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Shakespeare’s Macbeth vs. Tolkiens’ Smeagol

The characters of Macbeth and Smeagol/Gollum in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings seem at first glance to be drastically different characters. Macbeth is a relative of the king, in line for leadership. Smeagol is a cut-throat of dubious, possibly Halfling origins with none but himself and his purloined ring for company. However, they share certain features. Both are beset by frightening and contradictory impulses. Both are in some fashion, the tools and pawns of Fate or its equivalent. Finally, they both operate under the powerful and overwhelming influence of a much more pronounced personality; the Lady Macbeth in one case, and the wizard Sauron in the other. As much as their outward appearances and circumstances of daily life may diverge, they both are under the pressures from these three sources, at least, and their course of action is affected by these pressures.

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In Act 1, Scene II of Macbeth, we are told that the protagonist is a loyal and courageous warrior for his kinsman and king. This loyalty is rewarded with title and power.. However, he has what modern psychology might call intrusive thoughts of regicide, inspired by the witches’ mysterious greeting of him as King in Act 1, Scene III. In this scene, he asks himself why he even thinks to succumb to such a temptation.

Smeagol shows no such chivalric bravery in his past behaviour but is also tormented by divergent drives. Having lost his only Precious, the Ring, and been tortured by Sauron, he eventually links his fortunes to Frodo, like the Ring’s current owner. His highly selfish loyalty to Frodo is marred by his turning Frodo over to Shelob, showing one impulse. On the other hand, in Chapter 8 of The Return of the King, Tolkien shows him choosing not to exploit Sam’s and Frodo’s sleep, and thus reveals his persistent internal debate. Will he kill? Will he succumb to the power of the Ring? Alternatively, will he continue to help? Will he remain loyal to the debt of mercy that both Frodo and Sam showed him when they had him entirely in their power? Like Macbeth, Smeagol/Gollum’s mind is filled with conflict between the two most powerful aims of their lives.

Macbeth believes that he is a free agent, but the behaviour and claims of the witches suggest that they have some influence over future events. Thus, he is perhaps a tool of their intentions. Smeagol, too, is a largely unwitting agent of events and forces far larger than himself. As Gandalf predicts, even such a detestable and pitiful creature as Smeagol has a role to play in the events that will determine the future of Middle Earth. Both characters are carried along by the working out of plans that they did not make.

Finally, both Macbeth and Smeagol have to navigate life in the shadow of far more powerful personalities. Lady Macbeth is swift to decide that murder is the best way to achieve kingship. She hectors her husband and makes him feel that his only way forward is to kill the king. Although Macbeth acknowledges that she is so violent that she should really only parent male children, and, in Act 1, Scene VII, basically tells her to shut up, he nonetheless knuckles under to her force of will. Smeagol, likewise, once he lost the Ring, went in search of it, and was captured by the servants of Sauron, is under the influence of both Sauron and the Ring. He is thus aware of Sauron’s goals, and desires. Although Gollum/Smeagol wants the Ring for himself, he also wants to avoid a repetition of his treatment by Sauron. Thus, like Macbeth, Smeagol pursues the aim of the more powerful personality.

Both characters argue with themselves, both characters are tossed by the winds of current and past events, and both characters must make their choices in the shadow of a strong and largely negatively motivated fellow character. Thus, Smeagol/Gollum and Macbeth share a surprisingly common set of features, despite the very different stories in which they play a part.

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