A Study Guide

Table of Contents

Type of Work

.......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.

Key Dates

Date Written: Probably by 1605 but no later than 1607.
First Performance of Play: Probably between 1605 and 1607 at the Globe Theatre.
Publication: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.


.......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, at Macduff's castle in the county of Fife, and in countryside locales where three witches meet. A scene is also set at a castle in England.


.......The tone of the play is dark and foreboding from the very beginning, when the three witches meet on a heath during a thunderstorm.


Protagonist: Macbeth
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 Malcolm 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 1, Scene 2, 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.


Old Man

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.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings

.......In a desert place during a thunderstorm, three witches conclude a meeting. They decide to convene next on a heath to confront the great Scottish general Macbeth on his return from a war between Scotland and Norway. As they depart, they recite a paradox that foreshadows events in the play: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.14). In other words, what is perceived as good will be bad; what is perceived as bad will be good. 
.......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 grce: Duncan’s forces have vanquished the Norwegians and a Scottish defector, the thane (lord) of Cawdor. 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 Glamis, 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). 
Forres Castle

.......Forres is in northeastern Scotland. After William I became King of Scotland in 1165, the castle at Forres served as a sort of hunting lodge for royalty. The real-life Macbeth and Duncan were among those said to have used the castle. Nearby is a curious tourist attraction, the Witches’ Stone, where accused witches were burned..

.......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
On which I must fall down or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires. (1.4.58-61)

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:
........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 his death—Lady Macbeth recites some of the most chilling and cold-hearted lines in all of Shakespeare:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up 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!' (1.5.31-46)

. .......When Macbeth arrives home, he and his wife read murder in each other’s eyes. In anticipation of Duncan’s visit, she tells her husband to 

Look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ’t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch. (1.5.63)

.......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: .

We will proceed no further in this business
He [Duncan] hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people, 
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss
Not cast aside so soon. (1.7.36-40)

. .......But Lady Macbeth holds him to his vow to kill Duncan, telling him that

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: 
I would, while it was smiling in my face, 
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, 
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you 
Have done to this.” (1.7.62-67)

. .......Macbeth, swayed, asks her: “If we should fail—?” (1.7.68) She answers, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail” (1.7.70-71).  She then lays out the plan. While the king sleeps, she will ply his guards with “wine and wassail" (1.7.74), enough to make them fall into deep repose. Macbeth will then kill the king with the guards’ daggers and stain their clothing with blood to cast suspicion on them.
.......After midnight, while King Duncan sleeps, Lady Macbeth gives the guards a nightcap of milk and ale (called a posset) spiked with a drug. She then rings a bell signaling Macbeth that all is ready. Before going into the king’s chamber, Macbeth hallucinates, seeing a dagger in mid-air that leads him to the king’s bedside. After committing the murder, he tells Lady Macbeth that he thought he heard a voice saying, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep” (2. 2. 46-47) and that he “shall sleep no more” (2.2.47). Lady Macbeth attempts to hearten him, telling him not to dwell on “brainsickly” things (2.2.58). When she notices that Macbeth is still carrying the bloodied daggers, she tells him to return them to the king’s chamber and plant them on the guards as they had planned. But Macbeth, guilt-stricken, cannot bring himself to return to the room. Lady Macbeth, still bold with resolve, scolds him, then plants the daggers herself, smearing blood on the guards. 
.......Early in the morning, two noblemen, Macduff and Lennox, call at the castle to visit Duncan. “O horror, horror, horror!” (2.3.42), Madcuff exclaims upon entering Duncan’s chamber and discovering the body. Macbeth and Lennox, standing outside, ask what the matter is. Macduff says,

Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon. Do not bid me speak.
See, and then speak yourselves. (2.3.51-53)

.......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 for England and Donalbain for Ireland. Because their hasty departure makes 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.
.......But now that he is king, Macbeth cannot rest easy. He remembers too well the prophecy of the witches that Banquo will father a kingly line. So Macbeth sends two hired assassins to murder Banquo and his son Fleance as they travel to Macbeth’s castle (now the royal palace at Forres) for dinner with the new king and queen and various guests. Ambushing their prey, the assassins slay Banquo “with twenty trenched gashes on his head” (3.4.32), the First Murderer later tells Macbeth. But Fleance escapes.
.......Just as the dinner begins, one of the assassins reports the news to Macbeth. When Macbeth sits down to eat, the bloodied ghost of Banquo appears to him but to no one else. Macbeth begins to act and speak strangely, and one guest, Ross, says, “Gentlemen, rise: his highness is not well” (3.4.64). But Lady Macbeth entreats the guests to remain in their seats, for “my lord is often thus, / And hath been from his youth. . . .The fit is momentary; upon a thought / He will  again be well. . .” (3.4.65-68).  After the ghost vanishes, Macbeth regains himself and tells his guests that he has a strange infirmity “which is nothing / To those that know me” (3.4.103-104). The ghost then reappears and Macbeth shouts,

! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee! 
..............Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; 

..............Thou hast no speculation
in those eyes 
..............Which thou dost glare with! (3.4.112-115)


.......When Ross questions Macbeth about what he has seen, Lady Macbeth says the king’s fit has grown worse, and she sends the guests away. Later, preoccupied with the fear of being discovered, Macbeth begins to suspect that Macduff, who refused to attend the feast, is onto him.

.......When Macbeth meets with the witches again—this time in a cavern—they conjure an apparition of an armed head that tells him he has good reason to fear
Macduff. But they also ease his fears when they conjure a second apparition, that of a bloody child, which tells him that no one born of woman can harm him. A third apparition, that of a crowned child holding a tree, tells him that no one can conquer him until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
.......After the meeting, Macbeth learns that Macduff is urging Duncan's son, Malcolm, to reclaim the throne. In revenge, Macbeth has Macduff's wife and son murdered. When Macduff hears the terrible news, he organizes an army to bring down Macbeth.

.......Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth's conscience—long absent earlier—now begins to torture her. She talks to herself and hallucinates, imagining that her hands are covered with blood. After the forces of Malcolm and Macduff arrive at Birnam Wood and advance on Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth prepares for battle just as Lady Macbeth's battle with her conscience ends in her suicide.

.......As they advance, the invaders cut branches of trees to hold in front of them as camouflage. Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane—a hill near the castle—just as the witches predicted. Finally, Macbeth meets Macduff in hand-to-hand combat, bragging that he will win the day because (according to the apparition of the bloody child) no man born of a woman can harm him. However, Macduff reveals that he was not of woman born but was “untimely ripp’d” (5.7.62) from his mother’s womb (in a cesarean birth). Macduff then kills Macbeth, and Malcolm becomes king.


.......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). 
.......Other quotations that buttress this theme are the following:

Look like the innocent flower, 
But be the serpent under ’t. (1.5.63-64)

Away, and mock the time with fairest show: 
False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (1.7.94-95)

To show an unfelt sorrow is an office 
Which the false man does easy. (2.3.135-136)


.......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.

Presence of Mysterious Forces

        Mysterious, seemingly preternatural forces are at work throughout the play. The presence of the otherworldly begins when the witches meet and later confront Macbeth and Banquo with prophecies. It continues when Lady Macbeth invokes spirits to “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!” ( A short while later, Macbeth hallucinates:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1.44-50)

After Macbeth kills Duncan and his henchmen kill Banquo, Macbeth sees—or thinks he sees—the ghost of Banquo and becomes unnerved. His wife explains to the guests that her husband is unwell. When Macbeth meets with the witches again, they conjure apparitions of an armed head, a bloody child, and a crowned child, each of which make predictions about events to come. For additional information on this theme, see Belief in Witchcraft and The Influence of Fate

Climax and Denouement (Conclusion) 
.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Macbeth occurs, according to the first definition, when Macbeth murders Duncan and becomes king. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Macduff corners and kills Macbeth. The denouement is in the seventh scene of the final act. Ross, Malcolm, Old Siward, lords, and soldiers are discussing the outcome of the clash between the forces of Macbeth and Macduff when Macduff enters holding the head of Macbeth as certain proof that the tyrant is dead. Macduff hails Malcolm as the new king of Scotland; the others do the same. Malcolm then names the lords as earls, asks all to welcome home those who were exiled by Macbeth, and invites everyone to his coronation at Scone.



.......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 again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (1.1.3-4)
Near the end of the third scene in Act 1, 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,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s [betray us]
In deepest consequence. (1.3.133-137) 
Lady Macbeth later entreats blackest night to cloak her when she takes part in the murder of Duncan, saying: 
  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. (1.5.43-46)
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?
FLEANCE   The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
BANQUO   And she goes down at twelve.
FLEANCE   I take’t, ’tis later, sir.
BANQUO   Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out. Take thee that too.
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose! (2.1.3-12
.......In his analysis of the images of darkness in Macbeth, Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley writes:
    It is remarkable that almost all the scenes which at once recur to memory take place either at night or in some dark spot. The vision of the dagger, the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth, all come in night-scenes. The witches dance in the thick air of a storm, or, 'black and midnight hags' receive Macbeth in a cavern. The blackness of night [makes] the hero a thing of fear, even of horror; and that which he feels becomes the spirit of the play."—Quoted in Eastman, A.M., and G.B. Harrison, eds. Shakespeare's Critics: From Jonson to Auden. Ann Arbor, Mich.: U of Michigan, 1964 (pages 238-239)

.......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 bloodlike the images of darknessbathe the play in a macabre, netherworldly atmosphere. Here are examples from the play:

    Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
    Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood. (Lady Macbeth: 1.5.48-51)

    Is this a dagger which I see before me,
    The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    .............................[ellipsis of seven lines]
    And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
    Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
    It is the bloody business which informs
    Thus to mine eyes (Speaker, Macbeth: 2.1.44-46, 57-60)

    MACBETH...Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.
    LADY MACBETH...My hands are of your colour; but I shame
    To wear a heart so white. (2.2.75-80)

    To Ireland, I; our separated fortune
    Shall keep us both the safer: where we are,
    There's daggers in men's smiles: the near in blood,
    The nearer bloody. (Donalbain: 2.3.137-140)

In their analysis of the images of blood and darkness in Macbeth, Shakespearean scholars K.L. Knickerbock and H. Willard Reninger write:
    The very title of Macbeth conjures up the dense, suffocating metaphoric climate of primeval evil, darkness, blood, violated sleep, and nature poisoned at its source."—Interpreting Literature. 4th ed. New York: Holt, 1969 (page 854).
Adam and Eve

.......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.
Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' the adage? (1.7.45-51)
Second Passage: Lady Macbeth challenges her husband to be a man.
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. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7 55-67)

.......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
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other. (1.7.27-30)

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)

       the Norways’ king, craves composition; 
Nor would we deign him burial of his men. (1.2.72-73)

False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (1.7.95) 

Tis safer to be that which we destroy 
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy. (3.2.10-11). 

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1.12-13)

When the hurlyburly’s done, 
When the battle’s lost and won. (1.1.5-6)

FIRST WITCH   All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! 
SECOND WITCH   All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! 

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 air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses. (1.6.1) 
Duncan is unaware of what the audience knows: that death, not a pleasant sojourn, awaits him in the castle.
If I say sooth, I must report they were 
As cannons overcharg’d with double cracks. (1.2.42-43)
Comparison of Macbeth and Banquo to cannons

Sleep shall neither night nor day 
Hang upon his pent-house lid. (1.3.21-22) 
Comparison of sleep to a hanging object

[We must] make our faces vizards to our hearts, 
Disguising what they are. (3.2.40-41)
Macbeth compares his and Lady Macbeth's faces to the visors (vizards) on the helmet of a suit of armor 

                       Come, seeling night, 
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day. (3.2.54-55) 
Macbeth compares night to a falconer who sews together (seels) the eyes of a young hawk.
He also compares the sun to an eye.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow[?] (5.3.50-51)
While speaking with the doctor, Macbeth compares Lady Macbeth's mental illness to a rooted plant.

Metaphor and Personification
                            Go get some water, 
And wash this filthy witness from your hand. (2.2.58-59) 
Comparison of blood (implied) to a person (witness)

Treason has done his worst. (3.2.29)
Comparison of treason to a person

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. (1.1.13)

What! can the devil speak true? (1.3.107) 

Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. . . . (1.4.10-11)

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. New York: Beekman House, 1970, page 23.) In 1057, Duncan's oldest son, Malcolm, ended Macbeth's reign by killing him in battle and later assuming the throne as Malcolm III.

The Real Banquo

.......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.

Influence of Seneca

.......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 an earlier play, Titus Andronicus, with some 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;          
Within the volume of which time I have seen          
Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night          
Hath trifled former knowings.
ROSS:   Ah! good father,
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.
.......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 in 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 Werd 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)

Questions and Essay Topics

  • Murdering a king was considered an especially heinous crime in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in England in November 1605. What was the Gunpowder Plot? 
  • Did Shakespeare intend the witches to be symbols of something everyone faces, temptation? 
  • The word fear occurs forty-eight times in Macbeth in noun and verb forms and as a root in words such as afeard and fearful. Which characters exhibit the most fear? What causes their fear? How does fear differ from guilt? 
  • Julius Caesar, the title character of a Shakespeare play set in ancient Rome, was a military commander. Like Macbeth, he was consumed by ambition and died because of it. What other great leaders in history or fiction fell to ruin, or death, because of their ambition? 
  • Lady Macbeth repeatedly washes her hands to expiate her guilt. In modern psychology, what is the term used to describe Lady Macbeth's disorder? If you were a psychologist—or a priest—what would you advise Lady Macbeth to do to unburden her conscience?
  • Which word better describes the feelings of the Macbeths after the murder of Duncan, remorse or guilt? Explain your answer.
  • Read the information under the theme of deceit. Then write an essay about persons, places, things or ideas that appear "fair" when they are really "foul"—or appear "foul" when they are really "fair."
  • Lady Macbeth advises her husband to “Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it” (1.5.66-67). Write an essay about things in the modern world that present themselves as "innocent flowers" even though they are really "serpents."
Fascinating Fact

.......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

.......The world of Macbeth is a world of contradiction. Good is bad. True is false. Light is dark.
.......In the opening scene of the play, the three witches introduce the contrary nature of this world with two paradoxes. First, while ending a meeting, they agree to reconvene “when the battle’s lost and won” (1. 1. 7). Then they warn the audience that “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1. 1. 14). In Scene II, the nobleman Ross informs King Duncan that a trusted lord, the thane of Cawdor, is a traitor who conspired with the enemy. In other words, the fair Cawdor is foul. After ordering Cawdor executed, the king confers his title on Macbeth, the hero of the battle. Macbeth, of course, goes on to commit an even more heinous crime, murder.

.......Why is the world of Macbeth topsy-turvy? Because it reflects the world at large as it really isnot a monolith of white or black but an amalgam of both. It is good and evil, innocent and guilty, honest and treacherous. It is a world of sun and clouds, of calm and storm, of cold and warmth. In Macbeth, Shakespeare holds up a mirror that reflects not only the outward substance of man but also his conflicting inner essence. This mirror reveals glory as blood-stained, safety as dangerous, friends as inimical.

.......In our own age, we can see the truth of Shakespeare’s thesis. For example, critics of the Iraq War say the U.S. won it but lost it, echoing the words of the witches. Clinton’s second term as U.S. president was fair (in terms of the economy) and foul (in terms of the sex scandal that led to his impeachment). And consider that it is sometimes the “upright” clergyman who swindles his TV viewers, the “caring mother” who drowns her children, the “harmless neighbor” who takes a gun to work and opens fire, and the “respected politician” who, though personally opposed to abortion, votes in favor of it. Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

.......When the witches predict that Macbeth will become king and that Banquo will beget a line of kings, both men react by speaking contradictions reflecting caution and confusion. Banquo says that 

           Oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s [betray us]
In deepest consequence. (1.3.134-137)
Macbeth observes that the prophecy is neither favorable nor unfavorable, although he admits it unnerves him:
    This supernatural soliciting
    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)
The final words of his responsenothing is but what is notsum up Shakespeare’s theme of contradiction. Unfortunately, the ambitious Macbeth ignores cannot be good in favor of cannot be ill and bends his mind toward murdering the king. But he is full of doubt, full of fears.
.......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:
                                     Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
    Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
    Stop up 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) 
.......When Macbeth arrives home and discusses the murder plot with Lady Macbeth, she advises him to “look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t” (1.5. 63-64).
.......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:

Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him. (2.3.9)

.......Moments later, when Macduff walks to Duncan’s bedroom, unaware that the king has been murdered, he tells Macbeth, “I know this is a joyful trouble to you” (2.3.22). Joyful trouble is an oxymoron/paradox that is also ironic, inasmuch as Macbeth is anything but joyful. He answers with irony: “The labor we delight in physics [heals] pain” (2.3.24).
.......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:
    What will you do? Let's not consort with them:
    To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
    Which the false man does easy. I'll to England. (2.3.134-136)
Outside, an old man and Ross discuss strange events: Day has turned to night, an owl has killed a falcon, and horses have broken free of their stalls to roam the countryside.
    ROSS...Ah, good father,
    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 horsesa 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)
.......The play continues to present contradictions, reversals, and impossibilities that become possible. In the witches’ cavern, an apparition of a bloody child tells Macbeth that no one born of a woman can harm him. Then another apparition, a crowned child, tells him that he cannot die unless the trees of Birnam Wood march against him. But Birnam Wood does march against Macbethin the form of soldiers using foliage as camouflage. And a man not “born” of woman, Macduffwho, Macbeth discovers, was delivered in a cesarean birthconfronts Macbeth and slays him. Macduff then hails Malcolm as the new king of Scotland. 

What Was a Castle?

.......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 the bailey
.......Some castles had several walls, with smaller circles within a larger circle or smaller squares within a larger square. The outer wall of a castle was usually topped with a battlement, a protective barrier with spaced openings through which defenders could shoot arrows at attackers. This wall sometimes was surrounded by a water-filled ditch called a moat, a defensive barrier to prevent the advance of soldiers, horses and war machines. At the main entrance was a drawbridge, which could be raised to prevent entry. Behind the drawbridge was a portcullis [port KUL is], or iron gate, which could be lowered to further secure the castle. Within the castle was a tower, or keep, to which castle residents could withdraw if an enemy breached the portcullis and other defenses. Over the entrance of many castles was a projecting gallery with machicolations [muh CHIK uh LAY shuns], openings in the floor through which defenders could drop hot liquids or stones on attackers. In the living quarters of a castle, the king and his family dined in a great hall on an elevated platform called a dais [DAY is], and they slept in a chamber called a solar. The age of castles ended after the development of gunpowder and artillery fire enabled armies to breach thick castle walls instead of climbing over them.

Glossary of Animals and Animal Parts in Witches' Brew (Act IV, Scene I)

Adder’s Fork: Forked tongue of an adder, a poisonous snake.
Baboon’s Blood: Blood of a fierce monkey (genus, Papio) with long teeth.
Blindworm: Legless lizard common in Great Britain. When fully grown, it is usually about a foot long. 
Eye of Newt: Eye of a type of salamander (an amphibian with a tail) that spends part of its time in the water and part of its time on land. The young newt (larval stage) is called an eft. It is bright red with black spots. The adult newt is generally olive green with red spots circumscribed with black spots. In mythological tales, the salamander was a creature that was said to be able to live in fire.
Fillet of Fenny: Slice of a snake that inhabits fens (swamps, bogs).
Gall of Goat: Gallbladder of a goat.
Lizard: Reptile with four legs. Examples are the iguana, the chameleon, and the gecko.
Maw and Gulf of Ravined Salt-Sea Shark: Stomach of a hungry (ravined) shark.
Owlet’s Wing: Wing of a baby owl. 
Scale of Dragon: Scales (overlapping plates covering the body) of a dragon, a mythological flying reptile of gigantic size.
Tiger’s Chaudron: Tiger’s intestines or guts.
Toad: Hopping amphibian, resembling a frog, with short legs and rough skin. Unlike a frog, which has moist skin, a toad has dry skin. 
Toe of Frog: Toe of an amphibian with webbed feet and strong hind legs for leaping. Unlike a toad, a frog has moist skin. 
Tooth of Wolf: Fang of a wolf, a canine that lives in the wilds.
Wool of Bat: Fur or hair of a bat, the world’s only flying mammal. A bat can weigh up to three pounds and fly at speeds up to 60 miles an hour. Although literature often portrays bats as sinister, evil creatures, they are beneficial to humankind because their insect diet eliminates many annoyingand dangerouspests.


1. Cawdor: Village in the Highlands of Scotland, near Inverness.
2. Glamis: Village in the Tayside region of Scotland.
3. Wassail: Spiced ale.
4. Gorgon: Snake-headed monster in Greek mythology. Looking upon it turned the viewer to stone.
5. Avaunt: Go away; begone; get out of here.
6. Speculation: Ability to see.
7. Neptune: Roman name for the Greek sea god, Poseidon.
8. Incarnadine: Verb meaning to make something blood red.

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Cummings, Michael J. “Macbeth: a Study Guide.” Shake Sphere: a Guide to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.


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