A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.©.2003, 2008 Revised in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.©
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.......Macbeth is a tragic stage play. It is one of several Shakespeare plays in which the protagonist commits murder. Other such plays are Richard III, Othello, and Julius Caesar (Brutus). Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies. It has no subplots. (The shortest of all Shakespeare plays is The Comedy of Errors.)
Date Written: Probably by 1605 but
no later than 1607.
.......Shakespeare based Macbeth primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare may also have used Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures (1603), by Samuel Harsnett; Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582), by George Buchanan; and published reports of witch trials in Scotland.
.......Macbeth takes place in northern Scotland and in
England. The scenes in Scotland are set at or near King Duncan’s castle
at Forres, at Macbeth’s castle on Dunsinane Hill in the county of
Inverness, and in countryside locales where three witches meet. A scene
is also set at a castle in England.
Antagonists: Psychological and Supernatural Forces, Including the Witches and the Three Apparitions
Foils of Macbeth: Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm, Lady Macbeth
Macbeth: Ambitious army general in Scotland. His hunger for kingly power, fed by a prophecy of three witches, causes him to murder the rightful king, Duncan I of Scotland, and take his place. Macbeth presents a problem for the audience in that he evokes both sympathy and condemnation; he is both hero, in a manner of speaking, and villain.
Lady Macbeth: Wife of Macbeth, who abets his murder. Her grandfather was a Scottish king who was killed in defense of his throne against the king who immediately preceded King Duncan I. On the surface, she appears ruthless and hardened, but her participation in the murder of Duncan gnaws at her conscience and she goes insane, imagining that she sees the blood of Duncan on her hands.
Duncan I: King of Scotland.
Malcolm, Donalbain: Sons of King Duncan. Malcolm, the older son, is the Prince of Cumberland. He becomes King of Scotland (as Malcom III) at the end of the play.
Banquo: Army general murdered on Macbeth's orders to prevent Banquo from begetting a line of kings, as predicted by the three witches whom Macbeth and Banquo encounter on a heath. Banquo’s ghost later appears to Macbeth.
Three Witches: Hags who predict Macbeth will become king. Shakespeare refers to the three witches as the weird sisters. Weird is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word wyrd, meaning fate. Thus, the witches appear to represent fate, a force that predetermines destiny. The Greek poet Hesiod (eighth century BC) was the first writer to represent fate as three old women. These three hags were actually goddesses. Clotho was in charge of weaving the fabric of a person's life. Lachesis determined a person's life span and destiny. Atropos cut the threads of the fabric of life when it was time for a person to die. No one—not even the mightiest god—could change the decisions of the Fates. Collectively, the Greeks called them Moirae. Latin speakers referred to them as Parcae. The given name Moira means fate.
Hecate, Witch 4: Mistress of the witches' charms and queen of Hades. She is the fourth witch in the play (or the fifth for those who believe Lady Macbeth, in view of her invocations of evil, is a witch.)
Macduff: Scottish nobleman and lord of Fife who is known for his wisdom and integrity. He becomes Macbeth's enemy. He and Macbeth cross swords at the end of the play.
Lady Macduff: Wife of Macduff. She is murdered on Macbeth’s orders.
Son of Macduff: One of the Macduff children who are murdered on Macbeth’s orders.
Lennox, Ross, Menteith, Angus, Caithness: Scottish noblemen
Fleance: Son of Banquo.
Siward: Earl of Northumberland, general of the English forces.
Young Siward: Son of Siward.
Seyton: Officer attending Macbeth.
Sweno: King of Norway during the war against Scotland. Sweno, referred to in Act I, Scene II, has no speaking part in the play.
English Doctor: He treats the King of England (who does not appear in the play) for an illness while Macduff and Malcolm are at the king’s palace planning the overthrow of Macbeth.
Scottish Doctor: Doctor who attends Lady Macbeth during her descent into madness.
Gentlewoman: Lady Macbeth's attendant.
First Apparition: A head with arms. This apparition, conjured by the witches, warns Macbeth to beware of Macduff.
Second Apparition: A bloody child. This apparition, conjured by the witches, tells Macbeth that no one born of woman can kill him.
Third Apparition: A crowned child holding a tree. This apparition, conjured by the witches, tells Macbeth that no one can defeat him until a forest, Birnam Wood, marches against him. Macbeth is heartened, believing it is impossible for a forest to march.
Sinel: Macbeth's deceased father. Macbeth refers to him when he says, "By Sinel's death I know I am Thane of Glamis" (1.3.75).
Minor Characters: Lords, gentlemen, officers, soldiers, murderers, attendants, and messengers.
By Michael J. Cummings © 2003, 2008
.......While camped near his castle at Forres in the Moray province of northeastern Scotland, the Scottish king, Duncan, receives news of the fighting from a wounded sergeant: Macbeth has defeated and beheaded a turncoat rebel leader named Macdonwald and “fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.27). When the Norwegians launched a new assault, the sergeant says, Macbeth and another general, Banquo, set upon their foes like lions upon hares. Ross, a Scottish lord, then arrives to report the coup de grâce: Duncan’s forces have vanquished the Norwegians and a Scottish defector, the thane (lord) of Cawdor1. The Scots extracted a tribute of ten thousand dollars from the Norwegian king, Sweno, who is begging terms of peace. After ordering Cawdor’s execution, Duncan decides to confer the title of the disloyal Cawdor on the heroic Macbeth.
.......Meanwhile, on their way to the king’s castle, Macbeth and Banquo happen upon the three witches, now reconvened in the heath, while thunder cracks and rumbles. The First Witch addresses Macbeth as Thane of Glamis2, a title Macbeth inherited from his father, Sinel. When the Second Witch addresses him as Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is dumbfounded. (He has not yet received news that the king has bestowed on him the title of the traitorous Cawdor.) The Third Witch then predicts that Macbeth will one day become king and that Banquo will beget a line of kings, although he himself will not ascend the throne. Macbeth commands the witches to explain their prophecies, but they vanish. Shortly thereafter, other Scottish soldiers—Ross and Angus—catch up with Macbeth and Banquo to deliver a message from the king: He is greatly pleased with Macbeth’s battlefield valor and, says Ross, “He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.112). The almost immediate fulfillment of the Second Witch’s prophecy makes Macbeth yearn for the fulfillment of the Third Witch’s prophecy, that he will become king. He begins to think about murdering Duncan even though the prospect of committing such a deed “doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs” (1.3.147-148).
.......After Macbeth presents himself before Duncan, the king heaps praises on the general for his battlefield prowess and announces that he will visit Macbeth at his castle at Inverness. Macbeth is in his glory, but his jubilation is tempered by the fact that the king’s son—Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland—is heir to the Scottish throne. In a whisper, he says to himself:
.......The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
Thus his appetite is
further whetted for murder. Bursting with pride and ambition, Macbeth
sends a letter home to his wife, Lady Macbeth, informing her of the
prediction of the witches, who “have more in them than mortal
knowledge” (1.5.3), that he will one day become king. Lady Macbeth
immediately wonders why he should wait for that “one day.” He could
murder Duncan and gain the throne now. But she fears he lacks what it
takes to do the deed. She says that his nature “is too full ‘o the milk
of human kindness / To catch the nearest way [murder]. . .” (1.5.6-7).
A messenger arrives to tell Lady Macbeth that King Duncan will visit
her and Macbeth that very night. Excited by the prospect of the king’s
visit—and the murderous reception he will receive—Lady Macbeth recites
some of the most chilling and cold-hearted lines in all of Shakespeare:
............................The raven himself is hoarse
.............. Look like the innocent
.......After Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle with his sons
and his entourage, Lady Macbeth greets the king while Macbeth broods
elsewhere in the castle. He is having second thoughts about the murder
plot. After the feast begins, Macbeth enters the dining hall, still
ruminating about his sinister plans. To kill a king is a terrible
thing. His wife, who has been looking for him, follows not far behind
him. Macbeth speaks his mind to her:
....... I have given suck, and know
..............Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight
.......Macduff then awakens everyone, shouting, “Murder and
treason!” (2.3.55). Before anyone can investigate, Macbeth kills the
guards, claiming their bloodied daggers are proof that they
committed the foul deed. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, do not
for a moment believe Macbeth. However, fearing for their own lives,
they flee Scotland—Malcolm
them appear guilty—Macduff speculates that they may have bribed the
guards to kill Duncan—the crown passes to the nearest eligible kin,
Macbeth. Duncan’s body is removed to Colmekill, a burial place for the
kings of Scotland.
.......Overweening ambition, or inordinate lust for power, ultimately brings ruin. For ignoring this ancient rule of living, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pay with their lives.
.......In Macbeth, evil frequently wears a pretty
cloak. Early in the play, the three witches declare that “fair is
foul,” a paradox suggesting that whatever appears good is really bad.
For example, murdering Duncan appears to be a “fair” idea to Macbeth
and Lady Macbeth, for Macbeth would accede to the throne. But the
Macbeths soon discover that only bad has come of their deed, and their
very lives—and immortal souls—are in jeopardy. Macbeth also perceives
the prophecies made by the “armed head” and the “bloody child” as good
omens; in fact, these prophecies are deceptive wordplays that foretell
Macbeth’s downfall. In a further exposition of the theme of deceptive
appearances, King Duncan speaks the following lines when arriving at
Macbeth’s castle: “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly
and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” (1.6.3-5).
Look like the innocent flower,Temptation
.......Temptation can defeat even the strongest human beings. On the battlefield, Macbeth is a lion and a leader of men. But when the witches tempt him by prophesying that he will become king of Scotland, he succumbs to the lure of power. When his resolve weakens, Lady Macbeth fortifies it with strong words.
.......Guilt haunts the evildoer. Whether from prick of conscience or fear of discovery, Macbeth’s guilt begins to manifest itself immediately after he murders Duncan and the guards (Act II, Scene II). “This is a sorry sight” (2.2.29), he tells Lady Macbeth, looking at the blood on his hands. When he speaks further of the guilt he feels, Lady Macbeth—foreshadowing her descent into insanity—says, “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad” (2.2.44-45). Macbeth then says he thought he heard a voice saying, “Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep” (2.2.46-47). When they hear knocking moments later at the castle door, it is the sound of their guilt as much as the sound of the knocker, Macduff..
.......Shakespeare casts a pall of darkness over the play to call attention to the evil deeds unfolding and the foul atmosphere in which they are taking place. At the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare introduces an image of dark clouds suggested in the words spoken by the First Witch:
When shall we three meet againNear the end of the third scene in Act I, Banquo foreshadows the terrible events to come with an allusion to the witches as “instruments of darkness” that sometimes speak the truth in order to bring their listeners to ruin. Banquo says that
[O]ftentimes, to win us to our harm,Lady Macbeth later entreats blackest night to cloak her when she takes part in the murder of Duncan, saying:
Come, thick night,Late at night in Inverness Castle, after King Duncan goes to bed and the Macbeths make final plans for his murder, Banquo and Fleance meet in a courtyard within the castle walls while a servant holds a torch. Their conversation centers on the blackness of the night and on sleep:
BANQUO How goes the night, boy?.......In his analysis of the images of darkness in Macbeth, Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley writes:
.......Shakespeare frequently presents images of blood in Macbeth. Sometimes it is the hot blood of the Macbeths as they plot murder; sometimes it is the spilled, innocent blood of their victims. It is also blood of guilt that does not wash away and the blood of kinship that drives enemies of Macbeth to action. In general, the images of blood—like the images of darkness—bathe the play in a macabre, netherworldly atmosphere. Here are examples from the play:
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood. (Lady Macbeth: 1.5.48-51)
Is this a dagger which
I see before me,
all great Neptune's7
ocean wash this blood
To Ireland, I; our separated fortune
.......Critic Maynard Mack and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud both noticed that Lady Macbeth resembles Eve in her eagerness to tempt Macbeth to eat of forbidden fruit (in this case, murder) and that Macbeth resembles Adam in his early passivity. Supporting their views are these two passages in Act 1, Scene VII, in which Lady Macbeth goads her wavering husband:
First Passage: Lady Macbeth tells her husband it is cowardly to hesitate like a scared cat.Ambition
.......Raging ambition drives Macbeth to murder. After the witches play to his ambition with a prophecy that he will become king, he cannot keep this desire under control. He realizes that Duncan is a good king—humble, noble, virtuous. But he rationalizes that a terrible evil grips him that he cannot overcome.
I have no spur
Examples of Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
That will be ere the set of sun. (1.1.7)Anaphora
When the hurlyburly’s done,Hyperbole
Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. (5.1.55)Irony, Dramatic
This castle hath a pleasant seat; the airMetaphor
If I say sooth, I must report they wereMetaphor and Personification
Go get some water,Paradox
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. (1.1.13)The Real Macbeth
.......Macbeth was an eleventh-century Scot who took
the throne in 1040 after killing King Duncan I, his cousin, in a battle
near Elgin in the Moray district of Scotland. Of his reign, Fitzroy
MacLean has written the following: "Macbeth appears, contrary to
popular belief, to have been a wise monarch and to have ruled Scotland
successfully and well for seventeen prosperous years. In 1050 we hear
that he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and there [lavished money to the
poor]." (Work cited: MacLean, Fitzroy. A Concise History of Scotland.
Duncan's oldest son,
Malcolm, ended Macbeth's reign by killing him in battle and later
assuming the throne as Malcolm III.
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.......In Holinshed's Chronicles, the historical work on which Shakespeare based his play, the real Banquo is depicted as a conniver who took part in the plot to assassinate King Duncan. Why did Shakespeare portray Banquo as one of Macbeth's innocent victims? Perhaps because James I, the King of England when the play debuted, was a descendant of Banquo. It would not do to suggest that His Royal Majesty's ancestor was a murderer.
.......The Roman dramatist Seneca (AD 4-65), a tutor to
Emperor Nero, wrote plays that described in elaborate detail the grisly
horror of murder and revenge. After Elizabethans began translating
Seneca's works in 1559, writers read and relished them, then wrote
plays imitating them. Shakespeare appears to have seasoned Macbeth and
Titus Andronicus, with
of Seneca's ghoulish condiments. .
Belief in Witchcraft and Superstition
.......Belief in witchcraft, omens, auguries, ghosts, soothsaying, and everyday superstitions was commonplace among the British in Shakespeare's day. One confirmed believer in the paranormal was none other than England's King James I.
....... In 1591, when he was the king of Scotland, a group of so-called witches and sorcerers attempted to murder him. Their trial and testimony convinced him that they were agents of evil. Thereafter, he studied the occult and wrote a book called Daemonologie (Demonology), published in 1597. This book—and an earlier one called Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer, 1486, by Heinrick Kramer and Jacob Springer), describing the demonic rites of witches—helped inflame people against practitioners of sorcery.
....... Shakespeare, good businessman that he was, well knew that a play featuring witches would attract theatergoers and put a jingle in his pocket. Moreover, such a play would ingratiate him with James, who became King of England in 1603. So, about two years after James acceded to the English throne, Shakespeare began working on Macbeth. When it was first performed, it probably gave audiences a good scare and, magically, swelled Shakespeare's bank account and reputation.
....... The witches, the portents, the thunder and lightning, the ghost of Banquo, and the foreboding atmosphere all combine to cast a pall over the play.
Four witches appear in Macbeth—the three hags who open the play and later Hecate, the goddess of sorcery. But Lady Macbeth is no less diabolical than they. She must have sent a shiver through Shakespeare's audiences when she invoked spirits to “unsex” her (1.5.34) and bid “thick night” (1.5.43) to dress “in the dunnest smoke of hell” (1.5.44) so that heaven could not witness the murder of Duncan.
....... After Macbeth kills Duncan and his wife smears blood on the guards, Macbeth's hired assassins kill Banquo. When Banquo's ghost—or what Macbeth thinks is his ghost—appears to him in the dining hall, the play further darkens and the suspense mounts. Is the ghost real or a hallucination? Will Macbeth give himself away? In the second act, a conversation between a minor character—the Old Man—and Ross further enhance the dark mood of the play with their talk of strange and unsettling events.
OLD MAN Threescore and ten I can remember well;.......When Macbeth later meets with the witches in a cavern, the supranormal manifests itself in the form of an armed head that warns Macbeth to fear Macduff. Then a bloody child prophesies that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth, and a crowned child declares that Macbeth remains safe until birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. The predictions of the children ease his fears—until birnam wood does come to Dunsinane (as enemies holding tree branches for camouflage) and Macbeth learns that Macduff was not "born of woman" in the usual way but pulled from his mother's womb in a cesarean birth.
.......It is unlikely that Shakespeare himself believed in divinations and superstitions, as his ridicule of the supranormal in The Comedy of Errors suggests. In this play, characters attribute confusing mix-ups to the work of magicians and sorcerers. But Shakespeare demonstrates as the plot unfolds that mix-ups and coincidences are part of everyday life. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare appears to belittle astrology when he says—through Cassius— “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The influence of Fate, the Supernatural, and Superstition
.......English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) called attention to the influence of fate and the supernatural on Macbeth:
The overwhelming pressure of preternatural agency urges on the tide of human passion with redoubled force. Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm; he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others; he stands at bay with his situation; and from the superstitious awe and breathless suspense into which the communications of the Weïrd Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future. He is not equal to the struggle with fate and conscience. He now "bends up each corporal instrument to the terrible feat;" at other times his heart misgives him, and he is cowed and abashed by his success. "The deed, no less than the attempt, confounds him." His mind is assailed by the stings of remorse, and full of "preternatural solicitings." His speeches and soliloquies are dark riddles on human life, baffling solution, and entangling him in their labyrinths. In thought he is absent and perplexed, sudden and desperate in act, from a distrust of his own resolution. His energy springs from the anxiety and agitation of his mind. His blindly rushing forward on the objects of his ambition and revenge, or his recoiling from them, equally betrays the harassed state of his feelings. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817).
.......The words blood and night (or forms of
them, such as bloody and tonight) occur more than 40
times each in Macbeth. Other commonly occurring words that help
maintain the mood of the play are terrible, horrible, black,
devil, and evil.
In Macbeth True Is False and Fair Is Foul
By Michael J. Cummings © 2006
bad. True is false.
Light is dark.
oftentimes, to win us to our harm,Macbeth observes that the prophecy is neither favorable nor unfavorable, although he admits it unnerves him:
Cannot be ill, cannot be good:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (1.3.142-154)
.......Enter Lady Macbeth. Excited by the prospect that the throne of Scotland is within a dagger’s reach, she becomes the ultimate paradox: a ruthless, hell-bent “man-woman” brimming with testicular gall and machismo. In one of the most chilling soliloquies or speeches in all of literature, she prays to be hardened into a remorseless killer:
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall 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!' (1.5.43-57)
.......After King Duncan arrives at the door of Macbeth’s castle, he comments on the tranquillity and peacefulness of the setting while, inside, a whetted dagger awaits him. Before admitting the king, Lady Macbeth further prods her husband: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1. 7.94-95).
.......In other words, look fair but be foul.
.......And so, in the night, they murder the king. In the morning, when Macduff knocks at the door, the porter responds tardily and explains that he and his friends were up late drinking. The observations he makes about the effects of drinking are humorous, providing the audience momentary relief from the tension of the previous scenes. But even this comic interlude continues the theme of paradox, as the porter’s dialogue demonstrates when he tells what drinking causes:
.......After Macduff discovers the dead body and alerts the king’s entourage, Macbeth kills the king’s guards, blaming them for the murder. But the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, suspect Macbeth as the culprit and fear that they will ultimately come under suspicion. In the second act, Malcolm says, using oxymoron/paradox:
To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy. I'll to England. (2.3.134-136)
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
OLD MAN...'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
ROSS...And Duncan's horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.
OLD MAN...'Tis said they eat each other. (2.4.7-23)
.......Many of the scenes in Macbeth are set in a
castle. A castle was a walled fortress of a king or lord. The word castle
is derived from the Latin castellum, meaning a fortified
place. Generally, a castle was situated on an eminence (a
piece of high ground) that had formed naturally or was constructed by
laborers. High ground constructed by laborers was called a motte
(French for mound); the motte may have been 100 to 200 feet
wide and 40 to 80 feet high. The area inside the castle wall was called
Adder’s Fork: Forked tongue of an
adder, a poisonous snake.
1. Cawdor: Village in the Highlands of
Scotland, near Inverness.