasionally introduces it as a notorious fact, and tells her,

Who knows not that the gentle duke is dead?

You do him injury to scorn his corse.

He feels no remorse for the deed, nor fear of discovery; and therefore does not drop a word which can betray him, but artfully endeavours to impute it to others; and, without the least appearance of ostentation, makes the most natural and most pertinent reflections upon the fruits of rashness, and the vengeance of God against such offenders....

He never deviates; but throughout the whole progress of his reiterated crimes, he is not once daunted at the danger, discouraged by the difficulties, nor disconcerted by the accidents attending them; nor ever shocked either at the idea or the reflection.

Macbeth indeed commits subsequent murthers with less agitation than that of Duncan: but this is no inconsistency in his character; on the contrary, it confirms the principles upon which it is formed; for besides his being hardened to the deeds of death, he is impelled to the perpetration of them by other motives than those which instigated him to assassinate his sovereign. In the one he sought to gratify his ambition; the rest are for his security: and he gets rid of fear by guilt, which, to a mind so constituted, may be the less uneasy sensation of the two....

But Macbeth wants no disguise of his natural disposition, for it is not bad; he does not affect more piety than he has: on the contrary, a part of his distress arises from a real sense of religion; which, in the passages already quoted, makes him regret that he could not join with the chamberlains in prayer for God’s blessing; and bewail that he has given his eternal jewel to the common enemy of man. He continually reproaches himself for his deeds; no use can harden him; confidence cannot silence, and even despair cannot stifle the cries of his conscience. By the first murther he committed he put rancours in the vessel of his peace; and of the last he owns to Macduff,

-my soul is too much charg’d

With blood of thine already.-

How heavily it was charged with his crimes, appears from his asking the physician,

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And, with some sweet oblivious antidote,

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff,

Which weighs upon the heart?

For though it is the disorder of Lady Macbeth that gives occasion to these questions, yet the feeling with which he describes the sensations he wishes to be removed; the longing he expresses for the means of doing it; the plaintive measure of the lines; and the rage into which he bursts, when he says,

Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it-

upon being told that

-therein the patient

Must minister unto himself,-

evidently shew, that, in his own mind, he is all the while making the application to himself. His credulity in the mysterious assurances of safety, which the incantations of the witches had procured, proceeds from superstition. He considers those who give him such assurances as

-spirits that know

All mortal consequences:-

and yet he condemns all intercourse with them, at the very time that he seeks it; and he calls his own application to the sisters a resolution

-to know,

By the worst means, the worst.-

Conscious therefore of all these feelings, he has no occasion to assume the appearance, but is obliged to conceal the force of them: and Lady Macbeth finds it necessary more than once to suggest to him the precautions proper to hide the agitations of his mind. After the murther of Duncan, she bids him,

Get on your night-gown, lest occasion call us,

And shew us to be watchers. Be not lost

So poorly in your thoughts.-

and while he is meditating the death of Banquo, she says to him.

Come on;-

Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks;

Be bright and jovial with your friends to-night.

Which kind of disguise is all that is wanting to him; and yet, when he had assumed it, he in both instances betrays himself: in the first, by his too guarded conversation with Macduff and Lenox, which has been quoted already; and in the last, by an over-acted regard for Banquo, of whose absence from the feast he affects to complain, that he may not be suspected of knowing the cause of it, though at the same time he very unguardedly drops an allusion to that cause, when he says,

Here had we now our country’s honour roof’d,

Were the grac’d person of our Banquo present;

Whom may I rather challenge for unkindness,

Than pity for mischance!-

This he says before the ghost rises; and after it is vanished, he, from the same consciousness, reassumes the same affectation; and as soon as he is recovered, drinks

-to the general joy of the whole table;

And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss;

Would he were here!-

Richard is able to put on a general character, directly the reverse of his disposition; and it is ready to him upon every occasion. But Macbeth cannot effectually conceal his sensations, when it is most necessary to conceal them; nor act a part which does not belong to him with any degree of consistency: and the same weakness of mind, which disqualifies him from maintaining such a force upon his nature, shews itself still further in that hesitation and dullness to dare, which he feels in himself, and allows in others....

A mind so framed and so tortured as that of Macbeth, when the hour of extremity presses upon him, can find no refuge but in despair; and the expression of that despair by Shakespeare is perhaps one of the finest pictures that ever was exhibited. It is wildness, inconsistency, and disorder, to such a degree, and so apparent, that

Some say he’s mad; others, who lesser hate him,

Do call it valiant fury: but for certain,

He cannot buckle his distemper’d cause

Within the belt of rule.-

It is presumption without hope, and confidence without courage: that confidence rests upon his superstition; he buoys himself up with it against all the dangers that threaten him, and yet sinks upon every fresh alarm....

But his seeming composure is not resignation; it is passion still; it is one of the irregularities of despair, which sometimes overwhelms him, at other times starts into rage, and is at all times intemperate and extravagant. The resolution with which he bore up against the desertion of the Thanes, fails him, upon meeting the messenger who comes to tell him the numbers of the enemy: when he receives the confirmation of that news, his dejection turns into fury, and he declares,

I’ll fight, till from my bones my flesh is hack’d.

He then impetuously gives his orders, to

Send out more horses; skirr the country round;

Hang those that talk of fear.-

He repeats them afterwards with impatience. Though the enemy is still at a distance, he calls for his armour; notwithstanding Seyton’s remonstrance, that it is not needed yet, he persists in putting it on; he calls for it again eagerly afterwards; he bids the person who is assisting him, dispatch; then, the moment it is on, he pulls it off again, and directs his attendants to bring it after him. In the midst of all this violence and hurry, the melancholy which preys upon him shews itself, by the sympathy he expresses so feelingly, when the diseased mind of Lady Macbeth is mentioned; and yet neither the troubles of his conscience, nor his concern for her, can divert his attention from the distress of his situation. He tells her physician, that the Thanes fly from him; and betrays to him, whose assistance he could not want, and in whom he did not mean to place any particular confidence, his apprehensions of the English forces. After he has forbid those about him to bring him any more reports, he anxiously enquires for news; he dreads every danger which he supposes he scorns; at last he recurs to his superstition, as to the only relief from his agony; and concludes the agitated scene, as he had begun it, with declaring that he

-will not be afraid of death or bane,

Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.

At his next appearance, he gives his orders, and considers his situation more calmly; but still there is no spirit in him. If he is for a short time sedate, it is because

-he has surfeited with horrors;

Direness, familiar to his slaughterous thoughts,

Cannot now start him.-

He appears composed, only because he is become almost indifferent to every thing: he is hardly affected by the death of the Queen, whom he tenderly loved: he checks himself for wishing she had lived longer; for he is weary himself of life, which in his estimation now

Is 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,

Signifying nothing.-

Yet though he grows more careless about his fate, he cannot reconcile himself to it; he still flatters himself that he shall escape, even after he has found the equivocation of the fiend. When Birnam wood appeared to come towards Dunsinane, he trusts to the other assurance; and believes that he

-bears a charmed life, which must not yield

To one of woman born.-

His confidence however begins to fail him; he raves as soon as he perceives that he has reason to doubt of the promises which had been made to him, and says,

If this which he avouches does appear,

There is no flying hence, nor tarrying here.

I ’gin to be a-weary of the sun,

And wish the state o’ th’ world were now undone.-

Ring the alarum bell:- Blow, wind! come, wrack!

At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

But sensible, at last, that he is driven to extremity, and that

They’ve tied him to a stake; he cannot fly,

But, bear-like, he must fight the course,

he summons all his fortitude; and, agreeably to the manliness of character to which he had always formed himself, behaves with more temper and spirit during the battle than he had before. He is so well recovered from the disorder he had been in, that the natural sensibility of his disposition finds even in the field an opportunity to work; where he declines to fight with Macduff, not from fear, but from a consciousness of the wrongs he had done to him: he therefore answers his provoking challenge, only by saying,

Of all men else I have avoided thee:

But get thee back; my soul is too much charg’d

With blood of thine already.-

and then patiently endeavours to persuade this injured adversary to desist from so unequal a combat, for he is confident that it must be fatal to Macduff, and therefore tells him,

-thou losest labour;

As easy may’st thou the intrenchant air

With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed:

Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;

I bear a charmed life.-

But his reliance on this charm being taken away by the explanation given by Macduff, and every hope now failing him, though he wishes not to fight, yet his sense of honour being touched by the threat, to be made the shew and gaze of the time, and all his passions being now lost in despair, his habits recur to govern him; he disdains the thought of disgrace, and dies as becomes a soldier. His last words are,

-I will not yield,

To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,

And to be baited by the rabble’s curse.

Tho’ Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,

And thou oppos’d, being of no woman born,

Yet will I try the last. Before my body

I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff!

And damn’d be he that first cries, Hold, enough.

If this behaviour of Macbeth required, it would receive illustration, by comparing it with that of Richard in circumstances not very different. When he is to fight for his crown and for his life, he prepares for the crisis with the most perfect evenness of temper; and rises, as the danger thickens, into ardour, without once starting out into intemperance, or ever sinking into dejection. Though he is so far from being supported, that he is depressed, as much as a brave spirit can be depressed, by supernatural means, and instead of having a superstitious confidence, he is threatened by all the ghosts of all whom he has murthered, that they will sit heavy on his soul tomorrow, yet he soon shakes off the impression they had made, and is again as gallant as ever. Before their appearance he feels a presentiment of his fate; he observes that he

-has not that alacrity of spirit,

Nor cheer of mind, that he was wont to have:

and upon signifying his intention of lying in Bosworth field that night, the reflexion of where to-morrow? occurs to him; but he pushes it aside by answering, Well, all’s one for that: and he struggles against the lowness of spirits which he feels, but cannot account for, by calling for a bowl of wine, and applying to business. Instead of giving way to it in himself, he attends to every symptom of dejection in others, and endeavours to dispel them. He asks,

My lord of Surry, why look you so sad?

He enquires,

Saw’st thou the melancholy lord Northumberland?

and is satisfied upon being told, that he and Surry were busied in cheering up the soldiers. He adverts to every circumstance which can dishearten or encourage his attendants or his troops, and observes upon them accordingly. When he perceives the gloominess of the morning, and that the sun might probably not be seen that day, his observation is,

Not shine to-day? why, what is that to me

More than to Richmond? for the self-same heaven,

That frowns on me, looks sadly upon him.

He takes notice of the superiority of his numbers; he points out the circumstance that

-the king’s name is a tower of strength,

Which they upon the adverse faction want.

He represents the enemy as a troop only of banditti; he urges the inexperience of Richmond; and he animates his soldiers with their

-ancient word of courage, fair St. George;

the effect of which he had before intimated to the Duke of Norfolk; when, having explained to him the disposition he intended, he asks him,

This, and St. George to boot! what think’st thou, Norfolk?

He deliberately, and after having surveyed the vantage of the ground, forms that disposition by himself; for which purpose he calls for ink and paper, and, being informed that it is ready, directs his guard to watch, and his attendants to leave him; but, before he retires, he issues the necessary orders. They are not, like those of Macbeth, general and violent, but temperate and particular; delivered coolly, and distinctly given to different persons. To the Duke of Norfolk he trusts the mounting of the guard during the night, and bids him be ready himself early in the morning. He directs Catesby to

-send out a pursuivant at arms

To Stanley’s regiment; bid him bring his power

Before sun-rising.-

He bids his menial servants,

Saddle white Surry for the field to-morrow;

Look that my staves be sound, and not too heavy.

And, instead of hastily putting on, and as hastily pulling off his armour, he quietly asks,

What, is my beaver easier than it was?

And all my armour laid into my tent?

directing them to come about midnight to help to arm him. He is attentive to every circumstance preparatory to the battle; and preserves throughout a calmness and presence of mind which denote his intrepidity. He does not lose it upon being told, that the foe vaunts in the field; but recollecting the orders he had given overnight, now calls for the execution of them, by directing Lord Stanley to be sent for, and his own horse to be caparisoned. He tells the Duke of Norfolk, who is next in command to himself, the disposition he had formed; and every thing being in readiness, he then makes a speech to encourage his soldiers: but on hearing the enemy’s drum, he concludes with,

Fight, gentlemen of England! fight, bold yeomen!

Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!

Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood;

Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!

But even in this sally of ardour he is not hurried away by a blind impetuosity, but still gives orders, and distinguishes the persons to whom he addresses them. From this moment he is all on fire; and, possessed entirely with the great objects around him, others of lesser note are below his attention. Swelling himself with courage, and inspiring his troops with confidence of victory, he rushes on the enemy. It is not a formed sense of honour, nor a cold fear of disgrace, which impels him to fight; but a natural high spirit, and bravery exulting in danger: and being sensible that the competition is only personal between him and Richmond, he directs all his efforts to the destruction of his rival; endeavours himself to single him out; and

seeking him in the throat of death, he sets his own life upon the cast. Five times foiled in his aim, unhorsed, and surrounded with foes, he still persists to stand the hazard of the die; and, having

enacted more wonders than a man, loses his life in an attempt so worthy of himself.

Thus, from the beginning of their history to their last moments, are the characters of Macbeth and Richard preserved entire and distinct: and though probably Shakespeare, when he was drawing the one, had no attention to the other; yet, as he conceived them to be widely different, expressed his conceptions exactly, and copied both from nature, they necessarily became contrasts to each other; and, by seeing them together, that contrast is more apparent, especially where the comparison is not between opposite qualities, but arises from the different degrees, or from a particular display, or total omission, of the same quality. This last must often happen, as the character of Macbeth is much more complicated than that of Richard; and therefore, when they are set in opposition, the judgement of the poet shews itself as much in what he has left out of the latter as in what he has inserted. The picture of Macbeth is also, for the same reason, much the more highly finished of the two; for it required a greater variety, and a greater delicacy of painting, to express and to blend with consistency all the several properties which are ascribed to him. That of Richard is marked by more careless strokes, but they are, notwithstanding, perfectly just. Much bad composition may indeed be found in the part; it is a fault from which the best of Shakespeare’s plays are not exempt, and with which this Play particularly abounds; and the taste of the age in which he wrote, though it may afford some excuse, yet cannot entirely vindicate the exceptionable passages. After every reasonable allowance, they must still remain blemishes ever to be lamented; but happily, for the most part, they only obscure, they do not disfigure his draughts from nature. Through whole speeches and scenes, character is often wanting; but in the worst instances of this kind, Shakespeare is but insipid; he is not inconsistent; and in his peculiar excellence of drawing characters, though he often neglects to exert his talents, he is very rarely guilty of perverting them.



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Chicago: Thomas Whately, "From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare," From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022,

MLA: Whately, Thomas. "From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare." From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Whately, T, 'From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare' in From Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespeare. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from