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Comparison Between Macbeth and A Historical Figure
It is said that art imitates life, and Shakespeare's plays are no different. Often we can relate historical figures to Shakespeare's characterizations. One such figure in particular, Lucius Cornelius Sulla of Ancient Rome, parallels the character of Macbeth from the play Macbeth in his ascension of power, in his ambition, and in his 'evil' deeds.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was born with patrician (the Roman upper-class) blood in his veins, but no money to his name. Without wealth, he would have lived a perpetually impoverished life despite his good-breeding- a true disgrace for any Roman noble. However, Sulla was both determined and fortunate; early in his career, he received two large inheritances, which some attribute to the murder of his family members. Money in hand, Sulla began his political climb by marrying a member of the respected Julius Caesar family, thus supplementing his social status, and serving as quaestor (Sulla would have helped Marius with the business end of his army, and as a general confidant) for the politician Gaius Marius.
Both Sulla and Macbeth were vaulted quickly into much higher positions of power: Macbeth from soldier to king, and Sulla from an out-of-work disgrace to an up-and-coming politician. Although their successes may have been at first attributed to luck or prophet (Sulla even assumed the name "Felix"- 'the fortunate' in Latin- as testament to this), truly their luck was of their own doing. Macbeth murdered king Duncan to reach the throne, and Sulla most likely assassinated those close to him to gain assurance of monetary inheritance.
Hand in hand with both characters' climb in power is their common trait of ambition. Macbeth says, after learning that Malcolm will succeed Duncan as king of Scotland "That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, for in my way it lies." (1.5.48-51) This quotation illustrates his own desire for the throne and realization that there are significant obstacles he must overcome before he will be rewarded with it. To accomplish his goals, he eventually takes the misguided step of murdering Duncan.
Sulla, too, was an ambitious man who used extravagant means to reach his goal. As Vellius Paterculus, Roman historian, remarked "Sulla was a man to whom, up to the conclusion of his career of victory, sufficient praise can hardly be given, and for whom, after his victory, no condemnation can be adequate." To satisfy his need for control of Rome, he and his army marched on the city, beginning a bloody civil war that would last nearly one hundred years. Emerging triumphant, Sulla declared himself dictator, the absolute head of Rome.
In their quest for success, both men begin with gory deeds that continue to escalate throughout their careers. Macbeth, after killing Duncan and successfully ascending the throne, has his friend Banquo, Lady Macduff (wife to his chief enemy), and her children murdered. He also intends to have Macduff killed, but is instead beheaded by his own target. Sulla, after becoming dictator, began the systematic murder of all his political enemies, modifying Rome's laws so that legality was never an issue. Sulla began to mold Rome into the shape he desired, and he was not against executing citizens and seizing their property to do so.
Both Macbeth and Lucius Cornelius Sulla were men with lofty goals who achieved power and notoriety by way of bloodthirsty deeds. Both were influenced by fortunetellers and those who prophesized their downfall. But Macbeth's life ended with his violent death, while Sulla's ended quietly, after his resignation from the position of dictator. So, while their lives and deeds were similar, the circumstances of their deaths were quite different, showing that, outside of dramatic works, tyrants are not always given the comeuppance they deserve.