One of Shakespeare’s shorter tragedies, Macbeth is based on a historical king of Scotland. Although some of the basic facts in the play are true to history, the murder of the king for example, Shakespeare largely wrote the play as an entertaining tragic story rather than a historical document. The play is a tale of ambition, revenge, and justice. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other villains who seem to enjoy their misdeeds such as Richard III or Iago, Macbeth is a reluctant villain. Throughout the play he expresses fear and remorse.
He is terrified of the consequences of his actions yet he plots onward to the end. Lady Macbeth is equally a figure of over-reach and remorse. The play works with these themes and ideas throughout. Since Shakespeare wrote the play under the reign of James I, the theme of just vengeance against the murder of a king and the proper restoration of order are important themes. The setting for the play is Scotland, the home of James I. As much as Shakespeare wrote to please the tastes and sensibilities of Elizabeth I, he also catered to her successor.
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DUNCAN, King of Scotland
MACBETH, Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, a general in the King’s army
LADY MACBETH, his wife
MACDUFF, Thane of Fife, a nobleman of Scotland
LADY MACDUFF, his wife
MALCOLM, elder son of Duncan
DONALBAIN, younger son of Duncan
BANQUO, Thane of Lochaber, a general in the King’s army
FLEANCE, his son
LENNOX, a nobleman of Scotland
ROSS, a nobleman of Scotland
MENTEITH a nobleman of Scotland
ANGUS, a nobleman of Scotland
CAITHNESS, a nobleman of Scotland
SIWARD, Earl of Northumberland, a general of the English forces
YOUNG SIWARD, his son
SEYTON, an attendant to Macbeth
HECATE, Queen of the Witches
The Three Witches
Boy, Son of Macduff
Gentlewoman attending on Lady Macbeth
An English Doctor
A Scottish Doctor
An Old Man
The Ghost of Banquo and other Apparitions
Lords, Gentlemen, Officers, Soldiers, Murderers, Attendants, and Messengers
The setting is medieval Scotland, the Highlands. Duncan, the King of Scotland, is waging a war against the King of Norway. The scene opens as the kind learns of Macbeth’s victory over the treacherous Macdonald who aided the Norwegians against the king and against Scotland. This coincides with news of the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor. Duncan, the king, gives the title Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth to reward his heroism.
On their way home from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches who predict that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and king of Scotland, as has been ordained by the king in his absence. They also foretell that Banquo will be the father of kings. This concerns Macbeth and he returns to his castle plotting a different course.
Upon returning to his castle Macbeth is persuaded by his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, to kill the king and take his place on the throne. An opportunity easily presents itself when King Duncan pays a visit to Macbeth castle. Macbeth initially resists the plot to kill the king out fear of punishment both in life and beyond. However, his wife continues to persuade him and eventually convinces him to kill the king. After a night of celebration, Lady Macbeth drugs the guards to the King’s chambers. At her signal, Macbeth approaches the king’s chambers, voicing his doubts to himself, and kills the king in his sleep. Macbeth is filled with remorse, but his wife scolds him. Her ambition grows with her misdeeds. At this moment they hear a knock at the castle door.
One of the porters, who is drunk at the time, answers the knock at the door to discover Macduff, a man loyal to the king, who has been sent to get Duncan for the journey home. Macbeth directs him to the king’s room and Macduff discovers the body of the king. As soon as murder is suspected, Macbeth kills the guards of the king’s chamber as they are the only witnesses to the crime. Lady Macbeth faints at this. They assemble the lords of Scotland, including Macbeth, and vow revenge for the murder of the king. However, two of the lords suspect Macbeth, Donalbain and Malcom. These two characters who represent the rightful order. Each flee to Ireland and England respectively in order to raise an avenging force.
Macbeth is proclaimed the king of Scotland. However, he has not forgotten the second part of the prophecy of the witches. Banquo and his successors would seem to be in line for the crown and Macbeth decides to kill him and his son, Fleance. Macbeth hires men to murder them and in the course of the crime they manage to kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes. At the celebration that night, Macbeth is put into a terror when the ghost of Banquo appears at the dining table. Even as Lady Macbeth attempts to reassure him, Macbeth begins to be rattled.
Macbeth returns the following day to the place where he met the witches who foretold the prophecy. Upon this second meeting, the witches confirm the original prophecy and tell Macbeth further that Macbeth will be invincible in his battle against the forces which are moving against him in the forests of Birnam. What is more, he will remain invincible and can only be killed by a man “not born of a woman.” Macbeth dismisses this cryptic prophecy as nonsense and becomes emboldened as he prepares for battle.
Macbeth soon learns that Macduff has deserted him and from here he begins his tragic fall. He attacks and murders the family of Macduff. While Macduff is in England swearing his allegiance to Malcom, he gets the news of the murder of his family. Malcom convinces Macduff that he should take revenge against Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth becomes ill and she starts walking in her sleep seemingly in a delirium. She has fragmentary memories of the details of the murder. The play begins to move quickly after this point, alternating between scenes of Malcom advancing with his army against Macbeth and Macbeth preparing his defense.
Malcom’s army advances in disguise as they cover themselves with branches. Macbeth believes he see the woods themselves moving toward his defenses at Dunsinane. He finally squares off against Malcom in combat. As Macbeth boasts of the prophecy that he cannot be killed by a man born of woman, Malcom tells him that he was brought to birth by a cesarean section, thus he was not, strictly speaking, born of a woman. Macbeth, in his arrogance, refuses to believe this and attacks Malcom. Macbeth is killed. Malcom is finally crowned King of Scotland.
Macbeth is a powerful and capable general and soldier. However, he falls prey to ambition and he is easily influenced as soon as the prophecy which leads to him becoming Thane of Cawdor comes true. From this point on he is under the easy influence of Lady Macbeth and is compelled to commit murder. Since he has none of the character traits of a king, his only way of dealing with crises is to commit more murder. He second-guesses all of his actions and is never comfortable with his role as a villain. This shows the contrast with Shakespeare’s Richard III who revels in his villainy. His ambition and lack of resolve ultimately lead him to over-reach and he walks directly into his own predicted death.
The wife of Macbeth, she at first appears ruthless and driven entirely by ambition for glory and power. She goads Macbeth into murdering the king. However, shortly after the murder and violence begin, Lady Macbeth is plagued with guilt and remorse. This eventually drives her to madness and suicide. She does appear to be genuinely in love with Macbeth, as if her criminal ambition is truly driven by a desire for his success. Yet she is more overwhelmed with the horror of their crimes that Macbeth and cannot sustain the ruthlessness which sets the play in motion.
The Three Witches
Analogous to the Fates of Greek mythology, these characters provide the prophecies which set Macbeth’s ambition in action and provide him with just enough information to delude himself. They taunt him and goad his actions which lead to his tragic fall. The witches operate as magic figures in the play much like the oracles of ancient tragedy.
He is the counter to Macbeth. Although Banquo is also a brave and ambitious soldier, he pays attention to the prophecy of the witches and follows his duty rather than his ambition. It is appropriate that it is Banquo’s ghost who haunts Macbeth rather than Duncan’s since it is Banquo who represents the conscience which Macbeth fails to heed.
Representative of an old order to royalty and knightly virtue, his murder is the crime which sets Macbeth on his tragic path. The royal order embodied in Duncan cannot be restored until Malcom takes the throne.
He is opposed to and suspects Macbeth from the start. He is the leader of the attack which restores rightful order to Scotland and he is the embodiment of justified vengeance in his fight against Macbeth.
He represents the return of order in the play not simply because he takes the throne but because his ascendency follows the rightful order. That Malcom, though he kills Macbeth, is reticent in the beginning demonstrates his refusal to give in to similar ambitions and criminal tendencies like Macbeth. His restoration of the proper line of kings is an embodiment of natural rights over ruthless ambition.
The Corruption of Ambition
We see evidence throughout the play that Macbeth is by nature a brave soldier and one who adheres to duty. However, once ambition in the form of the witches’s prophecy and the influence of his wife begin to overtake his natural tendencies, he tends toward murder and violent usurpation. Lady Macbeth also says many things throughout the play which demonstrate that her motivations are more honest than her actions. Yet, the corrupting influence of ambition and the love of power undermine her as much as Macbeth. Both characters become undone both internally and externally. They are punished by their own sense of guilt and Macbeth, at least, is punished with death for his crimes.
Natural and Supernatural
The supernatural is obvious in the witches. Their power and influence is entirely the stuff of magic. Banquo’s ghost also figures as an image of the supernatural. All of these influences spur the violence and crime throughout the play. At the same time, Macbeth’s murder of the king and of an entire family are acts against nature. As the king is the natural head of the nation, so it is a crime against nature to kill him and these types of crimes are monstrous. Though the witches may appear as supernatural monsters, it is Macbeth who becomes the monster by going against the natural order. Lady Macbeth also oversteps her nature. As a female character in Elizabethan England, she goes against nature when she advises and directs her husband to commit his crimes. She defies her natural role as a subservient woman. Her subsequent illness and suicide are the penalty for defying her nature.
Revenge and Remorse
Once Macbeth begins his crimes, each subsequent crime creates the justification for more crime. He feels at least partially justified in his murder of the king because he believes he has a right to the throne. But as soon as he commits the crime, he is stricken with remorse. The dual burden of remorse and fear of revenge leads him to commit more murders. Macbeth is justifiably killed in the end but only after there is clear evidence of justified revenge.
“Yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.” Act I, scene v.
Spoken by Lady Macbeth as she reads a letter from her husband explaining the prophecy of the witches. She fears he is too influenced by human kindness to simply take the easy route to the throne by killing the king. Here she also demonstrates the theme of female influence over masculine right.
“The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” Act 1, scene v.
Spoken by Lady Macbeth, we see two of the important themes in the play. Her wish to “unsex
me here” and “take my milk for gall” are clearly images of her desire to act and even be a man as Macbeth wavers in his course to take the throne by murder. Her ambition outstrips her natural state of being a woman. The clear themes of ambition are everywhere apparent in these lines.
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all, here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor.” Act I, scene vii.
Macbeth deliberates on the murder of the king. We see his doubts about this course of action. Where he states that “we still have judgement here” shows his fear of doing something he cannot undo. Once the act is done, he cannot turn back. He also wonders about “consequences” and fears the outcome of his deeds as when the “Bloody instructions” come back to “plague th’inventor.”
“Whence is that knocking?—
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.” Act II, scene ii.
Macbeth demonstrates his guilty conscience as every knock and sound seem to terrify him. Every “noise appals me” because everything around him reminds him of his tremendous guilt. Again, Macbeth is tortured by his conscience. What is more, he can never wash himself clean of his crimes. Even wash his bloody hands in the ocean would turn the sea to blood.
“Out, damned spot; out, I say. One, two,—why, then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear who knows it when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Act V, scene i.
Spoken by Lady Macbeth, these lines and the blood imagery are the perfect complement to Macbeth’s lines on guilt and blood. Whereas early in the play she is full of resolve and ambition, here she is stricken with guilt and cannot remove the “damned spot” of blood which signifies her guilt. Like Macbeth, she is tortured by what she has done and is amazed by her own deeds. This leads her to madness.
Probably the most critical symbol in the play, blood symbolizes the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It is associated with stains and signs of misdeeds which cannot be washed away or stains which would spread to everything it touches. Blood is also the symbol of natural order. The proper bloodline of kings, when cut by treachery, leads to chaos and crime. When the bloodline is restored so is order and justice.
When the witches appear to bring magic and propel disorder they are accompanies by storms and atmospheric disturbances. Each murder and act of treachery are also associated with storms. With the coming of restored order, the skies return to calm. The themes of the natural and the supernatural are punctuated by the weather in the play.
Written in 1606 and first published in the First Folio Edition in 1623.
Set in 11th century Scotland.
Actually performed for James I. There are inside jokes designed to amuse the king. James I was also fascinated with witches.
The play takes place over the course of one year. The historical Macbeth ruled for 17 years.
Titus Andronicus first performed in 1594 (printed in 1594),
Romeo and Juliet 1594-95 (1597),
Hamlet 1600-01 (1603),
Julius Caesar 1600-01 (1623),
Othello 1604-05 (1622),
Antony and Cleopatra 1606-07 (1623),
King Lear 1606 (1608),
Coriolanus 1607-08 (1623), derived from Plutarch
Timon of Athens 1607-08 (1623), and
Macbeth 1611-1612 (1623).
King Henry VI Part 1 1592 (printed in 1594);
King Henry VI Part 2 1592-93 (1594);
King Henry VI Part 3 1592-93 (1623);
King John 1596-97 (1623);
King Henry IV Part 1 1597-98 (1598);
King Henry IV Part 2 1597-98 (1600);
King Henry V 1598-99 (1600);
Richard II 1600-01 (1597);
Richard III 1601 (1597); and
King Henry VIII 1612-13 (1623)
Taming of the Shrew first performed 1593-94 (1623),
Comedy of Errors 1594 (1623),
Two Gentlemen of Verona 1594-95 (1623),
Love’s Labour’s Lost 1594-95 (1598),
Midsummer Night’s Dream 1595-96 (1600),
Merchant of Venice 1596-1597 (1600),
Much Ado About Nothing 1598-1599 (1600),
As You Like It 1599-00 (1623),
Merry Wives of Windsor 1600-01 (1602),
Troilus and Cressida 1602 (1609),
Twelfth Night 1602 (1623),
All’s Well That Ends Well 1602-03 (1623),
Measure for Measure 1604 (1623),
Pericles, Prince of Tyre 1608-09 (1609),
Cymbeline 1611-12 (1623),
Winter’s Tale 1611-12 (1623).