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Macbeth

Have you ever wanted something so much that you would stop at nothing to get it? Here's a play that can make you think twice in such situations. Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606) warns us that ambition can be dangerous.

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Have you ever wanted something so much that you would stop at nothing to get it? Here's a play that can make you think twice in such situations. Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606) warns us that ambition can be dangerous.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and the only Shakespearean work that is set in Scotland. It is a play in five acts that was written in 1605 or 1606. Macbeth was first performed at Hampton Court in London in 1606 for King James I.

Macbeth: summary

Set in 11th-century Scotland, Macbeth is about a man whose ambition leads to his downfall. There are five acts in the play.

Overview: Macbeth

AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
GenreTragedy
Literary PeriodRenaissance
Written in1605 or 1606
First performance1606
Brief summary of Macbeth
  • A Scottish general, Macbeth, becomes consumed by ambition and desire for power.
  • Encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he murders the king and assumes the throne. His guilt and paranoia lead to his downfall.
List of main charactersMacbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo, Macduff, The Weird Sisters
ThemesCorruption, ambition, the supernatural, reality vs appearances.
Setting11th century Scotland
AnalysisA powerful examination of the destructive nature of ambition and the consequences of the unchecked desire for power. Literary devices include soliloquies and asides.

Act one

The play opens with a storm. Three witches, who call themselves the Weird Sisters, meet. They will meddle in the fate of a man named Macbeth. They meet Macbeth and Banquo and predict their future: Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and then he will be crowned King of Scotland, and Banquo’s offspring will be kings.

After the witches leave, Macbeth learns that King Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor. Duncan announces that his son, Malcolm, is next in line to the throne. Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth, believes in the prophecy. She convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan. Her plan is to implicate the guards.

Act two

Macbeth sees a hallucination of a dagger leading him to kill King Duncan. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth meet after she has drugged the guards and he has murdered Duncan. Macduff finds Duncan's body. The evidence suggests that the guards have killed the King but Macbeth admits that he has murdered them out of love for Duncan.

Malcolm and his brother Donalbain privately discuss their fears that they might be in danger. They decide to flee, which makes them seem guilty. Macbeth is crowned King.

Act three

Some weeks after the coronation, Banquo reveals that he doesn't trust Macbeth, and he wonders if the witches' prophecy about his offspring becoming kings would come true. Macbeth hires murderers to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. They kill Banquo but Fleance escapes.

Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth and he acts strangely in front of his thanes (lords). Macbeth tells his wife that he doesn't trust any of them, especially Macduff. It is revealed that Macduff is in England, where he hopes to help Malcolm, who has received a warm welcome from King Edward of England.

Act four

Complying with the order that the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, gives them, The Weird Sisters prepare a potion to trick Macbeth.

They show him three apparitions that deliver messages:

  1. Macbeth needs to beware of Macduff
  2. Macbeth can't be harmed by anyone that a woman has given birth to
  3. Macbeth can't be defeated until Great Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill

The witches also tell Macbeth that the prophecy about Banquo's offspring will come true. Macbeth has Macduff's family killed. In England, Malcolm convinces Macduff to turn his grief for his family into a thirst for revenge.

Act five

In Macbeth’s castle, Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks. Her doctor fears that she might take her own life. The Scottish rebels are on their way to join the English army. At Birnam Wood, Malcolm tells his soldiers to use tree branches for camouflage. Macbeth plans to stay in the castle and endure a siege. It is discovered that Lady Macbeth has died.

Macbeth’s short moment of grief is interrupted by the news that Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane. Macbeth realises that the witches have tricked him but he refuses to give up without a fight.

During the battle, Macbeth and Macduff face each other. Macbeth tells Macduff that he can't be killed by any man born of a woman. Macduff replies that he was ripped from his mother’s womb, which would make him not considered as someone born by woman. He offers to spare Macbeth’s life but he threatens to humiliate him afterwards.

Macbeth keeps fighting until Macduff kills him. Malcolm is named King of Scotland.

Macbeth: characters

There are several characters in Macbeth that create a complex web of relationships and motivations that drive the action of the play and make it one of Shakespeare's most enduring works.

Macbeth

Macbeth is the titular character of the tragedy.

When Macbeth is first introduced, he is a brave Scottish warrior. His relationship with his wife, Lady Macbeth, is built on mutual respect and passion. He is good friends with his fellow general Banquo. As the play progresses, Macbeth changes for the worse.

Instead of listening to Banquo, who warns him that the witches might be dangerous, Macbeth chooses to listen to his wife who convinces him to kill Duncan. As he becomes the new King of Scotland, Macbeth falls into complete moral corruption. In his last moment Macbeth is a warrior again – he dies in battle.

Macbeth could be interpreted both as a tragic hero and as a wicked villain. He is a human being who is driven to evil because he is easily influenced by others, he is full of self-doubt, and he is too weak to resist temptation even when he can see where his ambition might lead.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife. In the beginning of the play she is strong-willed, manipulative and ambitious. Her relationship with Macbeth defies traditional gender roles. After Lady Macbeth takes her place as Queen next to the new King Macbeth, she loses her spark. Her relationship with her husband changes. She starts sleepwalking and going mad until eventually she takes her own life.

What do you think this drastic change in Lady Macbeth means? Does she assume her traditional gender role? Or is she destroyed by her guilt, despite her cold-blooded behaviour in the beginning of the play?

Duncan

Duncan is the King of Scotland before Macbeth. He has two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain. Duncan is a just and generous ruler who can also be firm when the situation calls for it. However, Duncan is very gullible: he doesn't see the Macbeths’ betrayal coming and that leads to his untimely death.

Malcolm

Malcolm is King Duncan’s eldest son who is the rightful heir to the throne. After the murder of their father, Malcolm and his younger brother, Donalbain, flee Scotland. Malcolm goes to England where he is able to gain the military support of the English King Edward. Many Scottish thanes learn of this and decide to rebel against Macbeth and to support Malcolm.

Malcolm holds the potential to be the king Scotland needs. He has Duncan’s sensitivity and generosity but he's not as trusting as his father. Malcolm also has Macbeth’s courage but he lacks Macbeth’s cruelty. Malcolm’s character is an embodiment of good kingship. With him as the new king, the play, although a tragedy, has a happy ending for the people of Scotland.

Banquo

Banquo is the Thane of Lochaber and a general in King Duncan’s army. The witches prophesy that although Banquo will not be King, his offspring will be rulers. Banquo is more cautious than Macbeth, he doesn't trust the witches. Banquo is killed, realising Macbeth’s betrayal in his last moments. Banquo's son, Fleance, escapes, which allows for Banquo’s legacy to live on.

Banquo is an embodiment of what Macbeth could have become if he hadn't made the wrong choices. His clear conscience is more important to him than power. He doesn't act on the prophecy, he simply trusts that it will one day come to be.

Do you think Banquo serves as a suggestion that one shouldn't meddle in their predetermined destiny? Or does his character show the importance of using our free will properly by making honourable choices in life?

Macduff

Macduff is the Thane of Fife. He is a brave warrior who isn't tempted by power, who is loyal to the rightful king and who is unafraid to show his emotions. Macduff represents the feelings of Scotland and the Scottish people as a whole. Macduff is the only one who can kill Macbeth because he's not born of a woman, but was birthed by the equivalent of a Caesarean section.

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters are three witches who always appear together and act as one unit. Unlike all other characters in the play who speak in blank verse, the witches speak in sing-song rhymes. This makes them seem ridiculous and sinister at the same time. Their name links them to the Fates from Greek and Norse mythology. The word ‘weird’ comes from the old English term ‘wyrd’ which means ‘fate’.

The Fates in Greek and Norse mythology are three female deities who spin the destiny of mortals.

The Weird Sisters are aware of Macbeth’s weaknesses so all they have to do is tempt him with prophecies. It is never clear if the witches control his fate and he has no choice in the matter, or if they offer him a motive and he acts on his own.

Macbeth: genre

Macbeth is a play that easily resists easy genre classification.

Macbeth is often classified as a tragedy. Tragedies typically depict the downfall of a noble or heroic character who is brought low by their own flaws or by external forces beyond their control. Macbeth fits this genre because the eponymous protagonist is a respected and admired general who is consumed by his own ambition and desire for power, leading to his eventual downfall.

The play also includes elements of the supernatural through the appearance of the three witches and their prophecies about Macbeth's future. This adds a sense of mystery and foreboding to the play, as well as highlights the theme of fate and whether our destiny may be predetermined.

Shakespeare also employs elements of horror and macabre in Macbeth, particularly in the scenes where Macbeth commits murder and is tormented by his own guilt. The use of vivid imagery and dark, foreboding language creates a sense of unease and tension that contributes to the play's overall atmosphere of dread and impending doom.

In addition to its classification as a tragedy, Macbeth also has elements of a political drama. The play takes place in the context of a struggle for power and control, with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth jockeying for position and seeking to maintain their grip on the throne. The themes of power, authority, and corruption are explored in depth, making the play a critique of political systems and the dangers of unchecked ambition.

Macbeth's themes and quotes

Let's explore the main themes with some quotes from Macbeth.

Ambition

Macbeth expresses his doubts about killing Duncan. He's aware of the dangers of his ambition.

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’ erleaps itself,

And falls on th’ other -

- Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7

Ambition is the driving force of the play. After he kills Duncan, Macbeth struggles with his conscience, which suggests that he may choose a different path and redeem himself. However, his ambition and hunger for power win over his morals. He continues to degrade until he is left with nothing – he dies alone, as a tyrant and a murderer.

The play shows us that ambition is not always a flaw, depending on the desires and actions that drive it. Banquo is not ambitious for himself, he wants greatness for his future generations. Macduff and Malcolm have reserved their ambition for Scotland.

Macbeth, Stage adaptation, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Macbeth and Lady Macbeth exemplify the dangers of unchecked ambition.

Gender roles

Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to take away all that makes her female because she doesn't believe that a woman can have the strength to be ruthless.

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me, from the crown to the toes, top-full

Of direst cruelty!

-Lady Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5

The play presents contrasting ideas of masculinity. Lady Macbeth’s view on masculinity is that it equals using brutal means to achieve your personal desired ends. When Macbeth questions whether killing Duncan would make him less than a man, Lady Macbeth convinces him that it would make him more of a man. Macbeth embraces this harsh idea of manhood.

However, Macduff embodies a very different view on masculinity. He is an honourable and loyal man who is unafraid to feel deeply. When Macduff learns of his family's death, it becomes clear that he loved them with all his heart. Macduff only turns to violence when he sees it as a necessary tool to restore order.

Most of the women in Macbeth are depicted in an unflattering way. The only positive female character is Lady Macduff who dies after appearing in only one scene.

On one hand, The Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth propel the idea that power can only be reached by men. The witches are described as women with beards which suggests that the source of their power lies in their non-femininity. Lady Macbeth also supports the idea that her femininity makes her weak. However, she doesn't hesitate to use men’s view on her as a woman to deceive them.

On the other hand, the root of the temptation that leads to Macbeth’s degradation can be traced back to women only. The Weird Sisters are supernatural female beings. They tell Macbeth the prophecies that play on his dark desires. Lady Macbeth is the one who emotionally blackmails Macbeth by feeding him her ideas of masculinity and by making him prove himself.

These motifs in the play have led some critics to argue that the play is misogynistic.

What do you think – would you call the way gender roles are presented in the play misogynistic or critical?

The Supernatural

The witches prepare a potion to trick Macbeth.

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes

- Second Witch, Act 4, Scene 1

From the beginning of the play, we are aware that the supernatural powers of evil drive the action. The witches’ motive is never explained but it is clear that they revel in causing chaos. However, as powerful as they are, The Weird Sisters are not almighty. They have to answer to an even higher supernatural power – the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate.

The presence of Hecate opens a whole new dimension into the supernatural world and raises the main question of the play. Are human beings helpless compared to the higher beings weaving our fate, or do we have the free will and the power to create our own destiny?

The bloody dagger Macbeth sees that points him towards Duncan’s room could be something orchestrated by the witches, or it could be a figment of his own imagination. The same goes for Banquo’s ghost, who tortures Macbeth, as well as for Lady Macbeth’s hallucinations that drive her mad. Another possible interpretation is that the visions are not real or supernatural, but that they are signs of the insanity that is born from guilt. The Macbeths have done terrible things that weigh on their conscience.

What do you think – are the visions sent by the witches or are they hallucinations?

Reality vs appearances

Lady Macbeth assures Macbeth that she will arrange everything for Duncan's murder, and all he has to do is act innocent around him.

(...) look like th’ innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t.

- Lady Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deceive Duncan and the lords by putting on innocent faces. Macbeth shows his true face when he sees Banquo’s ghost, whereas Lady Macbeth shows hers when she sleepwalks. The message of the play is that appearances can be deceiving but the masks people wear eventually come off and reveal their real selves.

The witches’ prophecies appear to be one thing but the reality behind them is completely different. They achieve deception through the clever use of words and double meanings. Shakespeare implies that we can't trust everything we hear because this might lead us to believe in a false reality.

How has Macbeth influenced culture today?

Macbeth is one of the most famous tragedies of all time. Five centuries after it was first performed, audiences around the world can still relate to the questions the play raises and can still identify with Macbeth’s struggles. Many famous actors, such as Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart, have portrayed the Scottish tyrant.

Macbeth or 'the Scottish play'?

Many people who work in the theatre industry believe that performances of Macbeth were cursed. This assumption is supported by the unfortunate incidents associated with performances of the play. To this day, there is a superstition according to which actors and members of the theatre crew should not speak the name of the play aloud but instead should refer to it as ‘the Scottish play’.

Macbeth - Key takeaways

  • Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. It is a play in five acts that was written in 1605 or 1606.
  • Set in 11th-century Scotland, Macbeth is about a man whose ambition leads to his downfall. Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be King of Scotland. He kills the King and takes his place, becoming a tyrant.
  • The main themes in the play are: Ambition, Gender Roles, Reality vs Appearances, and The Supernatural.
  • The main characters in Macbeth are: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Duncan, Macduff, Malcolm, and The Weird Sisters.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Macbeth in Bard on the Beach (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Frazer_(Macbeth)_and_Colleen_Wheeler_(Lady_Macbeth)_in_Macbeth_at_Bard_on_the_Beach._Photo,_David_Blue.jpg) by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bardonthebeach/7403724568/) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Macbeth

Macbeth was written in 1605 or 1606.

Set in 11th century Scotland, Macbeth is about a man whose ambition leads to his downfall. Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be King of Scotland. Influenced by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he kills the King and takes his place, becoming a tyrant. In the end, Macbeth is killed and the Scottish throne is returned to its rightful heir.

Macbeth warns against self-serving ambition and raises difficult questions.

Macbeth is killed by Macduff in battle. According to The Weird Sisters' prophecy, Macbeth can't be killed by any man born of a woman. Macduff is the only one who can kill Macbeth because he was ripped from his mother's womb (he was born by the equivalent of a Caesarean section).

Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a strong-willed, manipulative and ruthless woman who defies gender roles. After Lady Macbeth takes her place as Queen next to the new King Macbeth, she changes completely. It is not made clear why this happens. There are many theories and interpretations of Lady Macbeth's character.

There are 5 Acts in Macbeth.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Why does Lady Macbeth ask the spirits to ‘unsex’ her?

What is the setting of Macbeth?

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