by William Shakespeare
Overview of the plot
We first hear about Macbeth from the Captain in Act I Scene 2. Macbeth has just "unseamed," or cut open, an enemy from belly button ("nave") to throat ("chops"). King Duncan, upon receiving this news shouts, "Oh valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!"
In the scene that follows, one of the three witches shows her friends the chopped-off thumb of “a ship's pilot,” shipwrecked on his way home. Macbeth meets the witches and they predict that he will be Thane of Cawdor and “King hereafter”. Shortly, Macbeth is bestowed with the title Thane of Cawdor. He begins to realise that there is some truth in the witches’ predictions. The witches also predict that Macbeth’s friend, Banquo, will father a line of kings that will last to eternity.
Lady Macbeth, upon receiving this news in a letter from Macbeth, prays to devils to possess her mind, turn the milk in her breasts into bile, and give her a man's ability to do evil. It seems that she has already realised that Macbeth will have to kill
in order to become King.
When Macbeth arrives home, Lady Macbeth taunts her husband, ridiculing his masculinity in order to provoke him to commit the murder. She coldly talks about a baby with a smiling face she once suckled, and imagines in her speech, that it would have been better to smash its brains out than to make a promise that she had no intention of keeping, as Macbeth, now doubtful of his intention to kill the king, would prefer to do.
They both finally agree to kill
Duncan. Macbeth kills Duncan, but makes the mistake of bringing
back the knives he used to kill him. This forces Lady Macbeth to go to Duncan’s bed-chamber to
complete the deed, by returning the knives that will cast suspicion on the
guards, whom she drugged earlier with a sedative. The sight of the dead king
brings home the enormity of the deed to her, and she later reflects that he
reminded her of her father as he slept.
Great Chain of Being – note - The killing of the king was bound to upset the natural order of the world. Here is where your knowledge of the Elizabethan world order will help your understanding. The natural world is turned upside-down, horses go insane and devour each other while they are still alive, as if in response to the crime that the Macbeths have committed. (The Natural and the Spiritual Worlds parallel each other).
Some of the Scottish thanes suspect that Macbeth murdered
Duncan, but he is crowned
king anyway. But it’s not all easy going for Macbeth. He is plagued by the
witches’ predictions and realises that he will have no peace till Banquo and
his son Fleance are also dead. Macbeth alone decides to have Banquo and Fleance
killed. He doesn’t share his intention with his wife. Why? Think about this…Macbeth
convinces the two murderers, in Act 3
Scene 1, that Banquo has wronged them enough to warrant his death. Here, he
is echoing Lady Macbeth’s idea that a real man would kill an enemy. Banquo is
murdered on his way to the banquet that Macbeth has organised for him.
Macbeth is tormented by visions of the dead Banquo at the banquet in Act III Scene 4, soon after the murder. Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost with twenty skull injuries, any one of which could be fatal. He becomes confused and says the sight of the ghost, “is more strange than a murder is." He continues about how he used to think that once somebody's brains were out, he'd stay dead. But now he believes that people should remain unburied until the crows eat the corpse.
Even though Banquo is dead Macbeth can have no peace because Fleance, Banquo’s son, has escaped. He goes to the witches for psychological relief. The witches make incantations ("Double, double, toil and trouble... bubble"). The atmosphere of the desolate scene is very powerful. The cauldron bubbles away. Among the ingredients of this strange witches' brew are cut-off human lips and a baby's finger. It's not just any baby but the child of a prostitute who died in a ditch in which she was strangled soon after the birth. Macbeth is visited by three apparitions which remind him that “none of woman born” can harm him and that he need only worry when Birnam Wood comes before Dunsinane Castle. He is witness to a show of eight kings, which remind him of Banquo’s ghost, because each of them looks like Banquo.
Macbeth is completely paranoid by this time and when he learns that the Thane of Fife, Macduff, has fled the country, he suspects trouble. He decides to kill Macduff’s family. Lady Macduff’s little son jokingly discusses with his mother that there are more people who are bad than good people in the world. Lady Macduff comments on the foolishness of her husband in leaving behind his family. The scene is set for still more murders, those of Mcduff’s family.
In Act V, Lady Macbeth is strangely psychotic and is confined to her bed-chamber. Macbeth asks the doctor attending her to cure her illness. As the doctor has been privy to one of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scenes where she reveals the cause of her illness and the part she played in the murder of
Duncan, the doctor tells Macbeth that Lady
Macbeth needs a priest not a doctor. Soon after, she commits suicide.
Upon hearing of her death, Macbeth seems resigned and unmoved. He just says, "She should have died hereafter." Macbeth’s chickens have finally come home to roost, but he straight-away delivers one of English literature's most famous soliloquies on the meaning of life, which begins wearily with the words, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
Macbeth contemplates suicide, but he decides to see it through to the end while fighting. Macduff returns with
Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and an army to fight
Macbeth. All the witches’ predictions come true again. Macduff tells Macbeth he
was from his mother's womb “untimely ripped,” at the moment of her death. He
kills Macbeth. The play ends and the conflict is resolved with the restoration
of Malcolm as the new king.
Even from this brief description of the plot some of the play’s themes can be guessed at.
1. What are they?
2. How do the images of women and children add to the impact of the plot?
3. List some adjectives that best describe the emotional impact of the events.
Shakespeare's plays are still relevant today because his themes are universal. Macbeth has many themes. Shakespeare’s plays deal with pride, ambition, love, hate, war, racial prejudice and many more issues and ideas of concern to us today.
Some of these are:
Order versus disorder
The witches, and the corrupted ambition they arouse in Macbeth, represent the forces of disorder which are eventually overcome at the end of the play.
The Elizabethans regarded ambition as a flaw in a person’s character. Shakespeare makes this view clear through the words of Ross:
“Thriftless ambition, that will ravin up
Thine own life means!”
In short, ambition is itself a catastrophe that destroys the person. The idea of a hero with a tragic flaw that brings about his downfall is an idea that has its roots in Greek tragedy. This is dealt with in more detail in the later section: The tragic hero.
Appearance versus reality
A familiar theme in Shakespeare’s plays is ‘don’t be fooled by appearances’. Shakespeare also expects audiences to question the reality of the events they see. For example:
1. Macbeth is a presented as a brave and noble Thane. This may be true but for how long?
2. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear to be horrified at
Duncan's death. Why?
3. Macbeth sees a floating dagger - is it real, or is Macbeth possessed?
4. Only Macbeth can see Banquo’s ghost? Why?
5. The forest appears to comes to Dunsinane? How?
6. Malcolm pretends to be more evil than Macbeth, supposedly to test Macduff. Why?
7. Macbeth believes nobody can harm him. What does this suggest about Macbeth’s idea of reality?
The supernatural is presented in two ways, firstly through the evils associated with the witches. Secondly, through the spiritual healing influences of King Edward who has the power to heal the sick subjects with the touch of his hand.
Why does Shakespeare present two different views of the supernatural world?
Equivocation is a major theme of the play. Equivocation means to use deceptive language intentionally. Equivocal language is capable of more than one interpretation and is therefore ambiguous, that is, language that has a double-meaning.
The witches predictions are examples of equivocation. The predictions they make are meant to be believed but only in a misleading or ambiguous way.
Macbeth doesn’t realise how he has fooled himself with these predictions till Act V, Scene 5. He says:
“I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth."
Act II Scene 3 represents a different use of equivocation, delivered in a humorous way in the porter’s speech. How is the idea of equivocation used?
Honour versus disloyalty
The idea of loyalty is introduced early in the play with
comment about the Thane of Cawdor (Act I, Scene 4):
“ There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.”
should be able to depend on those beneath him. Disloyalty cannot be read from
the look of a person’s face. Macbeth’s disloyalty represents a greater affront
to the natural order, because it suggests that even valiant deeds, done in the
service of the king, can be done for a dishonest reason. Duncan
Good versus evil
The knowledge that enables a person to choose between good and evil is an important theme that is examined in several ways. In Act I Scene 3, Banquo, reflecting on the nature of evil
“ But ‘tis strange
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.”
Later, in Act I Scene 7, Macbeth delivers an important soliloquy on the consequences of giving in to the evil of killing his King, and cousin. He knows, that to do so, is not merely to betray the trust of the king, but the trust of his own family. Speaking of
Duncan, he says:
“ He’s here in double trust:
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.”
The idea of good and evil is expressed in other contexts too.
Manhood or masculinity:
In Macbeth masculinity is strongly tied to images of violence. Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s manliness or ability to murder the king. Later, Macbeth reminds the murderers that they are part of “The valued file” of men, but the value clearly depends on their ability to kill, when asked to do so by someone of superior rank. A different kind of masculinity is presented by Macduff who is not afraid to weep openly when he discovers that Macbeth has had his wife and children slaughtered.
Other important themes are: light and dark, nature and nurturing, and sickness and health. The play’s themes are examined in more detail in the later section: A Closer Look at each Act.
The idea of ‘fair’ omens becoming ‘foul’ is a symbol that Shakespeare uses to advance the plot, and to support the theme of appearances being deceptive. Other symbols relate to birds, blood, the weather, clothing and sleep.
An important symbol of the play is the image of an ‘innocent flower with a serpent under it’. During the reign of King James 1 a coin was minted that had a flower with a serpent underneath it. The audience would therefore recognise a powerful symbolic reference in Lady Macbeth’s advice to Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower but be a serpent under it”.
This literary device is used with great dramatic effect, which relates powerfully to the playwright’s purpose. A good example is the use of the witches in the opening scene, in Act I. The witches, and the eerie atmosphere that accompanies them, establish the mood of the play. They foreshadow the meeting with Macbeth upon the heath. Their chant that ‘fair’ will be ‘foul’ also foreshadows the topsy-turvy events that will flow from this meeting. The audience has been warned in advance that nothing is what it appears to be. Here then, is an example of theme and purpose being connected by the use of the literary device of foreshadowing events.
Figurative language is also used with skill and purpose by Shakespeare. Examples of similes — metaphor, personification, and alliteration …
Shakespeare uses both irony and dramatic irony in Macbeth. Verbal irony involves an inconsistency between what is said and what is meant. An example occurs during the banquet scene, when Macbeth expresses the insincere wish that Banquo should be present. The irony becomes apparent when Banquo's ghost appears and terrifies Macbeth.
More important in the play is 'dramatic' irony. This happens when the audience knows something the characters don’t. A good example is when
arrives at Macbeth's castle and expresses his delight over the pleasant
setting. The audience knows what he doesn't: that his murder was planned here
and that his gracious host and hostess will be his killers. The play contains
many examples of both irony and dramatic irony.
Take note of these, in your response journal and metacognitive journal, as you study the play.
3. The Elizabethan world view
The Elizabethans believed in what is called the “great chain of being”. This concept described the structure of the universe and everything in it. The universe was said to be hierarchical, with God at the top. The nine orders of angels come next, each of which is in charge of a particular astronomical sphere, for example, the stars, the sun, the moon, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and so on. Next in the chain comes mankind, beginning with the Emperor, then the King, Duke, and so on till one comes to the ordinary citizens. Lower still on the chain are the peasants, beggars, and the Fool. Below man are the beasts, they also have a hierarchy or order: the lions or the elephants are at the top, whereas snakes and crawling animals are closer to the bottom. The birds too have a hierarchy, with the falcon at the top, symbolically the king of birds.
The “great chain of being” confirms the idea, or view, that nature is ordered and that everything has its place. The idea is not new and its origins can be traced back to the Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle. Shakespeare has used the idea in Troilus and Cressida, where Ulysses describes the order of the universe as resembling “a ladder.” Ulysses hints at the chaos that results from upsetting the harmony of the ‘natural’ order of things.
Reflect and comment on the meaning of the following lines. You may need to use a dictionary.
“The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than their shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead.”
As you read Macbeth discuss the idea of the “great chain of being” in terms of the relationships between the main characters Macbeth, Duncan, and Lady Macbeth, who are related by marriage and birth.
There are three more things to remember about this idea of the great chain of being. First, it represents a belief in the right order of things, which is disturbed only by wrongful acts, like the killing of a king.
Secondly, it combines facts with their value. For example, a King’s life is grander and nobler by virtue of the fact that a King is of a higher rank than a servant or a Fool; he is entitled to that rank.
Thirdly, the great chain relies on corresponding or analogous relationships. For example, a man may be the head or “father” of the household but the King is the spiritual head of all the households in his lands.
How does Macbeth undermine the King’s authority? What are the implications for law and order?
The idea of the “great chain of being” is also found in Holinshed’s Chronicles.
People living in Elizabethan times held vastly different beliefs and opinions to people today. Though our world is often chaotic we rely on our ability to find complex explanations for unusual or unfortunate occurrences. In the pre-Christian world, belief in witches and their magical powers, was deeply grounded in the minds of people in the European world. As Christianity became more established, the misdeeds of the Devil became associated with witches, who were thought to be acting as his agents.
1. How do these beliefs compare with the way people who seem to have extraordinary abilities are treated today?
2. How would people, who claim to have had an out-of-body experience, have been treated?
King James 1
It is believed that Shakespeare wrote and performed Macbeth during the reign of King James 1. Some writers also believe that Shakespeare wrote the play to please the King, as he is said to have seen the first official performance of Macbeth. James 1 was very interested in witchcraft, and he wrote a book on the subject, it is titled Daemonology. The book is about how to identify witches and their spells. The King also had a personal encounter with a woman named Agnes Sampson, who he believed to be a witch. Agnes told the King that she had cast a deadly spell upon him. The King was even more shocked when she quietly revealed to him the words that he had himself whispered privately into his wife’s ear on their wedding night. Agnes told the King that she had sent a cat out to sea when the King’s wedding ship was returning from
in order to cause a perilous storm.
Only the King’s ship experienced bad weather, and the other ships in the fleet experienced good weather. James ordered several witches, including Agnes Sampson, to be burned at the stake. These events influenced Parliament, and an act was passed which condemned to death anyone who was found guilty of practising witchcraft.
1. Why did Shakespeare introduce the witches at the very beginning of the drama? Suggest ways that this could have affected the audience.
Think of this activity in terms of the following:
· in context with the execution of Agnes Sampson
· in relation to the real/unreal appearance of the witches
· the witches’ symbolic or dramatic importance for the play as a whole
· as a dramatic device designed to underpin the playwright’s purpose in presenting a tragedy in terms of the truth of the story.
Write brief summaries for each of your responses to these questions.
2. The audience would have been aware of the King’s attitude to the witches. List the ways in which the audience would have reacted to them.
3. How do the opening scenes set the mood of the play? Consider the following: how the witches look; how they enter; how they react to each other.
4. How would the King have responded to the opening scenes in the play? Explain your answer by using the quotes from Act I which you think would have had the most psychological or emotional impact on him.
5. How would King James have reacted to the thought of the witches trying to undermine a King’s right to rule? What do these reactions tell us about the dramatic impact that Shakespeare was seeking to create? Keep in mind the idea of the great chain of being, and the order of the Elizabethan world. Do audiences expect a play about an historical period to be ‘true’?
4. The tragic hero
The extent to which Macbeth can be regarded as a tragic hero depends on how closely his role fulfills the archetypal characteristics of a tragic hero, as it is usually defined according to the genre conventions of Greek tragedy.
The following characteristics are the essential elements of the tragic hero:
1. Noble stature: tragedy involves the "fall" of a tragic hero, one theory is that the hero must have a lofty position to fall from, or else there is no tragedy (just pathos). One other explanation of this characteristic is that tragedies involving people of stature affect the lives of others. In the case of a king, the tragedy would not only involve the individual and his family, it would also involve the whole society. Connect this to what you know of the Elizabethan World Order.
2. Tragic flaw (Hamartia): the tragic hero must "fall" due to some flaw in his own personality. The most common tragic flaw is hubris (excessive pride). One who tries to attain too much possesses hubris.
3. Free choice: while there is often a discussion of the role of fate in the downfall of a tragic hero, there must be an element of choice in order for there to be a true tragedy. The tragic hero falls because he chooses one course of action over another.
4. The punishment exceeds the crime: the audience must not be left feeling that the tragic hero got what he deserved. Part of what makes the action "tragic" is to witness the injustice of what has occurred to the tragic hero.
5. The tragic hero possesses increased awareness: it is crucial that the tragic hero comes to some sort of an understanding of what went wrong before he meets his end.
6. Produces catharsis in audience: catharsis is a feeling of "emotional purgation" that an audience feels after witnessing the plight of a tragic hero: we may feel emotionally drained, but cleansed.
How many of these elements can you identify in the character of Macbeth?
If you use a search engine using the words, “tragic+hero+Macbeth” and “tragic+hero+Lady+Macbeth” you’ll find many essays about Macbeth as either a tragic hero or villain. You are encouraged to read these to help you make up your own mind about the character and the nature of the tragedy.
· Can we hold Macbeth fully responsible for the evil deeds in the play?
· Is Lady Macbeth feeble minded?
· If Macbeth is a tragic hero, what is Lady Macbeth?