A comparison of Grendel and Macbeth

The characters of Grendel and Macbeth are quite different representations of evil in the respective works, Beowulf and Macbeth. Macbeth is a human character who is given agency and chooses to take an evil path, presented in a highly psychologised and even sympathetic way. In contrast, Grendel as “kindred of Cain” (106) has some human lineage, but is clearly represented as being monstrous by nature, with no potential to choose otherwise.

Grendel seems to embody the idea that happy and peaceful times are fragile and always in danger of being disturbed by an external aggressor. Early in the poem, King Hrothgar envisions and builds “a huge mead-hall” (68), which is a place for celebration where “men led a careless life” (98), but this is mixed with a sense of foreboding with references to the hall being burned down in future and Grendel “dwelling in darkness” and having to endure “hearing daily the hall filled with loud amusement” (86-8). Grendel brings this peaceful and prosperous time to an end, terrorising and persecuting Hrothgar’s people for “twelve long winters” (146). Grendel is characterised more by the effect he has on his victims than any internal trait. The only insights into his thoughts are used to either highlight his monstrosity, “his hopes swelling to a gluttonous meal” (732) or to show that he is afraid of the heroic Beowulf, “his heart panicked” (753). These raw emotions of hunger and fear serve more to highlight Grendel’s alien monstrosity than portray him as a sympathetic character.

While Grendel is an “other”, bringing evil to a peaceful community from the outside, Macbeth brings evil to his kingdom from within, in two ways. Firstly, Macbeth’s evil arises within his own mind, revealing the duality of human nature and the corrupting influence of temptation and ambition. Secondly, Macbeth is a trusted, honourable and celebrated member of his community, rewarded by Duncan for his faithful service, yet he brings evil upon the kingdom through his treacherous actions.

Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s character through a combination of dialogue, action and soliloquy. In Act One, the audience is introduced to Macbeth’s brave actions, with the Captain describing him as “Valor’s minion” (1.2.19) and the King rewarding him with the title Thane of Cawdor. As Macbeth is tempted by the prophecy of the Wyrd Sisters and writes to Lady Macbeth, she fears that his nature is “too full o’the’milk of human kindess” (1.5.15), implying that kindess is a human virtue. Macbeth does indeed vacillate, attempting to abandon his “vaulting ambition” (1.7.27) and stating that “we will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31), but Lady Macbeth questions his courage, referring to the “beast” in his nature that revealed his plan to her (1.7.47).

It is through Macbeth’s soliloquies that his character is most fully realised, providing insights into his ambition, hesitation, guilt and madness, rounding his character in a way that Grendel’s is not. An exemplary soliloquy is the one in which Macbeth sees the floating dagger, foretelling his descent into madness even before Duncan’s murder is done. In addition, Macbeth’s final soliloquy reveals sadness and regret upon hearing of Lady Macbeth’s death. Macbeth says that “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” and that in the end, life has no significance (5.5.24-28). The tragedy of Macbeth is that even the most heroic of characters can bring evil into his community in the pursuit of worthless ambition.

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