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At about 2100 lines, Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and among the briefest of his plays. Scholars generally agree that the drama was written around 1606 because various references in the play correspond to events that occurred in that year. Many also believe that it was composed for a performance before King James I, who had a deep interest in witchcraft. Quite possibly the play was one of the court entertainments offered to King Christian IV of Denmark during his visit to London in 1606. In addition, researchers suggest that Shakespeare may have written Macbeth to glorify King James's ancestry by associating him, through the historical Banquo, to the first Scottish king, Kenneth MacAlpin. The principal historical source for Macbeth is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and lrelande (1577). However, Shakespeare took great liberties with this source, adapting various historical events to increase the dramatic effect of his tragedy.

Four hundred years later, students and actors continue to explore and embrace Macbeth for its intriguing portrayal of madness, ambition, and the supernatural. The play has remarkable depth, as it also encourages discussion about gender roles, human motivation, and what makes a good king. For students new to Shakespeare, Macbeth is fairly engrossing, and it is easy to determine early who the protagonists and antagonists are, and what their primary motivations are. Shakespeare displays a sensitive understanding of the human condition by dramatizing not only the way in which evil enters Macbeth's world, but also the devastating effect it has on those who yield to temptation and sin. Shakespeare concludes the tragedy on a hopeful note, however, for as awesome and corruptive as the evil is that pervades Macbeth, it is only temporary. Ultimately, time and order are restored through the actions of the defenders of goodness.


Act 1

Macbeth begins in an indistinct "open place," where three witches are speaking in chants and planning to meet again to speak to Macbeth. The eerie scene is brief, and the witches depart. Scotland is at war, and in the next scene, Scotland's King Duncan receives news from the battlefield. Duncan has had Scottish rebels to fight, along with an army of Norwegians. Duncan learns that Macdonwald, a traitor, and his army have been defeated, thanks in part to the violent heroics of Banquo and Macbeth. In fact, Macbeth himself killed Macdonwald. Duncan also learns that the Thane of Cawdor, another traitor, has been captured and the Norwegian army has been driven back. Duncan sentences the traitor to death and names Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor.

In the third scene, Macbeth and Banquo are journeying to the king's castle when they are surprised by the appearance of three witches. The hags predict that Macbeth, who holds the title of Thane of Glamis, will also become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. They also predict that, although Banquo will never rule, his descendants will be monarchs. After the witches vanish, Ross and Angus (Scottish noblemen) appear with word from King Duncan. Macbeth learns that Duncan has condemned the Thane of Cawdor for treason and that the king will bestow the title on Macbeth.

Macbeth and Banquo arrive at Duncan's castle, where the king thanks them for their valor. Duncan also announces that his son, Malcolm, will be heir to the throne. Privately, Macbeth notes that Malcolm now stands between him and the fulfillment of his prophecy to become king. Because Duncan is going to have dinner at Macbeth's castle (Inverness), Macbeth leaves to talk to Lady Macbeth. Having read a letter from her husband about the prophecies, Lady Macbeth receives the news of Duncan's arrival with a sense of opportunity. She determines that Macbeth will seize this chance to kill the king, thus moving him closer to the throne. Seeing her husband as weak, she pushes him to do it. When the king arrives, Lady Macbeth is the picture of hospitality. Meanwhile, Macbeth has talked himself out of murdering the king, realizing that there is no unselfish reason to do so. After all, Duncan is not an evil man or a bad king. Killing him would be purely an act of ambition. Lady Macbeth chides Macbeth and shares her plan with him on how to carry out the murder. Impressed by her guile, Macbeth agrees to go through with it that very night.

Act 2

Banquo and his son, Fleance, are staying at Inverness. Banquo is having difficulty sleeping and is surprised to find Macbeth also awake. Banquo tells Macbeth that his sleep has been restless, and that he has been thinking about the witches' prophecies. Banquo is anxious to talk to Macbeth about the matter, but they decide to discuss it later. Alone again, Macbeth sees a floating dagger that does not seem to be real. It seems to be pointing the way to Duncan, with the handle pointing toward Macbeth. Despite the eerie talk of the witches and the hallucination, Macbeth shores up his courage to murder Duncan. Once Lady Macbeth indicates that the attendants are asleep (she has made them drunk with wine), Macbeth proceeds to Duncan's room.

Waiting for her husband, Lady Macbeth reflects on what is happening. She amazes even herself, and says that she would have killed Duncan herself if he had not reminded her of her father. Macbeth enters, covered in Duncan's blood. He becomes so unnerved by the deed, however, that he forgets to leave the daggers in Duncan's chamber, and Lady Macbeth must finish the task. She returns to the murder scene, smears the attendants with blood and places their knives with them to make it appear that they are guilty.

Just then, there is a knock at the door of the castle. The porter is hung over and has fun pretending he is the porter to hell, as he wonders which sinners he will let pass through the door. The visitors are Lennox and Macduff, who are supposed to meet Duncan early. When Macbeth takes him to Duncan, Macduff makes the grisly discovery. In the ensuing chaos, Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, arrive. They are given the news of their father, followed by Macbeth's announcement that he has killed the apparent killers, the attendants. He explains that Duncan's death caused him to lose his temper, so he flew into a rage and killed the murderous attendants. Lady Macbeth faints, and the others attend to her. Malcolm and Donalbain do not feel safe, and decide it is best if they escape to Ireland and England.

Scene 4 takes place outside Inverness where Ross and another man discuss the strange things that have been happening lately. Macduff comes out and tells them that since Malcolm and Donalbain both fled, Macbeth has been crowned King of Scotland. Macduff adds that although the attendants appear to be the guilty parties, there is suspicion that someone may have paid them to kill Duncan. Because Malcolm and Donalbain left so quickly, many think they are involved.

Act 3

Although Macbeth has fulfilled the witches' prophecy that he will become king, he still feels threatened by the prediction that Banquo's heirs will one day rule Scotland. Banquo sees that the two prophecies given to Macbeth have come true, so he also wonders about the one concerning his lineage. Macbeth enters in king's robes and invites Banquo to a feast. Macbeth delivers a soliloquy in which he confesses that he fears his friend Banquo. Based on the prophecies, Macbeth's reign would lead nowhere. Now that he is king, he fears that he will be targeted by Banquo's family. A servant returns with two men Macbeth has enlisted to kill Banquo. He provokes their sense of manliness by asking if they have what it takes to carry out the murder. When they assure him that they can do it, he adds that they must also kill Banquo's son, Fleance. Before the feast, Macbeth meets with Lady Macbeth, and they briefly discuss the anxiety about their actions. Although Lady Macbeth intends to calm her husband, she is plagued by many of the same feelings. When Macbeth tells her he has arranged for the murders of Banquo and Fleance, she is surprised.

The two murderers, joined by a third man, succeed in killing Banquo as he returns to his castle for the feast, but Fleance escapes. At the banquet, Macbeth expresses his regret at the absence of his friend; but as he approaches his seat at the table, he is horrified to find Banquo's ghost sitting in his chair. Macbeth's fearful cries startle the other guests, who cannot see the spirit. Lady Macbeth tries to explain away his behavior to the guests by telling them that he has had such visions before, and there is no need for alarm. Once the ghost vanishes, Macbeth recovers until the ghost reappears. Macbeth becomes hysterical, and Lady Macbeth sends the guests away. Once Macbeth calms down, he decides to seek out the witches to receive their assurance about his future as King of Scotland. The paranoia that dominates his thought patterns leads him to believe he will find the comfort he desperately needs by learning more about the prophecies.

The witches meet with Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. She is irate that the witches have involved themselves in Macbeth's life, and tells them that when he comes to talk to them, they are to conjure up apparitions and visions to confuse him further. Elsewhere, Lennox and another lord discuss Banquo's murder and reveal that, although they suspect the tyrannous Macbeth, others blame Fleance because he fled. Macduff has gone to join Malcolm in England, where they will ask for help from King Edward in overthrowing Macbeth. Having caught wind of these schemes, Macbeth is preparing for a war that many hope he loses.

Act 4

The witches meet with Macbeth and conjure up three apparitions. The first is a severed head that warns him to beware Macduff; the next is a bloody child that assures him that no man born of woman can harm him; and last is a crowned child telling him that he will not be conquered until Birnam Wood comes to his castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth is disturbed, however, when he asks about the prophecy concerning Banquo and is shown an apparition of a succession of eight kings led by Banquo's ghost—an indication that Banquo's heirs will indeed rule Scotland. Later, when Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled Scotland to join forces with Malcolm, he sends assassins to murder Lady Macduff and her children. Meanwhile in England, Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty by pretending to be a lascivious and immoral man incapable of ruling a kingdom. When Macduff expresses his indignation at Malcolm's supposed exploits, the prince is satisfied that Macduff is truly loyal to Scotland. Fully trusting Macduff, Malcolm invites him to join his army. While talking with Malcolm, Macduff receives word that Macbeth has slaughtered his family and he vows to avenge their deaths.

Act 5

Driven insane by fear and guilt over Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep and tries to rub out imaginary bloodstains on her hands. Outside, several lords talk about the approaching English army led by Malcolm. A Scottish army will meet them at Birnam Wood to join their effort to bring down Macbeth. Meanwhile, Macbeth confidently clings to the witches' assurances that he is invulnerable as he prepares to engage Malcolm's army at Dunsinane castle. He receives word that the army is approaching the castle, and he prepares to don his battle armor. When a doctor tells him that Lady Macbeth is suffering greatly from delusions, Macbeth merely tells the doctor to cure her. He experiences increasing fear and nervousness as a result of his past actions, but when he learns that his wife has committed suicide, his reaction is impassive. Macbeth is initially disconcerted when he hears reports that his enemies approach Dunsinane camouflaged by tree branches from Birnam Wood, but reassures himself that no man born of woman can harm him. He feels invincible as he places all of his trust in the apparent message from the witches. Still, he cannot help but recall the strange prophecy about the woods, and he begins to resign himself to what may be his doom.

Outside, Malcolm commands his troops to drop their boughs and prepare to fight. Macbeth fights vigorously, certain that no one can kill him. Macduff seeks Macbeth out personally, as Malcolm enters the castle. When Macbeth encounters Macduff on the battlefield, he learns that his opponent was "untimely ripp'd" from his mother's womb (meaning he was born by Caesarean section). Realizing that his fate is sealed, Macbeth nevertheless battles on until he is killed by Macduff. Upon defeating his enemy, Macduff triumphantly holds Macbeth's severed head aloft to Malcolm, who is proclaimed King of Scotland.



Banquo is a nobleman and a general in Duncan's army. With Macbeth, he encounters the witches, and from their prophecies, he learns that his descendants will be kings. Although Banquo savors the thought of his heirs becoming kings, he never considers speeding the process along with evil-doing as Macbeth does; he remains loyal to King Duncan. Banquo believes Macbeth is still his friend, despite knowing what the prophecies say. This trust leaves him vulnerable. Macbeth arranges the murder of Banquo, and his son Fleance, to thwart the witches' prediction. Banquo's ghost later haunts Macbeth at a banquet.

While much of the action of Macbeth revolves around the protagonist and his wife, Banquo is also an important figure. One critical perspective views Banquo's function as essentially symbolic: he is portrayed as a man who, like Macbeth, has the capacity for both God's grace and sin; but unlike Macbeth, he puts little stock in the Weird Sisters' prophecies and does not succumb to their temptations. Banquo's reluctance to dwell on the witches' predictions therefore underscores, by contrast, the nature of Macbeth's descent into evil. Another critical viewpoint, however, suggests that Banquo is just as guilty as Macbeth of succumbing to the witches' temptations. By complying with Macbeth's accession to the throne and not raising suspicions about his role in Duncan's murder, Banquo reveals a secret hope that the Weird Sisters' prophecy for him will also come true.


Donalbain is Duncan's son and Malcolm's brother. After the king's murder, he flees to Ireland in fear of his life, while his brother flees to England.


  • Macbeth has been adapted for numerous film productions all over the world. A 1948 film featuring Orson Welles (who also directed), Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, and Roddy McDowell, was released by Republic and was distributed by Republic Pictures Home Video.
  • In 1971, Roman Polanski wrote a controversial adaptation, which featured realistic design, graphic violence, and a fatalistic atmosphere. It was produced by Andrew Draunsberg and Hugh Hefner, and was distributed by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Miami Dade Community College produced a 1978 film adaptation narrated by José Ferrer and distributed by Films, Inc.
  • Numerous television adaptations of Macbeth have also been produced worldwide. The BBC and Time Life Television produced a television adaptation in 1976; it was distributed by TimeLife Video.
  • In 1979, Trevor Nunn wrote a television adaptation that starred Ian McKellan and Judi Dench; it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Thames Television.
  • In addition, audio adaptations include releases by Caedmon (1995); Cambridge University Press (unabridged, 1998); Canadian Broadcasting Company (2003); and Audio Partners (unabridged, 2005).


Duncan is the King of Scotland when the play begins. He is depicted as a good and just king with a sense of honor toward his men and his subjects. He seems to be a man of wisdom, grace, and order. But he is perhaps too trusting, as he allows himself to be vulnerable in Macbeth's home, even though he just endowed Macbeth with the promoted position of thane. Having just been betrayed by the Thane of Cawdor, one might expect him to be more cautious in his assessments of those near him, but he is not. While a guest at Macbeth's castle, Duncan is murdered by his host. Shakespeare contrasts Duncan and Macbeth. Through his benevolence, graciousness, and almost naive trust, Duncan embodies a sense of harmony which generally inspires loyalty among his followers. These attributes become inverted in Macbeth, who introduces tumult and disorder into the kingdom when he murders the king and assumes his place on the throne. The sense of order inherent in Duncan's reign is thus displaced. His assassination sets into motion a series of evil actions and unnatural disturbances that are not corrected until Malcolm and Macduff restore order at the end of the play.


Fleance is Banquo's son. Macbeth attempts to assassinate him along with his father in order to thwart the witches' prophecy that Banquo's descendants will become kings. Fleance escapes, however, thus assuring the survival of the family line.


At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis and a general in Duncan's army. He is fierce and heroic on the battlefield, and his valor wins him the admiration and gratitude of his king. The play begins with Macbeth on the battlefield, and it ends with him on the battlefield, although the two situations are markedly different and clearly demonstrate the degree to which Macbeth has fallen. Yet for all his leadership and courage in the face of battle at the beginning of the play, Macbeth is easily manipulated by the witches and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth encounters three witches who predict that he will become King of Scotland; these prophecies begin the process of awakening his personal ambition for power. Influenced by this ambition and Lady Macbeth's urgings, Macbeth plots to murder Duncan and take the throne. His evil deed introduces corruption and unnatural disturbances into the kingdom. As quickly as he rose to power, he begins to unravel and descend into paranoia and madness. He is the epitome of a tyrannical king, abusing power and wielding it for his own personal agenda without regard for the kingdom. Macbeth is ultimately conquered by Malcolm and Macduff.

One of the most significant reasons for the enduring critical interest in Macbeth's character is that he represents humankind's universal propensity to temptation and sin. Macbeth's excessive ambition motivates him to murder Duncan, and once the evil act is accomplished, he sets into motion a series of sinister events that ultimately lead to his downfall. But Macbeth is not merely a cold-blooded, calculating murderer; even before he kills the king, he is greatly troubled by his conscience. While plotting Duncan's murder, his better nature warns him that the act is wrong; he nearly persuades himself to reject the plan, but his wife forces him to reaffirm his determination. The fact that Macbeth possesses a conscience seems to be established from the beginning of the play, and it is this conscience that fuels such anxiety and madness. He finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between his hubris compelling him to push past his conscience and commit violent crimes, and his conscience that punishes him for ignoring it.

In addition, Macbeth possesses a powerful imagination—demonstrated by his excessive philosophizing over his condition—that sways his actions. In fact, the hero's imagination contributes greatly to his decision to murder Duncan: after his first meeting with the Weird Sisters, Macbeth acknowledges that he can wait to see if their prediction of his imminent kingship will come true, but his imagination persuades him to fulfill the prophecy with his own hands. Later, Macbeth's overworked imagination produces feelings of guilt and betrayal that throw his mind into disorder, gradually eroding his bravery and replacing it with inexplicable fear and paranoia. Several critics remark that although Macbeth fully embraces evil, his philosophizing over the hopelessness of his situation results in some of the greatest poetry ever written on the human condition. Others argue, however, that the hero's rhetoric becomes less sincere as his actions become more ruthless.

Macbeth is the character who reveals the most about himself throughout the play, although the audience likely never develops much sympathy for him. His psychological workings (rise of ambition, hallucinations, belief in prophecy, madness) provide the development necessary for the themes of ambition, evil, and kingship. Through his soliloquies, the audience learns the truth about Macbeth's thoughts, feelings, and ambitions.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is Macbeth's wife. She is cold, scheming, and ruthless. She coerces her husband into murdering Duncan, first chiding Macbeth for his reluctance. Shakespeare shows the audience from the beginning that this is a woman who knows her husband very well; she anticipates his reluctance to kill Duncan, and she plans for how she will pressure him into doing it anyway. She challenges his manliness so she can manipulate him, and unfortunately, she is his only advisor throughout the play. It is she who devises the plan to kill Duncan and frame the chamberlains for the regicide, all the while keeping up her appearance as the lady of the castle. After the murder, however, Lady Macbeth is driven insane with guilt and commits suicide. She is ultimately unable to handle the horror she has set into motion. While initially she seemed to know herself, by the end of the play it is clear that she had an exaggerated perception of how much evil her psyche could handle. Her descent into madness ends where it began—with killing. Although it is not explicit, the play strongly suggests that she commits suicide. She wanted nothing more than to be queen, yet the means by which she attained it would not allow her to have any peace or enjoyment of it.

Most critics contend that Lady Macbeth's principal dramatic function in Macbeth is to persuade her husband to commit evil. Some critics further suggest that Lady Macbeth embodies a feminine malevolence in the play that corresponds to a masculine fear of domination by women. This antagonism is particularly evident in the unusual level of control Lady Macbeth exerts over her husband. Further, she serves much the same role as the witches do in manipulating Macbeth to murder Duncan, but her influence is of a more frightening nature. As supernatural beings, the witches represent a remote, abstract evil, and their mode of exploitation exists only on a cosmic level. Lady Macbeth's coercion of her husband is more terrifying because she brings the full magnitude of the witches' evil influence to the domestic level by calling on demonic forces to suppress her femininity and give her the power to make Macbeth murder Duncan. This unholy contract does not endure, for, after she actively participates in covering up Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth's feminine nature reasserts itself, and she is driven insane. Many commentators assert that Lady Macbeth's mental breakdown manifests itself in the sleepwalking episode (act 5, scene 1), in which she is not so much distracted by the guilt over her role in Duncan's murder as she is by the inability to escape the memory of it.


Macduff is the Thane of Fife, and one of Duncan's generals. He is depicted as honorable, loyal, and level-headed, even in crisis. Macduff is the one who discovers Duncan's murdered body. As he sees the destruction wrought by Macbeth and harbors suspicions toward him, Macduff becomes an avenger. He sees not just revenge or power, but peace and order for the Scotland he so loves. He flees to England to join forces with Malcolm, who is seeking military assistance to bring down Macbeth. Upon learning that Macbeth has killed his family, Macduff swears revenge. When Macduff returns to Scotland with Malcolm's invading army, he meets Macbeth on the battlefield. He kills his enemy after informing him that he was "untimely ripp'd" from his mother's womb, thus fulfilling the witches' prophesy that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth.

Lady Macduff

Lady Macduff is Macduff's wife. Macbeth sends assassins to murder Lady Macduff and her family when he learns that her husband has fled to England.


Malcolm is Duncan's son, Donalbain's brother, and heir to the Scottish throne. He is a loyal, determined, brave, and careful young man. He seems to have a good idea of whom he can trust (as when he goes to King Edward for help), and he knows how to test those he is not sure he can trust (as when he tests Macduff). After his father's murder, Malcolm flees to England in fear of his life. There, he recruits an army to invade Scotland and conquers Macbeth's forces at Dunsinane. Malcolm ultimately regains his rightful place on Scotland's throne. Because he was originally the rightful heir to the throne through his father, he reinforces the theme of divine right of kingship that was so important to King James. Unlike Macbeth, who stole the throne, Malcolm has a right to the throne.

The Witches

The Witches, or the Weird Sisters, are three hags who practice black magic under the authority of the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate. They speak in chants and riddles, and they are both mischievous and sinister. While they may seem nonsensical, the text proves that they are cruel and violent. They talk about what they have done prior to their meetings, and their actions include killing a hog and setting about revenge because a woman would not give one of them a chestnut.

The witches' prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo suggest that Macbeth will rule Scotland and that Banquo's descendants will be kings. These prophecies effectively set the action of the play in motion. Later, the witches conjure up three apparitions who warn Macbeth against Macduff, assure him that no man born of woman will harm him, and declare that he will not be conquered until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Readers are never quite sure how much of the prophecies delivered by the witches are merely their relaying information from the future and how much is their direct doing. Regardless, their malevolent intentions are clear in their delight in deception and destruction of Macbeth.

In act 1, scene 3, the witches refer to themselves as the "weird sisters," which is a significant word choice. In Shakespeare's first folio, he spelled it "weyward," and most scholars point to the origins of these words as the Old English "wyrd" and the Middle English "werde." Both words have to do with fate, destined, or becoming. The Norse had the three Norns, goddesses of destiny, and the Greeks had the three Fates (one who spun the thread of a person's life, one who measured it, and one who cut it.) By aligning the witches with these past mythological women, Shakespeare invokes a powerful and serious role for the witches.



The predominant theme in Macbeth is ambition unchecked by morality. Initially, Lady Macbeth is the character who personifies this theme. It is she who first considers killing Duncan in her own home so that Macbeth might become king, and it is she who pressures her reluctant husband into committing the crime. She has no thought for right and wrong, only a lust for power. As the play progresses, however, Macbeth becomes the one who is unyielding in his determination to protect his claim to the throne. Once he wears the crown, his ambition takes flight. He readily has his friend Banquo killed, and even tries to have Banquo's son killed to ensure that there is no threat to him from Banquo's family. Carried to its conclusion in Macbeth, ambition without moral boundaries is utterly destructive.

Macbeth's ambition is within him from the beginning, but without the encouragement of the witches and Lady Macbeth, it might have been restrained. But had it not been in him at all, the women would never have been able to awaken such a cruel and violent force. This insight into Macbeth's character forces the audience to wonder what the outcome would be if their ambitions were fully awakened. What is also interesting about Macbeth's ambition is that there seems to be no objective beyond sitting on the throne. Macbeth does not have lofty plans of becoming a great king, expanding Scotland's holdings, or building a thriving economy. His thoughts are only for himself, so once he ascends to the throne, his ambition turns to paranoia and madness in his resolve to keep his place on the throne.

Shakespeare demonstrates that ambition does not reside only alongside evil. After all, Banquo is taken with the prophecy that his heirs will sit on the throne one day, even though he never will. Anyone would be proud to hear such a thing, and Banquo is no exception. Unlike Macbeth, however, Banquo's ambition is perfectly content in the future of his family. He has no aspirations of his own to overthrow Macbeth, even though he sees no way that his own heirs could become royalty. Banquo is also different from Macbeth in that he wants to discuss the prophecies with the man he thinks is still his friend, Macbeth. Just as anyone would talk about important matters like this with confidants, Banquo wants to talk to his friend about it. Macbeth, however, now sees Banquo as a threat that must be eliminated.


Macbeth explores the theme of kingship—good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate. In Macbeth, the audience sees what happens to a country when it falls under the reign of a self-centered, immoral, and evil king. Not only are the means to his ends evil, he rapidly descends into cruel immorality to the point that he uses monarchical means (his power and his men) to carry out purely personal revenge (the murder of Macduff's family for no other reason than spite). Where a good king places his personal interests below the good of the kingdom, a bad king makes the kingdom subservient to his own personal whims. In a short period of time, Macbeth's court becomes afraid for the future of the country, and hopes that Malcolm and England's army will defeat their king. Macbeth is also an example of a king who appears to have legitimate authority, but the audience knows that the only reason he has been crowned is because he got away with murdering the rightful king. So, Macbeth represents a monarchy of bad kingship and an ultimately illegitimate claim to authority.

In contrast to Macbeth are the characters Duncan, Malcolm, and King Edward. Before his death, Duncan appears to have been a noble, kind, and just king. Malcolm is the rightful heir to the throne and is, by all indications, a man who will be a good king to Scotland. He is perceptive, bold, moral, shrewd, militarily gifted, and deeply loyal to Scotland. His only apparent weakness seems to be his youth, but Shakespeare proves to the audience that he is discerning enough to learn from the wisdom of older, honorable men like Macduff. When he is crowned king at the end, the play seems to have achieved a happy ending.

Although less obvious, King Edward is also presented as an example of a good king. Not only is he characterized as a compassionate man who uses his healing powers to help his people, but he also hears Malcolm and Macduff and agrees to help them oust the unjust King Macbeth. He seems to be free of personal ambition, yet discerning enough to know to whom he can trust his army.


Macbeth is a complex study of evil and its corrupting influence on individuals. Some critics argue that Shakespeare adapted historical accounts of Macbeth to illustrate his larger view of evil's operation in the world. The particular evil that the protagonist commits has widespread consequences, causing a series of further evils. As a result, the tragedy is not fully resolved through the fallen hero's death, but through the forces of good that ultimately correct all the evil Macbeth has unleashed. The witches, through their ambiguous prophecies, represent a supernatural power that introduces evil into Macbeth. Their equivocations—the intentional stating of half-truths—conceal the sinister nature of their


  • There is an intriguing bit of theater lore surrounding Macbeth called "the curse of Macbeth." Do some research on this curse to see what supposedly triggers the curse, and what supposedly happens as a result of the curse. Are there are any countermeasures for the curse? How seriously do actors and producers take this legend, and how do you think it began? Prepare a multimedia presentation explaining the origins and specifics of the curse, and how you explain it. Your presentation should be persuasive in tone.
  • Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem overwhelmed by their guilt. Consider these two characters from a psychological standpoint by first researching the effect of guilt and conscience on the psyche. You may read conflicting reports based on different research or theories, so you will have to determine which you think are the most reliable. Write up a report as if you were the psychotherapist for the Macbeths, and you have been assigned to assess their psychological states. Assuming they are both still alive, what course of action do you recommend for them?
  • Banquo is based on a historical figure from whom James I descended. See what you can find out about the real Banquo, and write a speech for James I about him. To the best of your ability, write in language of the time.
  • Macbeth is thematically rich and relevant to today's world. What theme do you find most closely parallels something you see in the world around you? It might be a person, a cultural tendency, an event, or anything else that appears parallel to you. Using quotes from the play, prepare a five- to ten-minute speech about the relevance of Macbeth to today's readers. Your speech should be memorized and delivered to your class or another small audience.
  • Because of the popularity of Macbeth among actors and theater-goers, there have been many major productions over the years. Find photos from various productions of the play and choose the ones you think are especially evocative of the play. Make copies of the pictures and put them in order as a slideshow or some other visual presentation to show scenes from the play from start to finish. You will not have a picture for every scene, which is fine. If you are able, choose music and set your presentation to a score.
  • Shakespeare penned some of the great soliloquies and speeches of dramatic literature. Among them is the one in act 4, scene 5, beginning, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." Memorize this speech and practice delivering it in a way that conveys Macbeth's feelings at this moment in the play. Deliver it to a beginning acting class, explaining why you made some of the choices you made regarding delivery. Does this exercise give you a greater appreciation for Shakespearean actors?
  • Malcolm goes to England to seek help from the king to overthrow Macbeth. How common a practice was this in Britain's past? Why would one country help another country become stronger? Read about Britain's past with special attention to military endeavors. Look for patterns or themes explaining the relations between these countries. Using maps and diagrams, put together a lesson to illuminate this issue for your class. Be sure to leave time for questions.
  • Although the audience does not have the chance to know Duncan very well before his murder, he is presented as an example of a good king. Drawing from the text of the play and your imagination, write a character sketch of Duncan as we might have known him if given the chance. Write one scene from a play that takes place in his court to show what kind of man and king he was, according to your sketch.

predictions, and Macbeth does not consider the possibility that they are trying to deceive him. In fact, the witches' attempts at misinformation succeed not only because they favorably interpret the hero's future, but also because their revelations seem to come true almost immediately. Although inherently malevolent, the witches' prophecies do not necessarily signify the actual existence of evil, but suggest instead the potential for evil in the world. The witches themselves do not have the power to enact a diabolic course of events such as those seen in Macbeth; rather, their power lies in tempting humans like Macbeth to sin. When Macbeth succumbs to the temptation to commit murder, he himself is the catalyst that unleashes evil upon the world. The evil that initially manifests itself in Duncan's murder not only disintegrates Macbeth's personal world, but also expands until it corrupts all levels of creation, contaminating the family, the state, and the physical universe. For example, Macduff's family is murdered, Scotland is embroiled in a civil war, and during Duncan's assassination "the earth was feverous, and did shake" (act 2, scene 3).

Gender Roles

Another important issue in Macbeth is Shakespeare's ambiguous treatment of gender and sex roles. In many instances, the playwright either inverts a character's conventional gender characteristics or divests the figure of them altogether. For example, Shakespeare makes the witches less human by taking away their femininity. Macbeth and Banquo find them repulsive and comment on their beards. Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most obvious example of this dispossession. In act 1, scene 5, she prepares to confront her husband by resolving to "unsex" herself, to suppress any supposed weakness associated with her feminine nature, so that she can give Macbeth the strength and determination to carry out Duncan's murder. After the king is killed, however, her feelings of guilt gradually erode her resolve and she goes insane.

Macbeth is perhaps the character most affected by the question of gender in the tragedy. From the beginning of the play, he is plagued by feelings of doubt and insecurity which his wife attributes to "effeminate" weakness. Fearing that her husband does not have the resolve to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth cruelly manipulates his lack of self-confidence by questioning his manhood. Some critics maintain that as a result of his wife's machinations, Macbeth develops a warped perspective of manliness, equating it with the less humanistic attribute of self-seeking aggression. When he talks to Banquo's hired assassins, he incites their anger by challenging their manliness, just as his wife had done to him. The more Macbeth pursues his ideal understanding of manliness—first by murdering Duncan, then Banquo, and finally Macduff's family—the less humane he becomes. Commentators who subscribe to this reading of Macbeth's character argue that the ruthlessness with which he strives to obtain this perverted version of manhood ultimately separates him from the rest of humankind. Through his diminishing humanity, Macbeth essentially forfeits all claims on humanity itself—a degeneration, he ultimately realizes, that renders meaningless his ideal of manliness.



Shakespeare infuses Macbeth with symbolism, giving the play a greater sense of drama and foreboding. The weather in the play symbolizes Macbeth's—and, later, Scotland's—condition. Upon the play's opening, with the witches' first appearance, and also on the night Macbeth kills Duncan, there are thunderstorms, symbolizing the violence and chaos being stirred up in Scotland. When Duncan is killed, there is even an earthquake, symbolizing Scotland's throes of grief for its king. Blood is used to symbolize two elements: the ascension to the throne, and also the guilt from which the Macbeths can never escape. Duncan's blood on Macbeth and Macbeth's blood on Macduff represent changes in the monarchy; this is a fitting symbol, as kingship is usually based on bloodlines. But the blood Macbeth must clean from his hands, and that which Lady Macbeth seems never able to clean from hers, symbolizes the guilt of their heinous acts. Blood is a stain on their conscience that cannot be removed.


The witches speak extensively in oxymoron. From the very beginning, in the first scene of the play, the audience hears them say, "When the battle's lost and won," and "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." In act 1 scene 3, they say such inscrutable and contradictory things as, "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater," "Not so happy, yet much happier," and "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none." The things the witches say, coupled with their incantation-like delivery, create an atmosphere of mystery and eeriness. They seem to speak truth, but they do it in riddles. This makes Macbeth and Banquo believe that what they are saying is extremely important and fateful. Macbeth never seems to consider that at least some of the prophetic statements made were self-fulfilling, and so the witches and their oxymoron become the very voice of fate.

The witches are not the only ones to speak in contradictions. The first words out of Macbeth's mouth in the play are, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." This indicates a divided nature and a sense of disorder about him that acts simultaneously as oxymoron and foreshadowing.

Depiction of Time

Shakespeare's depiction of time is another central concern in Macbeth. Macbeth dislocates the passage of time—a process fundamental to humankind's existence—when he succumbs to evil and murders Duncan. Shakespeare uses this displacement as a key symbol in dramatizing the steady disintegration of the hero's world. Macbeth's evil actions initially interrupt the normal flow of time, but order gradually regains its proper shape and overpowers the new king, as demonstrated by his increasing guilt and sleeplessness. Ironically, the witches can be seen as an element that contributes to the restoration of order. Although Macbeth disrupts the natural course of events by acting on the witches' early prophecies, their later predictions suggest that his power will shortly end. This premonition is apparent in the Birnam wood revelation; while Macbeth believes that the prediction insures his invulnerability, it really implies that his rule will soon expire. Some critics observe that different kinds of time interact in Macbeth. The most apparent form of time can be described as chronological. Chronological time establishes the sense of physical passage in the play, focusing on the succession of events that can be measured by clock and calendar, as well as the movement of the sun, moon, and stars.

Another aspect of time, identified as providential, overarches the action of the entire play. Providential time is the divine ordering of events that is initially displaced by Macbeth's evil actions, but which gradually overpowers him and re-establishes harmony in the world. Macbeth conceives of another kind of time that seems to defy cause and effect when he unsuccessfully attempts to reconcile his anticipation of the future with the memory of his ignoble actions. This dilemma initiates a period of inaction in the protagonist's life that culminates in his resigned acceptance of death as the inexorable passage of time. This confused displacement of time pervades the action of Macbeth until Malcolm and Macduff restore a proper sense of order at the end of the play.


Various image patterns support the sense of corruption and deterioration that pervades the dramatic action of Macbeth. Perhaps one of the most dominant groups of images is that of babies and breast-feeding. Infants symbolize pity throughout the play, and breast-milk represents humanity, tenderness, sympathy, and natural human feelings, all of which have been debased by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's evil actions. Another set of images focuses on sickness and medicine, all of which occur, significantly, in the last three acts of the play, after Macbeth has ascended the Scottish throne. These patterns are given greater depth through Shakespeare's graphic depiction of blood in the tragedy. The numerous references to blood not only provide Macbeth's ruthless actions with a visual dimension, they also underscore Scotland's degeneration after Macbeth murders Duncan and usurps the crown. Ironically, blood also symbolizes the purifying process by which Malcolm and Macduff—the restorers of goodness—purge the weakened country of Macbeth's villainy. Other major image patterns include sleep and sleeplessness, order versus disorder, and the contrast between light and darkness.


Reign of King James I

England's James I (also James VI of Scotland) was born in 1566 in Edinburgh. At the end of Elizabeth's reign in England, she had produced no heir. The ascension of her cousin James (the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots) to the throne brought much-needed dynastic stability to the throne of England. James had been careful in his rule of Scotland not to do anything to jeopardize his claim to the English throne. He had an eye toward England, and Elizabeth's chief minister, Robert Cecil, had corresponded with James for two years before Elizabeth's death. These letters prepared James for the daunting task of ruling England. Upon first taking the throne in England, James's insensitivity to English ways made waves with Parliament, and the English people found him a very disappointing successor to Elizabeth. Where she had been a grand people-pleaser, James was frumpy and lacking in social graces or respect for tradition. James found that Elizabeth had left a sizeable debt, but he only grew it over his first five years. Further, many people in England had high hopes that James would be able to solve the long-standing problem of unity with Scotland. But James's move to London kept him apart from his native Scotland, and the chasm between the two nations remained. Still, James's reign is remembered as one of peace and security that brought stability to the issue of religion, although political conflicts burdened his rule.

Shakespeare's career was in full force from Elizabeth's reign when James came to power, and James embraced the playwright as fully as his predecessor had. Not only was Shakespeare a favorite of James, but it was he who gave Shakespeare's company the title of King's Men. Macbeth reflects James's kingship and court in several ways. First, James descended from the historical Banquo, so Shakespeare's inclusion of Banquo as a sort of father of the English monarchy is a nod to James's heritage. Second, the apparition Macbeth sees of the procession of kings includes, in the original stage directions, a king holding a mirror. This is interpreted by some scholars to be a way of including England's current king (James, who did not allow references in plays to living monarchs) at the time in the lineup. Third, the theme of kingship was one of special interest to James, who was working out his version of the theory of the divine right of kings over their people and land. In 1598, he had written a treatise titled Trew Law of Free Monarchies. Fourth, James had a particular interest in the power of witchcraft, an interest shared by many people in his day.

Shakespeare's English Theater

A prolific writer of comedies, tragedies, and histories, Shakespeare is credited with authorship of thirty-seven plays, many of which are frequently performed in today's theater. As a playwright, Shakespeare's achievement is considered by many to be unparalleled and his era is considered a pivotal time in Western literature. Historians frequently observe that Shakespeare's arrival on the London theater scene was well-timed. The theater was coming into its own as a serious literary venue, and plays were diverse in subject matter. The theaters in London were also well-attended and patronized. Shakespeare's unique ability to write about universal human experiences and truths brought depth and accessibility to his dramas as well as his comedies. By also writing histories, he reinforced the popular interest in national, classical, and monarchical history, while paying homage to the monarchs on whose support he depended.

Shakespeare wrote during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, and he found different preferences between the two monarchs. Jacobean drama, in particular, tended to feature the royal court and London, although King James forbade overt references to living monarchs. Where Elizabethan drama had encouraged justice-seekers, Jacobean drama was drawn to pathetic, manipulated characters. Also common in Jacobean drama were conniving women, which is certainly a prominent feature in Macbeth. Macbeth also typifies Jacobean drama in its elements of violence, terror, and darkness. Even Jacobean comedy was often satiric and biting. Although Shakespeare may have been less productive under James's patronage, many scholars believe that his works in these years were more refined and intense.


Not surprisingly, Macbeth has received volumes of critical commentary over the years. Not only is the play an audience favorite, but its complex characterization, deeply woven themes, and characteristic Shakespearean style make it rich ground for scholarly inquiry. Critics such as Harold Bloom have remarked on the importance of Macbeth in the context of Shakespeare's works. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom writes, "The rough magic in Macbeth is wholly Shakespeare's; he indulges his own imagination as never before, seeking to find its moral limits (if any)." Bloom also remarks, "Macbeth is an uncanny unity of


  • 1000s: Scotland has a monarchy. During the 1000s, three different dynasties ruled Scotland.
    1600s: Scotland has a monarchy. During the 1600s, the House of Stuart maintains authority on the throne.
    Today: Scotland has its own parliament, established in 1998. This is the first time Scotland has had an independent parliament since 1707, when the Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament united into the British Parliament under the Treaty of the Union.
  • 1000s: Drama in the eleventh century is often religious, and is born out of the tradition of retelling biblical stories in Latin. But a trend toward performing plays outdoors, in native languages, and with secular subjects is growing. Acting troupes rely on trade guilds to sponsor their productions. Mystery plays became popular; in these plays, the biblical account of salvation was presented. Mystery plays focused on Old Testament subjects such as the Fall or the prophets, or on New Testament subjects such as Christ's birth, or on Christ's death and resurrection. Together, these were known as cycle dramas. Eventually, these would become secularized to the point that the church raised serious objections.
    1600s: London theater is thriving as the English language is considered a major vehicle for literary expression. By combining English interests and culture with conventions of classical drama, the English theater is full of potential. Besides portraying stories about relationships, history, and politics, the London theater has become a vital instrument in the passionate religious debates of the day.
    Today: Theater must compete with television and film for audience interest. Although many theaters still attract large audiences, the most popular plays tend to be well-known plays or musicals, or those by already-established playwrights. While there is room in the theater world for experimental and modern drama, audiences for these types of plays tend to be niche theater-goers.
  • 1000s: With respect to marriage in common households, keeping up the home is the priority for families. In the early Middle Ages, only the eldest sons marry, so that the others can stay and help the family. Men perform the labor necessary to work a farm or bring in income, while the women perform domestic duties. Men are considered the leaders of the home, and they generally exercise authority over money and other major decisions.
    1600s: It is common for families to arrange marriages, and they can be arranged while the bride and groom are young teenagers. The parents make these deals with one another to try to improve the social or financial standing of their families. Gender roles in marriage remain traditional, with the man working to support his family and the woman overseeing domestic responsibilities. Women possess no political power (with the obvious exception of monarchs) and they are not empowered to own land. Submission to their husbands is important for the family to run smoothly and for the family to be respected in society.
    Today: Not just in England, but throughout the Western world, gender roles in marriage are more fluid than ever. Men and women decide whether they will both work, and if not, which will stay home. Men and women share an abundance of work opportunities, based on their education and experience rather than gender. This gives married couples a greater degree of flexibility than in the past to make decisions about how their work will factor into their marriage. At home, gender roles are no longer assigned or assumed. Either the husband or the wife may perform domestic duties, manage the family finances, or make social plans. The norm is for the couple to make major decisions together in equal partnership.

setting, plot, and characters, fused together beyond comparison with any other play of Shakespeare's." Bloom is not alone in his admiration for this enduring play. In his article "Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action" for Shakespeare Quarterly, Irving Ribner states, "Macbeth is a closely knit, unified construction, every element of which is designed to support an intellectual statement, to which action, character, and poetry all contribute."

Critics continue to debate the characterization of Macbeth as a tragic hero. There is no consensus as to whether Macbeth is technically tragic or whether he is to be considered a hero. In drama, a tragedy traditionally recounts the significant events or actions in a protagonist's life which, taken together, bring about the catastrophe. Classical rules of tragedy also require that the hero's ruin evokes pity and fear in the audience. Some critics assert that since Macbeth's actions throughout the play are inherently evil, he gets what he deserves in the end and therefore his downfall is not catastrophic in a tragic sense. Critic Mary McCarthy takes the position that Macbeth is actually an average man who is easily duped by superstition and the will of others. In "The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays," McCarthy describes Macbeth as gullible because he never question the witches' predictions. Knowing that they are witches, he still does not consider that they may be trying to confuse and mislead him. She writes, "Macbeth is not clever; he is taken in by surfaces, by appearance. He cannot think beyond the usual course of things." Although he is bold and takes initiative in battle, at home he is submissive to the will of his wife. This facet of his personality, however, compels other commentators to argue that his feelings of guilt, combined with the coercion of the witches and his wife, generate pity and fear among readers and spectators at his ruin, a feeling identified in classical tragedy as catharsis. In College English, J. Lyndon Shanley contributes an article titled, "Macbeth: The Tragedy of Evil." In this essay, Shanley writes that Macbeth's downfall is caused by his decision to sin willingly and knowingly. He adds:

Macbeth is terrified by the warnings of his conscience, but he cannot surrender. That he acts with full knowledge of the evil only increases the pity and fear aroused by his deed. For this knowledge causes much of his suffering; it makes his condition far worse than it would have been had he acted with less than complete knowledge.

Shanley is not the only critic to find something sympathetic in Macbeth, despite his ruthless and violent ways. In his article "Macbeth as Tragic Hero," Wayne C. Booth claims that Macbeth's failing was less about having deplorable character and moral fiber, and more about lack of perception. He maintains that Macbeth does not understand the external forces working so hard to manipulate him (namely, the witches and Lady Macbeth); he does not understand the distinction between killing on a battlefield and killing in civilian life; and "he does not understand his own character—he does not know what will be the effects of the evil act on his own future happiness."

Still, there is a difference between pitying a character and relating to him. Bloom maintains that readers and audience members have difficulty not relating to Macbeth. He answers the question of why this is so by explaining that Macbeth "so dominates [Shakespeare's] play that we have nowhere else to turn." As evidence, he notes how, although she is a strong character, Lady Macbeth is onstage very little; and readers do not have the chance to get to know other characters, such as Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo, and Macduff very well.

Although the minor characters appear only briefly (usually because they are murdered) and their personas are not fully developed, readers and critics are drawn to them. Duncan, for example, is held up as an example of a good king in contrast to Macbeth's figure as a bad king. Van Doren remarks, "Duncan was everything that Macbeth is not. We saw him briefly, but the brilliance of his contrast with the thane he trusted has kept his memory beautiful throughout a play whose every other feature has been hideous." Similarly, Lady Macduff and her son appear fleetingly, but their fate evokes the pity of the audience and rouses more indignation toward Macbeth.

A substantial body of criticism addresses Lady Macbeth. Her importance in the play and her position as a dominant woman in Western literature have prompted lengthy discussion and character evaluation. Ribner juxtaposes Lady Macbeth with Banquo in her role in Macbeth's psychological makeup. He maintains that while Banquo represents the part of Macbeth's divided nature that would "accept nature and reject evil," Lady Macbeth represents the other side. Numerous critics believe that left to his own devices, Macbeth would not have murdered Duncan and set into motion the tragic events of the play. Shanley explains that Lady Macbeth "could sway him because she understood him and loved him, and because he loved her and depended on her love and good thoughts of him." While most commentary centers on the sheer strength and determination of Lady Macbeth, there are critics who find her less powerful than she seems, and even less powerful than her husband. Mark van Doren in Shakespeare asserts:

When the crisis comes she will break sooner than her husband does, but her brittleness then will mean the same thing that her melodrama means now: she is a slighter person than Macbeth, has a poorer imagination, and holds in her mind less of that power which enables it to stand up under torture.

Aligned with Lady Macbeth are the witches, who are also female figures who seem in control of themselves and of Macbeth. He is easily manipulated by them, intellectually and emotionally. Critics often note that the witches and Lady Macbeth work in tandem (although not intentionally) to undo Macbeth. Commenting on the witches' influence on Macbeth's will, Bloom explains, "Between what Macbeth imagines and what he does, there is only a temporal gap, in which he himself seems devoid of will. The Weird Sisters, Macbeth's Muses, take the place of that will." In her article "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth," Janet Adelman describes the dual influence of the witches and Lady Macbeth. She writes, "Lady Macbeth brings the witches' power home: they get the cosmic apparatus, she gets the psychic force."

The themes in Macbeth, including evil, guilt and conscience, ambition, time, and the supernatural have garnered a great deal of critical attention. In his article for Shakespeare Quarterly, Ribner explores the theme of evil in depth. He boldly writes:

Macbeth is in many ways Shakespeare's maturest and most daring experiment in tragedy, for in this play he set himself to describe the operation of evil in all its manifestations: to define its very nature, to depict its seduction of man, and to show its effect upon all the planes of creation once it has been unleashed by one man's sinful moral choice.

Ribner applauds Shakespeare's use of blood imagery and darkness to reinforce his theme of evil, and he notes that Macbeth carries out evil in every aspect of his life. His personal relationships are destroyed by evil, as is his self-perception. An because he sought only the power of the crown and not the responsibilities, he invited evil into Scotland. Ribner explains, "On the level of the state Macbeth unleashes the greatest evils of which Shakespeare's audience could conceive, tyranny, civil war, and an invading foreign army."

One of the more subtle themes running through Macbeth is time. The introduction of prophecy and the rush to fulfill it makes time seem to Macbeth and his wife something that can be controlled and manipulated by temporal beings. They see in the present signs of the future, and they look to the past for the same reason. Perhaps because of its subtlety, scholars often find the theme of time extremely pervasive and influential. Bloom comments, "What notoriously dominates this play, more than any other in Shakespeare, is time, time that is not the Christian mercy of eternity, but devouring time, death nihilistically regarded as finality." Tom F. Driver in The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama states plainly, "Much as he would like, Macbeth cannot separate the present from the past and the future. By the act of murder he has made his own history, and the rest of the play is the account of the fulfillment of that history, ultimately self-defeating."

Few playwrights have demonstrated the kind of enduring popularity as Shakespeare has. As for Macbeth, its relevance is still upheld by scholars, students, professors, readers, and audience members. To some, the play's relevance is topical. In The Penguin New Writing, contributor Stephen Spender points to Macbeth as an obvious choice when seeking Shakespearean drama relevant to today's world. He explains, for example, "It is impossible to read the lines beginning, 'Our country sinks beneath the yoke; it weeps, it bleeds' [act 4, scene 3, lines 38-39], without thinking of half a dozen countries under the yoke of a tyrant." Although Spender's comment was made in 1941, the observation is equally true today. To others, Macbeth endures for its universal appeal to the human spirit, even at its darkest. As Bloom suggests, "We are to journey inward to Macbeth's heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit." Ribner suggests a more positive, if surprising, reading of Macbeth when he points out that Macbeth's ultimate downfall is the result of his own choices. He concludes, "We may thus, viewing the play in its totality, see good, through divine grace, inevitably emerging from evil and triumphant at the play's end with a promise of rebirth."


Mary Ives Thompson and Francesco Aristide Ancona

Thompson and Ancona analyze how the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth undergo such dramatic transformations from the beginning of the play to the end. The critics contend that these transformations are rooted in the issue of gender roles, and specifically in the characters' desire to escape from the rigidly defined roles that society has created for them.

In Macbeth, both the title character and Lady Macbeth undergo a role reversal of sorts by the end of the play. In a world where fair is soul and the natural order is completely subverted, Macbeth becomes completely confident in his grab for power, while Lady Macbeth wanders the castle corridors at night bemoaning her unclean hands following the murder of Duncan and his guards. The question, then, is why these two characters change so much in their attitudes in the relatively short space of the drama. What could cause Macbeth, referred to by his own wife as "too full o' the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way" (1.5.17-18), to become completely remorseless in his bid for the crown, even to the point at which he eliminates not only his competitors for the throne but their progeny as well? And why has Lady Macbeth, who was so bent on ambition and power in the opening acts that she begged whatever spirits might be listening to "unsex me here / and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / of direst cruelty!" (1.5.41-43), become a guilt-ridden somnambulist?

Clearly, this role reversal revolves around the question of gender, specifically, the attempt to break out of rigidly defined roles for which persons might be unsuited. Lady Macbeth has several problems, the most notable of which are as follows: She is intelligent, she craves power, she is strong enough to determine what action she must take to achieve her goals, and she is willing to turn to unsavory means to achieve her ends. Oh, yes, and she happens to be a female living in medieval Scotland. In short, Lady Macbeth's dramatic role reversal and subsequent demise at her own hand can be traced back to one source: her own desire for some sort of power and the attempted overthrow or altering of the patriarchal order of her society that dictates a passive role for which she was completely unsuited.

Tellingly, Macbeth opens with an initial act and scene populated entirely by female characters, the only Shakespeare play to do so. Immediately, by the very presence of the weird sisters, the audience is given to understand something unnatural is afoot. While clearly women, the witches display androgynous characteristics, leading Macbeth and Banquo to question their gender: "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so" (1.3.53-47). The difficulty of gender characterization and the attempt on the part of the male characters to neatly file other people into a clear, gender-specific role (the witches should be women) foreshadows Lady Macbeth's plea two scenes later—she too wishes for sex to be taken away or at least fundamentally changed, so she will not display the weaknesses inherent in all females: compassion and tender-heartedness. The reason for her desire for this change is apparent when the audience beholds her ambition. Macbeth refers to her as his "dearest partner of greatness" (1.5.11), something unheard of in the paternalistic and bloodyminded society in which she lives. How else can Lady Macbeth hope to live up to the faith that Macbeth has placed in her unless she rids herself of her female imperfections of kindness and mercy? In a society that rewards bloody murder if done in the service of the state (three scenes earlier, the captain is heard praising Macbeth for dispatching the traitorous Macdonwald when he "unseamed him from the nave to the chops / And fixed his head upon our battlements" (1.2.22-23)), how can a mere woman hope to achieve any power if not through her husband? And if that husband is too plagued by conscience or kindness to commit murder without cause, how can Lady Macbeth not pray to have her feminity revoked, so she may be the one to do the deed herself?

The only way for a man to be successful in Macbeth's world is to take arms and end the life of another. Macbeth's early success against the traitorous Macdonwald paves the way for other bloody acts that will allow him to gain greater glory and fame. At first unsure of his course toward what he views as greatness, he progresses nevertheless toward his destiny. The speech in which he speaks of his hallucination of the bloody dagger indicates the only tools of his creativity: an unsheathed weapon, first clean and then covered with blood and gore. While most characters in the play cling to this warlike and vengeful ideal of the masculine, one character displays what more modern readers might determine to be a "real man," one who exemplifies the often conflicting characteristics of physical strength and emotional depth. When Macduff discovers his wife and children are slaughtered, he is understandably moved. Malcolm, however, advises him to "Dispute it like a man" (4.3.221), or take up arms against Macbeth and bring him down. In this masculine world, the only acceptable reaction to treachery and murder is vengeance. Macduff acknowledges action is important and that he will soon seek revenge, but emotions also must play a role:

    I shall do so;
    But I must also feel it as a man.
    I cannot but remember such things were,
    That were most precious to me.

This brief interlude into acknowledgment and even valuing of emotion is short lived, for in the next few lines Macduff "pulls himself together" and steels himself for what he must do as a man:

    Oh, I could play the woman with mine eyes
    And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
    Cut short this intermission. Front to front
    Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
    Within my sword's length set him.

The only male character willing to recognize his "feminine side" is quickly pulled back into the world of brutality and vengeance, and it is in this world and against this backdrop of violent tendencies that Lady Macbeth exists.

A clearly intelligent and ambitious woman, Lady Macbeth's role is completely determined by her husband's. Without even a name of her own, the only way she can achieve power is if her husband first attains it. Only with Macbeth as king can Lady Macbeth be queen. How frustrating it must be for such a strong woman to be forced to rely on such a weak vessel! Following the lead of all the successful males of whom she knows, Lady Macbeth plans a quick succession to the throne for her husband and taunts him into participation with what she views as his own weakness and lightness of affection towards her. When Macbeth's conscience torments him to the point at which he decides he cannot go through with the planned murder, she responds:

    … Was the hope drunk
    Wherein you dressed yourself?. Hath it slept since?
    And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
    At what it did so freely? From this time
    Such I account thy love.

This response to her husband's qualms makes her seem cruel and manipulative, a shrew who must use her sexuality to twist her husband's love to her own selfish ends, and to a certain extent this is true. On the other hand, what other options were available to her? If she wanted power for her husband (and, by extension, for herself) she must force Macbeth back on the bloody path to regicide. And when Macbeth responds he cannot kill Duncan because, "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none," (1.7.46-48) Lady Macbeth rightly points out what manly behavior means in her experience:

    … What beast was't, then,
    That made you break this enterprise to me?
    When you durst do it, then you were a man;
    And, to be more than what you were, you would
    Be so much more the man.

The idea for the murder was her husband's—Lady Macbeth has simply determined a practical course of action to help fulfill the weird sisters' prophecy and now that the time for completion is nearing, Macbeth is having pangs of conscience that are disrupting the scheme. How intolerably infuriating this must be to the "dearest partner of greatness," to see everything she had been allowed to hope for slipping away through the perceived weakness of one man!

In one sense, Lady Macbeth fulfills her role as helpmate of her husband, although in an admittedly gruesome fashion. She attends her husband at the murder, eggs him on, and completes the task of incriminating the grooms by smearing them with blood, all of which is completely outside the guidelines of acceptable female behavior but is done to assist her husband. Had she been a stereotypical Scottish wife of the period, she would have known nothing of her husband's business dealings and would have been content to wait for Macbeth to bring home guests for her to entertain. Instead, when Duncan is admitted to her home, she plans and participates in the murder, and she shows much self-awareness of prospective guild as she does so, informing Macbeth, "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad" (2.2.37-38). The realization of wrongdoing is upon her; nevertheless, she knows that her own mind might turn on her if she dwells too heavily on what she has done. Macbeth's mind already displays some misgivings, but as the play progresses, he will follow the second counsel of the witches and rush headlong toward his doom in the surety of his invincibility. The strong female in this case is the one whose mental capacities will degrade as the drama moves to its end, since the idea of a thinking woman in a position of power was still viewed as unnatural and could not be allowed. It would not be possible to have Macbeth killed and Lady Macbeth left alive—what would the male-governed society do with her? Would Malcolm or any of the others hold her guilty for her actions? Could they even conceive of the idea of a woman so filled with cunning and treachery? After all, Macduff speaks of Malcolm's mother in 4.3 as an ideal woman who was "Oft'ner upon her knees than on her feet." (111) In this society, all women are fit to do is watch, wait, and pray. Would Malcolm have been able to execute a woman, even one he knows to be a "fiendlike queen"? No, leaving Lady Macbeth alive and having the question of punishment appropriate for a female would have been a loose end in an otherwise tight drama, and so Lady Macbeth must punish and quietly remove herself from the reach of male justice by taking her own life. She operates completely in her own sphere, untouched by interaction with any character other than her husband. Even in her dealings with him, Lady Macbeth is the stronger of the two, taking the lead and pushing for her goals. Only in her sleep does her femininity of her conscience have free reign, and even then the physician recognizes she is the only one who can minister to herself. Throughout the drama, no man can truly assist Lady Macbeth.

Perhaps this isolation occurs because, through much of the play, Lady Macbeth is viewed as an outsider even by herself. The laws of nature do not apply to her in the same way they do to everyone else in the play. When the grooms are lulled to sleep by alcohol, Lady M notes, "That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; / What hath quenched them that given me fire" (2.2.1-2). Even strong drink acts differently in her system, making her appear an aberration indeed. When Macbeth realizes the extent of his villainy immediately after Duncan's murder and begins to fear he hears knocking, Lady Macbeth responds to his qualms:

    My hands are of your color, but I shame
    To wear a heart so white. (Knock.) I hear a knocking
    At the south entry. Retire we to our chamber.
    A little water clears us of this deed.
    How easy is it, then! Your constancy
    Hath left you unattended.

Lady Macbeth hears the same sounds as Macbeth, but they raise no feelings of guilt or panic; rather, they bring out her practical nature, and she supports her husband as he falters in his purpose. She will continue fulfilling at lease one role of the attentive wife and will be at Macbeth's side to assist him when his hallucinations worsen, and he sees the ghost of Banquo. It is Lady Macbeth who again subverts the natural order by allowing all the guests to leave the chamber quickly and without regard for rank as she directs them to, "Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once.'" (3.4.120-121) Attempting to function in male society while still outwardly appearing to be a dutiful wife, she throws aside the masculine rules of order, perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps out of desperation.

None of this is meant to excuse the reprehensible actions of either character, however. It is merely an explanation of why one woman could act with such a stony heard and dauntless purpose to kill an old man of whom she was admittedly fond. (Indeed, the only reason Lady Macbeth cannot bring herself to kill Duncan when Macbeth falters is Duncan's passing resemblance to her own father. The primitive ban against patricide still exists in her psyche, even if regicide is an acceptable course of action in her desperation and ambition.) Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are acting in unnatural ways, or at least in ways in which a perversion of the "might makes right" principle is in play. They have departed from violence in service of the State and moved to violence for personal gain, something which the playwright has a duty to condemn. The messages of the drama resonates: Unnatural behavior on the part of both sexes can only lead to calamity as Nature itself rebels and rises up to restore accepted order. In this, one of the only Shakespeare plays in which the protagonist can be classified as evil rather than simply flawed, Shakespeare seems to be indicating that a woman as unnatural as Lady Macbeth cannot be allowed to live or flourish. The only acceptable outcome for this rebel against her sex is for her to take her own life.

Lady Macbeth is not the first unruly woman in the drama to be constrained or returned to her acceptable role. We see the three witches have overstepped their bounds when Hecate appears in 3.5 and chides them for their support of Macbeth, "… a wayward son, / Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do, / Loves for his own ends, not for you" (11-13). Even the witches have an established hierarchy, and their prophecies can only be used for the benefit of an acceptable subject. Macbeth is not a good choice for the hearing of the prophecy, and the three sisters must now restore the balance they had disturbed. Their last prophecy to Macbeth, of course, leads him to the false sense of security when he believes he can never be harmed. When he listens to and heeds this prophecy, he and Lady Macbeth begin to switch roles in the drama. He becomes completely blind to any danger to himself, and Lady Macbeth changes from a murderer who philosophically states, "Things without all remedy / Should be without regard. What's done is done" (3.2.13-14) to a disturbed sleepwalker who paces futilely every night in search of enough water to cleanse her of her sins. Macbeth is stepping up to the role he wanted but was afraid to kill for, and Lady Macbeth's strength is no longer needed. A displaced person, she has no further role in the support of her husband and will revert to the more traditional feminine role. As he becomes stronger, she weakens, for two such blindly driven characters are not needed to rule. Finally, with her suicide, she removes herself from the stage completely, leaving her husband not to mourn her passing but to simply comment, "She should have died hereafter."

Lady M's downfall comes more quickly than Macbeth's, for she has rebelled more against her femininity than he has against his masculinity. Macbeth has taken society's approval of state-sanctioned murder too far, to the extent of killing and supplanting the head of state, but his behavior is an extension of appropriate masculine action for his military-minded world. Lady Macbeth, however, has stepped completely outside the bounds of femininity and must be punished, even if it is by her own hand. More self-aware than Macbeth to the end, she does not wait for anyone else to end her unnatural existence—she does it willingly to herself, quietly and offstage. Macbeth, on the other hand, determines not to surrender and not to fall upon his sword, for at the end his overconfidence blinds him to any possible danger, and he only completely understands his own doom


  • Clarence Valentine Boyer's chapter on Macbeth in The Villain as Tragic Hero in Elizabethan Tragedy (1914; reprint, 1964) presents a detailed examination of Macbeth's character, tracing the development of his thought throughout the play's action.
  • Edited by John Russell Brown, 1982's Focus on "Macbeth" contains eleven essays on the play by prominent critics. The subjects of these essays range from thematic concerns and language to theatrical considerations of the play.
  • Herbert R. Coursen provides a reliable and informative guide to Macbeth in Macbeth: A Guide to the Play (1997). Chapters cover the background of the play, general thematic considerations, and comments on various productions.
  • In James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries (1990), Jonathan Goldberg provides important historical and cultural information about the context in which Shakespeare and his peers (and rivals) penned classic and enduring works of literature.
  • Anthony Holden's 2002 book, William Shakespeare: An Illustrated Biography, offers readers an honest attempt to present the facts of Shakespeare's life, separate from the legends that surround the playwright. The book is brought to life by the inclusion of illustrations and ephemera related to the Bard's life.
  • In Stratford Papers on Shakespeare (1963), editor B. W. Jackson demonstrates the overall intensity of Macbeth, which is chiefly apparent in its language and imagery. Foakes argues that the drama's simplicity of action and character belies the fact that Shakespeare was attempting to develop a new kind of tragedy distinct from Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello.
  • In a chapter about Macbeth in Arnold Kettle's 1964 work, Shakespeare in a Changing World, J. K Walton analyzes Macbeth's individualism and associates it with the play's imagery of isolation and sterility. Walton also notes that opposed to this individualism is a combination of forces that challenge Macbeth; he states that the play's optimism is partly suggested by "the fact that a unified people overcome the tyrant."
  • L. C. Knights provides a general overview of Macbeth's major themes and images in Some Shakespearean Themes (1959), noting that "the essential structure of Macbeth … is to be sought in the poetry."
  • Editor Edwin Quinn analyzes the world of Macbeth in 1978's How to Read Shakespearean Tragedy. He divides Shakespeare's world into four parts: the physical, the psychological, the political, and the moral. Leary considers each of these aspects separately, but maintains that they are "all parts of a unified whole."
  • In an article for Shakespeare Quarterly, (October 1953) titled "The Unity of Macbeth," Brent Stirling proposes that the poetic and dramatic structures of Macbeth are unified in four traditionally Elizabethan themes: darkness, sleep, raptness, and contradiction.

when nature itself, in the form of a mobile Birnam Wood, and another man outside of nature yet willing to restore order, Macduff, takes his life away from him.

Of final interest in this commentary on gender psyche in the drama, one last area of symbolism exists and is particularly important in the context of Lady Macbeth's suicide. If nature is personified as a female presence, it is interesting to note the male use of the feminine boughs of the Wood as a shield until subterfuge is no longer needed, at which time nature is cast away and steel swords again become the most important implements. Likewise, Macduff was once sheltered by a woman who was later discarded as unnecessary in the birth process—after all, "Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped." (5.8.16) Even the witches who opened the play are displaced, and it is a male figure who will offer the final words to sum up the moral and message of the work. The drama ends with the natural (and, what else? patriarchal) order of society and rank being restored, as is evidenced by Malcolm's final statement, "… what needful else / we will perform in measure, time, and place" (5.8.73-73). However, try as Malcolm might, the audience knows that his reign will end with or shortly after his own death, for according to the prophecy it is the murdered Banquo whose children will gain the throne. If the weird sisters' prophecy is correct, how long can it be until nature is again in upheaval? While Shakespeare himself must stress the return of the genders to their rightful places, it seems only a matter of time until the feminine intrudes once again in this masculine world, no matter how carefully kings attempt to structure their legacy.

Source: Mary Ives Thompson and Francesco Aristide Ancona, "He Says/She Says: Shakespeare's Macbeth (a Gender/Personality Study)," in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 3-4, October 2005, pp. 59-69.

Kenneth Muir

Muir analyzes various image patterns in Macbeth. The first pattern the critic examines is that of babies and breast-feeding. According to Muir, infants symbolize pity throughout the play, and breast-milk represents "humanity, tenderness, sympathy, natural human feelings, [and] the sense of kinship, all of which have been outraged by the murderers." Another group of images focuses on sickness and medicine, all of which occur, significantly, in the last three acts of the play, after Macbeth has ascended the throne. Images of sickness, the critic contends, signify the "disease of tyranny" which has infected Scotland, and which can only be cured by "bleeding or purgation." Muir also observes a contrast between the powers of light and darkness in Macbeth. Darkness pervades all the action in Macbeth's world, whereas light manifest itself in the scenes in England and those in which Malcolm and Macduff restore order at the end of the play. Other dualities related to the light/dark motif include contrasts between angel and devil, heaven and hell, and truth and falsehood.

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Source: Kenneth Muir, "Image and Symbol in Macbeth," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakesperian Study and Production, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 45-54.

J. Lyndon Shanley

Shanley considers the tragic context of Macbeth's evil actions in an attempt to determine whether or not his downfall warrants sympathy or arouses fear at the end of the play. The critic maintains that Macbeth has a fundamentally different experience from Shakespeare's other great tragic heroes: he does not achieve a great recovery in the end because his actions throughout the play were ignoble. Shanley suggests, however, that Macbeth's end is perhaps more tragic than that of the other heroes because he ultimately loses himself to a degree that none of them does. According to the critic, our pity for Macbeth might therefore lie in the fact that by declaring that life signifies nothing, he acknowledges "the almost complete destruction of the human spirit." Shanley also observes that our ability to pass judgment on the hero's ruin is further complicated by several factors.

Nowhere can we see the essential humanity of Shakespeare more clearly than in Macbeth, as he shows that the darkest evil may well be human, and so, though horrible, understandable in terms of our own lives and therefore pitiable and terrible. Yet nowhere apparently are we so likely to miss the center of Shakespeare's view of the action; for Macbeth, while less complex than Shakespeare's other major tragedies, frequently raises the crucial question: Is Macbeth's fall really tragic?

Many who are deeply moved by the action of the play cannot satisfactorily explain their feelings. The doctrine of Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner [if all is understood then all is pardoned] leads them to think (most of the time) that there is no guilt, that there should be no punishment. When faced with unpardonable evil and inescapable punishment for the guilty, and when moved at the same time to pity and fear by the suffering of the evil-doer, they are confused. Since they confound the understanding of an act with the excusing of it, they are prevented from understanding acts (and their reactions to them) for which excuse is impossible. Some, of course, find an excuse for Macbeth in the witches. But those who do not see him as the victim of agents of destiny appear to wonder if they have not been tricked into sympathy by Shakespeare's art. How, they ask, in view of Macbeth's monstrous career and sorry end, so different from those of Hamlet, Lear, or Othello, how can his fortunes win our pity and arouse our fear?

Macbeth is defeated as is no other of Shakespeare's great tragic figures. No pity and reverent awe attend his death. Dying off-stage, he is, as it were, shuffled off, in keeping with his dreadful state and the desire of all in his world to be rid of him. The sight of his "cursed head" is the signal for glad hailing of Malcolm as king; all thought of him is dismissed with "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" [V. ix. 35]. The phrase is dramatically fitting, but it does not express the whole truth that Shakespeare shows us of Macbeth's story. Seldom do we feel so strongly both the justice of the judgment and the retribution and at the same time pity for him on whom they fall; for behind this last scene lies the revelation of Macbeth's almost total destruction.

Hamlet, Lear, and Othello lose much that is wonderful in human life; their fortunes are sad and terrible. So near, their stories seem to say, is man's enjoyment of the world's best gifts—and yet so far, because his own errors and weakness leave him unable to control his world. To lose Hamlet's delight in man and his powers, and the glory of life; to have Cordelia's love and tender care snatched away, after such suffering as Lear's; or to have thrown away the jewel of one's life as did Othello—this is painful. But their fortunes might have been worse. At one time they were: when the losers thought that what they had served and believed in were mere shows that made a mockery of their noblest love; when life and all their efforts seemed to have been utterly without meaning.

But before the end they learned that their love had value and that life had meaning. On this knowledge depends the twofold effect of the heroes' deaths: death at once seals, without hope of restitution, the loss of the world and its gifts, but at the same time it brings relief from the pain of loss. Furthermore, this knowledge restores the courage and nobility of soul that raise them far above their enemies and the ruins of their world. Without this knowledge, Hamlet and Lear and Othello were far less than themselves, and life but a fevered madness. With it, there is tragedy but not defeat, for the value of what is best in them is confirmed beyond question.

But in the end of Macbeth we have something fundamentally different. Macbeth's spirit, as well as his world, is all but destroyed; no great recovery is possible for him. He does not, for he cannot, see that what he sought and valued most was good and worthy of his efforts. He is aware that he has missed much; shortly before Lady Macbeth dies, he broods over the "honour, love, obedience, troops of friends" [V. iii. 25] he has lost and cannot hope to regain. But this knowledge wins no ease for his heart. It does not raise him above the conditions that have ruined him. Macbeth, it is true, is no longer tortured as he once was, but freedom from torture has led only to the peace of despair in which he looks at life and denounces it as "a tale told by an idiot" [V. v. 26-7].

Bitter as life was for Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, it was not empty. But all Macbeth's efforts, all his hopes and dreams were in vain, because of the way he went; and when he discovers that they were, he concludes that nothing can be realized in life. Hence his terrible indictment of life—terrible because it reveals him to be all but hopelessly lost in the world of Shakesperean tragedy, as he desperately and ironically blasphemes against a basic tenet of that world, to the truth of which his own state bears overwhelming evidence: that man's life signifies everything.

It is the despair and irony in this blasphemy that makes Macbeth's lot so awful and pitiful. We see the paralyzing, the almost complete destruction of a human spirit. The threat of hostile action galvanizes Macbeth into action to protect himself, but the action is little more than an instinctive move toward self-preservation and the last gesture of despair.

He has not even the bitter satisfaction of rebelling and saying, "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods" [King Lear, IV. i. 36]. Only sheer animal courage remains to flash out and remind us of a Macbeth once courageous in an honorable cause. This reminder is pitiful, for Macbeth has not even the slim hope of a trapped animal which, if it fights loose, has something to escape to. All Macbeth did resulted in nothing; whatever he does now will result in nothing but the anguish of meaningless action. It is hard enough to realize that one has been on the wrong track for part of life; to be convinced that there is no right track to get on because there is no place for any track to go—this is to be lost with no hope at all.

At the very end we see some saving touches of humanity in Macbeth: he has not lost all human virtue; he would have no more of Macduff's blood on his soul; and even with the collapse of his last security, his bravery does not falter. These touches show him a man still, and not a fiend, but they by no means reestablish him in his former self. There is no greatness in death for him. Rather than the human spirit's capacity for greatness in adversity, we see its possible ruin in evil. Because we never see Macbeth enjoying the possession of the great prize he sought, and because from the beginning of his temptation we have no hope that he will be able to enjoy it, his loss of the world's gifts is not so poignant as that of Hamlet, Lear, or Othello. But to a degree that none of them does, Macbeth loses himself, and this is most tragic of all.

It may be objected, however, that Macbeth alone of Shakespeare's great tragic figures is fully aware of the evil of the act by which he sets in motion the train of events leading to his ruin. His culpability seriously weakens the sympathy of many. In the face of this difficulty, some interpreters justify sympathy for Macbeth by seeing him as the victim of the witches, the agents of destiny. This point of view, however, seems to cut through the complex knot of human life as Shakespeare saw it, instead of following the various strands which make it up. We cannot dodge Macbeth's responsibility and guilt—he never does.

His ruin is caused by the fact that he sins: he wilfully commits an act which he knows to be wrong. This ruin and sin are seen to be tragic, as Shakespeare, like Dante, reveals the pity and fear in a man's succumbing to grievous temptation, and in the effects of sin on his subsequent thoughts and deeds. Macbeth's guilt and the circumstances upon which it depends do not decrease our pity and fear; they produce it; for Shakespeare presents Macbeth as one who had hardly any chance to escape guilt.

The concatenation of circumstances which make Macbeth's temptation is such as to seem a trap. At the very moment when he is returning victorious from a battle in which he has played a chief part in saving his country from disaster, there comes to him a suggestion—touching old dreams and desires—that he may be king. Shakespeare uses the witches to convey the danger of the suggestion. The witches and their prophecies are poetic symbols of the bafflingly indeterminate character of the events that surround men. The witches force nothing; they advise nothing; they simply present facts. But they confound fair and foul; just so, events may be good or ill. The witches will not stay to explain their greetings any more than events will interpret themselves. The witches' prophecies and the events that forever surround men are dangerous because they may appear simple and are not, because they may be so alluring as to stultify prudence, and because their true significance may be very hard to come at. Depending on conditions, they may be harmless, or they may be delusive, insidious, and all but impossible to read correctly.

Macbeth is in no condition to read them aright. He had restrained his desire for greatness in the past since he would not do the wrong which was needed to win greatness. The hunger of his ambitious mind had not died, however; it had only been denied satisfaction. Now, when the sense of his own power and his taste of it are high indeed, the old hunger is more than reawakened; it is nourished with hope, as immediate events seem to establish the soundness of the suggestion. Enough hope to lead him to ponder the suggestion seriously, and then, in spite of an attempt to put it out of his mind since he recognizes the evil of his thoughts, to retail the wonderful news of possible greatness to his wife.

There follow immediately two events which press the matter on most hastily. The king proclaims his eldest son as his heir, and in the next breath announces his visit to Macbeth's castle. Thus, while desire and hope are fresh, Macbeth sees put before him, first, an obstacle which time will only make greater, and then an opportunity for him to prevent time from working against him. "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly" [I. vii. 1-2]. In fact, it must be done quickly if it is to be done at all.

Desire, apparent promise of fulfillment, need for speedy action, and immediate opportunity fall together so rapidly as to create an all but inescapable force.

Yet Macbeth would have resisted temptation had he been left to himself. Great though his hunger for power and glory, especially when whetted by such circumstances, it would not have completely overcome his fears and scruples. Even if he were to jump the life to come, he knew that if he could and would kill Duncan, another might well do the same for him. On a higher plane, the double loyalty he owed to the king held him back. Finally, a point that reveals the virtue that was in him, he felt the goodness of Duncan so strongly that killing him seemed too terrible a thing to do. Worldly prudence, loyalty, reverence for what is good—these turned Macbeth back. Lady Macbeth's fears were well founded; his nature was not such as to let him "catch the nearest way."

But that nature could, as she felt, be worked. It was good, but not firm in its goodness. Macbeth is a moderately good man, no better, but also no worse, than the next one. The point is (and it is a grim one) that the virtue of the ordinarily good man is not enough to keep him from disaster under all possible circumstances—especially when some of them are such as may be for good or evil.

This was the nature of Lady Macbeth's influence on Macbeth. She could sway him because she understood him and loved him, and because he loved her and depended on her love and good thoughts of him. She could and would have urged him to noble deeds had occasion arisen. To prevent her from urging him on to evil ones, he needed more than the ordinary firmness to act as he saw right. But to cut clear of such a source of strength and comfort is difficult; too difficult for Macbeth. It is the old story of the perversion of the potentially good, and of the problem of getting only the good from the baffling mixture of good and evil in all things.

Just after Macbeth has decided to give up his murderous plot, but before intention can harden to resolve, Lady Macbeth adds the force of her appeals to that of Macbeth's desires and the press of circumstances. She sees his chance to win the prize of life; she knows he wants it, as she does not know in their full strength his reasons for renouncing it. She beats down, at least long enough for her immediate purpose, the fears and scruples which would otherwise have kept him from the crown, and murder and ruin. She does not answer Macbeth's scruples; her attack is personal. Whether she knows or simply feels his need of her admiration and support, she strikes at the right point. The spur of ambition did not drive Macbeth too hard toward his great opportunity, but her goading taunts he could not withstand, though they drove him on to horrors.

All this does not excuse Macbeth; no excuse is possible for one who, with full knowledge of the nature of the act, murders a good man to whom he owes hospitality, loyalty, and gratitude. Shakespeare makes us realize, however, how dangerous the battle, how practically irresistible may be the forces arrayed against a man. Some men are saved from evil because they marry a Cordelia or a Viola [in Twelfth Night]; others because opportunity never favors their desires; and still others because the stakes do not justify the risk of being caught in evil doing. For Macbeth, the stakes are the highest, the opportunity golden, and the encouragement to evil from a wife whom he loves and needs.

Macbeth is terrified by the warnings of his conscience, but he cannot surrender. That he acts with full knowledge of the evil only increases the pity and fear aroused by his deed. For this knowlege causes much of his suffering; it makes his condition far worse than it would have been had he acted with less than complete knowledge; and, finally, it emphasizes the power of the trickery, the lure, and the urging to which he was subjected. We pity his suffering even as he does evil because we understand why he could not hold on to the chance which he ought to have taken to save himself; and we are moved to fear when we see his suffering and understand how slight may be the chance to escape it.

Once that chance is lost greater suffering and evil follow inescapably. The bloody career on which Macbeth now embarks can no more be excused than could his first crime, but it increases rather than detracts from our pity and fear. The trap of temptation having been sprung, there is no escape for Macbeth, and his struggles to escape the consequences of his sin serve only to ensnare him more deeply. As we witness that struggle, our pity and fear increase because we feel how incompetent he is to do anything but struggle as he does.

Evil brings its own suffering with it, but Macbeth cannot learn from it. The unknown fifteenth-century author of The Book of the Poor in Spirit wrote of evil and suffering: "One's own proper suffering comes from one's own sins and he suffers quite rightly who lives in sins, and each sin fosters a special spiritual suffering … This kind of suffering is similar to the suffering in hell, for the more one suffers there the worse one becomes. This happens to sinners; the more they suffer through sin the more wicked they become and they fall more and more into sufferings in their effort to escape." Just so did Shakespeare conceive of Macbeth's state.

Macbeth has no enemy he can see, such as Iago or one of Lear's savage daughters; he is within himself. In first overriding the warnings of his conscience, he brings on the blindness which makes it impossible for him to perceive his own state and things outside him as they really are, and which therefore sends him in pursuit of a wholly illusory safety. When he puts away all thought of going back on his first evil deed, he deals the last blow to his conscience which once urged him to the right, and he blinds himself entirely.

No sooner does he gain what he wanted than he is beset by fears worse than those he overrode in murdering Duncan. But having overridden the proper fears, he cannot deal rightly with the new ones. His horror of murder is lost in the fear of discovery and revenge, and the fear of losing what he has sacrificed so much to gain. Briefly at least he wishes the murder undone and Duncan waking to the knocking at the gate. But just as earlier he thought, but failed, to put the witches' prophecies and his evil thoughts out of mind, so now his better thoughts die. By the time he appears in answer to the knocking at the gate, he is firmly set on a course to make good the murder of Duncan and to keep himself safe.

All is terrible irony from this point on. With a new decisiveness Macbeth kills the grooms in Duncan's chamber; alive, they were potential witnesses; dead, they can serve as plausible criminals. Then he plays brilliantly the part of a grief-stricken host and loyal subject:

    Had I but died an hour before this chance,
    I had liv'd a blessed time; for from this instant
    There's nothing serious in mortality;
    All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
    The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
    Is left this vault to brag of.
    [II. iii. 91-6]

Irony could not be sharper. At the very moment when he seems to himself to be complete master of the situation, Macbeth, all unknowingly, utters the bitter truth about his state. He is still to be troubled by thoughts of evil, but the drive of his desire for peace from fear is greater; and to win security he is hurrying on the way in which he thinks it lies, but it is the way to the utter, empty loneliness he describes for us here.

Macbeth finds that the death of the grooms was not enough; Banquo and Fleance must go if he is to be free from torment. Through Macbeth's conversation first with Banquo about his journey, then with the murderers, and finally with Lady Macbeth, we comprehend to its full extent the disastrous change in him; he now contemplates murder with hope rather than horror. He still sees it as something to be hidden: "Come, seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day" [III. ii. 46-7]. But he is willing to do more evil since he believes it will insure his safety: "Things bad begun make good themselves by ill" [III. ii. 55]. With the appearance of Banquo's ghost comes the last flicker of conscience, but also an increasing terror of discovery and revenge which drives Macbeth further than ever: "For mine own good all causes shall give way" [III. iv. 134-35].

The only thing he can gain in his blinded state is the very worst for him. He now seeks out the witches to get that reassurance in his course which he cannot find in himself. Although they will not stay for all his questions, he unhesitatingly accepts their equivocations; since they do reassure him, his doubts of them are gone. With their answers, and having lost "the initiate fear that wants hard use" and being no longer "young in deed" [III. iv. 142-43]. Macbeth enjoys the sense of security of any gangster or tyrant who has the unshrinking will to crush any possible opponents, and who thinks he has power to do so with impunity. All that he has gained, however, is the freedom to commit "every sin that has a name to it" [IV. iii. 59-60].

His delusion is complete; his ruin inevitable. Not until he experiences the bitter fruition of his earthly crown does he discover what has happened to him. Even then, however, he sees only in part; the blindness he suffered when he succumbed to temptation was never to be lightened; and hence the final irony of

    a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    [V. v. 26-8]

The action of Macbeth evokes a somber "there but for the grace of God." We understand but we do not therefore pardon all. Rather we acknowledge the evil and the guilt and so acquiesce in the inevitable retribution, but at the same time we are deeply moved by Macbeth's suffering and ruin because we are acutely aware of the dangerous forces before which he falls, and because we recognize their power over one like ourselves—a moderately good man who succumbs to temptation and who, having succumbed, is led to more evil to make good the first misstep, until there is no chance of withdrawal or escape. As we watch him, we know that he should not have fallen; he might have resisted; but Shakespeare's vision here is of a world in which men can hardly do better amid the forces of circumstance; and in which, if men do no better, they must suffer, and lose not only the world but themselves as well. Of such suffering and loss is tragedy made.

Source: J. Lyndon Shanley, "Macbeth: The Tragedy of Evil," in College English, Vol. 22, No. 5, February 1961, pp. 305-11.


Adelman, Janet, "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth," in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Marjorie Gruber, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 90-121.

Bloom, Harold, "Macbeth," in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998, pp. 516-45.

Booth, Wayne C., "Macbeth as Tragic Hero," in The Journal of General Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, October 1951, pp. 17-25.

Driver, Tom F., "The Uses of Time: The Oedipus Tyrannus and Macbeth," in The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama, Columbia University Press, 1960, pp. 143-67.

McCarthy, Mary, "General Macbeth," in The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, pp. 3-14.

Ribner, Irving, "Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1959, pp. 147-59.

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, 2nd Series, edited by Kenneth Muir, Arden Shakespeare, 1997.

Shanley, J. Lyndon, "Macbeth: The Tragedy of Evil," in College English, Vol. 22, No. 5, February 1961, pp. 305-11.

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Asp, Caroline, "'Be bloody, bold and resolute': Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 153-69.

Asp discusses the effect that stereotyping sexual roles has on the major characters in Macbeth.

Fosse, Jean, "The Lord's Anointed Temple: A Study of Some Symbolic Patterns in Macbeth," in Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 6, October 1974, pp. 15-22.

Fosse studies a group of images in Macbeth concerned with the human body to demonstrate that they are closely related and that they form an important symbolic pattern.

Heilman, Robert B., "The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 12-24.

This article focuses on Shakespeare's attempts to evoke sympathy for Macbeth despite the character's increasing villainy. Heilman asserts that the playwright "so manages the situation that we become Macbeth or at least assent to complicity with him."

Jaarsma, Richard J., "The Tragedy of Banquo," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 17, Nos. 2-3, 1967, pp. 87-94.

Jaarsma maintains that Banquo undergoes a radical change as a result of the witches' prophesies and becomes Macbeth's "silent accomplice" to Duncan's murder. Jaarsma argues that by illustrating how evil affects a man "who is more realistic and less susceptible to it than Macbeth," Shakespeare generalizes the tragedy of yielding to temptation.

Kimbrough, Robert, "Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 16, 1983, pp. 175-90.

Kimbrough examines the role of gender in Macbeth, asserting that the protagonist's "failure to allow the tender aspects of his character to check those tough characteristics which are celebrated by the chauvinistic war ethic of his culture [and] championed by his wife" results first in his emotional, then his physical death.

Moorthy, P. Rama, "Fear in Macbeth," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1973, pp. 154-66.

Moorthy asserts that fear is a unifying theme in Macbeth. Moorthy examines how fear affects Macbeth in particular, noting that it is his peculiar fate to be continually exposed to its horrifying consequences.

Rackin, Phyllis, "Macbeth," in Shakespeare's Tragedies, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978.

Rackin Offers a general discussion of Macbeth. Rackin's book, which she states is "written for amateurs," includes photographs from numerous theatrical productions.

Sadler, Lynn Veach, "The Three Guises of Lady Macbeth," CLA Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, September 1975, pp. 10-9.

Sadler declares that Lady Macbeth is more imaginative than her husband and that she projects three guises in the play: the public Lady Macbeth, the woman who plays to the audience of her husband only, and the private Lady Macbeth.


views updated Jun 27 2018


by William Shakespeare


A play set in Scotland In the mid-eleventh century; written and first performed c. 1606, published in 1623.


A Scottish warrior kills the king to take his throne, which leads to chaos, bloodshed, and tragedy.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Although the facts are continually in dispute, tradition has it that William Shake speare was born in Stratford in 1564, a child of the provincial middle class. He moved to London in the 1580s and joined the burgeoning world of the London theater, first as an actor and director, then as a playwright. Between 1588 and 1611, he produced close to 40 plays. Macbeth belongs to the end of Shakespeare’s “tragic period,” the years between 1600 and 1606 when he produced the five tragedies that are usually called his greatest work: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth. Written and performed—perhaps coincidentally—around the time of the accession (1603) of King James 1 of England, who also happened to be King James VI of Scotland, the play treats the issue of royal succession and offers a rare example of Renaissance English ideas about Scotland.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The political background to Macbeth

Macbeth is set in mid-eleventh-century Scotland, a time of intense political and social transition. Around 500 c.e. the Scots navigated the 13 miles of the North Channel separating the northeastern Irish kingdom of Dál Riata (today’s county Antrim) from Britain and became one of five distinct groups of medieval peoples who occupied what is now Scotland. The Scots tussled with the other groups throughout the centuries in an endless succession of battles and won only with difficulty the lands that Macbeth would rule in the mid-eleventh century. Among their rivals were the Picts who lived north of the firths of Clyde and Forth and in the northern Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetlands; the Britons who inhabited today’s Galloway, Cumberland, and Strathclyde (i.e., to the south and west); the Angles, who originated in Germany and Denmark, who lived in Northumbria (to the south and east); and later the Vikings who inhabited the northern and western isles. Having first set foot on the western coast of present-day Scotland (probably around the Mull of Kintyre), the Scots moved into the lands occupied by these other groups. By the mid-ninth century, all these people had been mingling and vying for prominence for centuries.

Under Kenneth mac Alpin (ruled 842-58), the Scots finally completed their conquest of the Picts; the political entity that arose from this situation was the foundation of the later kingdom of the Scots. It stretched almost completely across Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, except for some of the northern islands, which were occupied by the Vikings. These Scandinavians were tenacious in their attacks upon Scotland. As Shakespeare’s play opens, a Danish army under “Sveno” is attacking the Scots. In fact, the Scandinavian threat is often cited by historians as one of the reasons why the Scots felt such a need to consolidate their power by assimilating the Picts. From the mid-ninth century onward, the Scandinavians did not merely come as raiders, they came to stay, and settled in the northern islands and in Caithness, at the northernmost point of Scotland. The Scottish kings often forged alliances with them, and the players in Macbeth all had strong Scandinavian connections. Macbeth himself had Scandinavian cousins. His cousin Malcolm mac Malbrigte had given his daughter to Sigurd, the lord of Orkney, and she produced a son, Thorfinn, who would plague Macbeth’s kingship—the two seem to have fought at least one major battle, which Macbeth lost. Because of his complicated lineage, Thorfinn was actually one of the most powerful men in Scotland. He ruled the Orkneys, Shetlands, and possibly part of the Hebrides; also he claimed Caithness and Sutherland by hereditary right from his maternal grandfather. His position in a way exemplifies the intricate web of alliances and genealogies by which Scotland was held together and, sometimes, by which its existence was threatened.

To the south, the Scots had other, related problems. By 1018 they had defeated the Northumbrians at Carham and had won all the territory as far south as the River Tweed, a boundary that still divides Scotland from England. Sometime after 1018, the Scots made Strathclyde a client kingdom, which meant that it was subject to the Scottish kings. The rule of Strathclyde was made hereditary for whoever was the heir to the Scottish throne. But the situation was far from stable. The Angles of Northumbria in particular were a constant source of anxiety to the Scottish kings, and the complex power plays between the Scots, the Angles in Northumbria, and the Danes based in Dublin form the wider political backdrop of Shakespeare’s play.

Yet Macbeth is above all else a family drama, as were all political disputes in Scotland. The leading families were bound to one another in a practically unfathomable series of alliances and feuds. Macbeth and Duncan were certainly related, even if they were not, in fact, first-cousins. The Dál Riata royal family that first came from the Irish kingdom of the same name to Scotland was of the dynasty of cenél nGabrain; they moved into the heartland of what would become the Scottish kingdom. A second Dál Riata lineage, cenél Loairn, moved north and settled in a region of northern Britain (which included Macbeth’s home province of Moray); the region stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and from Ross to the river Dee—a huge, wild territory separated from the rest of Scotland by the Grampian mountains. From nearly the beginning of the Dál Riata migration, the two lineages would in an important sense be separate from one another (indeed they fought battles against each other). But, through intermarriage, political expediency (usually having to do with Viking incursions), and the peculiarities of the Scottish succession (see below), the two lines nevertheless often entered into an uneasy alliance.

The king of Moray

In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth is referred to incorrectly as the thane of Glamis and / or of Cawdor. His real title was king of cenél Loairn or king of Moray, and this is a distinction that makes all the difference for an appropriate historical understanding of what really transpired between Macbeth and Duncan. The two kingly dynasties—Cenél nGabrain and Cenél Loairn—had competed for primacy in Dál Riata and continued their competition when they moved into the east. By the tenth century they were competing for primacy over all of Scotland (Hudson, p. 146).

The leaders of the two royal families were often at serious odds with each other. A royal ancestor of Duncan, Malcolm I (died 954) attacked Moray in the mid-tenth century and killed the king, named Cellach. Malcolm’s son, Dub (“the Dark”), was slain in Moray in 966; a later legend claims that his body was hidden under a bridge, and the sun refused to shine until it was recovered. Malcolm’s other son, Kenneth I, Duncan’s great-grandfather, succeeded in having his over-lordship acknowledged by his rivals of cenél Loairn, and he is described as high king of the Scots on his death in 995. His supremacy was continued by his son Malcolm II, who was called the “king of the Mounth” (the mountain chain that marks Moray’s southern border) in an important historical document. Macbeth’s father, Findlaech, who was king of cenél Loairn, or king of Moray, probably was married to one of Malcolm’s female relatives (possibly a daughter or a sister) in what was most likely a politically motivated marriage meant to solder peace between the two royal dynasties of cenél nGabrain and cenél Loairn (Hudson, p. 137). Even after Macbeth’s eventual downfall, the dynasty of cenél nGabrain could not tame Moray, and political unrest continued in the area for at least another century and a half.

The changing rules of Scottish kingship

Macbeth, turns on the question of kingship, which was in a state of transition during the eleventh century. In practice, kingship among the Scots had alternated among the adult male members of the royal family who possessed the necessary genealogical qualifications. The kingship could be passed laterally—that is, from brother to brother, or cousin to cousin, or uncle to nephew—as well as from father to son or grandson. The candidates for king were to be drawn from the ranks of men whose father had himself been king (but was not necessarily the current king). The sharing of the kingship among branches of the dynasty was an effort to prevent the family from becoming embroiled in a feud, with all its attendant dangers. When one branch of the family felt powerful enough to exclude its kinsmen, the succession would pass lineally rather than laterally. A novelty, however, was introduced when Malcolm 11 appointed his grandson Duncan as his heir (technically, his tanaise, which is Gaelic for “the second” or “expected one”). Duncan’s ascension to the throne illustrated the power of his grandfather and the hold his family had on the kingship of cenél nGabrain. He claimed his royal title through his mother rather than his father, who was a cleric. Thus Shakespeare’s play, which laments the unnatural act perpetrated by Macbeth in taking the kingship from Duncan, does not reflect the actual political situation in eleventh-century Scotland: Duncan was himself inappropriately the king, according to the usual method of selecting a king.

Scottish kings were very powerful figures who had authority in all legislative, military, fiscal, and judicial matters. A king had a main fortress, but he also traveled about the country, visiting different fortifications and the powerful men who lived in them and who represented their province in dealings with the king. These men were called mormaers (or “great stewards”); such a man was often of royal lineage and was the toisech (“leader” or “chief”) of a particular family and the area it inhabited. In the Anglo-Saxon lands that had been annexed to the Scots’ domain there were also thanes, or minor officials appointed by the king. Thanages tended over time to become hereditary positions. The word “thane” (from the Anglo-Saxon thegn, or “one who serves”) was not used to describe the office in Macbeth’s day. Responsibility for running royal estates was in the hands of the rechtaire (“steward”), who assisted the exactores (“tax gatherers”) in collecting coin (tribute) and “conveth” (food and housing for the king and his followers when he was in the area). These services were necessary in view of the king’s habit of visiting royal estates; such a visit occurs in the first act of Shakespeare’s play when Duncan visits Macbeth’s castle.


Although Shakespeare’s play portrays Macbeth’s killing of Duncan as an abnormal act, Scottish history from the midtenth to mid-eleventh century is full of slain kings. Two of them died in Moray: Dub probably in 966 and, of course, Duncan in 1040, But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The usual custom was for a king to appoint a tanaise—an heir-designate—while he himself was still alive. This effort towards a peaceful change of power counted for little in the civil wars that ravaged both Scottish royal families. Cousin murdered cousin, and nephew killed uncle as branches of the royal families fought for supremacy from the latter tenth century to the early eleventh century. Thus, while the men in Duncan’s retinue bewail the horror, the “murder and treason” that have befallen Scotland with the slaying of the king in Shakespeare’s play, in real-life Scotland no one was likely to have been much surprised by any of it (Macbeth, 2.3.69).

The kingship of Duncan

The reign of the historical Duncan offered much room for improvement; in real life, his removal from the kingship would not have been much cause for wonder. The grandson of the ruthless Malcolm II, Duncan (or Donnchad) had been appointed as the king’s heir, which, as mentioned, went against usual succession custom. Duncan succeeded to his kingship in 1034. His path to the throne had been smoothed by assassinations that his grandfather had prescribed on his behalf. This had created an atmosphere of unease and mistrust among Duncan’s nobles, which could account for the general failure of his reign; a contemporary poem (the “Prophecy of Berchan”) ridicules him as a hypochondriac and suggests that his maladies would be his claim to fame. In any case, Duncan became king mostly because it was his grandfather’s will that he be king, not because he was commonly held by his peers to be the best candidate of his generation; historians speculate that his accession “did not … gain wide acceptance” (Lynch, p. 49). His historical reputation is that of a very inept military leader. He led a disastrous raid on the city of Durham in Northumbria in 1039 / 40, from which he retreated, having lost badly. He then seems to have turned his eyes northward and to have gone into Moray on his royal circuit, a display of the royal presence that was intended to overawe his subordinate king. While on that progress he was killed by Macbeth on August 16, 1040. His exact age at death is unknown, but he was young (a contemporary chronicle describes him of immature age). Certainly he was a far cry from the gentle, wise, and aged king of Shakespeare’s imagination. In the matter of ambition, however, Shakespeare understood his man correctly: Macbeth took advantage of Duncan’s unpopularity and weakness to kill him and seize the overlordship of all the Scots.

The real Macbeths

Macbeth (or Mac Bethad Mac Findlaech) appears frequently in historical documents of the time, although never in much detail, and it is difficult to piece together his life and his career. The “Prophecy of Berchan” asserts that he was fair-haired and slender with a ruddy complexion. His early life, we know, was overshadowed by civil war among the cenél Loairn. Macbeth was the son of Findlaech (or Finlay), king of cenél Loairn, who was slain by Macbeth’s cousins Malcolm and Gillacomgain in 1020, when Macbeth was probably quite young. Macbeth himself became king in 1029, following Malcolm’s death. Soon after, as attested by both English and Scandinavian records, Macbeth submitted to Cnut the Great, king of the Danes and the English.

Macbeth is the first Scots prince for whom we know the name of his wife: Gruoch. Her prior husband was Macbeth’s cousin and rival for power Gillacomgain, who had been a mormaer to his brother Malcolm. Gillacomgáin was killed along with his men in a fire in 1032; historians do not know with certainty that Macbeth was responsible, but he did marry Gruoch shortly thereafter, in what is generally taken as a show of unity. We know almost nothing of Gruoch but that she was descended from royal blood of cenél nGabrain. Upon marrying her, Macbeth adopted her son by Gillacomgain, Lulach; this may indicate that he was interested in calming the political strife in Moray. Gruoch herself had a gripe with Malcolm II and his family—the former king had killed her grandfather, Kenneth III, and her nephew (in 1033). She was aristocratic, powerful, and doubtless vengeful when it came to Malcolm and Duncan; in this regard, Shakespeare’s portrait of her is accurate. The real Lady Macbeth was furthermore a patroness of the Church. Her donation of lands at Kirkness, in Fife, are remembered in the register of the church of St. Andrews. She and Macbeth were likewise patrons of the arts.

Macbeth killed Duncan in 1040, near Elgin, which is well within Moray’s borders. This act alone was not enough to have made him king of the rival dynasty of Cenél nGabrain, and high king of all the Scots—he would have needed to demonstrate the proper ancestral credentials and to have been enthroned at Scone. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donald fled Scotland in 1042—Donald to Ireland, and Malcolm to England, to his kinsman Siward, earl of Northumbria. Malcolm eventually solicited the help of the English king Edward the Confessor to regain the Scottish throne, just as in Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth’s inability—or unwillingness—to kill the pair led to his own death in 1057. Evidence is scant, but Macbeth ruled peacefully and well for nearly two decades before the dynastic infighting and intrigue that characterized Scottish politics once again overtook him. He even made a lengthy pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, a sign to many historians that Scotland was at peace at that time. If so, it was not to last long. The Northumbrians under Siward attacked on behalf of Malcolm in 1054 and defeated Macbeth. Malcolm was reinstated in his home territory as Macbeth’s underking, and he set his sights on the kingship of all of Scotland. In mid-August 1057 Malcolm challenged Macbeth to battle at Lumphanan, north of the river Dee. Macbeth won the battle but was seriously wounded and bled to death at Scone on August 16, 17 years to the day after he had killed Duncan (Hudson, p. 144). After Macbeth’s death, Lulach, whom Macbeth had probably made his underking in Moray, succeeded to the throne. Lulach held on for a brief period of months and was killed by Malcolm in March 1058; this death marked the end of cenél Loaim’s aspirations to the kingship of all Scots. We do not know what happened to Gruoch.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

Macbeth opens on an ominous note. Duncan, king of Scotland, is receiving news of battle from a wounded soldier. The battle is, in fact, a rebellion: Scottish warriors, among them the thane of Cawdor, are rising up against Duncan. Rosse, another thane, enters to announce that the rebellion has been subdued, and that the credit for the victory belongs to Macbeth. Duncan decides that, as a reward for valor, Macbeth will be made the new thane of Cawdor.

Now the scene shifts to a forest, where Macbeth and his fellow warrior Banquo are returning from the battle. They come across three “weird sisters,” witches or supernatural creatures. The witches greet Macbeth as the thane of Cawdor and say that he is fated to become king. Understandably amazed, Macbeth and Banquo ask for more information; the witches, however, say only that Banquo will not be a king, but that his children will rule. As the witches vanish, Rosse finds Macbeth and tells him that he is now thane of Cawdor. Shocked at the quick fulfillment of the prophecy, Macbeth falls into a soliloquy in which he reveals that he is already thinking of killing his king.

Of course, Duncan knows nothing of this when he decides to visit Macbeth at the latter’s home. His arrival is preceded by Macbeth’s first conversation with his wife, who has received a letter from him about the prophecy, and who is filled with deadly excitement over the possibilities:

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 topfull
Of direst cruelty....
… Come, thick night,
And pale thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, “Hold, hold.”
               (Macbeth, 1.5.37-52)

Her intent fully formed, Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to kill Duncan and fulfill the prophecy, but he is undecided. After dinner, they argue the situation: Lady Macbeth tries to get her husband to adopt ruthless violence, but Macbeth, at least at first, points out that the king has honored him and is a guest in their house. However, his objections are overridden by his wife’s taunting urgency and by his own desire for glory. In the depths of the night, he steals away to slay Duncan.

Macbeth kills Duncan after his wife drugs the king’s attendants; afterward, Macbeth places bloody daggers in their hands. He is sorry almost at once, but Lady Macbeth, while shocked by the amount of blood, remains composed. A knocking is heard, and the scene shifts. Downstairs, the warrior Macduff has arrived. He greets Macbeth and asks to see the king; it is Macduff who finds Duncan’s body. As he raises the house with his cries, Macbeth kills the king’s sleeping attendants, whom he plans to blame for the murder. Lady Macbeth swoons—or pretends to; as the others attend her, Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, speak to each other. They decide to flee, Malcolm to England, and Donalbain to Ireland: they know that whoever killed Duncan will soon set his sights on them.

In the chaos and sorrow that follow Duncan’s death, strange happenings disrupt the normal flow of nature. Duncan’s horses eat each other; owls kills hawks. Most ominously, day refuses to come. In this dark confusion, the flight of the king’s sons throws suspicion on them. Macbeth is named king of this turbulent and peaceless land. A few days pass, and Macbeth plans to kill Banquo. All the witches’ prophesies have come true; but the guilty king believes he can circumvent the one that says that Banquo’s children will ascend to the monarchy. He hires murderers to assail Banquo and his son Fleance as they are out hunting before dinner at the royal palace. Although the murderers manage to kill Banquo, Fleance escapes.

At the banquet that night, Macbeth’s brief kingship reaches its zenith and immediately begins to decline. As he prepares to eat with the assembled thanes of Scotland, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. The apparition makes itself visible only to the king, but Macbeth cannot hide his horror. Despite Lady Macbeth’s attempt to explain it as a meaningless attack of nerves, a number of thanes begin to connect Macbeth’s strange behavior with the horrible events that continue to plague the land.


The scene in England includes a brief reference to a notable legend of the English monarchy. After Malcolm and Macduff reach an agreement, Macduff asks if King Edward will see them. He is told that the king is attending those afflicted with scrofula, an inflammation of the joints called “the king’s disease” because the king’s touch was supposed to heal it. This belief lasted from the Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century. Within the play, the image of the English king piously helping his afflicted subjects serves to underscore Macbeth’s deep villainy. In its political context, however, the idea was somewhat sensitive. The new English king, James I, was uncomfortable with the idea of the touch. Theologically, he distrusted the implication that the king was capable of miracles, and politically, he tended anyway to limit his public appearances.

As the next scene opens, the situation has decidedly changed. Macduff has gone to England to find Malcolm and to rally support for a war against Macbeth. Macbeth prepares for war, and he seeks out the witches for more information. The witches give him what seems to be good news: they tell him he will not be harmed by any man “of woman born,” and will not lose his throne until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dun-sinan Hill / Shall come against him” (Macbeth, 4.1.107-108). But they also give him bad news, in the form of a pageant of all the kings who will follow Macbeth, all descended from Banquo. Yet Macbeth cannot accept this evidence. After the witches vanish, he promises to be bloody and quick for whatever little time is left to him.

His first act is to have Macduffs wife and children killed. Meanwhile, in England, Macduff has found Malcolm at the court of Edward the Confessor. He tries to persuade the exiled prince to join the fight against Macbeth. At first, Malcolm refuses; he claims he is unfit to be king, and would be even worse than Macbeth. When Macduff laments the future of a country with such kings, Malcolm tells the truth; he was only testing Macduff, unsure of the thane’s honesty. Of course he will join the fight, and he will also bring aid from the English court.

Act 5 unfolds rapidly. The forces massed against Macbeth have beaten him back to his last fortress, at Dunsinane. Locked inside, Lady Macbeth (absent since Act 3) is going insane. This woman who stood fast through bloody murder has succumbed to her guilt; she sees her hands stained with blood that cannot be washed away. Macbeth is convinced he cannot be conquered until Birnam Wood rises up and moves to his castle; still, he is in despair. Weighed down by his crimes, and possessed with an acid awareness of the futility of his ambition, he says in a famous soliloquy that life is only “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, 5.5.25-27). Outside, Malcolm gives the order that seals Macbeth’s fate: each soldier is to camouflage himself with boughs cut from the trees of Birnam Wood as they move to Dunsinane. When a sentry tells Macbeth of their approach, he knows he is doomed. He learns that his wife has just died, then swears he will fight until he himself is killed.

Scenes of battle follow. Macbeth encounters Macduff; as they fight, Macbeth tells him of the witches’ prophesy, that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born. Macduff scoffs because he himself was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,” delivered by Caesarian section from his dying mother (Macbeth, 5.8.15-16). Macduff kills Macbeth offstage and returns with the slain tyrant’s head, one of the bloodiest stage directions in Shakespeare’s body of works. Malcolm is named king, but the audience knows that, in the long run, Fleance’s children will peacefully succeed him.

Macbeth, royal play?

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s only play concerning Scottish history, and it was written in the first few years after the death of Queen Elizabeth made King James VI of Scotland King James I of England. Many critics have suggested that these two facts are related, and that Shakespeare was prompted to consider Scottish history by the sudden ascension of a Scottish king to the English throne. Certainly, little had been written about Scotland in English literature for a while, with the exception of some prejudiced and scurrilous pieces (see Literary Context, below) now rendered hugely inappropriate. “When Scotland’s King James became England’s King James in March 1603, his accession made a Shakespearean Scottish play commercially viable and creatively attractive. King James and his Scottishness created an occasion, “and at some point Shakespeare and the King’s Men apparently seized the popular, commercial moment” (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 8).

It seems likely that Macbeth was at least partly inspired by King James’s accession. However, those critics who have suggested that Macbeth was an attempt to gain the favor of the king himself are on less steady ground. They ignore the fact that, in several ways, the play is actually dangerous, and perhaps even insulting to the king. Obviously, Macbeth is crammed with corrupt politics, blood-stained acts, deception and cruelty; the overall impression is of a brutal, almost primitive land ruled only by force and the sword. In itself, this pessimistic view is not remarkable; Shakespeare’s plays on English history are much the same (although they are not tragic). However, there are no redeeming Scottish characters in the play: of the “good” characters in Macbeth, Banquo stands by while he suspects Duncan’s life is in danger, Malcolm and Donalbain flee at the first sign of danger, and Macduff leaves his family exposed to Macbeth’s cruelty. The play’s unabated darkness prevents any glow, with the result that Scotland itself seems bleak, dark, and primitive.

In fact, the reader whose knowledge of the Renaissance view of Scotland is limited to this play will be led far astray. Macbeth’s obsessive focus on the turbulence of Scottish politics prevents it from portraying the full splendor of what was, in fact, a nation as advanced and cultured as England itself. While Scotland was smaller, less populous, and in places more barren than its southern neighbor, it had a long tradition of learning, arts, and culture. Its monasteries and universities made Scotland part of the cultural map of Europe in medieval times, and Scotland arguably experienced the Renaissance before England; during the fifteenth century, when English poetry languished in a post-Chaucerian lull, talented and erudite poets such as Robert Henryson (?1430-1506), William Dunbar (?1465-?1530), and Gavin Douglas (71475-1522) inaugurated a golden age of literature in Scotland. King James VI / I himself was a late product of this Scottish Renaissance; he was a scholar who, by the time he ascended the English throne, had composed important treatises on statesmanship (Basilikon Down [1599]) and on witchcraft (The Dae-monologie [1597]).

Macbeth ignores these facts about the Scottish past—facts that certainly would have been flattering to James. Instead, the play ends on a note of British imperialism: Malcolm’s first act as king is to “ennoble” his thanes by giving them the English title of “earl.” Shakespeare’s perspective on Scotland may well have pleased an English crowd; but it is hard to see how it would have flattered a Scottish king.

Sources and literary context

Shakespeare’s main source for the story of Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of the British Isles produced during Tudor times. He also seems to have consulted a number of Scottish chronicles. Shakespeare follows Holinshed’s account fairly closely, although Holinshed’s Duncan is young, while Shakespeare’s is aged. More significantly, Shakespeare turns Macbeth’s rule from a long and generally successful one, to a short, dismal fiasco. In addition, the playwright borrows details from other parts of the chronicles: Lady Macbeth’s prodding, for instance, is taken from the account of Donwald, an earlier king whose wife incited him to murder. The witches themselves are from the Macbeth story as told by Holinshed:

It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres, where the king then lay, they went sporting by the way together without other company … there met them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whom when they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said; All hail Macbeth, thane of Glammis … The second of them said; All hail Macbeth, thane of Cawdor. But the third said; All haile Macbeth that hereafter shall be king of Scotland. (Holinshed in Bullough, p. 495)

Macbeth is a tragedy influenced in almost equal measure by the heroic tragedies of the 1590s and the darker, generally more pessimistic tragedies of the 1600s. Like the great tragic heroes of the 1590s, Macbeth is an over-reacher, and the audience is emotionally invested in him even as it abhors his actions. In this, he is reminiscent of such heroes as the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). But Macbeth has some affinity as well with the more sordid, scheming heroes of early Jacobean tragedies; like the heroes of such plays as The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling, he tries to succeed by intrigue and private murder. In fact, he opens the play as a bold warrior, but soon moves to scheming plots.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Gowrie Conspiracy

Murder and mayhem in Scottish politics was not confined to the shadowy past. King James I of England was himself involved in a murky incident that may or may not have involved an attempt on his life. At the time, he was still King James VI of Scotland. On August 5,1600, he went suddenly to Perth, accompanied by the 19-year-old Alexander Ruthven, a young man whose 22-year-old brother was John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie. The elder Ruthven had recently made very public statements against James. No one knows precisely what happened next, or why, but the result was that both brothers were killed that day. James claimed that the Gowries made an attempt on his life (a kidnapping attempt is more likely), but his version was not widely accepted, and many people voiced the opinion that the king had in fact had the young men killed. Some 18 years earlier, their father, William, earl of Gowrie, had been involved in a raid to seize James, only to be executed for treason.

All these years later, James was supposedly out hunting when young Alexander Ruthven told him an intriguing story of the capture of a suspicious stranger with a pot full of foreign gold, who was being held prisoner in his brother Lord Gowrie’s house in Perth. The king set off with Ruthven to Lord Gowrie’s house in Perth to examine the stranger. He accompanied Alexander to a small room in a turret, where instead of the stranger he found himself confronted with a dagger-wielding man in armor. A struggle followed, during which the panicky king screamed words like “treason” and “murder,” until an attendant rushed in and killed the two. So went the king’s story, which many of his ministers and courtiers simply would not believe (Bevan, p. 61). Certainly James’s reputation was damaged by the incident. A mere month later, a pamphlet published in Edinburgh, entitled “Gowries Conspiracie,” supported James’s version of events and was quickly sent to London to be published. The speed with which his official version was made public suggests “a propaganda war and / or contemporary anxieties about attacks on monarchs” (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 2). Queen Elizabeth herself seems to have doubted the veracity of James’s account.

In 1604, a year after James had become king of England and two years before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, James’s own troupe of actors performed The Tragedie of Gowrie, but the play was suppressed after only two performances. Doubtless, it intended to be supportive of England’s new king, but the monarch was clearly taking no chances with his public image. There was too much controversy about the event.


In 1590 James VI of Scotland traveled to Denmark to meet and marry the Danish princess, Anne. There, he came into contact with Continental theories about witchcraft, which were more lurid and fantastic than English ideas. That same year, in Scotland, he interrogated several accused witches at a trial in North Berwick; the women involved were accused of plotting his death by conjuring a storm to sink his ship on his voyage home from Denmark, and at least one of them was burned at the stake (Bevan, p. 48). James wrote a book on witches in 1597, called The Daemonologie, in which he introduced to Scotland the ideas he had heard about witches in the Danish court.

These beliefs included not merely the witch’s contracting her or his soul to the devil, but a demonic “pact” that involved sexual intercourse with Satan, … the “black Mass” and other inverted religious practices, and numerous activities such as stealing and eating children, exhuming bodies, parodying baptism using cats and other animals, flying through the air, and sailing the sea in sieves. (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 30)

During the 1590s, persecution and prosecution of witches (who were overwhelmingly women) increased in both England and Scotland; this atmosphere surely pervades Macbeth.

Nonetheless, the history of witchcraft in the Renaissance is much less picturesque than the weird hags of Shakespeare’s play might suggest. The Church of England tended to discourage belief in witches, considering it superstition; notwithstanding the Salem witch trials in the American colonies a century later, Protestants usually de-emphasized the possibility of miracles in earthly life. This, however, did not prevent the average person from believing in charms and potions, and each village or neighborhood had its wise woman or man who could concoct love potions, hint about the future, or heal sick pets. Such “white” magic was an accepted part of most communities, even if the Church did not approve.

Quite different was the treatment of “black magic”—practiced not for the community, but against it). To be accused of witchcraft was no light matter. Sixteenth-to seventeenth-century statutes made hanging the maximum punishment (witches in England were never burned). Prosecution for witchcraft depended on witness testimony (which was often prejudiced). In comparison to some other lands, England condemned relatively few witches. Between 1558 and 1736, only 500 people were tried for the crime in its most populous counties; 109 were convicted and hanged. By comparison, 900 were burned as witches in the single French province of Lorraine between 1580 and 1595. The witches were generally accused of rather homespun evils: making a woman infertile, or ruining a crop, or haunting another person’s dreams. Few accusers were bold or fearful enough to assert that a witch could control the weather, a power that Macbeth’s witches claim in the play.

Shakespeare got the idea for witches from his source; but he makes them a larger part of his story. This seems to have been a response to a popular vogue partly inspired by the king himself, whose The Daemonologie asserted the reality


In 1605 England was rocked by an alleged assassination attempt, the Gunpowder Plot (a conspiracy to kill James I while he addressed Parliament). The conspirators, a group of Catholics opposed to the Protestant monarchy, had formulated a plan to kill not only the king but also his family and dozens of government officials by blowing up Parliament House. The conspirators set out to dig a tunnel into the basement of the Parliament building, place gunpowder in the vaults, then explode them. Before they could fully execute their plan, the conspirators were found out, then arrested, drawn, and quartered. Among them was Robert Catesby, a young nobleman whose involvement came as a shock to James, since he had regarded Catesby as a loyal subject, much as the Duncan of Shakespeare’s play seems to have regarded Macbeth. Scholars speculate, however, that Catesby was the model not for Macbeth, but for the earlier thane of Cawdor, another rebellious lord.

of witches. Producers of Macbeth after Shakespeare enhanced the role of the witches, adding to their number and providing them elaborate costumes and dances; ironically, at the same time the prosecution of witchcraft was in marked decline in England. The trend would continue, leading to the abolition of the statutes against witchcraft in 1736.


Macbeth survives only in the Folio collection of Shakespeare’s work. It was never printed in a cheaper quarto version, an oblique indicator of a popular play. Otherwise, there is little indication of the play’s reception among its original audiences. Macbeth grew in popularity as the seventeenth century progressed; a heavily revised version by William Davenant (almost operatic in its emphasis on song and spectacle) was frequently performed during the Restoration era. The chief eighteenth-century critic of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, both praised and criticized Macbeth (see The Life of Samuel Johnson , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times).

[The play is] deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action; but it has no nice discriminations of character, the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions, and the course of the action necessarily determines the conduct of the agents. (Johnson, p. 360)

During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Gothic era, Macbeth’s use of the supernatural would gain new appreciation. Later in the nineteenth century, during the Victorian era, audiences would inaugurate a fascination with the aggressive behavior of Lady Macbeth. The play has since remained among the most frequently performed in the world.

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Aitchison, Nick. Macbeth: Man and Myth. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1999.

Barrow, G. W. S. Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306. London: Edward Arnold, 1981.

Bevan, Bryan. King James VI of Scotland and I of England. London: Rubicon, 1996.

Hudson, Benjamin T. Kings of Celtic Scotland. New York: Greenwood, 1994.

Johnson, Samuel. Collected Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lynch, Michael. Scotland: A New History. London: Pimlico, 1992.

Mackie, J. D. A History of Scotland. 2d ed. Eds. Bruce Lenman and Geoffrey Parker. London: Penguin, 1978.

Morgan, Kenneth. Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. London: Routledge, 1996.

Sadler, John. Scottish Battles. Edingburgh: Cannongate, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.


views updated May 23 2018


by William Shakespeare


A play set in Scotland during the eleventh century; first performed probably in 1606 at Hampton Court before King james I,


An ambitious nobleman usurps the Scottish throne and uses murder and tyranny to solidify his power.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Some details of William Shakespeare’s life are still shrouded in uncertainty. What is known is that he rose to prominence as a playwright in London toward the end of the sixteenth century and that he died on April 23, 1616. He wrote Macbeth sometime between 1605 and 1606, shortly after the ascension of King James of Scotland to the English throne. Scotland, previously a land of mystery to the people of England, came into the public limelight during a period of political plotting, violence, and religious conflict.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Macbeth’s Scotland

Scotland during the eleventh century was still a very primitive land. Until the beginning of the tenth century, it had been under the authority of England, but during the time in which Macbeth is set, Scotland was able to establish its independence because England was forced to channel its resources toward defending itself against continuing Viking invasions. During this transition period, living conditions in the rugged hills of Scotland were crude at best. Houses were simple structures built of wood or turf around a central hearth. Even the “castles” of the higher classes were primitive in style. Macbeth’s castle, of which Duncan says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.6.1), was most likely a rough fort. It probably consisted of a central hall built of wood upon a mound of raised dirt that was circled by a log wall.

Succession and feuding in Scotland

When King Malcolm II of Scotland died in 1034, his last command was that the throne should pass to his oldest grandson, Duncan. This last request went against the Celtic tradition of succession, which stipulated that the inheritance of the throne alternate between different branches of the family. The historical Macbeth, who was also a grandson of King Malcolm, felt that he should succeed the old king, as prescribed by tradition. He further supported his claim through the ancestry of his wife, the Lady Gruoch, who was a direct descendent of two earlier Scottish kings, Malcolm I and Kenneth III. Despite the fact that Macbeth’s claim on the throne was valid, it was rejected in favor of Duncan’s claim. The old king’s will continued to exert power even from the grave.

Macbeth was not immediately hostile to the new king, but several years into Duncan’s reign, he raised an army and openly opposed him. Duncan led his own forces against Macbeth and was killed in the ensuing battle. With Duncan finally out of the way, and his two young sons out of the country, Macbeth became king of Scotland. He held the throne without incident for seventeen years until Duncan’s oldest son, Malcolm III, returned to Scotland with an army. Macbeth was defeated in a clash that in many ways resembled his usurpation of Duncan’s throne nearly two decades earlier. Malcolm killed Macbeth when their armies met at the Battle of Lumphanan. With the death of Macbeth, the final obstacle to Malcolm’s ascension to the throne was Lulach, the son of Macbeth’s Lady Gruoch from an earlier marriage. Lulach claimed the Scottish throne through the ancestry of his mother and was actually crowned king immediately following Macbeth’s death. Malcolm did not let this development deter him; he had Lulach murdered and took the crown in 1058.


The Hebrides is a chain of islands off the western coast of Scotland. Often referred to as the “Western Isles,” these islands served the Vikings as bases from which they could launch their attacks and became a region absolutely controlled by these Scandinavian marauders. It is from here that the rebel Macdonwald gathers his soldiers in Macbeth.

The Norse invasion—raiders and settlers

During the ninth century Scotland found itself invaded by raiders who came across the North Sea from Norway and Denmark. These “Norsemen,” also known as Vikings, came to Scotland for several reasons. The most basic explanation for their presence was simply that the prevalent pattern of winds on the North Sea was favorable to this enterprise. These winds blow west in the spring and east in the autumn, which made Scotland a natural destination. Another attraction for these northerners was the remarkable similarity between the landscapes of Scotland and Norway. Both countries possessed offshore island chains, deep inlets or fjords, and rugged mountains. Perhaps the most important reason for the arrival of the raiders, however, was the opportunity for conquest and plunder. The remote monasteries and villages of Scotland were easy targets for the Norse rovers, who dominated the bloody northern seas for several hundred years. The monasteries were especially ripe for plunder, as they generally housed valuable religious artifacts and other treasures. The Scandinavian pirates launched raids on Scotland from the surrounding islands, and few monasteries or villages could hope to defend themselves from these attacks. In his play, Shakespeare depicts such an invasion when he portrays King Sweno of Norway attacking Scotland from the Hebrides island chain. The character Macbeth’s defeat of Sweno’s forces is the incident in the play that serves as the foundation of his rise to power.

As time passed, many of these hostile invaders found that, amid the rocky hills and bogs, Scotland offered some fertile land for fanning. A growing number of northerners gave up their warring and turned to the soil to make their living. The similarity of the terrain to their homeland meant that very little adjustment was necessary for the Norse settlers to establish communities. Through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity in the tenth century, these settlers assimilated completely into the Scottish culture.

The status of women in Scotland

With the beginning of the Viking Age in Scotland, the position of women changed drastically. While women in other societies of the time were bound to home and farm activities, the Viking influence spurred greater freedom and independence for women in Scotland. The most famous matriarch of the period was Aud the Deep-Minded, a Norse woman who rose to a position of power in Scotland. After the death of her husband, Olaf the White, who was the King of Dublin, Ireland, Aud lived as an independent monarch. She held power for several years following his death and finally moved north to Iceland, where she founded the first of the Icelandic dynasties. This tradition of strong-willed women is represented in Shakespeare’s play in the character of Lady Macbeth, who tells her husband,

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.

(Macbeth, 1.7.59-61)

Lady Macbeth is depicted by Shakespeare as an equal of Macbeth in the realm of ambition and ruthlessness; without her, in fact, Macbeth’s courage may never have reached the “sticking-place.”

The Play in Focus

The plot

Macbeth is a minor Scottish noble who leads the Scottish army to victory over the forces of Norway. Following the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, a fellow nobleman, encounter three witches. These mysterious old women greet Macbeth with prophecies. They tell him that he will rise in rank and eventually become king. The hags also inform Banquo that although he will not be king, his descendants will hold the Scottish throne.

Following this encounter, Macbeth is rewarded by King Duncan, who proposes to stay with him at his castle. Lady Macbeth persuades her husband that he should murder the king during his visit and take the crown for himself, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy. Giving in to her persuasion, Macbeth murders the “gracious” Duncan. Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Don-albain, flee from Scotland and are blamed by Macbeth for having orchestrated the assassination. Macbeth then assumes the kingship, just as the witches foretold. Worried about the witches’ prophecy concerning Banquo’s family gaining the throne, Macbeth hires assassins to murder the nobleman and his son, Fleance. Banquo is slain, but Fleance escapes.

The witches then warn Macbeth that another nobleman, Macduff, is also a threat to his power. Macbeth attempts murder again, only to find that Macduff has fled to England. Angry at the nobleman’s escape, Macbeth has the wife and children of Macduff brutally murdered. In England, Macduff meets with Malcolm and decides that Malcolm is worthy of ruling Scotland. Together they gather an army and march against Macbeth. A guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth loses her sanity and dies as the opposing army surrounds the castle. Macduff kills Macbeth in combat, and Malcolm is crowned king of Scotland.

Witchcraft and the supernatural

Among the traditions of Scotland was a belief in witches, including their ability to make prophecies and to affect the outcome of certain events. During the reign of King Kenneth, one of Lady Gruoch’s ancestors, witchcraft was considered an unsavory practice and a serious problem. King Kenneth proclaimed that witches who called up spirits and asked their help should be burned to death.

Macbeth’s encounters with the witches build on this tradition and were inspired in part by the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), a volume written by Raphael Holinshed. An incident that reflects the strong beliefs of these Scottish people in the supernatural comes from Holin-shed’s account of strange occurrences that began to happen after the death of Duncan. Holinshed writes, “horses in Louthian, being of singular beauty and swiftness, did eat their own flesh and would in no wise taste any of her meat” (Holinshed, p. 140). These lines helped shape Shakespeare’s scene between the nobleman-messenger Ross and an old man outside Macbeth’s castle. As they discuss the bizarre happenings that are being reported in the countryside, Ross says,

And Duncan’s horses ...
Beauteous and swift ...
Turned wild in nature….
          (Macbeth, 2.4.14-16)

The old man responds by saying, “Tis said they eat each other” (Macbeth, 2.4.18). Clearly, the fact that strange events and witch appearances are incorporated into Holinshed’s text on history indicates how strong an influence the supernatural world exercised upon the society of eleventh-century Scotland.

The play’s focus on witchcraft also reflected an interest in the subject in Shakespeare’s England more than five centuries later. The succession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne as King James I in 1603 had an important influence on Shakespeare’s writing of Macbeth. King James had multiple interests encompassing many of the period’s important issues. One of James’s greatest passions was the subject of witchcraft. The king’s interest in this topic was so great that in 1597 he wrote Daemonotogie, a text in which he contended that witchcraft was a reality and that its practitioners must be punished. In addition to writing on the subject, King James also attended the examinations of Dr. Fian, a Scottish schoolmaster who was an alleged witch. Fian was accused of practicing wicked acts with of her witches. Charges of which he was accused included making curses against the king and the possession of an attendant spirit much like the “Paddock,” “Graymalkin,” and “Harpier,” which are the attendant spirits of Shakespeare’s witches. Dr. Fian’s spirit was reputed to have caused several marine disasters, including an attempt against the ship of King James himself. This episode is reminiscent of the witch’s curse against a ship captain in the play: “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest tossed” (Macbeth, 1.3.24-5).


Following the process used in the creation of several of his plays, Shakespeare drew the plot for Macbeth from a historical source. In this case, the source was Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Shakespeare used this book as a source of historical information on of her occasions as well. This text, though fantastic by modern standards, was the authoritative historical text of the period.

The story of Macbeth’s treacherous murder of Duncan was actually drawn from Holinshed’s description of King Malcolme Duffe’s murder at the hands of Donwald. In this episode, King Malcolme, just like Duncan, puts his trust in his noblemen and is murdered. The characters of Macbeth, Duncan, and Banquo were all drawn from Holinshed’s text as well. Macbeth and Banquo were noblemen of King Duncan, who was described by Holinshed as too kind and gentle to be an effective monarch. Realizing this, he enlisted the aid of Macbeth and Banquo to fight off the invasion of Macdonwald from the western islands. Macbeth and Banquo defeated this invasion, as well as a subsequent invasion by Sweno of Norway. Other elements of Macbeth that can be traced to Holinshed’s Chronicles include Macbeth’s attempt to murder Banquo and Fleance, and Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Gowrie Conspiracy

On August 5, 1600, an assassination attempt on King James of Scotland was undertaken. The resulting scandal came to be known as The Gowrie Conspiracy. OnAug James was in residence at Falkland Palace when the plot began. Just before embarking on a hunting expedition, the king was approached by Alexander Ruthven, the oldest brother of the Earl of Gowrie. Ruthven told the king that he had captured a suspicious character whom he thought the king would be interested in questioning. He explained that the captured man had been carrying a substantial quantity of gold and could provide no explanation for his possession of this great wealth. After much persuading, the king agreed to examine this mysterious character and set off with Ruthven. Ruthven led the king and his party to Gowrie House. Once there, the king was taken to a locked chamber in which he was greeted by “not a bondman, but a freeman, with a dagger at his girdle” (Clark, p. 77). Ruthven left the king in the man’s custody and went to fetch his brother, the Earl of Gowrie. When Ruthven returned and attempted to bind the king, the king yelled out the window. His noblemen, who were preparing to leave, heard his cries. They rushed to the scene, and with their assistance, the king killed Ruthven. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gowrie gathered his forces together and attacked the king and his men. The king’s noblemen fought valiantly and killed the traitorous earl and his henchmen. This attempt on the king’s life became a major event of the period—pamphlets were written about the affair, including one penned by the king himself. Numerous sermons were also presented throughout England and Scotland focusing on the blasphemy of the attempted murder. Shakespeare was certainly acquainted with the incident, which may have influenced his decision to use the murder of a king as the central plot element of his play.

The Gunpowder Plot

On November 5, 1605, London reeled under a whirlwind of wonder and horror. A blanket of terror had settled over the city as a result of the Gunpowder Plof, in which a group of Catholics violently opposed to the Protestant monarchy had formulated a plan that was intended to kill the king, the royal family, and dozens of government officials. The plotters planned to blow up the Parliament House during a ceremony at which the majority of the English government would be present. The plan was to dig a tunnel into the basement of the Parliament building, place large quantities of gunpowder in the vaults, and explode them during the ceremony. On the night before the ceremony, during an inspection of the cellar, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was found waiting in the darkened basement ready to ignite the explosives. Several of the plotters were immediately arrested. The rest were captured a few days later, after a failed attempt to rouse Catholic citizens to action against the Protestant government. The capture of these renegades was bloody and resulted in the deaths of the plot’s key figures, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Robert Catesby.


Robert Catesby was a young nobleman from a distinguished family. His role as a conspirator in the Gunpowder Plof came as a shock to King James, who regarded Catesby as one of his dearest subjects.

Catesby grew up near Shakespeare. In tact, many scholars have speculated that the two were acquainted and lhal Catesby was the model, not for Macbeth, but for the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, the rebellious lord whose property was given to Macbeth by King Duncan, about whom Duncan says:

There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom 1 built 
An absolute trust,
          (Macbeth, 1.4.12-13)

The King’s Book, a text written about the plot and the subsequent capture of the rebels, stated that people wanted to view the traitors, “as the rarest sort of monsters; fools to laugh at them; women and children to wonder; all the common people to gaze.” This line expresses sentiments almost identical to those in Macduffs address to Macbeth during their final encounter in Shakespeare’s play:

Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o’ the time:
We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole.
                 (Macbeth, 5.8.23-6)

In the actual Gunpowder Plof, the surviving traitors were tried in court, convicted of treason, and executed on January 30, 1606. The event proved that the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in England had not been resolved and that the threat of further violence was a real one.

The trial of Father Henry Garnet, the great equivocator

An examination of the issue of “equivocation” gives further evidence of the religious conflicts in England during the period. Equivocation was a doctrine of the Jesuits that justified the giving of untruthful responses to interrogation. This practice involved the use of words with equivocal or unclear meanings. A person being interrogated about their religious actions would speak such words so that they wouldn’t have to admit to wrongdoing. This practice became crucial for staunch Catholics in Protestant England, where one’s Catholic faith could have dire consequences. Indeed, under the Protestant King James, being Catholic was considered a crime.

Equivocation came to be regarded as a punishable form of treason in England. The trial of Father Henry Garnet stands out as the climax of the Protestant attack on equivocafors. The trial took place in March 1606; Garnet was found guilty in fifteen minutes and was executed at Saint Paul’s Church in London. Shakespeare undoubtedly followed the event, as did the rest of London, and although Macbeth may have been almost completed at the time of the trial, he was still able to incorporate the subject of equivocation into his text. Following the death of Duncan, a porter appears whose speech seems to be a direct reference to Father Henry Garnet. The porter says, “Faith, here’s an equivocafor, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (Macbeth, 2.3.8-11). This episode would have been understood by every member of the audience during this period as a mockery of Catholics and the practice of equivocation.

The political interests of King James

The attempts against the king’s life in the Gowrie Conspiracy and the Gunpowder Plof could have been influential in Shakespeare’s choice of the treacherous murder of a Scottish king as the plot for his play. In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts this type of murder as the most loathsome treachery possible. When Macduff discovers the body of the slain Duncan, he cries,

O horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee.
          (Macbeth, 2.3.66-8)

Throughout the play Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as the foulest of murderers, and its depiction of the extreme guilt and resulting insanity that plague Macbeth and Lady Macbeth sends a warning about plots against monarchs. This moral lesson, implicit in the play, certainly enjoyed the support of King James, who had felt the threat of murder himself. Shakespeare also touches on of her subjects of interest to his king. James’s interest in ancestry and his desire to maintain friendly relations between England and Scotland are represented in the play. Shakespeare addresses his monarch’s interest in ancestry by including a scene wherein the witches in the play conjure an image of King James’s ascent to the throne. This ascent is traced unbroken back to the line of Banquo. Finally, the king’s desire for friendly interactions between his kingdoms of England and Scotland is supported in the play. Safe harbor is offered to the exiled Malcolm by the king of England following Duncan’s murder.

For More Information

Adam, Frank. The Clans, Septs, and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh, Scotland: W. & A. K. Johnston & G. W. Bacon, 1960.

Clark, Arthur Melville. Murder under Trust or The Topical Macbeth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Academic Press, 1981.

Cromartie, Roderick Grant Francis Mackenzie, Earl of. A Highland History. Berkhamsted, England: Gavin Press, 1979.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Edited by Sylvan Bamet. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.

McMurtry, Jo. Understanding Shakespeare’s England. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1989.

Nicholls, Mark. Investigating the Gunpowder Plot. Manchester, England: Manchester University Books, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Edited by Sylvan Bamet. New York: Signet Classic 1987.

Sharpe, Charles Kirkpatrick. Witchcraft in Scotland. London: Handlton, Adams, 1984.


views updated May 18 2018


Macbeth (died 1057) was king of Scotland from 1040 to 1057. Although he is best known through the Shakespearean drama bearing his name, his historical importance lies in the fact that he was the last Celtic king of Scotland.

The career of Macbeth is hidden in obscurity, but certain facts make it clear that Shakespeare's portrayal of the character of the man is at marked variance with reality. Macbeth was a person of great importance before he became king. As holder of the office of mormaer of Moray by virtue of inheritance from his father, he was a district chieftain and one of a handful of the most important men of the realm. His own ancestry could be traced back to royalty, and he was cousin to Duncan I (reigned 1034-1040), whom he served as commander of the royal army. His wife, Gruoch, was also descended from royalty. Macbeth came to represent opposition to the king at several points: in him northern and Celtic sentiments found a defender against southern and Saxon influences supported by Duncan; and Macbeth had personal claims to kingship in his own name and in that of his stepson, Lulach.

There was some question about the right of Duncan to be king since, as grandson of Malcolm II, he represented the first instance of the rule of primogeniture in the history of the Scottish crown. The usual principle of succession required that the crown pass to a collateral of the king, not to heirs of the direct line. As Macbeth pressed his claim, he had tradition on his side; he won the crown by slaying Duncan at Bothgowanan in 1040.

During Macbeth's reign there was only one native uprising, that led by Abbot Crinan, Duncan's father. The realm was peaceful enough for Macbeth to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050. An invasion from Northumberland in the name of Duncan's son, Malcolm (later, Malcolm III), was repulsed in 1054. A second invasion, in 1057, led by Malcolm was successful, and Macbeth fell in battle; but rather than accept the "Saxon" Malcolm, Macbeth's supporters took Lulach for their king. Within a few months LuIach was defeated, and Malcolm was able to inaugurate the Canmore dynasty.

This dynastic revolution seems to be the basis for the identification of Macbeth as a monster and usurper. When later Canmore kings fought Celtic forces of decentralization, they exalted their ancestor Duncan and developed a hostile vision of Macbeth, the last Celtic king, so as to discredit the Celtic cause. The first written picture of Macbeth in this new light came in the Scotichronicon of John of Fordun (ca. 1380). From this base the legend grew until it reached its fullest statement in the writing of Raphael Holinshed, the immediate source for Shakespeare.

Further Reading

William Henry Gregg, Controversial Issues in Scottish History (1910), contains a valuable chapter on Macbeth's place in the chronicles of Scotland and England. An excellent bibliography on the career of Macbeth is in William Croft Dickinson, A New History of Scotland (1965). A readable general account is in Gordon Donaldson, Scottish Kings (1967).

Additional Sources

Ellis, Peter Berresford, MacBeth, High King of Scotland, 1040-57AD, London: F. Muller, 1980. □


views updated May 29 2018

Macbeth (d. 1057), king of Moray (1032–57) and king of ‘Scotland’ (1040–57). Macbeth's reputation as a tyrannous usurper is, of course, anachronistic. His career is none the less the stuff of drama. He lived during unprecedented uncertainty for both the kingship of Moray and the Scottish royal succession. Nevertheless, he became the only person from northern Scotland to rule the Scottish kingdom for more than a few months, and the only king of Scotland to visit Rome (in 1050) where, we are told, ‘he scattered money like seed to the poor’. He was also the first to bring Norman knights to Scotland. So strong was his position that he retained the Scottish throne in 1054, despite defeat at Dunsinnan (north of Perth).

Macbeth's family was riven by a feud that claimed the life of Macbeth's father in 1020, which Macbeth avenged in 1032 by burning his cousin Gille Comgáin, king of Moray. He married Gille Comgáin's widow Gruoch, perhaps in an attempt at reconciliation, but probably also because she belonged to the Scottish royal kindred. Macbeth, whose mother may have been a daughter of Malcolm II, only benefited from the opportunity afforded by the royal dynasty's extinction in 1034 when he killed Duncan I (probably) at Pitgaveny (near Elgin) in 1040. In 1045 he reached his zenith when he crushed Duncan's father. After Dunsinnan, however, he was forced to accept the return of Duncan's son Malcolm Canmore from exile, and in 1057 was killed at Lumphanan (west of Aberdeen) by Malcolm, probably in collusion with Gille Comgáin's son Lulach.

Dauvit Broun


views updated May 21 2018

1. Opera in 4 acts by Verdi, his 10th, to lib. by Piave (with additions by A. Maffei) based on Shakespeare's tragedy. Comp. 1846–7. Prod. Florence 1847, NY 1858, Manchester 1860. Rev. 1864–5 for Paris 1865 (in Fr. trans.), this version (in It.) now being generally used. Glyndebourne 1938 (cond. Fritz Busch). NY (44th St. Th.) 1941.

2. Sym.-poem Op.23 by R. Strauss, comp. 1887–8, rev. 1889–90, f.p. Weimar 1890 cond. Strauss.

3. Opera in prol. and 3 acts by Bloch to Fr. lib. by Edmond Fleg, after Shakespeare. Comp. 1903–9, prod. Paris 1910, Naples 1938, Cleveland 1957, Milan 1960, London (RFH) 1973.

4. Opera by L. Collingwood, lib. selected from Shakespeare. Prod. London 1934.


views updated May 23 2018

Macbeth (d.1057) King of Scotland (1040–57). In 1040, he killed Duncan I, his cousin, in battle and seized the throne. English intervention on behalf of Duncan's son (later Malcolm III Canmore) resulted in his defeat by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, at Dunsinane Hill, near Scone (1054). Macbeth fled north, and was eventually killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan. Shakespeare based his tragedy on a 16th-century history of the king.

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George MacBeth

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