Macbeth, Thane (or Lord) of Glamis is a Scottish general.
We first hear of Macbeth through the account of a “wounded and bloody captain” who tells of Macbeth’s bravery: “But all’s too weak, for brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name – disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution, like valor’s minion carved out his passage till he faced the slave.” (Act 1, scene 2)
The King responds by calling Macbeth: “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!”
On the way from the battlefield, Macbeth is led to wicked thoughts by the prophecies of three witches who tell him that he will become Thane of Cawdor and then king.
Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor shortly thereafter and the seeds of evil are awakened within him. Macbeth is quickly consumed by the witches’ promise of kingship and confesses to “black and deep desires” for the crown and a “vaulting ambition”.
He weighs up his options.
He is concerned about the consequences (both on earth and in the afterlife) of murdering Duncan because he is a popular and respected king: “This Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against the deep damnation of his taking-off.” (Act 1, scene 7)
He is also conflicted over his duty to Duncan: “First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed; then, as his host, who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.” (Act 1, scene 7)
Lastly, he acknowledges that he has a good life: “We will proceed no further in this business. He hath honoured 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.” (Act 1, scene 7)
At this point, Macbeth is still undecided but allows himself to be influenced by Lady Macbeth who manipulates and goads him by calling him a coward and questioning his manhood.
This is the push he needs, and he murders Duncan.
Macbeth fully understands his own ambitions and how they are causing him to overreach himself, and counters himself with compelling arguments against the murder. He also understands that in committing regicide, he will subject himself to eternal damnation. Yet despite this, Macbeth still goes ahead.
For all his bravery on the battlefield, Macbeth is surprisingly disturbed by the murder. He obsesses over his inability to say “amen” at the end of a prayer: “But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’? I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.” (Act 2, scene 2)
He is also shaken up by a voice he hears: “Still it cried, ’Sleep no more!’ to all the house. ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.” (Act 2, scene 2)
It is clear that the murder has affected him greatly. He refuses to return to the chamber to return the daggers and jumps at every noise: “How is ‘t with me when every noise appals me?” (Act 2, scene 2)
He is keenly aware of his guilt: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” (Act 2, scene 2)
He also expresses regret at his actions: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst.” (Act 2, scene 2)
However, once Macbeth accepts that the deed is done, and there is no turning back, he embraces the path of violence, and never again hesitates: “From this moment the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.” (Act 4, scene 1)
Whatever psychological scars the murder of Duncan creates in Macbeth, he covers it up with increasing brutality.
Once his ambition to become king has been realised, he turns his ambition to his children, killing Banquo to ensure his own line of succession and proving that his ambition is insatiable.
With no trusty advisors or loyal subjects (and perhaps because he knows he is already damned) Macbeth turns to the witches for insight into his future. They fill him with a false sense of security: “The mind I sway by and the heart I bear shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear.” (Act 5, scene 3)
By the end of the play, Macbeth is a shadow of his former self with nothing left to live for: “My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.” (Act 5, scene 3)
Even at the death of his wife, all he can express is the futility of his wasted life: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Act 5, scene 5)
He prepares to ride out to meet the army of Malcolm. He challenges Macduff to fight to the death and is defeated.
Macbeth was loved, respected, and honoured by his kinsmen and subjects. He was an intelligent man who was rewarded for his bravery and loyalty with titles, money and land. He had it all – but he squandered it on an ambition imposed on him by lying witches. He chose to usurp the throne in spite of the counter-arguments he presented to himself, and lived to regret his actions.
In the end, he was nothing more than a bloody tyrant, deserted, isolated and hated, fending off attacks by former friends. He gained the throne but lost the things that really mattered, and that is his tragedy.
[Quoted from: "No Fear Shakespeare, A Companion"]
"Unsex me here," pleads Lady Macbeth in her first appearance in Macbeth, "and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty!" With this early invocation, Lady Macbeth transforms herself, but in doing so, she calls attention to a dangerous rift in her character - between who she truly is and who she has chosen to become.
Having decided to give her ambition full rein, she masterminds a bloody plot for her husband's enthronement. Audiences thrill at her strength and nerve, which stand out starkly against the background of her husband's ambivalence; but if her audacity is greater, so too is her guilt.
As her husband ascends from indecisiveness to royal power, she descends into madness, trying - in her sleep - to scour the invisible bloodstains from her hands, and ultimately committing suicide.
Three witches are planning to meet in a field where they will encounter Macbeth.
They utter: “fair is foul, and foul is fair” - a contradictory statement that indicates that not everything is as it seems.
Act 1, Scene 2:
Duncan, king of Scotland, has been invaded by Sweno, king of the Norwegians who was helped by one of Duncan's own lords, Macdonwald, Thane of Cawdor.
King Duncan's cousin, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, distinguishes himself in battle, along with his friend Banquo. Because of the bravery of these two warriors, Sweno is defeated and Macdonwald is captured and condemned to death.
Duncan decides to give Macdonwald’s title (Thane of Cawdor) to Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 3:
The three witches meet and are busy reporting back on their activities when Macbeth and Banquo arrive, fresh from the battlefield.
The witches greet Macbeth by his title - Thane of Glamis - and add to that the "Thane of Cawdor" and "king hereafter". This captures their attention and they are both curious to hear more.
Banquo desires to hear prophecies relating to him, but the witches talk in riddles (equivocate), and tell him that although he will never be king, his descendants will wear the crown.
The witches disappear as Ross and Angus arrive from Duncan to tell Macbeth that he is to be rewarded for his loyal service with the lands and title of the disgraced Thane of Cawdor.
This catches Macbeth offguard. He asks: “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” (an image that is used many times in the play).
Banquo is also shocked: “What, can the devil speak true?” Banquo cautions Macbeth. He says: “If you trust what they say, you might be on your way to becoming king, as well as thane of Cawdor. But this whole thing is strange. The agents of evil often tell us part of the truth in order to lead us to our destruction. They earn our trust by telling us the truth about little things, but then they betray us when it will damage us the most.” [NFS]
Macbeth begins to fantasize about murdering Duncan. He says: “If this is a good thing, why do I find myself thinking about murdering King Duncan, a thought so horrifying that it makes my hair stand on end and my heart pound inside my chest?”
Macbeth and Banquo resolve to talk about the strange occurrences later.
Act 1, Scene 4:
Filled with awe at the witches prophecies, Macbeth and Banquo arrive at the castle of Forres.
Macbeth is encouraged when Duncan calls him “O worthiest cousin” and praises him for his loyalty and actions.
However, whatever hope he feels about succeeding Duncan as king is dashed when Duncan pronounces his elder son, Malcolm, as heir to the throne. This disappoints and confuses Macbeth.
He calls on the stars to “hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
Duncan then informs Macbeth that he will spend the night at his castle. Macbeth rides on ahead to prepare for their royal guest. In an aside to the audience, Macbeth admits that he will have to take matters into his own hands: “The prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies."
Act 1, Scene 5:
Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband telling her about the witches and their prophecies. Lady Macbeth, being very ambitious, decides to do everything in her power to fulfill the prophecies and make Macbeth king.
She invites the ‘murdering demons’ to prepare her: “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 of it!”
Macbeth enters the castle and Lady Macbeth immediately begins coaching him. She suggests that he “look like th’ innocent flower but be the serpent under ‘t.” She intends to take charge and tells him to “leave all the rest to me.”
Act 1, Scene 6:
Duncan and entourage enter Macbeth’s castle. Lady Macbeth graciously welcomes them.
Act 1, Scene 7:
Macbeth reasons the murder out.
He understands that he is putting his soul and the afterlife at risk, and may face punishments in this world as well. He also recognizes that by resorting to violence, he will open the door for others to act with violence towards him.
He feels guilty because Duncan trusts him, and he feels honor-bound, as a relative and as a host, to protect the king. Furthermore, Duncan is a humble and virtuous leader, much loved by his people.
He concludes that the only thing motivating him is ambition, which makes people rush ahead of themselves towards disaster.
When Lady Macbeth enters, they argue about whether to go ahead. It is only when Lady Macbeth questions his manhood – “when you durst do it, then you were a man” – that Macbeth agrees. Lady Macbeth promises to drug the king's guards and make them appear to be guilty.
The go to join Duncan and pretend to be the perfect hosts: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”
Act 2, Scene 1:
Just before the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth and Banquo meet. Macbeth promises that if Banquo sticks with him, when the time came, there will be something in it for him.
Banquo agrees to do anything that Macbeth says, in so far as he can do it with a clear conscience.
Alone, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in front of him, leading him on. “I go, and it is done. The bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell.”
Act 2, Scene 2:
Lady Macbeth has drugged the guards. She reveals that she would have killed Duncan herself, had he not reminded her of her father.
Macbeth stabs King Duncan in his sleep, but suffers immediate guilt. He obsesses over the fact that he could not say ‘amen’: “I had most need of blessing, and “amen” stuck in my throat.” He is also upset because “methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’” … “Macbeth shall sleep no more”. He knows that, because he has overturned the Chain of Being, he has damned himself, and wishes he could to turn back time.
Macbeth refuses to take the daggers back to the room so Lady Macbeth takes the bloody daggers and places them next to the sleeping guards. (Ironically, she advises Macbeth to “go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hand”. At the end of her life, she sleepwalks, aimlessly trying to wash Duncan’s imaginary blood from her hands.)
Act 2, Scene 3:
Shortly after the murder there is knocking at the castle gates. Macduff, Thane of Fife, has arrived in order to wake Duncan.
Lennox, who has accompanied Macduff, reveals that the weather had been turbulent during the night. “The night has been chaotic. The wind blew down through the chimneys where we were sleeping. People are saying they heard cries of grief in the air, strange screams of death, and terrible voices predicting catastrophes that will usher in a woeful new age. The owl made noise all night. Some people say that the earth shook as if it had a fever.” [NFS]
Macduff finds the murdered Duncan and cries out “O horror, horror, horror!”
Macbeth makes a big display of his grief and in a “fury” kills the sleeping guards: “The violent rage inspired by my love for Duncan caused me to act before I could think rationally and tell myself to pause. There was Duncan, his white skin all splattered with his precious blood. The gashes where the knives had cut him looked like wounds to nature itself. Then right next to him I saw the murderers, dripping with blood, their daggers rudely covered in gore. Who could have restrained himself, who loved Duncan and had the courage to act on it?” [NFS]
Lady Macbeth also puts on a good show. She faints and has to be carried out!
Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, are weary: “Let’s not consort with them. To show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy.”
Malcolm then leaves for England while Donalbain flees to Ireland.
Act 2, Scene 4:
Scene 4 is a short scene that features a conversation between an old man, Ross and Macduff. They comment on all the unnatural things that have been happening like darkness during the day, an owl killing a falcon, tame horses going wild and eating each other, etc.
They then discuss who they think killed Duncan. A theory is put forward that Malcolm and Donalbain paid the guards to kill their father, but this theory is discounted on the strength of the fact that Malcolm had already been named heir.
They reveal that Duncan’s body had been removed for burial, and that Macbeth, the next of kin, was on his way to Scone to be crowned king.
Macduff will not be attending the coronation.
Act 3, Scene 1:
Macbeth quizzes Banquo about his plans for the afternoon and invites him to a banquet in the evening.
After Banquo leaves, Macbeth reveals his fears about Banquo:
“I’m very afraid of Banquo. There’s something noble about him that makes me fear him. He’s willing to take risks, and his mind never stops working. He has the wisdom to act bravely but also safely. I’m not afraid of anyone but him. Around him, my guardian angel is frightened, just as Mark Antony’s angel supposedly feared Octavius Caesar. “ [NFS]
He has fears the issue of succession:
“Banquo chided the witches when they first called me king, asking them to tell him his own future. Then, like prophets, they named him the father to a line of kings. They gave me a crown and a scepter that I can’t pass on. Someone outside my family will take these things away from me, since no son of mine will take my place as king. If this is true, then I’ve tortured my conscience and murdered the gracious Duncan for Banquo’s sons. I’ve ruined my own peace for their benefit. I’ve handed over my everlasting soul to the devil so that they could be kings. Banquo’s sons, kings! Instead of watching that happen, I will challenge fate to battle and fight to the death." [NFS]
He meets with two murderers and convinces them to attack and kill Banquo and his son, Fleance.
Act 3, Scene 2:
Lady Macbeth is already expressing discontent at the state she previously so desired. She says: “Naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content. ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” [Translation: “If you get what you want and you’re still not happy, you’ve spent everything and gained nothing. It’s better to be the person who gets murdered than to be the killer and be tormented with anxiety.”]
She complains that Macbeth is withdrawing from her. Macbeth is battling with his own issues brought on by the “endless mental torture and harrowing sleep deprivation.” [NFS]
They agree to “sleek o’er your rugged looks” and “be bright and jovial among your guests tonight.”
Act 3, Scene 3:
The two murderers are met by a third and together they attack Banquo and Fleance. Banquo is killed but Fleance manages to escape.
Act 3, Scene 4:
The banquet begins just as the murderers report back to Macbeth.
At the banquet, the bloodstained ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth. This greatly disturbs him, and his words reveal that he is guilty of murder. This arouses much suspicion in the other guests, who assume that he is talking of the murder of Duncan.
Lady Macbeth tries to excuse her husband's behaviour and orders the guests to leave.
Macbeth realises he has betrayed himself, and vows to become a bloody tyrant: “I have walked so far into this river of blood that even if I stopped now, it would be as hard to go back to being good as it is to keep killing people. I have some schemes in my head that I’m planning to put into action. I have to do these things before I have a chance to think about them.” [NFS]
He also decides to visit the witches to discover his fate.
Act 3, Scene 5:
The three witches meet with Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. She is unhappy that the witches gave Macbeth prophecies because they did so on their own, without consulting her.
She instructs them to meet her at the river in hell the next day, where Macbeth will go to learn his destiny.
She flies off to prepare magical spirits that will trick Macbeth with illusions: “He will be fooled into thinking he is greater than fate, he will mock death, and he will think he is above wisdom, grace, and fear. As you all know, overconfidence is man’s greatest enemy.” [NFS]
Act 3, Scene 6:
Lennox and another Lord speculate about Macbeth’s involvement in the deaths of Duncan and Banquo.
They also reveal how Macduff has fallen out of favor with Macbeth because he speaks his mind too plainly, and how he hopes to get the help of Malcolm and King Edward of England to overthrow Macbeth.
Lennox concludes that Scotland is a “suffering country under a hand accursed!”
Act 4, Scene 1:
The witches list the contents of their cauldrons, which includes witch’s mummified flesh, the stomach of a shark and a Turk’s nose.
One of the witches feels Macbeth’s presence. She says: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Macbeth insists that they tell him what he wants to know, without care of the consequences.
He sees three apparitions.
A head with an armored helmet appears. It warns Macbeth of Macduff.
A bloody baby appears and encourages Macbeth to be “bloody, bold, and resolute”. It tells him to laugh at the power of men because nobody born from a woman will ever harm him.
A child with a crown on his head and a tree in his hand appears. It tells Macbeth not to worry about anyone who conspires against him because he will never be defeated until Birnam Wood marches to fight at Dunsinane Hill.
Macbeth is greatly encouraged by the meeting so far. The apparitions have seemingly guaranteed that no-one can harm him, and Macbeth resolves to act on whatever violent impulse that he has.
He has one more question: “Shall Banquo’s issue [sons] ever reign in this kingdom?”
In answer to this, an apparition of eight kings march in front of him, the last one with a mirror in his hand, followed by the ghost of Banquo. This indicates that Banquo will beget a long line of kings.
The witches disappear.
On the way back, Lennox informs Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England.
Act 4, Scene 2:
Lady Macduff is unimpressed with her husband for fleeing to England. She complains to Ross: “To leave his wife, his children, his house, and his titles in a place so unsafe that he himself flees it! He doesn’t love us. He lacks the natural instinct to protect his family. Even the fragile wren, the smallest of birds, will fight against the owl when it threatens her young ones in the nest. His running away has everything to do with fear and nothing to do with love. And since it’s so unreasonable for him to run away, it has nothing to do with wisdom either.” [NFS]
A messenger warns her that danger is coming and begs her to take her children and flee. Lady Macduff stubbornly refuses to go. The murderers come in. They murder both Lady Macduff and her son.
Act 4, Scene 3:
Macduff meets with Malcolm in England to convince him to fight Macbeth.
Malcolm tests his loyalty and intentions by pretending to be corrupt, lustful and greedy: “It is myself I mean, in whom I know all the particulars of vice so grafted that, when they shall be opened, black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow, and the poor state esteem him as a lamb, being compared with my confineless harms.”
Macduff is appalled: “Fit to be king? You’re not fit to live!” [NFS]
This passionate outburst proves Macduff’s integrity and removes any doubts that Malcolm had about him. He takes back all the bad things he said about himself, because they are not true. He reveals that ‘old Siward’, an English lord is preparing 10,000 men for battle.
Ross enters and reports that the situation is deteriorating in Scotland. Macbeth’s army is on the move, in response to the ‘good men’ who are arming themselves to rebel against Macbeth.
Ross bears the tragic news that Macduff’s castle was attacked and his wife, children and servants murdered. Macduff resolves to deal with Macbeth personally: “Front to front bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself.”
Act 5, Scene 1:
Lady Macbeth’s Lady-in-waiting and her doctor are very concerned because she has been sleepwalking and sleeptalking. They observe her trying to wash a “damned spot” off her hands. She refers to the murder of Duncan and Macduff’s wife, and the doctor recognizes that she is burdened with guilt: “Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.”
He concludes that she needs a priest more than she needs a doctor.
Act 5, Scene 2:
This scene provides us with an update on the battle plans. The English army, led by Malcolm, is near. Macbeth is fortifying his castle at Dunsinane.
Another reference is made to robes: “Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief.”
Act 5, Scene 3:
Macbeth bolsters his courage by remembering the words of the witches, yet despite his confidence, he acknowledges that his life sucks.
The doctor gives Macbeth an update on his wife.
Act 5, Scene 4:
The English troops have reached Birnam Wood. Malcolm gives the instruction for each soldier to cut off a branch and hold it in front of him to conceal their numbers.
Act 5, Scene 5:
Macbeth receives the news that his wife has committed suicide. He laments the futility of life.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
He also learns that Birnam Wood is ‘moving’ towards Dunsinane. This upsets Macbeth and he begins to realize that the witches have deceived him.
Act 5, Scene 6:
A quick update on the English army: The battle plan is for Siward and his son to lead the first battle and Macduff and Malcolm will do the rest. Macduff gives the instruction to blow the trumpets and announce the start of the battle.
Act 5, Scene 7:
Macbeth kills young Siward in a fight. Macbeth, despite being under attack, is still confident: “Thou wast born of woman. But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, brandished by man that’s of a woman born.”
Act 5, Scene 8:
Macbeth meets Macduff for their grudge-match.
Macbeth taunts Macduff, telling him that he’s wasting his time trying to wound him. He maintains that he lives a “charmed life” because no-one born of a woman can harm him. Macduff reveals that he was born by caesarian section, i.e. not “born of a woman”. Macbeth confesses that this news has frightened away his courage.
Macduff gives him the option of surrendering: “Then surrender, coward, and we’ll put you in a freak-show, just like they do with deformed animals. We’ll put a picture of you on a sign, right above the words ‘Come see the tyrant!’” [NFS]
Macbeth rejects this offer, and fights to the death.
Macduff presents Macbeth’s severed head to Malcolm.
The play ends with Malcolm promising rewards to his faithful thanes, and inviting them to his coronation at Scone.
Characterize the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. If the main theme of Macbeth is ambition, whose ambition is the driving force of the play - Macbeth’s, or Lady Macbeth’s, or both?
One of the important themes in Macbeth is the idea of political legitimacy, of the moral authority that some kings possess and others lack. With particular attention to Malcolm’s questioning of Macduff in Act 4, Scene 3, try to define some of the characteristics that grant or invalidate the moral legitimacy of absolute power. What makes Duncan a good king? What makes Macbeth a tyrant?
An important theme in Macbeth is the relationship between gender and power, particularly Shakespeare’s exploration of the values that make up the idea of masculinity. What are these values, and how do various characters embody them? How does Shakespeare subvert his characters’ perception of gender roles?
The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable figures in the play. How does Shakespeare characterize the witches? What is their thematic significance?
Compare and contrast Macbeth, Macduff and Banquo. How are they alike? How are they different? Is it possible to argue that Macbeth is the play’s villain and Macduff or Banquo its hero, or is the matter more complicated than that?
Discuss the role that blood plays in Macbeth, particularly immediately following Duncan’s murder and late in the play. What does it symbolize for Macbeth and his wife?
Discuss Macbeth’s visions and hallucinations. What role do they play in the development of his character?
Is Macbeth a moral play? Is justice served at the end of the play? Defend your answer.
Discuss Shakespeare’s use of the technique of elision, in which certain key events take place offstage. Why do you think he uses this technique?