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Date: 2012
The Facts On File Companion to Shakespeare
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts On File Library of World Literature
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 58
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Macbeth is the last of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear), and many readers find it the most powerful. In Life of Mrs. Siddons (1834), the poet Thomas Campbell called Macbeth “the greatest treasure of our dramatic literature” (volume II, 6), comparing it to the works of Aeschylus. The contemporary critic Harold Bloom has said that Macbeth “surpasses” the other three great Shakespearean tragedies “in maintaining a continuous pitch of tragic intensity, in making everything overwhelmingly dark with meaning” (Modern Critical 2).

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth. This print was published by Gebbie Husson Company in 1888. Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth. This print was published by Gebbie & Husson Company in 1888. (Painting by George Romne)

As in all great tragedies, the struggle in Macbeth is played out within the mind of the protagonist. This conflict begins in Act I, Scene 3, when Macbeth first appears, and persists until his death. Even more than Hamlet, Macbeth is a play about the struggle between conscience and desire. Like Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1865), Macbeth gains sympathy through the author’s revelation of the tormented mind that rebels against the horrible actions the character commits. Malcolm dismisses Macbeth as a “butcher” (5.9.35) because the young king sees only the cruelty the tyrant has perpetrated against others. The audience, however, sees a complex, suffering human being who “on the torture of the mind [lies] / In restless ecstasy” (3.2.21–22). When Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, confesses his killings to Sonya, she exclaims, “What have you done to yourself?” The same could be asked of Macbeth. Perhaps his worst crime is the violation of his own nature. Macbeth might take as its epigraph Ophelia’s lament for the seemingly mad prince of Denmark: “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (Hamlet, 3.1.150). Too late, Macbeth discovers that he has gained a small portion of the world in exchange for his soul, that for “a barren scepter” he has given his “eternal jewel /... to the common enemy of man” (3.1.61, 67–68). That common enemy turns out to be himself. Banquo asks the witches to “look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow” (1.3.58–59). For Macbeth, these prove to be the seeds of his own destruction. As Albert Camus observed in The Rebel, “Rebellion, when it gets out of hand, swings from the annihilation of others to the destruction of the self.”

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Although Macbeth appears among the tragedies in the First Folio (1623), it could also be considered a kind of history play. Shakespeare’s chief source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; second edition, 1587), which also supplied material for his historical plays. In Macbeth, however, Shakespeare played even faster and looser with Holinshed than he customarily did in his other plays. Macbeth fuses many incidents from Holinshed. Perhaps the most obvious is Holinshed’s story of Natholocus (242–280), who sends a follower to consult a witch about the outcome of a revolt. The witch tells this man he will kill the king. The man scoffs at the idea, but then he fears that if he reports this prophecy, Natholocus will execute him, so he fulfills the witch’s prediction by stabbing the king with a dagger (the same weapon Macbeth uses to assassinate Duncan).

This 19th-century painting erroneously depicts Shakespeare reciting Macbeth before the court of Elizabeth. This 19th-century painting erroneously depicts Shakespeare reciting Macbeth before the court of Elizabeth. (Painting by Eduard Ender; engraving by George Edward and J. L. Giles)

Shakespeare also drew on Holinshed’s account of the reign of King Duff (952–967). Duff kills rebels related to Donwald despite Donwald’s plea to spare their lives. Goaded by his desire for revenge and by his wife, Donwald kills Duff when the king is visiting Donwald’s castle at Forres, much as Macbeth kills the visiting king, Duncan. But Donwald does not commit the murder himself; he engages four servants to undertake the crime. When the king is found dead the next morning, Donwald feigns ignorance and later kills the chamberlains who were supposed to be guarding Duff and who are suspected of being the murderers, just as Macbeth executes the chamberlains who are blamed for Duncan’s death. Though some suspect Donwald, he is too powerful to be accused. Holinshed records that “for the space of six moneths together, after this heinous murther thus committed, there appeered no sunne by day, nor moone by night in anie part of the realme,... and sometimes such outrageous windes arose, with lightenings and tempests, that people were in great feare of present destruction”. The Chronicles add that the horses in Lothian become cannibalistic and an owl kills a hawk; similar events are recounted in Macbeth in Act II, Scene 4, after Duncan’s death. Donwald, his wife, and the four murderers are captured and executed. The sun then shines, and flowers bloom “clear contrarie to the time and season of the yeere”. This reference may have influenced Shakespeare’s linking images of fertility to Duncan and Malcolm.

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Yet another episode from Holinshed that Shakespeare uses derives from the reign of Kenneth III, who kills his nephew, Duff’s son, so that Kenneth’s own offspring will rule. Afterward, Holinshed relates, “a voice was heard as he [Kenneth] was in bed in the night time to take his rest, uttering unto him these or the like woords in effect, ‘Thinke not Kenneth that the wicked slaughter of Malcolm Duffe by thee contrived, is kept secret from the knowledge of the eternall God.’ ” Macbeth tries to kill Banquo and Banquo’s son to prevent their line from ruling Scotland, and after killing Duncan, Macbeth hears a voice condemning his deed. The voice Kenneth hears foretells his death and that of his children. Kenneth is killed by Fenella, whose son he had ordered executed, just as Macbeth is killed by Macduff, whose children he murdered. When Kenneth fails to emerge from his chamber, according to Holinshed, his servants “knocked at the doore softlie, then they rapped hard therat.” Perhaps this sound suggested to Shakespeare the knocking at the south gate of Macbeth’s castle at Inverness after Duncan is murdered.

The historical Duncan became king in 1034. Though Shakespeare makes Duncan an ideal monarch, Holinshed describes him as “soft and gentle,” whereas his cousin Macbeth is “somewhat cruel of nature”; his excessive leniency leads to a rebellion by Macdonwald, who is joined by Irish kerns, light foot soldiers. (Interestingly, Skene’s Scots Acts [1597] describes Duncan as “a good and modest Prince,” thus contradicting Holinshed and perhaps explaining Shakespeare’s favorable view of the slain monarch.) This is the revolt described in Act I, Scene 2. Macbeth defeats the king’s enemies, and Macdonwald kills himself. To add luster to Macbeth’s military success, Shakespeare has his hero kill the rebel in hand-to-hand combat. Shakespeare fuses a separate Norwegian invasion with the rebellion; the payment for burial that Norway’s king Sweno offers in the play (1.2.60–62) was, in Holinshed, paid by King Canute of England after his unsuccessful attack on Scotland.

After these wars, Holinshed recounts, “It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho journied towards Fores, where the king then laie,... suddenlie in the middest of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world.” Shakespeare describes the famous meeting between the women, Macbeth, and Banquo in Act I, Scene 3. Banquo asks about his future and is told, as in the play, that “thou in deed shalt not reigne at all, but of thee those shall be borne which shall govern the Scottish kingdome by long order of continuall descent.” Banquo was first described in print by Hector Boece, whose 1527 Scotorum Historiae is the source for Holinshed’s Scottish history. At the time, the Stuarts who were then reigning in Scotland, and who ruled England from 1603 to 1714, traced their lineage to Banquo. According to Boece, the women are “weird sisters or wiches,” making them perhaps instruments of fate. In the First Folio they are called “weyward” or “weyard”; modern editions tend to follow Lewis Theobald’s 1733 alteration to “weird,” but Shakespeare may not have intended them to be as powerful as Boece imagined.

For Holinshed, the women’s prophecy first plants the idea of monarchy in Macbeth’s mind. But, Shakespeare indicates, through Macbeth’s reaction to their words and by Lady Macbeth’s comment (1.7.47–52), that he had been thinking about seizing the throne and had spoken to his wife on this topic before he first heard the prediction. According to Holinshed, despite the prophecy of his kingship, Macbeth “thought with himselfe that he must tarie a time, which should advance him thereto (by the divine providence) as it had come to passe in his former preferment” to Thane of Cawdor, which the women had predicted. So, in the play, he meditates, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crowne me / Without my stir” (1.3.143–144). Then Duncan names his own son Malcolm as his successor. In Holinshed’s account, Macbeth has a better claim to the throne, and since Scotland had an elected monarchy at the time, Duncan had no right to name the next king. Shakespeare denies Macbeth any legitimate claim to rule Scotland.

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Macbeth now plots to seize the crown. Holinshed writes that the women’s prediction encourages him, “but speciallie his wife lay sore upon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to beare the name of a queene.” According to Boece, she “calland him oft tymes febill cowart and nocht desirous of honouris, sen he durst nocht assailye the thing with manhood and corage quhilk is offert to him be [by] benevolence of fortoun.” Shakespeare obscures Lady Macbeth’s motivation, but in Act I, Scene 5 and 7 she gives him “gret artacioun [prompting] to persew” Duncan’s murder, as Boece writes, and assails his manhood. In 1046, the historical Macbeth, together with other nobles, including Banquo, killed Duncan, and Macbeth became king. Shakespeare exonerates Banquo; it is obviously significant that in Shakespeare’s time, Banquo’s descendant James was reigning in Scotland and England and was the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company.

The sources give Macbeth 10 years of good rule before he becomes a tyrant and 17 years overall. Shakespeare’s chronology is unclear, but the play’s brevity and fast pace suggest that his reign was brief, and Macbeth moves from crime to crime without interruption. Fearing Banquo, Macbeth invites him to dinner and has him killed outside the palace. Banquo’s son, Fleance, whom Macbeth also wanted dead, flees (3.1, 3.3). These details appear in Holinshed. Macbeth is warned against Macduff. In Boece, the warning comes from witches; in Holinshed, from wizards. Shakespeare simplifies his casting by using the same women who predicted his kingship.

Learning of Macduff’s flight to England, Macbeth, in Holinshed, besieges Macduff’s castle and is admitted by the unsuspecting inhabitants, all of whom he kills. In Shakespeare’s play, however, Macbeth employs others to commit this greatest of his atrocities. Macduff has left his family to persuade Malcolm to claim the Scottish throne. To test Macduff’s sincerity, Malcolm feigns unworthiness, calling himself lustful, greedy, and deceitful. As this scene plays out, Malcolm’s third self-accusation is more serious: “had I pow’r, I should / Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound / All unity on earth” (4.3.97–100). These lines would sound especially offensive in 1606 during the reign of James I, who prided himself as a peacemaker and the unifier of England and Scotland. On July 31, 1606, when James and his brother-in-law passed through London, a pageant reflecting this self-image was staged for them. In it, “Divine Concord as sent from Heaven, descended in a cloud from the toppe unto the middle stage, and with a loud voice, spake an excellent speech in Latine, purporting their heartie welcome, with heavenly happiness of peace and unitie among Christian Princes,” according to Edmond Howes, in Continuation of Stowe’s Chronicle (1615). Yet, when assured of Macduff’s integrity, Malcolm retracts his self-accusations, he says he is “unknown to woman, never was forsworn” (4.3.126), as though he were rejecting the third charge he had leveled against himself in Holinshed. Did Shakespeare initially copy his source and then change his text, perhaps after viewing the pageant?

Malcolm invades Scotland with 10,000 men led by his uncle Old Siward. Both Holinshed and Boece call Siward Malcolm’s grandfather, but Shakespeare actually got the genealogy correct. In The Royal Play of Macbeth (1950), Henry N. Paul notes that Lawrence Fletcher, an English actor who had gone to Scotland to serve James and had returned south when James assumed the English throne, was a member of Shakespeare’s company when the playwright was composing Macbeth. Fletcher may have explained the Siward-Malcolm relationship and that the Seytons were traditional armor-bearers to the Scottish kings (5.3, 5.5); he may even have told Shakespeare that Lady Macbeth had been previously married and had had a child by her first husband, which is cryptically alluded to in the play (1.7.54–58). According to Holinshed, when Macbeth sees Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane (5.4, 5.5), he flees. Shakespeare gives him more resolution. In both play and Holinshed, Macduff confronts Macbeth. In the play, Macbeth initially refuses to fight because “my soul is too much charg’d / With blood of thine already” (5.8.5–6). He retains a sense of guilt as well as bravery to the end. Macduff insists on battle and declares he was not born of woman. Macbeth has no words in Holinshed; Macduff decapitates him forthwith. In the play, Macbeth refuses to yield and dies fighting. In both play and history, Malcolm succeeds to the throne and for the first time in Scottish history creates earls (5.9).

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Holinshed, unlike Shakespeare, does not concentrate on Macbeth’s mental state. He does observe, however, “[T]he prick of conscience (as it chanceth euer in tyrants, and such as atteine to anie estate by vnrighteous means) caused him euer to feare, least [lest] he should be serued of the same cup, as he had ministred to his predecessor.” This image of the cup and the fear of retribution may underlie Macbeth’s lines “This even-handed justice / Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice / To our own lips” (1.7.10–12).

Shakespeare may have supplemented Holinshed with other histories. George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) records that Donaldus (Donwald in Holinshed) is goaded by his wife’s “bitter words” to kill Duff. Buchanan tells of Donaldus’s making the king’s attendants drunk before killing the ruler. These incidents appear in the play. Buchanan rejected the supernatural elements in Holinshed, claiming that Macbeth dreams of three beautiful women who promise him the kingship. Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykill of Scotland (ca. 1420) treats the three weird sisters as a fantasy of Macbeth’s imagination, too. Shakespeare almost certainly did not see Andrew’s account, since it was still in manuscript during Shakespeare’s life, but Buchanan might have read it. Shakespeare leaves ambiguous the question of the witches’ reality. Buchanan, unlike Holinshed, claims Macbeth was thinking of kingship even before his dream of the prophecy. For Buchanan, guilt rather than fear turns Macbeth into a tyrant. Shakespeare’s Macbeth suffers from both.

Shakespeare turned to Scottish history for a play because in 1603 James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne, as well, becoming King James I. The story of Macbeth seemed especially likely to please James for a variety of reasons. James traced his lineage to Banquo. James had, like Duncan, been the subject of assassination plots: In 1600, John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie, invited James to his castle and tried to kill him there. In 1604, the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, twice performed a play based on this event (The Tragedy of Gowrie, now lost), but the Privy Council forbid further productions because it dealt with a living monarch and addressed contemporary political issues too overtly. Another, even more recent attempt on James’s life was the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of disaffected Catholics sought to blow up the houses of Parliament and the king when he addressed the opening session on November 5, 1605. In July 1606, a plot by Captain William Neuce to kill James was uncovered.

James also had a deep interest in witches. In 1597, he published Daemonologie on this subject. He credited them with the ability to predict the future and warned that the devil can make himself “so to be trusted in these little thinges, that he may haue the better commoditie therafter to deceiue them in the end with a tricke once for all.” Banquo echoes this sentiment: “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” (1.3.123–126). James also wrote that witches can raise storms, which they do in Act I, Scene 1 and threaten to do in Act I, Scene 3. He claimed that witches prefer solitary places; in the play, all four of their scenes are set in such terrain. He also asserted that the devil can “thicken and obscure the air... that the beams of any other man’s eye cannot pierce through the same to see them.” The word thicken appears repeatedly in the play, and in Act I, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls upon night to hide the murder of Duncan. For all his concern with the power of evil, James wrote that the devil can deceive “only such, as first willfully deceive themselves, by running unto him.” The witches in the play predict but do not compel.

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The idea for Macbeth may have come from a visit James paid to St. John’s College, Oxford, on August 27, 1605. To welcome him, Matthew Gwinn, a fellow of St. John’s, wrote Tres Sibyllae, in which three students dressed as sibyls greeted the king. The first student referred to the prophecy that Banquo’s descendants would rule forever, a message repeated in the procession of kings in Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth, and then greeted James as king of Scotland. The second welcomed him as king of England; and the third, as ruler of Ireland. Macbeth, too, receives a three-fold greeting from the witches as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, “King hereafter” (1.3.48–50). James’s entertainment at Oxford included 10 disputations. One of the debates dealt with the question of whether the imagination can produce real effects. In Macbeth, the answer is yes. Another session considered whether a child took in manners with its mother’s milk. Perhaps Lady Macbeth’s reference to breast-feeding (1.7.54–55) owes something to this discussion.

As he always did, Shakespeare drew on classical authors in composing this play. Thomas Newton had translated Seneca’s tragedies in 1581, and Shakespeare might have read them in Latin as well. Banquo’s avenging ghost derives from a stock feature in Senecan drama. Seneca’s Medea prepares a brew resembling the witches’ concoction in Act IV, Scene 1, and in book 7 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she does so as well. Shakespeare knew this Ovidian passage; he adapts part of it in The Tempest (5.1.33–57). In Seneca’s Agamemnon, Cassandra sees “The gobs of bloode downe dropping on the wynde,” just as Macbeth sees “gouts of blood” on the mind-drawn dagger (2.1.46). In John Studley’s 1566 translation of Agamemnon, the Chorus in Act 1 observes that rulers are never secure enough to say “To morrow shall we rule, as we have don to daye. / One clod of croked [crooked] care another bryngeth in, / One hurlye burlye done, another doth begin.” These lines may have inspired Macbeth’s famous soliloquy in Act V, Scene 5 as well as the second witch’s statement that they will meet again “When the hurly-burly’s done” (1.1.3). Seneca, in that speech, refers to “Slepe that doth overcome and breake the bondes of greefe (2.1.38–41). In Hercules Furens, the title character kills his wife and children. Afterward, he laments that rivers and the North Sea cannot “my right hande now wash from gylt.” A similar passage appears in Seneca’s Phaedra. Macbeth (2.2.57–60) and Lady Macbeth (5.1.50–51) both express a similar sentiment.

Shakespeare used Plutarch as a source for Julius Caesar, written just before Macbeth, and he would turn to that historian again for Antony and Cleopatra, the tragedy he wrote after Macbeth. Macbeth’s refusal to “play the Roman fool and die / On mine own sword” (5.8.1–2) refers to either Brutus or Antony, both of whom killed themselves this way. Like Cleopatra, Macbeth refuses to yield to become a spectacle for his conquerors. Macbeth observes that his “Genius is rebuk’d” by Banquo’s, just as Mark Antony’s was by Octavius (3.1.55–56)—another allusion to Plutarch’s Lives.

Macbeth also draws on the Bible. According to the Geneva Bible’s gloss of Genesis 3:6, by Adam’s eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he sinned, “not so muche to please his wife, as moued by ambition at her persuasion.” Macbeth may kill Duncan for the same reason. Both Macbeth and his wife invoke darkness: “Come, thick night” (1.5.50); “Stars, hide your fires” (1.4.50). They thus reverse God’s “Let there be light.” They choose uncreation, as when Macbeth tells the witches he will be answered “though the treasure / Of nature’s germains [seeds] tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken” (4.1.58–60). Later, he declares, “I gin to be a-weary of the sun, / And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone” (5.5.48–49). Such inverted echoes of the story of creation link them with the demonic. In his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth speaks of “heaven’s cherubin, hors’d / Upon the sightless couriers of the air” (1.7.22–23). This image derives from Psalm 18:10: “And he rode upon Cherub and did flie, and he came flying upon the wings of the wind.”

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Thinking of killing Duncan, Macbeth says in as aside, “The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.52–53). This line recalls Matthew 13:15: “With their eyes they have winked, lest they should see with their eyes.” The famous “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” speech in Act V, Scene 5, about the brevity and vanity of life and the judgment that “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.24), repeats sentiments from the Bible. Psalm 144:4 in the Geneva Bible translation declares, “Man is like to vanitie: his daies are like a shadowe, that vanisheth.” Job 8:9 similarly states, “For our days upon earth are but shadow.” The Wisdom of Solomon, 2:5, reads, “For our time is as a shadowe that passeth away, and after our end there is no returning.” The darkness after Duncan’s death derives from Holinshed’s account of the murder of King Duff but also from the biblical story of the Crucifixion, thereby linking Duncan with Christ. So, too, the witches’ greeting of Macbeth in Act I, Scene 3 with their “All hail,” while again coming from Holinshed, repeats Judas’s greeting of Jesus. Macbeth’s visit to the witches in Act IV, Scene 1 to learn the future recalls Saul’s going to the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28. Isaac Disraeli in his Amenities of Literature (1841), in fact, calls Saul “the Israelite Macbeth.”

The play also draws on topical references. In Act II, Scene 3, the Porter welcomes an equivocator to hell. On March 28, 1606, Father Henry Garnet, superior of the Jesuits in England, was tried for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. He had learned through the confessional of the plan to blow up the king and Parliament but had kept silent and denied knowledge of it. He defended his behavior by invoking the doctrine of equivocation, which allows for telling “lies like truth” (5.5.43) through mental reservation. The published account of the trial explains this procedure, “wherein under the pretext of the lawfulnesse of a mixt proposition to expresse one part of a mans mind, and retaine another.” This principle was so odious to Parliament that its 1606 Oath of Allegiance barred “any equivocation or mental evasion or secret reservation whatsoever.” The witches in Act IV, Scene 1 equivocate, seeming to promise Macbeth security but in fact, pronouncing his doom.

The First Witch in Act I, Scene 3 refers to the wife of the master of the ship Tiger, which has sailed to Aleppo. A ship of this name traveled to the East on December 5, 1604, and returned to the Welsh port at Milford Haven, after an unsuccessful voyage, on June 27, 1606, reaching Portsmouth on July 9. The storm mentioned in Act II, Scene 4 and the winds Macbeth would unleash against the churches (4.1.52–53) may reflect the hurricane that struck England and the Continent on March 29–30, 1606.

Malcolm’s account in Act I, Scene 4 of the noble death of the thane of Cawdor was a Shakespearean invention. Shakespeare may have been thinking of the execution of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex in 1601. He might also have had in mind a more recent death, that of Everard Digby, whom James I had knighted in 1603. James had trusted Digby, just as Duncan had Cawdor. Digby joined the Gunpowder Plot and was executed on January 30, 1606, after apologizing for his actions. Like Cawdor, he “very frankly... confess’d his treasons, / Implor’d... pardon, and set forth / A deep repentance” (1.4.5–7).

Shakespeare had no historical source for the confrontation between Macbeth and Banquo’s ghost in Act III, Scene 4. The idea for this scene may have derived from A Treatsie of Spectres (1605) by Pierre de Loyer and translated into English by Z. Jones. Here, Shakespeare could have read: “How often have they [tyrants] supposed and imagined, that they have seene sundry visions and apparitions of those whom they have murdered, or of some others whome they have feared?” The book refers to Theodoric the Great (455–526), who had Simmachus killed. Afterward, “on an evening as he sat at supper [Theodoric saw] the face of Simmachus in a most horrible shape and fashion, with great mustachioes, knitting his browes, frowning with his eyes, biting his lippes for very anger, and looking awry upon him,” as Banquo’s ghost glowers at Macbeth.

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Macbeth’s overactive imagination, one of Shakespeare’s own additions, perhaps results from his melancholy disposition. Samuel Harsnett writes in his Declaration of Egregious Popish Impositions (1603): “Why men of a melancholie constitution be more subject to fears, fancies and imaginations of devils, and witches, than others tempers be?... because from their black & sooty blood, gloomie fuliginous spirits do fume into their brains which bring black, gloomy, and frightful images, representations, and similitudes in them.” Shakespeare had drawn on Harsnett’s book for King Lear, (written circa 1605).

Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) observes that melancholy is called “the Devil’s Bath” because “melancholy persons are most subject to diabolical temptations and illusions, and most apt to entertain them, and the Devil best able to work upon them.” Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) notes, “Many thorough [through] melancholie do imagine that they see or heare visions, spirits, ghosts, strange noises, &c,” a perfect description of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking was another of Shakespeare’s inventions. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy sets forth the popular view that this behavior results from fantasy overcoming reason.

Date and Text of the Play

The contemporary allusions noted above suggest that Macbeth was written in 1606. William Warner’s A Continuation of Albion’s England (1606) and William Camden’s Britannia (1607 edition) refer to Macbeth in ways that suggest the authors had seen Shakespeare’s play. The Puritan (1607) and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, produced in 1607, also allude to Macbeth. Paul, in The Royal Play of Macbeth, argues that the play was first performed at Hampton Court on August 7, 1606, before James and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark, who visited England between July 17 and August 10 of that year. The King’s Men performed three plays for the monarchs, two at Greenwich, one at Hampton Court; the titles of these works are not recorded. James disliked long plays. During his 1605 visit to Oxford, he was “entertained” with three lengthy productions. He tried to leave in the middle of one, fell asleep during another, and “spoke many words of dislike” against the third. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s fifth shortest play; it may well have been intended for a royal spectator with a short attention span.

The play was first printed in the First Folio (1623). No earlier quarto publications have been discovered. The First Folio text was probably based on a promptbook or transcript thereof. Its stage directions and speaker designations are detailed, and the play is divided into acts and scenes. Modern editions further separate the First Folio’s Act V, Scene 7 into two or three scenes. The portions of the play involving Hecate (3.5 and 4.1.39–43, 125–132) are usually attributed to another writer, Thomas Middleton. The songs called for in stage directions (3.5.33 and 4.1.43) certainly are Middleton’s.

The First Folio text contains some contradictions. While these may result from hasty composition to meet a deadline, more likely the typesetters could not decipher changes in the manuscript. For example, Ross says that Macbeth fought against the thane of Cawdor “rebellious arm ’gainst arm” (1.2.56), yet in Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth is unaware that Cawdor joined Sweno’s invasion. The bleeding sergeant in Act I, Scene 2 was initially a captain. Shakespeare demoted him in the text but not in the speech headings and stage directions. In Act III, Scene 6, a lord reports that Macbeth is exasperated by Macduff’s flight to England, but in Act IV, Scene 1 Macbeth is shocked to learn of this development.

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Title page of the First Folio edition of Macbeth, published in 1623 Title page of the First Folio edition of Macbeth, published in 1623

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Brief Synopsis

The play opens with a thunderstorm. Three witches resolve to meet again that evening to speak with Macbeth, a leader of the Scottish forces confronting the rebellious Macdonwald and the invading Norwegians, led by Sweno. The scene then shifts to the camp of King Duncan, who learns of Macbeth’s success and of the treachery of the thane (lord) of Cawdor. Duncan orders Cawdor’s execution; that thane’s title will be given to Macbeth.

On a heath, Macbeth and his fellow military leader, Banquo, meet the witches, who proclaim Macbeth Thane of Glamis, his present title; Thane of Cawdor, an honor he does not yet know is his; and Scotland’s future king. To Banquo. they promise that his descendants will rule the country. As soon as they leave, Ross arrives to tell Macbeth he is now thane of Cawdor.

When Macbeth and Banquo rejoin Duncan, the king names his son Malcolm as his successor, thus raising an obstacle to Macbeth’s royal aspirations. The king says he will spend the night at Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. When Lady Macbeth learns from her husband’s letter of the witches’ prophecies and the imminent arrival of Duncan, she plots the king’s murder. Macbeth initially refuses to kill Duncan, but Lady Macbeth persuades him to do so. The two make the crime appear to be the work of Duncan’s chamberlains, whom Macbeth also kills. When Duncan’s two sons flee, fearing for their lives, suspicion falls on them. Macbeth becomes king.

Fearing Banquo and hoping to thwart the witches’ prediction that Banquo’s heirs will reign, Macbeth hires men to kill Banquo and Banquo’s son, Fleance. Banquo is murdered, but Fleance escapes. That night, Macbeth gives a feast at the palace. When he says he misses Banquo, Banquo’s bloody ghost appears and disrupts the festivities. Macbeth resolves to revisit the witches to learn his fate.

The witches tell him to fear Macduff, but no one born of woman will harm Macbeth, whose reign is secure until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Discovering that Macduff has fled to England, Macbeth orders the execution of Macduff’s family. In England, Macduff tries to persuade Malcolm to return and topple Macbeth. Malcolm at first demurs but then announces that he is preparing to invade Scotland with 10,000 English soldiers.

To disguise their numbers, the English cut boughs from Birnam Wood as they advance on Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth, preparing for a siege, learns that his wife has died, probably by her own hand. Hearing that Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, Macbeth resolves to confront his enemies. In the battle, he encounters Macduff. Macbeth does not want to fight him, having spilled so much of Macduff’s family’s blood already. Macbeth warns Macduff that no man born of woman can harm him. Macduff responds that he was born by cesarean section. Again, Macbeth wants to avoid combat, but Macduff offers the choice of surrender or battle. Macbeth chooses the latter. Offstage, Macduff kills Macbeth and cuts off his head. Malcolm is declared king of Scotland.

Act I, Scene 1

Amid thunder and lightning, Three Witches meet on a plain in Scotland. They have just concluded a witches’ sabbath and discuss when they will gather again. The Second Witch says they will assemble at the conclusion of the battle, which will soon be over. They plan to reconvene that evening on the heath to meet with Macbeth. Hearing the call of their familiars (spirits who serve them), they depart.

Act I, Scene 2

A wounded Sergeant enters the camp of Duncan, the Scottish king. Duncan’s older son, Malcolm, asks the soldier how the battle is proceeding. The Sergeant replies that Macbeth has killed the rebel Macdonwald and, together with Banquo, is valiantly fighting the Norwegian invaders led by Sweno. Ross arrives to report Sweno’s defeat; the Norwegians are suing for peace. Duncan orders the execution of the traitorous thane of Cawdor, whose title and lands he will give to Macbeth.

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Act I, Scene 3

The Three Witches unite on the heath. The First Witch declares her anger against a sailor’s wife who refused to share chestnuts with her. All three agree to raise a storm to torment that woman’s husband. Macbeth and Banquo enter. The First Witch greets Macbeth with his present title, thane of Glamis. The second hails him as thane of Cawdor, an honor he does not yet know he has. The last of the witches hails him as Scotland’s future king.

Banquo asks about his future and is told that although he will not be a king, his descendants will rule the country. Macbeth wants to speak further with the witches, but they vanish. Ross and Angus appear to tell Macbeth that he is now thane of Cawdor. He asks Banquo whether this fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy gives him hope his children will be kings. Banquo replies with the warning that the forces of evil sometimes reveal small truths to betray their victims with great lies. As Banquo speaks with Ross and Angus, Macbeth, in a soliloquy, ponders the witches’ words. Eventually, Banquo recalls Macbeth from his reverie. The men set off to join Duncan; as the scene ends, Macbeth tells Banquo he wants to talk more about the prophecies.

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches in this 19th-century depiction of Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth. Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches in this 19th-century depiction of Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth. (Illustration by T. H. Nicholson; engraving by Charles William Sheeres)

Act I, Scene 4

At the king’s palace at Forres, Malcolm and Duncan discuss Cawdor’s execution. Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus join them. Duncan praises Macbeth, who replies that he has done only his duty. Duncan then declares Malcolm as successor to the throne. In a brief soliloquy, Macbeth ponders this impediment to the fulfillment of the witches’ words. The king and his entourage set off to spend the night as Macbeth’s guest.

Act I, Scene 5

At Macbeth’s castle, Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband informing her of his encounter with the witches. Lady Macbeth recognizes her spouse’s ambition but fears he lacks the ruthlessness necessary to achieve his desires. When he arrives, she will goad him to gain the crown he wants. A messenger announces the imminent arrival of the king. When the man leaves, Lady Macbeth plots Duncan’s death. She is joined by her husband. She tells him to give a hearty welcome to Duncan, who never will leave the castle alive.

Act I, Scene 6

Duncan, with his sons and attendants, reaches Inverness. Lady Macbeth receives him warmly.

Act I, Scene 7

That evening as everyone is feasting, Macbeth, alone, expresses reservations about killing Duncan. When Lady Macbeth joins him, he tells her to abandon their plot, but she rebukes him for his cowardice. After a brief argument, she prevails.

Act II, Scene 1

As Banquo and his son, Fleance, are preparing for bed, Macbeth enters. Banquo hands him a diamond from Duncan for Lady Macbeth, a token of the king’s appreciation for her hospitality. Banquo and Macbeth talk about the witches; then Banquo and Fleance exit. Alone, Macbeth sees a dagger like the one he will soon use to murder Duncan. Even as he stares at this mind-forged weapon, it becomes covered with blood before it disappears. A bell rings, and Macbeth goes to kill the king.

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Voices haunt Macbeth as he kills Duncan in Act II, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. Voices haunt Macbeth as he kills Duncan in Act II, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

Act II, Scene 2

Lady Macbeth awaits her husband in the inner court of the castle. He soon enters to report that he has done the deed. He adds that when the king’s chamberlains awoke, frightened, and prayed, he could not say amen. He also has heard a voice saying he will never sleep again. She tells him to stop worrying and wash his bloodstained hands. Seeing that he is carrying the murder weapons, she instructs him to return the daggers to the chamberlains’ room, since it must appear that these attendants committed the crime. Macbeth refuses to revisit to the scene of the murder. Dismissing his weakness, Lady Macbeth takes the daggers back. In her absence, Macduff and Lennox begin knocking on the castle gate. Lady Macbeth returns to urge her husband to pretend to go to bed so no one will suspect they are awake. They exit to the sound of more knocking.

Act II, Scene 3

In the play’s only comic scene, the drunken Porter imagines himself the keeper of the gate of hell. He responds to the sounds of knocking by welcoming an imaginary suicide, a liar, and a thief. At length, he recovers his senses enough to feel too cold to be in hell and admits Macduff and Lennox. Macbeth joins them. While Macduff goes off to wake Duncan, Lennox and Macbeth discuss the stormy night just past. Macduff reenters, horrified, to announce the king’s murder. Macbeth and Lennox rush away to look, as Macduff orders the ringing of the castle’s bell to rouse everyone. Lady Macbeth and Banquo are the first to appear. Soon, Macbeth, Lennox, Ross, and the king’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, all are standing in the inner court.

Told of their father’s death, the young men ask who committed the murder. Lennox replies that the chamberlains appear to be guilty. Macbeth says he has killed these attendants, thus arousing Macduff’s suspicion. Macbeth tries to justify his action, but Lady Macbeth cuts short the discussion by fainting. The men agree to meet shortly in the hall to discuss what to do. Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing for their lives, decide to flee, Donalbain to Ireland, Malcolm to England.

Act II, Scene 4

Ross and an Old Man discuss recent bad weather and unnatural occurrences. When Macduff joins them, they speak of Duncan’s recent murder, which appears to be the work of Malcolm and Donalbain, since they have so guiltily fled. Macduff says he will not attend Macbeth’s coronation at Scone and worries about the new king’s reign.

Act III, Scene 1

In the royal palace at Forres, Banquo, alone, reveals his suspicion that Macbeth killed Duncan to get the throne the witches promised. His musings are interrupted by the arrival of the new king and queen, who invite him to a feast that evening. Macbeth tries to learn where Banquo will be until then and whether Banquo’s son, Fleance, will accompany him. Once everyone else leaves, Macbeth, in a soliloquy, expresses his fear of Banquo and declares his intention of thwarting the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s heirs will reign in Scotland. To achieve his goal, Macbeth speaks with two poor men, whom he has convinced that Banquo is the cause of their misery. They agree to kill Banquo and Fleance.

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Act III, Scene 2

Lady Macbeth summons her husband and asks him why he remains solitary and worried. He replies that danger lurks. She tells him that he should appear cheerful among his guests that night. He promises to do so and urges her to pay particular attention to Banquo, though Macbeth says he fears the man. To Lady Macbeth’s observation that Banquo and Fleance are not immortal, he responds that they may soon die but offers no details.

Act III, Scene 3

In a grove near the palace, the two men engaged to kill Banquo and Fleance are surprised to be joined by an unidentified third person. As the Three Murderers talk, Banquo and Fleance approach. The men attack and kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes.

Fleance escapes from the murderers in Act III, Scene 3 of Macbeth. Plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1833. Fleance escapes from the murderers in Act III, Scene 3 of Macbeth. Plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1833. (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

Act III, Scene 4

Back in the hall of the palace, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and their guests are about to enjoy a feast. Macbeth glimpses one of Banquo’s murderers at the door and speaks to him. The murderer reports the death of Banquo and the flight of Fleance. Once the killer leaves, Lady Macbeth reminds her husband to give a welcoming toast, which he does. He adds that he misses Banquo. Ross invites Macbeth to sit, but the king finds no empty chair. When Lennox points to one, Macbeth starts back in horror because in it, he sees the bloody specter of Banquo.

Addressing this ghost, which is visible to Macbeth alone, the king denies responsibility for his murder. Lady Macbeth tries to explain her husband’s reaction, which is as puzzling to her as to everyone else, telling the company to ignore him. In an aside to Macbeth, she urges him to regain his composure. He responds that he is acting bravely under the circumstances; she retorts that whatever appalls him is a figment of his imagination. While he tries to make her see the ghost, she attempts to convince him there is nothing to see.

The ghost departs. Macbeth glosses over his odd behavior and gives another toast to his guests and to Banquo, whose absence he regrets. His words once more conjure up the specter, which Macbeth again addresses. Lady Macbeth tries to cover for him. After the ghost leaves, Macbeth urges everyone to sit and eat, but he also expresses amazement that others can look calmly on such horror. Ross, who has witnessed no bloody vision, asks Macbeth to explain. To avoid any further disclosure, Lady Macbeth dismisses the guests. After the company departs, Macbeth tells his wife he intends to consult the witches. She replies that he needs sleep, and the two go off to bed.

Act III, Scene 5

On the heath, Hecate rebukes the Three Witches for trafficking with Macbeth. She instructs them to meet her the next morning at the pit of Acheron, where Macbeth will come to learn his fate. She will go to the Moon to secure a drop that will produce visions that will lead Macbeth to his doom.

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Act III, Scene 6

Somewhere in Scotland, Lennox and an unnamed Lord meet. Lennox comments on the deaths of Duncan and Banquo and on Macduff’s fall from Macbeth’s favor. The Lord replies that Macduff is going to England to urge Malcolm to invade his homeland and topple Macbeth. The Lord adds that Macbeth, aware of Macduff’s intentions, is preparing for war. Both men wish Macduff success.

Act IV, Scene 1

In a cave, the Three Witches prepare a brew. Hecate and three other witches join them; Hecate commends the witches’ efforts. After a song and dance, Hecate leaves, and Macbeth enters. He orders the witches to answer his questions, but before he can speak, an armed head appears to warn him against Macduff. When this vision vanishes, a bloody child rises and declares that no one born of woman can harm Macbeth. This apparition is succeeded by a third, a crowned child holding a tree, who says that Macbeth will be safe until Birnam Wood moves to his castle at Dunsinane.

The witches answer Macbeths questions with visions in Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth, as depicted in this plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, (1833). The witches answer Macbeth’s questions with visions in Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth, as depicted in this plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, (1833). (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

Reassured, Macbeth asks whether Banquo’s children will rule Scotland. The witches try to dissuade him from learning the truth, but he insists. His answer comes in a vision of a procession of eight kings, the last of whom holds a mirror showing an unending parade of monarchs; Banquo appears and points at them as his descendants. To cheer Macbeth, the witches conjure up music and perform a dance before they vanish.

Lennox enters. Macbeth asks whether he saw the witches; Lennox has not. Lennox informs Macbeth of Macduff’s flight to England. Macbeth is surprised, although the Lord in Act 3, Scene 6 claimed that Macbeth knew of this event. Macbeth resolves to attack Macduff’s castle and kill all the thane’s relatives.

Act IV, Scene 2

At Macduff’s castle in Fife, Lady Macduff asks Ross why her husband has abandoned his family. Ross urges patience and maintains that Macduff has acted wisely. Lady Macduff retorts that even a wren will remain in the nest to defend its young against predators. She attributes her husband’s flight to fear. Ross again tries to pacify her.

After he leaves, Lady Macduff tells her son that his father is dead. The Boy refuses to believe her. As they talk, a messenger arrives to warn Lady Macduff to flee with her family. Before she can do so, murderers enter. Now, she says, she is glad her husband has escaped. Her son is killed, and she flees, pursued by the villains and is killed.

Act IV, Scene 3

In London, Macduff urges Malcolm to return to Scotland to depose Macbeth. Malcolm, suspecting Macduff to be in league with the tyrant, tests his visitor by claiming he would prove a ruler even worse than the present king. Despairing, Macduff prepares to leave; Malcolm now reassures Macduff of his fitness to rule. Malcolm intends to lead an invasion, and Old Siward has already assembled an army of 10,000 to assist.

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As Malcolm and Macduff discuss the English king (Edward the Confessor), Ross joins them. Macduff asks about his family. Ross tries to avoid the subject and notes that rebellion is brewing in Scotland. He adds that Malcolm’s presence would encourage Macbeth’s opponents. Malcolm replies that he is coming with an English army. Ross then reveals the murder of Macduff’s family. As Macduff grieves, Malcolm tells him that these deaths should strengthen his resolve to topple Macbeth, and Macduff vows to confront the tyrant.

Act V, Scene 1

At Macbeth’s castle in Dunsinane, one of Lady Macbeth’s ladies-in-waiting tells a doctor that her mistress has been sleepwalking. He is skeptical, but as they talk, Lady Macbeth appears with a candle. They watch her rub her hands as if washing them and overhear her speak about the deaths of Duncan, Lady Macduff, and Banquo. After Lady Macbeth departs, the Scots Doctor instructs the Gentlewoman to watch the queen carefully.

Act V, Scene 2

Near Dunsinane, Scottish forces opposing Macbeth await the arrival of the English army led by Malcolm, Old Siward, and Macduff. Caithness reports that Macbeth has fortified his castle to withstand a siege. The men march off to meet the English near Birnam Wood.

Act V, Scene 3

In his castle, Macbeth receives reports of desertions among his troops. Macbeth does not fear, however, because he recalls the witches’ prophecies. When a servant announces the arrival of the English army, Macbeth calls for his armor. He asks the doctor about Lady Macbeth; the physician replies that her imagination troubles her. Cure her, the king instructs him, and then asks whether the doctor knows of any remedy for an afflicted mind. The doctor says that in such cases, the patient must cure himself. Macbeth now wonders whether the doctor can purge the English from Scotland. After Macbeth and his attendants leave, the doctor wishes he were far away from Dunsinane.

Act V, Scene 4

Near Birnam Wood, Malcolm orders the Scottish and English forces to camouflage their ranks by cutting down branches and carrying these in front of them.

Act V, Scene 5

As Macbeth prepares for a siege, he hears a scream. Seyton, Macbeth’s armor-bearer, goes off to learn what has happened; he returns with the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. Macbeth delivers a soliloquy on life’s meaninglessness.

A Messenger reports that as he looked toward Birnam Wood, he thought the grove was coming to Dunsinane. Macbeth begins to recognize that the witches gave him a false sense of security. He decides to confront the invaders rather than remain within the safety of his castle.

Act V, Scene 6

In front of Macbeth’s castle, Malcolm sets forth the order of battle. The invaders discard their leafy camouflage and prepare to attack.

Act V, Scene 7

Amid the fighting, Macbeth encounters Young Siward and kills him in hand-to-hand combat. Macduff enters seeking Macbeth. After he leaves to continue his pursuit, Malcolm and Old Siward appear to report that Macbeth’s forces have defected and surrendered the castle.

Act V, Scene 8

Macduff and Macbeth meet. Macbeth refuses to fight Macduff, having already shed so much of Macduff’s family’s blood. Macduff assails the king, who declares he cannot be harmed by anyone born of woman. Macduff informs Macbeth of his birth by cesarean section. Again, Macbeth refuses to fight; Macduff says the king must then surrender. Rather than yield, Macbeth resumes the battle, and they exit fighting.

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Act V, Scene 9

The victorious English enter. Malcolm reports that Young Siward and Macduff are missing. Ross announces the death of the former. Macduff arrives, carrying Macbeth’s severed head. All hail Malcolm as Scotland’s king. Malcolm declares that Scotland’s thanes will now be earls, and he promises to restore peace to the kingdom. The play ends with Malcolm inviting all to witness his coronation at Scone.

Character List

Macbeth Military leader under King Duncan, whom he kills. Macbeth then becomes a tyrannical ruler.

Lady Macbeth Macbeth’s intelligent, ruthless, scheming wife.

Duncan King of Scotland.

Malcolm Duncan’s older son, whom the king names as his successor. He eventually assumes the Scottish throne.

Donalbain Duncan’s younger son.

Banquo Macbeth’s fellow leader of the Scottish forces.

Fleance Banquo’s son.

Macduff A powerful Scottish lord opposed to Macbeth. He allies himself with Malcolm.

Lady Macduff Devoted wife to Macduff, killed by Macbeth’s henchmen.

Boy Clever, charming son of Macduff, killed by Macbeth’s hired assassins.

Lennox A Scottish aristocrat.

Ross A Scottish aristocrat.

Angus A Scottish nobleman.

Menteith A Scottish nobleman.

Caithness A Scottish aristocrat.

Old Siward Earl of Northumberland, leader of the English forces that invade Scotland to depose Macbeth.

Young Siward Old Siward’s son, killed by Macbeth in the battle to depose the tyrant.

English Doctor He serves in the court of Edward the Confessor.

Scots Doctor He attends on Lady Macbeth.

Sergeant Wounded in the battle against the rebels fighting Duncan’s forces, he fought successfully to save Malcolm from being captured. He brings news of the fighting to the king.

Porter A hard-drinking, witty servant of Macbeth.

Old Man He converses with Ross in Act 2, Scene 4 and serves as a commentator on developments to that point in the play.

Three Murderers Hired by Macbeth to kill Banquo and Fleance.

Three Witches Ambiguous figures who foretell Macbeth’s kingship and later enigmatically warn him of his doom. They also predict that Banquo’s descendants will rule Scotland.

Hecate Queen of the witches.

Character Studies


Macbeth dominates his play. He speaks some 700 lines, more than 30 percent of the total, and is on stage for more than half the dialogue despite his vanishing from the end of Act IV, Scene 1 to the beginning of Act V, Scene 3. As noted in the “Background” section, Shakespeare took the skeleton of his plot from historical sources. Our interest in his character lies, however, not in what he does to others but rather in why and how his actions affect himself. Just as Shakespeare did with his other great tragic characters such as Hamlet and Iago, here he obscures motivation and complicates his originals. The actor Richard Burbage was the first to play the role of Macbeth, but it is impossible to know how he understood the character. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s play yielded the stage to William Davenant’s adaptation. Only with David Garrick’s 1744 restoration of a modified version of Shakespeare’s original do actors’ and critics’ interpretations become a matter of record.

For Garrick, Macbeth was a sensitive and reluctant murderer, driven to crime by the promptings of his wife and the witches. In Lettres sur la Danse et sur les Ballets (1783), Jean Georges Noverre wrote of Garrick’s performance: “I have seen him, I say, playing a tyrant, who, frightened by the enormity of his crimes, dies shattered with remorse. The final act was given over to regrets and sadness; humanity triumphed over killings and barbarism; the tyrant, sensible to the voice of conscience, detested his crimes, which became his judges and his executioners.” In An Essay on Acting (1744), Garrick described the character as “an experienced general crown’d with Conquest, innately ambitious and religiously Humane, spurr’d on by metaphysical prophecies and the unconquerable pride of his Wife, to a deed horrid in itself and repugnant to his nature”. As Noverre indicates, Garrick highlighted Macbeth’s humanity and his suffering.

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To emphasize these traits, Garrick’s production omitted Act IV, Scene 2, the murder of Macduff’s family, and Macbeth’s killing of Young Siward in Act V, Scene 7. Garrick also gave Macbeth a penitent dying speech in which he acknowledges his crimes and stoically accepts his punishment:

’Tis done. The scene of life will quickly close. Ambition’s vain, delusive dreams are fled, and now I wake to darkness, guilt and horror. I cannot bear it. Let me shake it off—’Two’ [it will] not be; my soul is clogg’d with blood—and cannot rise. I dare not ask for mercy. It is too late, hell drags me down. I sink, I sink—Oh!—my soul is lost forever. Oh!

In the early 19th century, John Philip Kemble followed Garrick’s lead in presenting a noble Macbeth. Both he and William Macready portrayed him as a noble savage. Kemble emphasized the nobility; Macready, the savage who is trapped by fate. George Vandenhoff wrote, in Leaves from an Actor’s Notebook (1860), that Macbeth is “a very courteous person, a man of poetic mind, and considerable culture.” In 1934, Tyrone Guthrie directed the play at the Old Vic, London. In his program notes, he wrote Macbeth is destroyed “by the imagination and intellectual honesty which enable him to perceive his own loss of integrity and to realize the fullest implication of the loss.”

Ruth Ellis regarded Robert Harris’s Macbeth (Stratford-upon-Avon, 1946) as “human-hearted, never reconciled to the murky hell of his own deed.” Yet another of the noble Macbeths was Paul Scofield’s at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1967 under the direction of Peter Hall. According to Gareth Lloyd Evans in “Macbeth: 1946–1980 at Stratford-upon-Avon,” Scofield’s character “was a Sir Thomas More with a conscience and martial instincts” (104), always trying to recapture a goodness that keeps eluding him. This interpretation coincides with Hall’s, who argued that Macbeth’s moral sense would not have allowed him to kill Duncan without his wife’s urging him on. The scholar Cleanth Brooks shared this positive view of Shakespeare’s creation in The Well Wrought Urn (1947):

For it is not merely his great imagination and his warrior courage in defeat which redeem him for tragedy and place him beside the other great tragic protagonists: rather, it is his attempt to conquer the future, an attempt involving him, like Oedipus, in a desperate struggle with fate itself. It is this which holds our imaginative sympathy, even after he has degenerated into a bloody tyrant and has become the slayer of Macduff’s wife and children. (40)

Other critics and actors regard Macbeth differently. Marvin Rosenberg quotes an anonymous letter to Garrick objecting to his sympathetic interpretation: “you almost everywhere discover dejectedness of mind... more grief than horror... heart heavings, melancholy countenance and slack carriage of body.... The sorrowful face and lowly gestures of a penitent, which have ever a wan and pitiful look... are quite incompatible with the character” (65–66). Charles Macklin, who began playing the role at Covent Garden in the later 18th century, abandoned Garrick’s noble figure for a sinister Macbeth. Edmund Kean in the early 19th century similarly rejected Garrick’s vision. Kean also took the lead in Richard III, and he portrayed both characters alike. His Macbeth was planning to kill Duncan before the witches’ and his wife’s promptings, and after the murder, he feels no remorse. He does, however, become a moral coward. When confronted with Banquo’s ghost, Kemble showed courage, whereas Kean retreated, and he even recoiled at his wife’s touch. The 19th-century critic George Fletcher called Macbeth a “heartless slave.” Ralph Richardson’s 1952 Machiavellian Macbeth (Stratford-upon-Avon) again resembled Richard III.

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Publicity photo from 1948 Republic Pictures film adaptation of Macbeth, starring Orson Welles as Macbeth Publicity photo from 1948 Republic Pictures film adaptation of Macbeth, starring Orson Welles as Macbeth

Michael Redgrave summarized well this negative vision. Redgrave played Macbeth in London and New York in the immediate postwar period (1947–48) and may have been influenced by the recent rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Writing in The Actor’s Ways and Means (1953), he declared: “Macbeth is described as noble and valiant and during the whole play we see him do nothing that is either noble or valiant.... I could find none of the noble resignation, the philosophy, I expected to find in the part.... You will find yourself appalled at how little the text says in Macbeth’s own part that will enable you to build up this great, terrifying figure” (Rosenberg 76–77).

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Some have sought to steer a middle course between these two extremes; their understanding of the character has produced the most fascinating versions of this complex creation. John Upton in Critical Observations on Shakespeare (1746) described Macbeth as “a man, not a monster, a man of virtue, till he hearkened to the lures of ambition... his mind agitated and convulsed, now virtue, now vice prevailing, how beautifully from such a wavering character.” Caroline Spurgeon summarizes this viewpoint of the dual-natured Macbeth:

Undoubtedly Macbeth is built on great lines and in heroic proportions, with great possibilities—there could be no tragedy else. He is great, magnificently great, in courage, in passionate, indomitable ambition, in imagination and capacity to feel. But he could never be put beside, say Hamlet or Othello, in nobility of nature; and there is an aspect in which he is but a poor, vain, cruel, treacherous creature, snatching ruthlessly over the dead bodies of kinsman and friend at place and power he is utterly unfitted to possess. (327)

R. S. Crane, too, regards Macbeth as a good man “who has fallen under the compulsive power of an imagined better state for himself which he can attain only by acting contrary to his normal habits and feelings” (172). Once he achieves his initial goal of kingship, he discovers that he must continue to kill to keep what he has gained. As a result, he “becomes progressively hardened morally” (Crane 172). At the end of the play, Crane argues, Macbeth recaptures some of his original nobility.

In the 19th century, Henry Irving offered onstage someone who is “a poet with his brain and a villain with his heart” (Furness 470). He is a cold-blooded killer who was plotting the murder of Duncan before he encountered the witches. He is “self-torturing, self-examining, playing with conscience so that action and reaction of poetic thought might send emotional waves through the brain while the resolution was as firmly fixed as steel and the heart as cold as ice” (Furness 470–471).

Under Glen Byam Shaw’s direction, Laurence Olivier, in 1955, presented Macbeth as both noble and flawed. Byam Shaw described Macbeth as “a superb leader with the courage of a lion and the imagination of a poet.... He has greatness of soul even though he is damned” and conceded that once Macbeth kills Duncan, “all that is bad in his character bursts out” (Rosenberg 105–106). Still, he never becomes a coward or a villain in the same category as Iago in Othello or Aaron in Titus Andronicus. As Olivier played him, he is torn between evil and sensitivity. A 1974 English production of the play used three actors for Macbeth to represent, respectively, the wife-dominated figure, the murderer of Duncan, and the lost soul after the ghost of Banquo appears.

Lady Macbeth attempts to calm Macbeth, who reacts strongly to the sight of Banquos ghost in this 19th-century depiction of Act III, Scene 4 of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth attempts to calm Macbeth, who reacts strongly to the sight of Banquo’s ghost in this 19th-century depiction of Act III, Scene 4 of Macbeth. (Painting by Max Adamo; engraving by Tobias Bauer)

However one views Macbeth, certain traits remain indisputable. The physical world does not frighten him. In battle in Act I, Scene 2 and in Act 5, he is dauntless. When Banquo’s ghost haunts him in Act III, Scene 4, he exclaims: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, / The arm’d rhinocerous, or th’ Hyrcan tiger, / Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves / Shall never tremble” (99–102). It is the metaphysical world that torments him. As he observes, “Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.137–138). When the witches hail him as king, he imagines, perhaps not for the first time, the killing of Duncan. The Norwegian assault had troubled him “As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion” (1.2.35). The vision of the slain Duncan, however, “doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs” (1.3.135–136). As Lady Macbeth says, “th’ attempt, and not the deed, / Confounds [him]” (2.2.10–11).

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His conscience conjures up the imaginary dagger in Act II, Scene 1 and covers it with blood. It converts the hooting of an owl and the chirping of crickets into a disembodied voice condemning him to “Sleep no more!” (2.2.32, 38, 40). It summons the ghost of the slain Banquo into the banquet hall (3.4) and paints that vision with “gory locks” and “twenty mortal murthers on [its] crown” (3.4.50, 80). He tells Lady Macbeth that he is shaken nightly with “terrible dreams” (3.2.18) and lives in constant fear of retribution. He spends the duration of his brief play lying “on the torture of the mind... / In restless ecstasy” (3.2.21–22). Late in the play, he asks the doctor tending his wife

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? (5.3.40–45)

He is asking not for his wife—or not only for her. His success has not brought surcease from worry. He knew, even before he killed Duncan, “We still have judgment here” (1.7.8). For Macbeth, self-judgment is the most damning form. He can murder Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s wife and children, and Young Siward, but he cannot kill his conscience. Consequently, he is more tormented than Richard III and Iago and also greater.

Shakespeare gives Macbeth a conscience like Hamlet’s, but unlike Hamlet, Macbeth is a man of action. The first speeches about him recount his heroic deeds in battle, and he dies, as he has lived, a soldier in armor. Whereas Hamlet declares, “That would be scann’d” (3.3.75), Macbeth says, “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, / Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d” (3.4.138–139). Hamlet spends half his play determining whether the ghost is honest; Macbeth never questions the witches’ prognostications. Forms of the verb to do are associated with Macbeth. Early in the play, he reflects, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3.143–144). He cannot, however, refrain from acting even though he knows that what he is doing is wrong. His poetic soul cannot restrain his soldier’s heart, though the battle between these two natures “Shakes so [his] single state of man” (1.3.140) that he is destroyed by this internal conflict. The civil wars that open and close the play are objective correlatives for the mental condition of the work’s title character.

This struggle that divides him from himself isolates him from others. Before he rebels against himself, he is not alone. Duncan joins Macbeth’s name with Banquo’s (1.2.34), the Sergeant’s report fuses them, and together they encounter the witches. After hearing the prediction of kingship, Macbeth instantly writes to his wife, whom he calls “my dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11). Already in Act I, Scene 3, he speaks to himself, but his first soliloquy appears in Act 1, Scene 7 as he wrestles with his conscience. Thereafter, these speeches mark him as solitary. As he says in Act III, Scene 1, “To make society / The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself / Till suppertime alone” (41–43). Lady Macbeth asks him “Why do you keep alone, / Of sorriest fancies your companions making?” (3.2.8–9).

He conceals from his wife his plan to kill Banquo and Fleance; she has quickly ceased to be his partner even in crime. At the feast in Act III, Scene 4 he can find no seat among his guests. As that scene ends—the last in which he and his wife appear together—he asks her opinion of Macduff’s avoiding him. She replies, “Did you send to him, sir?” (3.4.128). This question reveals her ignorance of his activities, and that “sir” exposes the distance between them. She will speak only one more line to him in that scene and in the play.

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By the fifth act, his supporters have deserted him. To the doctor, he acknowledges his loneliness: “that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have” (5.3.34–36). In Act V, Scene 6 he observes that if “those that should be ours” (5) had not joined Malcolm’s army, he would not be compelled to endure a siege; he could have confronted his enemies in the field. It is fitting that in the only fighting the audience sees, Macbeth stands alone. He thus dies as he has lived.

The Sergeant describes Macbeth as “Disdaining fortune” (1.2.17). He casts aside human limitations in daring to be more than his lot would decree. He aspires to kingship and attains that goal. He strives to keep the monarchy from Banquo’s heirs despite the witches’ prediction, and to retain his throne even when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and he is confronted by a man not born of woman. These efforts to transcend the restrictions that govern mortals make him heroic, even as transgressing those boundaries makes him tragic.

Lady Macbeth

According to the contemporary critic Garber, “Lady Macbeth is the strongest character in the play” (712). She so dominates the scenes in which she appears that her role at times seems equal to, perhaps even larger than, Macbeth’s. She is on stage for more than a quarter of the dialogue though she speaks about a third of the number of lines as her husband (254) and vanishes between the end of Act III, Scene 4 and Act 5, Scene 1, her final scene.

Lady Macbeth in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth. This print is from Charles Heaths 1848 edition of The Heroines of Shakspeare: Comprising the Principal Female Characters in the Plays of the Great Poet. Lady Macbeth in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth. This print is from Charles Heath’s 1848 edition of The Heroines of Shakspeare: Comprising the Principal Female Characters in the Plays of the Great Poet. (Painting by K. Meadows; engraving by W. H. Mote)

Interpretations of Lady Macbeth have proved as diverse as those of her husband. In productions, noble Macbeths have generally been paired with fiendlike wives; and more villainous Macbeths, with gentler wives. Thus, Hannah Pritchard’s Lady Macbeth dominated Garrick; she instigated the murder of Duncan and overwhelmed her husband’s scruples. In so acting, she was conforming to the 18th-century view of the character. Samuel Johnson, in the end note to his 1765 edition of the play, wrote: “Lady Macbeth is merely detested.” Earlier, in 1730, Charles Gildon commented that both Macbeth and his wife were “too monstrous for the stage.”

In a later production, the actress Sarah Siddons controlled her brother John Philip Kemble in their portray of the Macbeths. The actress Ellen Terry described Siddons in the role as “a remorseless, terrible woman, who knew no tenderness, and who was already ‘unsex’d’ [1.5.41] by the enormity of her desires.” Siddons herself described Lady Macbeth as her husband’s “evil genius” who overcomes all his “loyalty, and pity, and gratitude.” Siddons maintained:

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In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature; in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect and all the charms and graces of personal beauty.... Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero as dauntless, a character so honourable, as Macbeth. (Furness 472)

The early 19th-century critic William Hazlitt wrote of Siddons’s “unrelieved fierceness,” saying that she displays “no intercourse with human sensation or human weakness.” He continued, “Vice was never so solitary and so grand. The step, look, voice of the Royal Murderess so forces our eye after them as if of a being from a darker world, full of evil, but full of power—unconnected with life, but come to do its deed of darkness, and then pass away.” Hazlitt’s contemporary Leigh Hunt compared her to Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra. Thomas Campbell wrote of her “superb depravity.” Lady Macbeth’s fainting in Act II, Scene 3 was cut, in fact, when Siddons played the part because audiences would not believe that so strong a character would lose consciousness.

Siddons did not agree fully with her stage portrayal. She called Lady Macbeth “fair, feminine, nay, perhaps even fragile.... Her feminine nature, her delicate structure, it is too evident, are soon overwhelmed by the enormous pressure of her crimes” (Furness 472–476). In George Henry Harlow’s portrait of her in the role she appears gentle. Siddons recognized that Malcolm’s dismissal of the character as “fiendlike” (5.9.35) is overly facile. Siddons’s domineering physical presence and her brother’s understanding of his character, however, required her to adopt Pritchard’s approach. Audiences, too, expected an evil, forceful woman who drives her husband to murder.

Fanny Kemble, Siddons’s niece, described her own Lady Macbeth as possessing “energy, decision, daring, unscrupulousness; a deficiency of imagination, a great preponderance of the positive and practical mental elements; a powerful and rapid appreciation of what each exigency of circumstance demanded, and the coolness and resolution necessary for its immediate execution” (242). Kemble followed her aunt’s interpretation of a Lady Macbeth, in Kemble’s words, “incapable of any salutary spasm of moral anguish, or hopeful paroxysm of mental horror... never, even in dreams, does any gracious sorrow smite from her stony heart the blessed brine of tears that wash away sin” (Rosenberg 167). She will commit without compunction any crime she thinks necessary. Kemble’s Lady Macbeth dies of guilt, but she never recognizes this fact. The (London) Times commented on Kemble’s portrait of “that bad, bold woman, the slave of evil passions” (Rosenberg 168).

The American Charlotte Cushman, a large woman, adopted the Pritchard-Siddons-Kemble model. The late 19th-century theater critic John Coleman described her as “a domineering, murderous harridan [who] browbeats everyone,” especially her husband. At the end of Act 2, Scene 2, Cushman even dragged him off the stage. Other reviewers wrote of her “full-fledged ferocity of a truculent nature in sight of prey” and her “appalling impartment of predestinate evil and sinister force”; yet another claimed, “Not only was she fully capable of killing her own infant at sight, but if occasion offered she could perpetrate by her own unaided efforts another ‘Slaughter of the innocents’ merely for the gratification of an insatiable thirst for blood” (Rosenberg 168–169).

Adelaide Ristori, a mid-19th-century Italian actress, called Lady Macbeth a “monster in human shape”: She wants to be queen and uses her husband to achieve that end. A New York reviewer described Ristori’s Lady Macbeth as “a bloody minded virago, without heart, without sensibility... in the form of a Lucretia Borgia, an adept at crime” (Rosenberg 170). At the end of the 19th century, the French actress Eugénie Marie Caroline Segond-Weber wrote of her agreement with Ristori. As Segond-Weber understood the character, “She does not love her husband... because he is her creature; she wants him to be king because she will be queen.... [S]he is a kind of fourth witch, a daughter of witches.” When Judith Anderson played the role opposite Olivier at the Old Vic in 1937, she, too, displayed this lack of tenderness and an ambition of self-advancement.

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Occasionally, on the early 19th-century stage, an actress ventured to oppose the then-accepted vision of the monstrous queen. Some critics did not take well to this view. Rosenberg cites a review of Campbell’s 1817 Lady Macbeth as tender wife that faulted her for having “none of the dignity, none of the masculine energy, none of the unrelenting cruelty, none of the devouring ambition which belongs to the cool murderess” (178). Yet, as the decades passed, this milder interpretation of the role gained advocates. As early as 1823, Franz Horn wrote in Shakespeare’s Schauspiele Erläutert that Lady Macbeth seeks the throne for her husband, not herself. Ludwig Tieck echoed this interpretation (Dramaturgische Blatter, 1826). Tieck maintained that she has to invoke the forces of darkness because of her innate sensitivity. Tieck’s Lady Macbeth is noble and loves her husband. Anna Brownell Jameson, in Shakespeare’s Heroines (1833), challenged the conventional view of the character as “cruel, treacherous, and daring” (371). Jameson noted that Macbeth, not his wife, first conceives of killing Duncan. Lady Macbeth then assumes the lead in this enterprise, not because she is more wicked than her husband, but because she is more intelligent than he. Her ambition is less for herself than for her husband: “The strength of her affections adds strength to her ambition” (377). In the end, she is consumed by her conscience. In Jameson’s vein, George Fletcher wrote in “Macbeth: Shakesperian Criticism and Acting” (1844) that Lady Macbeth is a loving wife who seeks the crown for her husband. She goes mad when she discovers that he cannot love anyone, not even her.

In Studies in Shakespeare (1847), Fletcher commended the acting of Helen Faucit because she presented an “essentially feminine person.” He noted that in rejecting Siddons’s model, Faucit offered “the far more interesting picture of a naturally generous woman, depraved by her very self-devotion to the ambitious purpose of a merely selfish man” (228). A review of Faucit in the Morning Post of August 5, 1851, praised her rendition in which “the ambition of the heroine o’erswayed but did not extinguish the sentiments of the woman.” Dennis Bartholomeusz quotes from a letter written by a person who had seen Faucit on stage: “This woman, it seems to me, is simply urging her husband forward through her love of him, which prompts her to wish for the gratification of his ambition, to commit a murder” (174). Faucit played opposite William Macready, a forceful Macbeth whom Fletcher called a “heartless slave.” The two actors, thus, complemented each other’s interpretation of their roles.

In Shakespeare Papers (1860), Walter Maginn endorsed what was becoming the new orthodoxy. He writes of Lady Macbeth,

She sees that [her husband] covets the throne, that his happiness is wrapped up in the hope of becoming a king; and her part is accordingly taken without hesitation. With the blindness of affection she persuades herself that he is full of the milk of human kindness, and that he would reject false and unholy ways of attaining the object of his desires [1.5.17–22]. She deems it, therefore, her duty to spirit him to the task. (194)

In the late 19th century, Ellen Terry presented a loving Lady Macbeth opposite Henry Irving’s cowardly villain in the play’s title role. In a letter to William Winter, Terry declared that Lady Macbeth was above all else a devoted wife. To her daughter, she wrote, “I by no means make her a gently lovable woman, as some of them say. That’s all pickles; she was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend and did love her husband” (Rosenberg 185). Lady Macbeth invokes the spirits to unsex her because she is too weak to act without their aid. She urges her husband to kill Duncan because she knows he craves the throne. A review in the World for January 2, 1889, shows that Lady Macbeth as loving wife was now the prevailing view, perhaps reflecting the late Victorian vision of women generally. The World praised Terry as “the Lady Macbeth Shakespeare would have drawn had he had Ellen Terry in his company.... We can readily accept this clinging and cajoling enchantress, whose enkindled ambition affects her with a temporary paralysis of conscience.” According to Terry, Lady Macbeth retains “the nervous force of a woman, the devotion of a woman, and above all the conscience of a woman,” and this conscience destroys her (Rosenberg 186).

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Lady Macbeth greets the King and his party in Act I, Scene 6 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. Lady Macbeth greets the King and his party in Act I, Scene 6 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

In the 20th century, Vivien Leigh, who played opposite her husband, Laurence Olivier, in the Glen Byam Shaw 1955 Stratford production, followed Terry’s loving approach. Byam Shaw declared that Lady Macbeth’s “loyalty to her husband is magnificent. The way she behaves in the banquet scene is beyond praise. In spite of her complete lack of compassion and goodness of heart one cannot but have the greatest admiration for her courage and loyalty” (Mullin 152–153). Supporting the view of Lady Macbeth as affectionate, Robin Grove argues, in “Multiplying Villainies of Nature,” “what binds these two together is not ambition or bloodlust or fear alone, it is love” (133).

Despite Lady Macbeth’s prayer in Act I, Scene 5 to be unsexed and the role’s having been created to be played by a boy, some interpreters have emphasized her sexual nature. Under Trevor Nunn’s direction in 1976, Judi Dench in the role exerted “a powerful sexual sway over her husband,” according to Jack Tinker’s review of the play in the Daily Mail for September 16, 1976. Two years earlier, Helen Mirren had also emphasized the character’s sexual nature, but Mirren attributed Lady Macbeth’s disintegration to sexual deprivation as Macbeth increasingly distances himself from her. This portrayal dates from Sarah Bernhardt’s late 19th-century approach. Her Lady Macbeth resembled Delilah and Cleopatra in her seductive power. Bernhardt’s Polish contemporary Helena Modjeska also stressed Lady Macbeth’s femininity, humanity, and tenderness.

Whether she is seeking to promote her own desires or her husband’s, Lady Macbeth displays resolution. She seizes the opportunity that Duncan’s visit presents, plans his murder, which Macbeth might not have executed without her goading, and covers up the killing afterward. Her fainting in Act II, Scene 3 as Macduff sharply questions Macbeth is often taken as a clever ruse to prevent her husband from exposing himself, as he seems to falter under interrogation. She recognizes the price of success and is willing to pay it, for she also understands its rewards. Even if the Macbeths are suspected of regicide, she knows that they will be too powerful to be accused (1.7.78–80, 5.1.37–39). She is a rationalist and a literalist, perhaps by nature, perhaps by suppressing her imagination. She sees no mind-forged dagger, no ghost. The owl and cricket speak no words to her ear. She does not fear returning the daggers to the death chamber: “The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures” (2.2.50–51). Her bloody hands do not appall her: “A little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.64).

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Through Act III, Scene 4 she is so strong that her disintegration in Act V, Scene 1 may seem out of character. Yet, the text offers clues to the sensitivity and remorse that destroy her. She does not kill Duncan herself because he looks like her father. Though the sounds she hears after the king’s murder are not words, she says, “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” (2.2.15). Earlier, she notes, “It was the owl that shriek’d” (2.2.3). Her verbs convey a sense of horror. Her fainting in Act II, Scene 3 may not, in fact, be a ruse but the delayed reaction to the enormity of the murder. By Act III, Scene 1, she has discovered that monarchy has not brought happiness: “Nought’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content” (4–5).

Her husband, whom she sought to advance or control, grows distant. He no longer needs her. He kills Banquo and attacks Macduff’s castle without telling her of his plans. The witches have become his sole advisers. In her sleepwalking, she still shows resolution as she relives Duncan’s murder: “Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard?” (5.1.36–37); “No more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that; you mar all with this starting” (5.1.43–45). In her reverie, she also chides her husband for fearing Banquo’s ghost (5.1.62–64). Yet, the memory of Duncan’s blood haunts her. She sees it. She smells it. What is that letter that she writes in her sleep? Is she belatedly warning Lady Macduff of danger? Or, is she writing to her husband, who, a gentleman reports, has left Dunsinane to suppress rebellion? Perhaps guilt overwhelms her; perhaps she finds that she has paid too high a price for her dream. Hers is the tragedy of getting what she wants; her success kills her.

The Witches

These equivocators have received varying treatment over the centuries. In William Davenant’s adaptation, they are comic rather than threatening, and this tradition persisted through the 18th and into the 19th century. Thomas Davies, David Garrick’s biographer, remarked in his Dramatic Miscellanies at the end of the 18th century, “Since all the tragic actors of a company were needed elsewhere in the play, none but the comic actors are left” for the witches’ parts (119). Davies defended this humorous interpretation. In a journal entry for February 18, 1833, Fanny Kemble observed: “It has always been customary—heaven only knows why,—to make low comedians act the witches, and to dress them like old fishwomen.” According to Kemble, they were outfitted with peaked hats and broomsticks. Hazlitt complained that in the early 19th-century production he saw, the witches were “ridiculous.”

An armed head, conjured by the witches, tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff in Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This illustration was designed for a 1918 edition of Charles and Mary Lambs Tales from Shakespeare. An armed head, conjured by the witches, tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff in Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This illustration was designed for a 1918 edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. (Illustration by Louis Rhead)

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Holinshed called the witches “eyther the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) ye Goddesses of destinie, or else some Nimphes, or Feiries.” Tyrone Guthrie in his 1934 Old Vic production cut the opening scene because, he maintained, to have the witches open the play implied that they controlled the action. In his 1939 edition of the work, George Lyman Kittredge claimed they did just that. For him, they are like the Scandinavian Norns, or fates.

Kittredge inconsistently insisted that Macbeth, nonetheless, has free will. Most critics share this view. Hence, they deny the witches the power to determine behavior. In Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), A. C. Bradley proleptically rejected Kittredge’s position. Bradley wrote: “The Witches... are not goddesses or fates, or, in any way whatever, supernatural beings” (341). He regards them as old women with supernatural powers. Their words prove fatal to Macbeth “because there is in him something which leaps into light at the sound of them; but they are at the same time witness of forces which never cease to work in the world around him, and, on the instant of his surrender to them entangle him inextricably in the web of Fate” (349). As noted in the “Background” section, in Daemonlogie, King James maintained that Satan can deceive only those who “first willfully deceive themselves by running unto him, whom God then suffers to fall in their owne snares, and justly permits them to be illuded with great efficacie of deceit.” Garber likens the witches to Iago; they “allow [Macbeth] to interpret things as he wants to see them” (698).

Upon first seeing the witches, Banquo declares, “You should be women,” (1.3.45), and that is how some directors and critics see them, as merely human. Theodore Komisarjevsky’s 1933 Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon banished the supernatural. Banquo’s ghost is Macbeth’s shadow, and the witches are only old women. Joan Littlewood (1957) and Peter Hall (1967) treated them this way as well. Hall said he wanted them to resemble old women one might find along the Thames Embankment or the New York Bowery (before these were gentrified). Harbage calls the witches “musty crones of popular superstition, not ministers of fate” (373).

Though Banquo speaks of their hairy chins, “choppy finger[s],” and thin lips (1.3.44–46), not all directors have made the witches old and ugly. In the 1577 edition of Holinshed, they appear young and attractive in the woodcut showing their first meeting with Macbeth. Thomas Heywood retold the Macbeth story in his Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (1635); he describes the witches as “Virgins wondrous faire.” A 1965 Edinburgh production cast three beautiful young blonds in these roles. Trevor Nunn, prompted by their line, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11), used one beautiful and two ugly witches.

Shakespeare may have read George Buchanan’s version of the Macbeth story, in which the witches are figments of Macbeth’s mind. By the 1580s, writers such as Buchanan and Reginald Scot (The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584) were challenging the idea of witches, and by 1606, even King James was having doubts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century regarded them as symbolizing “the shadowy obscure and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, the lawless of human nature.” Garber rejects this purely metaphoric interpretation, but it appeals to modern sensibility and heightens the psychological aspects of the play.


Duncan’s main function in the play is to be killed. He speaks 69 lines, or about half those given to Ross (134 lines) and just five more than Lennox. He is present in only three scenes (1.2, 1.4, 1.6). Symbolically, he represents the good king. Macbeth praises him even while contemplating regicide (1.7.16–20), and Duncan’s excellences almost persuade Macbeth not to commit murder. Shakespeare improved on the weak figure of the play’s sources; in the play, Duncan does not fight the rebels himself because he is old, not because he is weak. He shows concern for the wounded Sergeant, sending him off with attendants to secure medical help. He generously rewards Macbeth for valor and Lady Macbeth for hospitality, and he acknowledges the burden a royal visit places on his entertainers (1.6.11–12). He dispenses justice, condemning the traitorous thane of Cawdor while rewarding loyal supporters.

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Duncan’s language of fertility contrasts with Macbeth’s images of barrenness, just as Duncan’s just reign highlights Macbeth’s tyranny. In making his son his heir, Duncan was violating the 11th-century Scottish practice of tanistry, or elective monarchy, yet, even if English audiences in 1606 were aware of this ancient practice, they would have regarded hereditary monarchy as the norm and would have approved of Duncan’s effort to preclude a succession crisis such as England had experienced in 1553 and again in 1603.

Duncan is, however, innocent and naive. He trusted the first thane of Cawdor and does not suspect the second of harboring treacherous thoughts. Arriving at Inverness, Duncan observes: “This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” (1.6.1–3). The dramatic irony of this speech is palpable. He also commends the love the Macbeths show him. In his final speech, he asks Lady Macbeth for her hand, which shortly will be coated with his blood.


Shakespeare improved Banquo’s character from the co-conspirator he found in Holinshed to Macbeth’s foil. He warns Macbeth not to trust the witches’ prophecies, even after the first of these comes true when Macbeth is named thane of Cawdor. To Macbeth’s suggestion that Banquo will gain honor by siding with him, Banquo replies: “So I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchis’d and allegiance clear” (2.1.26–28). Whereas Macbeth will sacrifice conscience and loyalty to make the witches’ words come true, Banquo refuses to do so.

Not that he is ignorant of temptation. Unable to sleep, perhaps because the witches’ prediction troubles him, he prays: “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (2.1.7–9). Just before these lines, he gives his dagger to his son. Soon afterward, Macbeth sees his mind-drawn dagger that presages his regicide and draws his real weapon. Shakespeare thus creates a visual contrast between these two men.

Like so much else in this play, Banquo nonetheless remains equivocal. Although he suspects Macbeth of killing Duncan, he says nothing. Nor does he shun the new king. For him, the death of Duncan is made less a heinous crime in that it relates to an opportunity for his descendants to gain the throne (3.1.1–10). His final act is nonetheless noble: As he battles his assassins, he urges his son to fly.


This character, too, contrasts with Macbeth. Horrified by Duncan’s murder, he quickly suspects Macbeth and, unlike Banquo, distances himself from the usurper. For the good of his country, he leaves his home, unguarded, to go to England to urge Malcolm to supplant the tyrant. His wife initially condemns this action but before her death recognizes that he acted properly. She is glad that he has not remained in Scotland to be killed with the rest of his family. He successfully persuades Malcolm to return to Scotland with an army and kills Macbeth, thereby freeing Scotland from bad rule and also avenging his personal losses. He proves a loyal follower of Malcolm, whereas Macbeth was a faithless subject of Malcolm’s father.

Macduff kills Macbeth in Act V, Scene 8, as depicted in a plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. Macduff kills Macbeth in Act V, Scene 8, as depicted in a plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

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Macduff also offers a vision of manhood that contrasts with Macbeth’s. In Act I, Scene 7, Macbeth and his wife discuss this concept. Initially, he refuses to kill Duncan because Macbeth recognizes the limits that manhood imposes: “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (46–47). Lady Macbeth disagrees: “When thou durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man” (49–51). Her definition of manhood endorses violence and excludes feelings for others. Macbeth accepts her interpretation, agreeing to kill Duncan and declaring, “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (72–74).

When Macduff learns of the death of his family, he presents a more humane face of manhood as he openly displays his grief. Malcolm urges him to “Dispute it like a man” (4.3.220). Macduff’s weeping and pulling his hat upon his brows (4.3.207) strike the king’s son as unmanly. Macduff’s line “He has no children” (4.3.216) may refer to Macbeth, but it might as well mean that childless Malcolm cannot recognize the emotions of a bereft father. Macduff retorts: “I shall do so [dispute it like a man]; / But I must also feel it like a man” (4.3.220–221). Manliness is not only fighting, killing, pursuing ambition, and revenge. To be a man, Macduff maintains, to be fully human, is also to grieve.

Macbeth loses this ability. Hearing a shriek provoked by his wife’s death, he observes: “I have almost forgot the taste of fears. /... I have supp’d full with horrors; / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, / Cannot once start me” (5.5.9–15). Learning that Lady Macbeth is dead, he can say only, “She should have died hereafter” (5.5.17). His (and his wife’s) vision of manliness leads to isolation and death.

Difficulties of the Play

The poet and dramatist John Dryden already found Shakespeare’s language challenging in the late 17th century. Dryden in “The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy” observed that Shakespeare “often obscures his meanings by his words, and sometimes makes it unintelligible... The fury of his fancy often transported him beyond the bounds of judgment, either in coining of new words and phrases, or racking words which were in use into the violence of a catachresis.” Catachresis is the application of a word to a thing it does not properly denote, as when Macbeth speaks of “daggers... breech’d with gore” (2.3.115–116), suggesting by breech’d that the blood on them served as pants covering their nakedness.

Macbeth presents speeches of unusual obscurity and complexity, even for Shakespeare. Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act I, Scene 7 (discussed in “Key Passages”) provoked Samuel Johnson, who produced an edition of Shakespeare in 1765, to comment, “The meaning is not very clear: I have never found the readers of Shakespeare agreeing about it.” Of a later speech (2.1.33–64), Johnson remarks, “I believe every one that has attentively read this dreadful soliloquy is disappointed at the conclusion, which, if not wholly unintelligible, is, at least, obscure, nor can be explained into any sense worthy of the author.” Like many others, Johnson cannot explain what Macbeth means by “the perfect spy o’ th’ time” (3.1.130). Malcolm’s lines, “That which you are, my thoughts cannot transpose: / Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. / Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so” (4.3.21–24), elicit Johnson’s direct remark, “This is not very clear.”

Other characters give similarly puzzling speeches. Lady Macbeth seems to mix her metaphors when she asks, “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?” (1.7.35–36). How does one dress in drunken hope? Macbeth tells his wife, “ere to black Hecat’s summons / The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums / Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done / A deed of dreadful note” (3.2.41–44). How does a drowsy hum become the pealing of a bell? Later, Ross describes the time as one in which “we hold rumor / From what we fear, / But float upon a wild and violent sea / Each way and move” (4.2.19–22). These lines are cut in a promptbook dating from about 1630, perhaps indicating that an early director found them hard to comprehend. The witches’ equivocal lines also puzzle.

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One question that has always puzzled readers is that of Lady Macbeth’s children. Lady Macbeth clearly says she has suckled an infant, but no son or daughter of the Macbeths appears in the play. Historically, Macbeth was her second husband, so Lady Macbeth may have had one or more children from her first marriage. The play, however, leaves the matter unclear. (Some critics have declared the question pointless; in a famous essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” (1932), L. C. Knights mocked treatments of Shakespeare’s characters as real people.) Similarly, the play seems to leave open the Third Murderer involved in killing Duncan. Only two murderers seem to be needed. The first Murderer expresses the feelings of many a reader and viewer upon seeing this mysterious figure: “But who did bid thee join with us?” (3.3.1).

Finally, Macbeth’s connection to contemporary politics often poses a problem for students. Although the play is set in 11th-century Scotland, it draws on such English events of the early 17th century as the Gunpowder Plot and King James’s fascination with witches. For example, the Porter scene (2.3; discussed in Difficult Passages below) makes much more sense if one understands the then burning concern with Jesuitical equivocation. Knowledge of historical context can be useful in appreciating the play.

Key Passages

Act I, Scene 7, 1–27

MACBETH. If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. 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 murtherer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’ other—

Macbeth has stolen away from the feast with Duncan, just as in Act I, Scene 3, he had withdrawn from his comrades to contemplate the killing of the king. This scene opens with music and with servants crossing the stage bearing platters of food, symbols of revelry and companionship. A feast represents communion, both sacred and profane. Here, and again in Act III, Scene 4, Macbeth’s imaginings do not allow him to partake of that unity with others. Already isolated, he will grow only more so as the play progresses.

In Othello, Desdemona declares: “I cannot say, ‘whore.’ / It does abhor me now I speak the word. / To do the act that might the addition earn, / Not the world’s mass of vanity could make me” (4.2.161–164). Macbeth similarly cannot say the word murder; he can call his contemplated regicide only “it.” He says “the assassination,” not “my assassination”; “his murtherer,” not “me.” He uses “we” in “We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases / We still have judgment here.” Perhaps he already thinks himself king and is using the royal plural personal pronoun. Perhaps he is including his wife. He may also be stating a general proposition that again removes him from the immediate situation. When he shifts to “I” later in this soliloquy, he abandons his plan to kill Duncan. The hypermetric lines of 11 and even 12 syllables (for example, lines 2, 7, 10, and 11) and deranged syntax reflect his agitation.

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In this soliloquy’s opening lines, Macbeth seeks to reduce the future to the instant, to deny actions any consequence beyond the moment. Lady Macbeth shares this view: “This night’s great business... / shall to all our nights and days to come / Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom” (1.5.68–70). Later, she declares: “what’s done, is done” (3.2.12). Even before he commits his first murder, Macbeth recognizes the fallacy of this position. Even if he could avoid damnation for his crime—and his use of the subjunctive “we’ld” (we would) shows he understands he cannot—he will face condemnation in this world. His regicide will sanction his own deposition.

As he continues to think aloud, he discovers other reasons that dissuade him from killing the king. Typical of this play, he finds three arguments: hospitality, kinship, and Duncan’s excellences as a ruler. Social, familial, and political concerns argue against Macbeth’s bloody thoughts. Most important among reasons, as the imagery of the end of the speech indicates, is the biblical injunction against murder. Macbeth speaks of trumpet-tongued angels, damnation, and cherubim. In “Education and the University,” F. R. Leavis commented: “What we have in this passage is a conscience-tormented imagination, vivid with terror of the supernatural, proclaiming a certitude that ‘murder will out,’ a certitude appalling to Macbeth not because of the consequences on ‘this bank and shoal of time’ (1.7.6) but by reason of a sense of sin—the radical hold on him of religious sanctions” (318).

By the end of this passage, Macbeth has argued himself into rejecting the plan to kill Duncan. Rosenberg observes of this speech,

What Macbeth is envisioning, in his wild poetry, is in fact a projection of the struggle being fought out in his interior battleground—his impulses of innocence and humankindness striving to manage and tame the Dionysian storm. The progression of the soliloquy parallels what happens within Macbeth himself; violent impulses are eventually subdued by the more powerful force of a rising tenderness (261).

Macbeth acknowledges that he has “no spur / to prick the sides of my intent,” a trope suggested by the earlier reference to the horsed cherubim. But, before he can complete his final sentence, Lady Macbeth enters. She will provide the spur that will goad him to do what he knows is wrong and will lead to his downfall.

Act II, Scene 1, 33–64

MACBETH. 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?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still;
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. Now o’er the one half world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecat’s off’rings; and wither’d Murther,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
The very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
[A bell rings.]
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.

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Macbeth’s vivid imagination has been evident from his first appearance, when the thought of killing Duncan entranced him so because he could picture the deed in his mind’s eye. Now that same thought of murder conjures up a mind-forged dagger, such as he is about to use, and then coats it with Duncan’s soon-to-be-spilled blood. He has resolved to commit the murder, but his subconscious that raised the vision remains as horrified by the deed as it was in Act I, Scene 3.

He dismisses the dagger as unreal, but his description of night again reveals how vexed his thoughts remain. He speaks of bad dreams troubling sleep, a foreshadowing of his own inability to sleep once he kills Duncan. His mind reverts to the witches, whom he links to murder. These references to witches and Hecate join him to the forces of darkness and evil, marking him as damned as they are. Then, his mind shifts to Tarquin, ravisher of Lucrece. For a momentary pleasure, this king of ancient Rome was deposed. Macbeth’s allusion indicates that his action will not produce lasting happiness; rather it will bring about his downfall. Still, he imagines that the bell he hears summons him to kill Duncan, even though the last words of the speech raise once more the prospect of divine judgment, not just for Duncan, but for Macbeth.

Act V, Scene 5, 17–28

MACBETH. She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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.

These, among the best known of Shakespeare’s lines, serve as Macbeth’s elegy to his dead wife and to his squandered life. A comparison between Macduff’s heartfelt response to the news of his spouse’s murder and Macbeth’s unfeeling reflection reveals how far the latter has isolated himself from humanity. He recognizes his transformation earlier in this scene when, hearing a cry of women prompted by the discovery of the queen’s body, he reflects:

The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t. I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. (5.5.9–15)

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The opening lines of this monologue are ambiguous. Perhaps Macbeth wishes his wife had died at another time when he would not be distracted by imminent battle. Then he would have been able to mourn properly. Perhaps he wishes she had lived longer. Alternatively, he might mean that Lady Macbeth was going to die sometime anyway. In this last interpretation, he expresses the same fatalism as Hamlet: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all” (Hamlet 5.2.220–222). The rest of the speech reflects at least as much on his condition as it does on his wife’s, again indicating how far removed Macbeth has grown from the woman he once called “my dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11). Indicating this division, the two never appear onstage together after Act III, Scene 4.

Macbeth and his wife had thought to arrest time, to reduce the future to the instant (1.5.58), to make the killing of Duncan “the be-all and the end-all” (1.7.5). Now, Macbeth acknowledges that time—the play contains 44 mentions of this word—moves inexorably onward. Macbeth’s speeches follow a stream-of-consciousness pattern. In his soliloquy opening Act I, Scene 7, the image of trumpet-tongued angels leads to horsed cherubim and the reference of horses conjures up the reference to a spur. Here, “yesterdays” lighting the way suggests a candle, which reminds the audience of the one Lady Macbeth carries in her sleepwalking scene. That earlier candle now emerges as a beacon that possibly guided her to suicide. The candle calls to mind a shadow, one meaning of which is an actor (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.423), hence the reference to the poor player. The Globe Theatre’s Latin motto, “Totus Mundus Agit Historionum,” means, “All the world plays the player.” Or, as Jacques’s loose translation states, “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It, 2.7.139). Rosenberg regards this imagistic linking as “reflecting the agonized, roaming mind” (613).

Macbeth nihilistically reduces life to a meaningless script created by an idiot and acted by fools. Macbeth here reaches the nadir of despair, denying himself, as well as everyone else, volition and free will, rejecting any meaning in life. Rosenberg writes: “Macbeth puts into words the mortal frustration with a world that seems to lie in wait to baffle and enervate the trusting” (613). Immediately after Macbeth delivers these lines, a messenger arrives to announce that Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane. The witches had assured Macbeth that he would not be defeated until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.93–94). Yet, the moving grove presaging his overthrow instills in him new determination. Resolving to confront the enemy despite the witches’ warning, he disdains fortune as he had in fighting Macdonwald and Norway (1.2.17). The heroic soldier resurfaces for one final battle. The candle blazes up one last time before it is extinguished. For Macbeth, like the previous thane of Cawdor, “Nothing in his life / [Becomes] him like the leaving it” (1.4.7–8).

Difficult Passages

Act I, Scene 5, 39–55

LADY MACBETH. 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 topful
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring 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!”

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Viola Allen as Lady Macbeth Viola Allen as Lady Macbeth (Photographed by White Studio)

This scene begins with Lady Macbeth entering with the letter her husband has sent her to report his meeting with the witches and their predictions. Having read this account, she declares: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised” (1.5.15–16). This threefold naming of Macbeth echoes the witches’ greeting to him in Act I, Scene 3, thus linking Lady Macbeth with those forces of darkness. She then declares she will spur Macbeth to regicide. A messenger interrupts her reflections to announce that Duncan will spend that very night in her castle.

As soon as she is alone again, she states her intention to seize this opportunity to kill the king. In this complicated speech, she imagines that the raven, a harbinger of death, has crowed itself hoarse predicting Duncan’s demise. To achieve her goal, she calls upon evil spirits (perhaps the witches?) to remove any feminine pity she may possess. Her invocation rejects fertility and nurture (“Make thick my blood”; “take my milk for gall”), foreshadowing the “barren scepter” (3.1.61) that Macbeth will gain. This speech’s imagery of hell and night again unite her with the forces of evil and destruction that she summons, turning Lady Macbeth into a witch herself. She even knows how she will commit the crime (“my keen knife”).

At the end of this speech, Macbeth enters, and her greeting once more repeats that of the witches, joining her with them: “Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!” (1.5.54–55). Yet, her attempts to demonize herself fail. She can goad Macbeth into killing Duncan, but she cannot commit the crime herself because, she says, the king resembles her father (2.2.12–13). This excuse may be rationalization. Even if true, her inability to kill shows that she retains a measure of compunction. This feeling will overwhelm her in Act 5, Scene 1 and cause her death, perhaps by her own hand. The last lines of her soliloquy anticipate her failure to abandon her humanity, as she summons darkness to prevent God from seeing what she does and stopping her. Like Macbeth, she knows that she is violating divine as well as human law. Neither of them can permanently suppress that knowledge, and it is this inner struggle that will destroy them both.

Act II, Scene 3, 1–25

PORTER. Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key. [Knock] Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Belzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins enow about you, here you’ll sweat for’t. [Knock] Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator. [Knock] Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor, here you may roast your goose. [Knock] Knock, knock! Never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire. [Knock] Anon, anon! [Opens the gate.] I pray you remember the porter.

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The only comic episode in the play (unless one regards the witches as humorous), this speech comes between the high tension of Duncan’s murder (2.1–2.2) and the discovery of his death later in Act II, Scene 3. (Thomas de Quincey wrote a well-known exegesis of this opening of Act II, Scene 3; see “Extracts of Classic Criticism” below.) It thus provides a needed emotional oasis for the audience. It also provides time for Macbeth and his wife to wash their hands and put on their night clothes. (When productions cut this part of the scene, which retards rather than advances the plot, actors are hard-pressed to switch outfits.) But the dense, allusive nature of the speech makes it quite difficult for audiences to grasp.

The Porter, who has drunk not wisely but too well during the revelry celebrating Duncan’s visit, hears the knocking that began at the end of the previous scene and that alerted Macbeth and his wife to retire. As he rises from bed, still half asleep and perhaps half dressed, he imagines he is opening not the south entry of the castle at Inverness but the gates of hell. The first person he imagines admitting is a farmer who hoarded grain, expecting food prices to rise because of a poor harvest. When crops were plentiful, his investment declined in value, so he killed himself. In Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1599), Sordido, a speculator in crops, enters in Act III, Scene 2 with a halter around his neck because he expected storms, but the weather was fair, leading to a bountiful harvest and low food prices. Macbeth premiered at the Globe, and Shakespeare’s company performed it for King James on January 8, 1605. Shakespeare was himself a grain speculator and so knew the emotions of such a person. Harvests in the period surrounding the play had been good, and food, cheap. The farmer may have hanged himself with a large napkin, which he still wears as he comes to hell’s gate.

This farmer who hangs himself “on th’ expectation of plenty” draws on another contemporary reference as well: Father Henry Garnet (mentioned in the “Background” section) used the name Farmer as one of his aliases. He is probably the equivocator who enters hell after the farmer. Equivocation was linked to treason. The third entrant, the thieving tailor, stole fabric given to him to make French hose. This fashionable article was either so tight that any stealing would be obvious or so loose that it would not be. Another possible meaning of “stealing out of a French hose” is sexual.

All three men resemble Macbeth. Like the farmer, Macbeth’s expectations will go unmet. As Lady Macbeth reflects in Act III, Scene 2, “Nought’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content” (4–5). Like the equivocator, Macbeth commits treason, and he steals, not fabric, but the crown. The cavalcade of the damned, like a Dance of Death, could go on, but the Porter has been sufficiently awakened by the cold to recognize where he is. He admits Macduff and Lennox and asks them for a tip for his service.

The changes the Porter rings on the knock-knock joke provide more than laughter and time for the principals to change costumes, however important these functions are. In “Hell-Castle and Its Door-Keeper,” Glynn Wickham compares this episode to “The Harrowing of Hell” in medieval mystery cycles. These plays were still being performed during Shakespeare’s youth, though they were subsequently banned in Protestant England as Catholic vestiges. In this mystery play (so called because the plays were staged by craft guilds, known as “mysteries” for their trade secrets), Christ knocks at hell’s gate, and a comic janitor under the command of Beelzebub opens it (“Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Belzebub?”). Jesus then enters, looking for Satan, as Macduff, who will save Scotland by killing the tyrant, comes seeking Macbeth, who, like Lucifer, aspired to a throne not his, committed crimes to obtain it, and was finally defeated “in his own castle by a savior-avenger” (Wickham 74). This episode also recalls Revelation 3:20: “One like the Son of Man [Jesus] says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.’ ” Audiences familiar with the mystery play would recognize that by killing Duncan, Macbeth has turned his castle into hell and has damned himself. As he acknowledges later, “For Banquo’s issue have I fil’d my mind, /... and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man” (3.1.64–68). Stylistically, this scene maintains the triadic mode of so much else in the play. The Porter imagines admitting three damned souls and twice says, “Knock, knock, knock!”

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Critical Introduction to the Play


A recurring theme in literature is the disparity between appearance and reality. Theater particularly invites an examination of this issue, since it presents illusion in the guise of reality but also reality (in the sense of truth) in the guise of illusion. As noted in the “Background” section, one of the matters debated during King James’s 1605 visit to Oxford was whether the imagination could produce real effects. This question remains vital today; consider the placebo effect of sugar pills given as medicine. In the Renaissance, the matter carried particular weight as empiricism was displacing authority as the chief way of knowing. Macbeth challenges the validity of the senses. After the witches vanish from Act I, Scene 3, Banquo wonders: “Were such things here as we do speak about? / Or have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” (83–85).

In the next scene, Duncan remarks of the traitorous thane of Cawdor, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (11–14). Duncan then places his faith in the new thane of Cawdor, who proves equally treacherous. He also praises Lady Macbeth’s hospitality even as she contrives his murder. He cannot see the serpent hiding beneath “th’ innocent flower” (1.5.65).

The witches answer Macbeths questions with visions in this 19th-century depiction of Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth. The witches answer Macbeth’s questions with visions in this 19th-century depiction of Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth. (Illustration by Joshua Reynolds; engraving by Samuel Reynolds)

Macbeth sees a dagger of the mind and the ghost of Banquo. He hears a voice proclaiming he will sleep no more. Banquo shares the first vision of the witches, but only Macbeth encounters them a second time. In both instances (1.3 and 4.1), they tell him what he is already thinking—that he will be king and that Macduff is dangerous. Do his thoughts conjure up the witches, or do the witches fortify his ideas? Lady Macbeth, asleep, sees and smells the blood of Duncan on her hands; awake, she had imagined Duncan resembled her father. An invading army looks like a moving grove. The queen’s death is ambiguous, perhaps suicide. Malcolm, echoing his father, acknowledges the limits of empirical evidence as he tries to assess Macduff’s loyalty: “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. / Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so” (4.3.22–24).

The theme of myth versus reality runs throughout Shakespeare’s work. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus rejects the story the lovers tell of their time in the woods: “I never may believe / These antic fables, nor these fairy toys” (5.1.2–3). Ironically, he is himself a mythical figure. The audience, having seen events unfold, dismisses his skepticism. At the end of the play, though, Puck suggests that the entire play may have been a dream. In Shakespeare’s other fairy play, The Tempest, Prospero, often viewed as the playwright’s surrogate, says that existence itself is a dream. Macbeth questions reality in much the same way. Banquo’s wondering whether the witches are real is just one obvious example.

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The play similarly examines the reliability of language. The witches equivocate (that is, speak what is literally true but in a manner intended to deceive) with Macbeth, but even among themselves they speak ambiguously: “When the battle’s lost and won” (1.1.4), “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11), “Double, double, toil and trouble” (4.1.10, 20, 35). Lady Macbeth speaks of her devotion to Duncan as she plots his death. Macbeth tells Banquo he looks forward to the latter’s company at an evening’s feast while expecting his former friend to be dead by then. Macbeth suborns Banquo’s killers by deceiving them into believing Banquo is responsible for their miseries. Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan by telling him he will be more the man if he commits the murder, that no one will suspect them, and kingship will provide “sovereign sway and masterdom” (1.5.70). These arguments are false. Macbeth knows that his supporters offer him only “mouth-honor, breath, / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not” (5.3.27–28). Their words cannot be trusted any more than his own or, as he learns too late, the witches’ promises.

Communication fails in this play. Characters do not speak to one another so much as they speak past or ignore. Communication is love, and in this play, communication is tainted. Speech is ironic or riddling, with the meaning sometimes unknown even to the speaker, as when Macbeth, in Act III, Scene 4, wishes for Banquo’s presence, only to be appalled when his ghost appears. As Lawrence Dawson notes in Tragic Alphabet, “Macbeth’s deed is an overturning of normal values and relationships, and the language of the play (the Weird Sister’s speeches being only the most obvious example) follows the action into the chaotic world he establishes, into the realm of impossibility, beyond the powers of ordinary conception, beyond the proper sphere of words” (126).

Like Shakespeare’s history plays, which Macbeth in many ways resembles, this play examines the nature of kingship. Duncan and Malcolm exemplify good rule, whereas Macbeth illustrates tyranny and its consequences. Nature itself alters when kingship is corrupted, as the conversation between Ross and the Old Man illustrates in Act II, Scene 4. Ross again comments on the inversions resulting from bad rule when he notes, “good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken” (4.3.171–173). Trees move; a man not born of woman kills Macbeth. In a 1621 sermon, Robert Bolton stated:

Take sovereignty from the face of the earth, and you turne it into a Cockpit. Men would become cut-throats and cannibals one unto another. Murder, adulteries, incests, rapes, robberies, perjuries, witchcrafts, blasphemies, all kinds of villainies, outrages, and savage cruelty, would overflow all Countries. We should have a very hell upon earth, and the face of it covered with blood, as it was once with water.

These words sound like a gloss upon the fruits of Macbeth’s regicide.

More frightening than the consequences to Scotland of Duncan’s death is its cost to Macbeth and his wife. The depictions of the murder of Banquo and the attack on Macduff’s castle are moving, but these events occupy only two scenes; Duncan’s killing occurs offstage. The focus of the play is less on external events than on the disintegration of characters who destroy themselves through their effort to transcend moral boundaries. This theme, which pervades tragedy from fifth-century B.C. Athens onward, receives one of its most potent expressions in Macbeth.

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Macbeth unfolds rapidly, without a subplot. Though historically, Macbeth ruled 17 years, the play makes his reign seem to last only a few months. (Shakespeare employed this kind of compression in his other historical dramas as well.) The arc of the action traces Macbeth’s rise and fall. The opening scene sets the tone of the entire work, with thunder and lightning indicating the political and psychological tempests to come. The witches introduce the note of evil that pervades the play, and their equivocation will echo repeatedly in characters’ speeches.

The second scene moves to Duncan’s camp and news of battle. Descriptions of the fighting and the sight of the bloody Sergeant enhance the feeling of discord created in the previous scene. Yet, the reports from the field describe the defeat of rebellion and the return of order. As Shakespeare often does, he here allows others to speak of the protagonist before the audience meets him. The third scene introduces Macbeth, whom the Sergeant and Ross have portrayed as a heroic warrior. His first appearance highlights not his deeds but his thoughts, and he will not show his physical heroism again until the end of the play. The witches reappear to dominate this scene. Their presence and words reveal that the order established by the defeat of Duncan’s foes will be short-lived.

In Act I, Scene 4, the focus returns to Duncan and order, as the king rewards loyalty and establishes succession. Evil returns in Act 1, Scene 5, with Lady Macbeth’s invocation of “murth’ring ministers” (1.5.48). Although the witches are absent, Lady Macbeth serves as a suitable surrogate. Duncan makes his final appearance in Act I, Scene 6, where his courteous speech and optimistic outlook and Banquo’s references to fertility contrast with Act I, Scene 5 and 7, in which Macbeth and his wife resolve on regicide.

The second act begins in the darkness that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have invoked. Night dominates the first two scenes, in which Duncan is murdered. Although morning comes in Scene 3, Ross notes in the following scene that “dark night strangles the traveling lamp,” that is, the Sun (2.4.7). Macbeth’s murder has blotted out the light.

The third act opens in daylight but moves to darkness again with Banquo’s death (3.3) and the feast in which his ghost frightens Macbeth (3.4). That central scene—Act III, Scene 4—epitomizes the play. It begins in order, as Macbeth tells his guests, “You know your own degrees, sit down. At first / And last, the hearty welcome” (1–2). He sounds like Duncan here. The mood quickly changes, though, and by the end of the scene, Lady Macbeth must assume control, this in itself a breach of hierarchy, and orders the guests, “Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once” (118–119). The scene also marks the turning point of the action. It is the last time Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear together, and Macduff is mentioned here as Macbeth’s antagonist. After a possibly interpolated scene with the witches (3.5), Lennox and a Lord again speak of Macduff and his journey to England to promote Scotland’s liberation. Hope dawns.

With Macbeth’s visit to the witches (4.1) and massacre of Macduff’s family (4.2), evil remains dominant, but Act IV, Scene 3 heralds its defeat as Malcolm and Macduff in England prepare to invade Scotland. A brief discussion of Edward the Confessor’s healing scrofula (known as the “king’s evil”) foreshadows Scotland’s return to political health. This curing is effected in Act V, in which scenes alternate, as they had in Act I, between the forces of darkness and death (5.1, 5.3, 5.5) and those of redemption and renewal (5.2, 5.4, 5.6). Macbeth dominates the former and Malcolm and his allies dominate the latter, just as in Act I the odd scenes belong to the witches and plots of murder and the even scenes to Duncan, order, and justice. In Act V, Scenes 7–9, Macbeth confronts his opponents and is defeated. The play ends with Malcolm’s establishing a new order from the old chaos.

Shakespeare’s two tetralogies of English history similarly moved from strife to peace but, when combined chronologically, told a rather different story. Henry V’s glorious reign, which caps the second tetralogy, would prove short-lived and yield to the Wars of the Roses of the first set of histories. Shakespeare’s epilogue to Henry V highlights this circular sense of history. Macbeth, in which ambiguity predominates, ends equivocally as well. The play begins with the defeat and decapitation of a traitor, Macdonwald, by Duncan’s chief warrior, Macbeth. The work ends with the defeat and decapitation of another traitor, Macbeth, by Duncan’s son’s chief warrior, Macduff. This circularity suggests that the whole process may repeat itself. Roman Polanski’s 1971 film version emphasized this aspect of the play: It concludes with Donalbain’s going to consult the witches. Another regicide looms.

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Macbeth instructs the murderers in Act III, Scene 1 of Macbeth. Print from Malcolm C. Salamans 1916 edition of Shakespeare in Pictorial Art Macbeth instructs the murderers in Act III, Scene 1 of Macbeth. Print from Malcolm C. Salaman’s 1916 edition of Shakespeare in Pictorial Art (Illustration by George Cattermole)

The play’s structure may be anatomized in diverse ways. The first three acts, which include the killing of Duncan and Banquo, work out the consequences of the witches’ prophecy in Act I, Scene 3. The final two acts bring to fruition the predictions of the witches in Act IV, Scene 1. Alternatively, Act 1 may be seen as prologue to the imperial theme. Shakespeare here introduces most of the major characters and the initial conflict from which the play’s actions will flow. In Act II, Macbeth kills Duncan to gain the throne. Feeling insecure in his new position because of Banquo’s knowledge of the witches’ prophecy and their promise that Banquo’s line, rather than Macbeth’s, will rule in the future, Macbeth, in Act III, commits his next crime, the killing of his former friend. Macbeth still feels threatened, now by Macduff, whose family he destroys in Act IV. This series of butcheries redounds upon him in Act V, as Malcolm, the son of his first victim, and Macduff, his last, join to topple the tyrant and restore the kingship to the man Duncan named his heir in the first act.

The play is built around three locations: Inverness in Acts I and II; Forres, where the Macbeths as monarchs reside in Act III; and Dunsinane, where they seek refuge against the growing revolts in Acts IV and V. Three figures also dominate the action. In the first two acts, the action revolves around Duncan. In Act III, Banquo (and his ghost) takes center stage. The final two acts belong to Macduff, first as victim, then as conqueror.

Language and imagery also link scenes. In Act I, Scene 1, the witches declare: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (11). Macbeth’s first words are “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.38). Lady Macbeth, in Act I, Scene 5, echoes the witches’ threefold greeting to Macbeth in Act I, Scene 3. Macbeth’s statement in Act II, Scene 2 that all the oceans cannot wash Duncan’s blood from his hands anticipates Lady Macbeth’s inability in Act V, Scene 1 to remove its traces and smell from hers. Act II, Scene 4; Act III, Scene 6; and Act IV, Scene 3 rehearse Scotland’s plight under Macbeth. The play’s second scene introduces a bloody Sergeant. The witches in Act IV, Scene 1 conjure up a bloody baby, and in Act IV, Scene 2 Macduff’s child is stabbed. Young Siward is killed onstage in Act V, Scene 7. As noted above, Act I, Scene 2 reports the decapitation of Macdonwald; Macduff enters in Act V, Scene 9 with Macbeth’s severed head. In Act I, Scene 4 Duncan holds court to reward those who defeated his enemies; in Act V, Scene 9 Malcolm does the same.

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Style and Imagery

In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Spurgeon writes:

The imagery in Macbeth appears to me to be more rich and varied, more highly imaginative, more unapproachable by any other writer, than that of any other single play.... The ideas in the imagery are in themselves more imaginative, more subtle and complex than in other plays, and there are a greater number of them, interwoven the one with the other, recurring and repeating. (324)

As always in Shakespeare, the figures of speech in Macbeth serve as more than verbal ornament: They carry the burden of the play’s meaning.

One important set of images relates to clothing. Hailed by Ross as thane of Cawdor, an incredulous Macbeth replies: “Why do you dress me / In borrow’d robes? (1.3.108–109). Here and elsewhere in the play, clothes serve as a metonym for honors and titles that may be donned and doffed and stolen. They mask the individual and are external to, rather than an integral part of, a person. Banquo picks up on Macbeth’s language to explain Macbeth’s musings upon learning of his new dignity: “New honors come upon him, / Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould / But with the aid of use” (1.3.144–146).

Macbeth again links honors and clothes when he tells his wife, “He [Duncan] hath honored 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.” Lady Macbeth immediately seizes upon this metaphor, exclaiming, “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself?” (1.7.32–36). Should Macbeth content himself with the recognition he has received or try to gain the garb of kingship? After he chooses the latter, Macduff tells Ross, who is going to see Macbeth’s coronation, “Well, may you see things well done there: adieu! / Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!” (2.4.37–38).

Usurping kingship, Macbeth has indeed dressed himself in borrowed robes, and these fit him poorly. He has brought chaos to Scotland. Caithness reflects on this situation when he observes that Macbeth “cannot buckle his distemper’d cause / Within the belt of rule” (5.2.15–16). Angus concurs: “Now does he feel his title / Hang loose upon him, like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (5.2.20–22). Like a poor player (the Greek word for which is hypocrite), Macbeth has disguised himself as a king by dressing as one, but he is not truly royal. His true clothing is soldierly. Ross describes him as “lapp’d in proof,” that is, armor (1.2.54). In his final moments, Macbeth becomes a warrior again. He dons his armor and declares to Macduff, “Before my body / I throw my warlike shield” (5.8.32–33). By choosing his proper attire here, he recovers the nobility he lost when he covered himself with what rightly belonged to others.

Various images reveal the corruption of the natural world that results from Macbeth’s usurpation and murders. In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses reflects on the results of violating order and degree, as when a subject disobeys his king: “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (1.3.109–110). Macbeth shows that discord. Macbeth says that Duncan’s wounds “look’d like a breach in nature / For ruin’s wasteful entrance” (2.3.113–114). The choric Act II, Scene 4 comments on dissonances in nature after Duncan’s death: An owl kills a falcon, horses eat each other, earthquakes shake the land, and days are dark. The Scots Doctor describes Lady Macbeth’s illness as “A great perturbation in nature” (5.1.9) and reflects, “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles” (5.1.71–72). Birnam Wood seems to uproot itself to come to Dunsinane.

The witches introduce this theme of distortion of the natural order: They meet in the midst of tempest and proclaim that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair (1.1.11). Their trochaic meter marks a deviation from the orderly iambic pentameter of most of the play. Maurice Morgann, in An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, observed in 1777: “The weird sisters rise, and order is extinguished. The laws of nature give way, and leave nothing in our minds but wildness and horror.” The very thought of violating the political order causes Macbeth’s heart to pound against his ribs “Against the use of nature” (1.3.137). Lady Macbeth prays to become unnatural, with gall for milk and thickened blood. She inverts nature in assuming the masculine role when she plans to “chastise” her husband “with the valor of [her] tongue” (1.5.27) and rid herself of all “compunctious visitings of nature” (1.5.45). Macbeth makes a looking-glass world of Scotland, where men die “or ere they sicken” (4.3.137), where “nothing is / But what is not” (1.3.141–142). His royal feast in Act III, Scene 4 ends in chaos, with order and degree ignored. Nor does he care what befalls the natural order so long as he has his will. He commands the witches:

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Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodg’d [destroyed], and trees blown down,
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germains [seeds] tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you. (4.1.52–61)

As the invading army approaches, he wishes “th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone” (5.5.49).

Food and sleep fail to nourish in this distorted world of the play. Macbeth’s nights are troubled by “terrible dreams” (3.2.18), and he eats his meals “in fear” (3.2.17). His absence from Duncan’s banquet in Act I, Scene 7 upsets the festivities. The meal in Act III, Scene 4 ends before it begins, and the witches’ stew reveals the depth to which feasting has descended. Lady Macbeth’s tormented slumbers culminate in her sleepwalking scene (5.1). A Lord expresses to Ross his hope that when Malcolm dethrones Macbeth, “we may again / Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights; / Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives” (3.6.33–35).

Lady Macbeth attempts to calm Macbeth, who reacts strongly to the sight of Banquos ghost, in this 19th-century depiction of Act III, Scene 4 of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth attempts to calm Macbeth, who reacts strongly to the sight of Banquo’s ghost, in this 19th-century depiction of Act III, Scene 4 of Macbeth. (Illustration by Georg Emanuel Opitz; engraving by Auguste Delvaux)

In his speech on order, Ulysses declares: “O, when degree is shak’d, / Which is the ladder of all high designs, / The enterprise is sick” (Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.101–103). The language of Macbeth develops this idea of disease. Learning that Fleance has escaped the plot to murder him, Macbeth declares: “Then comes my fit again” (3.4.20). Having witnessed Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, the doctor observes, “infected minds / To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets” (5.1.72–73). Macbeth asks whether this physician can “minister to a mind diseas’d” (5.3.40), referring to both himself and his wife.

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His infection has spread to the entire country. He asks the doctor, “What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug / Would scour these English hence?” (5.3.55–56). He wishes the doctor could “cast / The water of my land, find her disease, / And purge it to a sound and pristine health” (5.3.50–52). He does not recognize that he is the sickness he would remove. Macduff wonders when Scotland will “see thy wholesome days again” (4.3.105). Caithness calls Malcolm as “the medicine of the sickly weal” and urges his companions, “And with him pour we, in our country’s purge, / Each drop of us” (5.2.26–28). When Macduff learns of his family’s murders, Malcolm tells him, “Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge / To cure this deadly grief” (4.3.214–215). The reference to Edward the Confessor’s scrofula, which is being cured, serves to contrast the health-giving English court and its legitimate king with the disease-causing usurper to the north. In A Counterblast to Tobacco, James I calls himself “The proper Phisician of his Politicke-bodie,” whose duty is “to purge it of all those diseases, by Medicines meet for the same.” The good ruler brings health, whereas the tyrant undermines it.

Blood pervades the play as another indication of the horrors Macbeth causes. The word itself appears 23 times in the play, which contains another 25 related terms, such as bloody, bleed, and gory. A bloody Sergeant reports the progress of battle (1.2). Macbeth’s dagger of the mind becomes coated with imagined blood, presaging “the bloody business” he is about to undertake (2.1.48). His hands and his wife’s are coated with blood after Duncan’s murder; Lady Macbeth will see and smell this blood even in her sleep (5.1). Lennox finds the king’s grooms, “their hands and faces... all badg’d with blood” (2.3.102). Banquo’s murderer appears with blood on his face (3.4.13); Banquo’s ghost appears with “gory locks” (3.4.50). Later, Macbeth refers to “blood-bolter’d Banquo” (4.1.123). Macbeth says of himself, “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.135–137). He knows, “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood” and “The secret’st man of blood” will be exposed (3.4.121, 125). The apparition of a bloody child tells Macbeth, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute” (4.1.79). Malcolm calls Macbeth “bloody” (4.3.57) and laments that Scotland “bleeds” (4.3.39). Macduff, too, grieves, “Bleed, bleed, poor country!” (4.3.31) and calls Macbeth “bloody-sceptred” (4.3.104). Ross describes Scotland after Duncan’s murder as a “bloody stage” (2.4.6) and calls Duncan’s death “this more than bloody deed” (2.4.22).

Macbeth and his wife war against fertility itself. In Act I, Scene 3, Banquo asks the witches, “If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow, and which will not, / Speak then to me” (58–60). When Duncan says to him, “let me infold thee / And hold thee to my heart,” he replies with another image of increase: “There if I grow, / The harvest is your own” (1.4.31–33). Arriving at Dunsinane, he speaks of the martin building “his pendant and procreant cradle” and breeding (1.6.8–9). Duncan tells Macbeth, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28–29). Both Duncan and Banquo have children whom they foster and protect.

Macbeth has no children (4.3.216). Lady Macbeth says she has nursed a child but would dash out its brains (1.7.58). Both war against legitimate succession, and Macbeth repeatedly kills or tries to kill not just parents but also children. Lennox remarks that if Macbeth had Malcolm, Donalbain, and Fleance in his power, he would destroy them (3.6.18–20). He hires murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, he murders Malcolm’s family, and Young Siward falls as his final victim. Whereas the good king Duncan speaks of planting, Macbeth acknowledges that his is a “fruitless crown, /... a barren scepter” (3.1.60–61). Macduff calls Scotland under Macbeth “our downfallen birthdom” (4.3.4); Ross says that Scotland “cannot / Be call’d our mother, but our grave” (4.3.165–166). Macbeth would tumble “nature’s germains... all together” (4.1.59). This rejection of growth and renewal consumes him, as he recognizes when he says, “my way of life / Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf” (5.3.22–23).

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The forces that gather against him and triumph mark the return of fruitfulness. In Act 4, Scene 1, he sees children representing Macduff and the English army, who will defeat him, as well as Banquo’s descendants who will succeed him. He had spoken of “pity, like a new-born babe” denouncing his murder (1.7.21), and this image resurfaces against him. Ross tells Malcolm his presence in Scotland “Would create soldiers” (4.3.186). Caithness and Lennox say that Macbeth’s foes will pour as much of themselves as necessary “To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds” (5.2.28–30). Disguising themselves with branches, the English forces bring greenery to oppose Macbeth’s autumnal foliage. In his final speech, Malcolm adopts his father’s language of fertility: “What’s more to do, / Which would be planted newly with the time,... / We will perform in measure, time, and place” (5.9.30–39).

The connection between goodness and light, evil and gloom has a long history. Macbeth draws on this imagery. Duncan, as a good king, associates himself with light when he says, “But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers” (1.4.41–42). The witches, Macbeth, and his wife link themselves to darkness. Macbeth calls the witches “secret, black and midnight hags” (4.1.48). They “Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12). Into their magic potion, they put “Root of hemlock digg’d in the dark” and “slips of yew / Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse” (4.1.25, 27–28).

Lady Macbeth calls upon “thick night / [to] pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell” (1.5.50–51). Later, Macbeth invokes “seeling night” (3.2.46). Whereas Duncan speaks of stars’ shining, Macbeth would extinguish them: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50–51). Malcolm refers to “black Macbeth” (4.3.52). Macbeth kills Duncan at night and has Banquo murdered “Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse” (3.2.53). After Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, “darkness does the face of earth entomb, / When living light should kiss it” (2.4.9–10). Reflecting on his wife’s death, Macbeth again summons darkness: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23–24). Learning of the approach of Birnam Wood, he declares, “I gin to be a-weary of the sun” (5.5.48).

Initially refusing to kill Duncan, Macbeth asserts: “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (1.7.46–47). Lady Macbeth retorts: “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” (1.7.49–51). He is right. Yielding to her, he becomes less than a man rather than more, as the animal imagery associated with him attests. Even before his first crime, Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to “look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it” (1.5.65–66). Later, he tells her, “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” (3.2.36). Besieged by his enemies, Macbeth exclaims: “They have tied me to the stake; I cannot fly, / But bearlike I must fight the course” (5.7.1–2). He resolves to “die with harness on our back” (5.5.51), thus likening himself to an animal. A few lines earlier, hearing a cry of women, he remarks that once his “fell of hair / Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir / As life were in’t” (5.5.11–13). The word fell refers to the pelt of mammals. Coming upon Macbeth, Macduff challenges him, “Turn, hell-hound, turn!” (5.8.3). When Macbeth refuses to fight him, Macduff says: “Then yield thee, coward, /... We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, / Painted upon a pole” (5.8.23–26).

Viola Allen as Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene Viola Allen as Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene (Photographed by White Studio)

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Macbeth’s speeches use animal imagery as well. He tells the ghost of Banquo, “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, / The arm’d rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger” (3.4.99–100), and he will not be afraid. When the men he has hired to kill Banquo and Fleance assert, “We are men, my liege” (3.1.90), Macbeth replies:

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mungrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clipt
All by the name of dogs. (3.1.91–94)

As long as Banquo and Fleance live, Macbeth maintains, “We have scorch’d the snake, not kill’d it” (3.2.13). Learning that Banquo lies dead in a ditch but that Fleance has escaped, he tells the murderers, “There the grown serpent lies; the worm that’s fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed, / No teeth for th’ present” (3.4.28–30). He assails the messenger who brings news of the approach of the English army, “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-fac’d loon! / Where got’st thou that goose-look?” When the man replies, “There is ten thousand—” Macbeth interrupts with, “Geese, villain?” (5.3.11–13).

Highlighting the play’s concern with appearance versus reality are the many references to images, acting, deception, and concealment. Ross speaks of Macbeth’s creating “strange images of death” (1.3.97). Macbeth calls his mental picture of Duncan’s murder a “horrid image” and continues, “Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.135, 137–138). He calls Banquo’s ghost “horrible shadow! / Unreal mock’ry” (3.4.105–106). Lady Macbeth dismisses it as “the very painting of your fear” (3.4.60). He calls the imaginary weapon a “fatal vision” (2.1.36). His wife’s term is “air-drawn dagger” (3.4.61). He tells his wife he suffers from “terrible dreams” (3.2.18); earlier he speaks of “wicked dreams [that] abuse / The curtain’d sleep” (2.1.50–51). Conjuring Banquo and his descendants, the witches declare: “Come like shadows, so depart” (4.1.111). Macbeth finally dismisses existence as “a walking shadow” (5.5.24).

Macbeth calls the confirmation of the witches’ prophecy that he will become thane of Cawdor as well as thane of Glamis “happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (1.3.128–129). His soliloquy on the meaninglessness of life (5.5) is filled with references to acting. His wife tells him to disguise his intention to kill Duncan (1.5.61–66), and he resolves to “mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.81–82). He instructs his wife to welcome Banquo to the feast. Though they fear him, they will “make our faces vizards to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (3.2.34–35). The previous and present thanes of Cawdor conceal their traitorous intentions. Malcolm instructs his soldiers to camouflage themselves with boughs: “thereby shall we shadow / The numbers of our host, and make discovery / Err in report of us” (5.4.5–7). Lady Macbeth had smeared the grooms’ faces with blood to make them appear guilty of Duncan’s murder, and she instructs her husband to put on a nightgown to conceal the fact that they have not gone to bed (2.2.52–54, 67–68).

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This theme of ambiguity also emerges from the play’s many questions, equivocations, and use of dramatic irony, in which characters do not grasp the import of their words. The play’s first four scenes begin with questions: “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” (1.1.1–2); “What bloody man is that?” (1.2.1); “Where hast thou been, sister?” (1.3.1); “Is execution done on Cawdor? Are not / Those in commission yet return’d?” (1.4.1–2). This pattern persists: “How goes the night, boy?” (2.1.1); “Is Banquo gone from court?” (3.2.1); “But who did bid thee join with us?” (3.3.1); “What had he done, to make him fly the land?” (4.2.1); “Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword?” (5.8.1–2). Altogether, nine of the play’s 28 scenes open in the interrogatory mode, or 10 of 29 if one counts Act 3, Scene 5, which may not be by Shakespeare. In Hamlet, only four of 20 scenes commence thus.

Speeches are unclear. The witches seem to promise Macbeth success and invincibility; he learns too late that “these juggling fiends... / palter with us in a double sense, /... keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope” (5.8.19–22). The witches’ speeches exemplify ambiguity: “When the battle’s lost and won” (1.1.4); “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. / Not so happy, yet much happier” (1.3.65–66). Malcolm denounces himself as unworthy of kingship, but he does so only to test Macduff’s loyalty. Macbeth knows that his followers give him only “mouth-honor” (5.3.27). His doctor feigns loyalty to him but, alone, declares, “Were I from Dunsinane away and clear, / Profit again should hardly draw me here” (5.3.61–62). The Porter offers a comic version of indeterminacy when he remarks, “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” (2.3.31–36).

Uncertainty extends to characters’ ignorance of the import of their own words. Speaking of the first thane of Cawdor, Duncan acknowledges, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (1.4.11–14). These words apply equally well to the new thane of Cawdor, Macbeth. Feigning grief over Duncan’s death, Macbeth says: “Had I but died an hour before this chance, / I had liv’d a blessed time” (2.3.91–92). He is speaking truth without knowing it. Having had Banquo killed, Macbeth now misses him at the feast in Act III, Scene 4, thereby conjuring up Banquo’s ghost. At the end of that scene, he says he will consult the witches to learn “By the worst means, the worst” (3.4.134). The witches tell him the worst, that when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane he will be killed by a man not born of woman. He mistakes their portents for reassurance.

Though the witches’ words bode ill for Macbeth, they anticipate Scotland’s redemption. The unnatural events they predict lead, ironically, to the restoration of the natural order. A seeming monster, a man not born of woman (Macduff), kills the real monster, Macbeth. Malcolm then succeeds to the throne, as is proper, and ends the destruction and sterility of Macbeth’s reign.

Indicative of the duplicity of the play’s language is the frequent doubling of words and phrases. Hearing Macbeth’s approach, the Third Witch announces, “A drum, a drum! / Macbeth doth come” (1.3.30–31). All three then say, “Thus do go, about, about” (1.3.34). As they prepare their brew, the Third Witch says, “Harpier cries, ‘ ’tis time, ’tis time’ ” (4.1.3), and they repeat, “Double, double, toil and trouble” (4.1.10, 20, 35). Lady Macbeth prays for darkness to prevent heaven from crying, “Hold, hold!” (1.5.54). Seeing Banquo and Fleance approach, the Second Murderer calls out, “A light, a light!” (3.3.14). Listening to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking speeches, the Scots Doctor remarks, “Go to, go to; you have known what you should not” (5.1.46–47). In her last lines, she urges her husband, “To bed, to bed” (5.1.66).

Another stylistic device involves the use of triplets. The number three has been associated with the supernatural well before the advent of Christianity, and the many triplings here contribute to the play’s mystical mood. There are Three Witches, Three Murderers. The Porter imagines three souls entering hell. Macbeth lives in three castles (Inverness, Forres, Dunsinane). The witches show Macbeth three apparitions (4.1). Macbeth is promised three titles. Both the witches and Lady Macbeth give him a three-fold greeting (1.3.48–50; 1.5.54–55). The witches also hail Banquo three times (1.3.62–64). Before meeting Macbeth the witches perform a dance: “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine” (1.3.35–36). They know the time has come to prepare their brew because “Thrice the brindled cat hath mew’d. / Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin’d” (4.1.1–2). They repeat their “Double, double” refrain three times. Banquo’s last words to Fleance are, “fly, fly, fly” (3.3.17). Three times in her soliloquy in 1.5.38–54 Lady Macbeth invokes spirits and night with the word “Come” (lines 40, 47, 50). In his soliloquy that opens Act I, Scene 7, Macbeth offers three reasons for not killing Duncan. In the first two lines of that speech, he repeats the word done three times. After Duncan’s murder, Macbeth and his wife exclaim Hark! three times (2.2.2, 11, 18). Macbeth relates hearing a voice that repeats “sleep no more” three times (2.2.38–40). Finding Duncan dead, Macduff cries, “O horror, horror, horror!” (2.3.64). Addressing Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth names three animals he would willingly confront rather than the apparition before him (bear, rhinoceros, tiger). After the ghost vanishes, Macbeth muses, “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood” (3.4.121–122), another threefold repetition. He reflects, “Augures and understood relations have / By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret’st man of blood” (3.4.123–125), noting three avian means of exposure.

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The three witches discuss a recent battle in Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. The three witches discuss a recent battle in Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth. This is a plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833. (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

Extracts of Classic Criticism

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

[Excerpted from Miscellaneous Observations on The Tragedy of Macbeth (1745). Anticipating the present-day critical movement New Historicism, the great critic Johnson here places Macbeth within its historical context to justify the role of the witches.]

In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, he would be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage, and was far from overburthening the credulity of his audience.

The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned themselves. These phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world....

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The Reformation did not immediately arrive at its meridian, and tho’ day was gradually encreasing upon us, the goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight. In the time of Queen Elizabeth was the remarkable Trial of the Witches of Warbois, whose conviction is still commemorated in an annual sermon at Huntingdon. But in the reign of King James, in which this tragedy was written, many circumstances concurred to propagate and confirm this opinion. The King, who was much celebrated for his knowledge, had, before his arrival in England, not only examined in person a woman accused of witchcraft, but had given a very formal account of the practices and illusions of evil spirits, the compacts of witches, the ceremonies used by them, the manner of detecting them, and the justice of punishing them, in his dialogues of Daemonologie, written in the Scottish dialect, and published at Edinburgh. This book was, soon after his accession, reprinted at London, and as the ready way to gain K. James’s favour was to flatter his speculations, the system of Daemo-nologie was immediately adopted by all who desired either to gain preferment or not to lose it. Thus the doctrine of witchcraft was very powerfully inculcated, and as the greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinions than that they are in fashion, it cannot be doubted but this persuasion made a rapid progress, since vanity and credulity co-operated in its favour, and it had a tendency to free cowardice from reproach....

Thus in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by fashion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal, to doubt it, and as prodigies are always seen in proportion as they are expected, witches were every day discovered, and multiplied so fast in some places, that Bishop [Joseph] Hall mentions a village in Lancashire, where their number was greater than that of the houses....

Upon this general infatuation Shakespeare might be easily allowed to found a play, especially since he has followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may now be ridiculed, were both by himself and his audience thought awful and affecting.

William Hazlitt (1778–1830)

[Excerpted from Characters of Shakespear’s Plays (1817). Hazlitt’s observations about Macbeth’s principals, imagery, mood, and structure retain their power to provoke thought and underlie much subsequent commentary about the work. His focus on character in analyzing Shakespeare’s plays persisted throughout the 19th century.]

Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespear’s four principal tragedies. Lear stands first for the profound intensity of the passion; Macbeth for the wildness of the imagination and the rapidity of the action; Othello for the progressive interest and powerful alterations of feeling; Hamlet for the refined development of thought and sentiment... His plays have the force of things upon the mind. What he represents is brought home to the bosom as part of our experience, implanted in the memory as if we had known the places, persons, and things of which he treats. Macbeth is like a record of a preternatural and tragical event. It has the rugged severity of an old chronicle with all that the imagination of the poet can engraft upon traditional belief... All that could actually take place, and all that is only possible to be conceived, what was said and what was done, the workings of passion, the spells of magic, are brought before us with the same absolute truth and vividness.—Shakespear excelled in the openings of his plays: that of Macbeth is the most striking of any. The wildness of the scenery, the sudden shifting of the situations and characters, the bustle and expectations excited, are equally extraordinary. From the first entrance of the Witches and the description of them when they meet Macbeth:

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—What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants of th’ earth
And yet are on’t?

the mind is prepared for all that follows.

This tragedy is alike distinguished for the lofty imagination it displays, and for the tumultuous vehemence of the action; and the one is made the moving principle of the other. 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 Weird Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil that 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.—This part of his character is admirably set off by being brought in connexion with that of Lady Macbeth, whose obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness give her the ascendancy over her husband’s faltering virtue. She at once seizes on the opportunity that offers for the accomplishment of all their wished-for greatness, and never flinches from her object till all is over. The magnitude of her resolution almost covers the magnitude of her guilt. She is a great bad woman, whom we hate, but whom we fear more than we hate. She does not excite our loathing and abhorrence like Regan and Goneril [the villainous daughters in King Lear]. She is only wicked to gain a great end; and is perhaps more distinguished by her commanding presence of mind and inexorable self-will, which do not suffer her to be diverted from a bad purpose, when once formed, by weak and womanly regrets, than by the hardness of her heart or want of natural affections....

Macbeth (generally speaking) is done upon a stronger and more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespear’s plays. It moves upon the verge of an abyss, and is a constant struggle between life and death. The action is desperate and the reaction is dreadful. It is a huddling together of fierce extremes, a war of opposite natures which of them shall destroy the other. There is nothing but what has a violent end or violent beginnings. The lights and shades are laid on with a determined hand; the transitions from triumph to despair, from the height of terror to the repose of death, are sudden and startling; every passion brings in its fellow-contrary, and the thoughts pitch and jostle each other as in the dark. The whole play is an unruly chaos of strange and forbidden things, where the ground rocks under our feet. Shakespear’s genius here took its full swing, and trod upon the furthest bounds of nature and passion. This circumstance will account for the abruptness and violent antitheses of the style, the throes and labour which run through the expression, and from defects will turn them into beauties.

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Lady Macbeth tries to wash her hands while she sleepwalks in Act V, Scene 1 of Macbeth. Plate from Retzschs Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833 Lady Macbeth tries to wash her hands while she sleepwalks in Act V, Scene 1 of Macbeth. Plate from Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: Macbeth, published in 1833 (Illustration by Moritz Retzsch)

Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859)

[Excerpted from “On the Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth” (1823). In this famous essay, de Quincey anticipates reader-response theory by analyzing the effect of the Porter scene (2.3) on audiences.]

In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakespeare has introduced two murderers; and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated: but,—though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the tiger spirit is not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by contagion from her,—yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally presumed in both. This was to be expressed; and, on its own account, as well as to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim, “the gracious Duncan,” and adequately to expound “the deep damnation of his taking off,” this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature,—i.e. the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man,—was gone, vanished, extinct, and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. And, as this effect is marvelously accomplished in the dialogues and soliloquies themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration; and it is to this that I now solicit the reader’s attention... All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction. Now, apply this to the case of Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is “unsexed”; Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers and the murder must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dread armistice; time must be annihilated, relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is that, when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard, and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

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A. C. Bradley (1851–1935)

[Excerpted from Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (1904). Bradley’s focus on characters as real people marked the culmination of the romantic approach to Shakespeare and prompted strong reaction, as in L. C. Knights’s mocking essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” (1933). Yet, Bradley’s emphasis on characters’ minds was further developed by psychological criticism, and his close textual reading anticipates the New Critics.]

Macbeth, the cousin of a King mild, just, and beloved, but now too old to lead his army, is introduced to us as a general of extraordinary prowess, who has covered himself with glory in putting down a rebellion and repelling the invasion of a foreign army. In these conflicts he showed great personal courage, a quality which he continues to display throughout the drama in regard to all plain dangers. It is difficult to be sure of his customary demeanour, for in the play we see him either in what appears to be an exceptional relation to his wife, or else in the throes of remorse and desperation; but from his behaviour during his journey home after the war, from his later conversations with Lady Macbeth, and from his language to the murderers of Banquo and to others, we imagine him as a great warrior, somewhat masterful, rough, and abrupt, a man to inspire some fear and much admiration. He was thought “honest,” or honourable; he was trusted, apparently, by everyone; Macduff, a man of the highest integrity, “loved him well.” And there was, in fact, much good in him. We have no warrant, I think, for describing him, with many writers, as of a “noble” nature, like Hamlet or Othello; but he had a keen sense of both honour and of the worth of a good name. The phrase, again, “too full of the milk of human kindness,” is applied to him in impatience by his wife, who did not fully understand him; but certainly he was far from devoid of humanity and pity.

At the same time he was exceedingly ambitious. He must have been so by temper. The tendency must have been greatly strengthened by his marriage. When we see him, it has been further stimulated by his remarkable success and by the consciousness of exceptional powers and merit. It becomes a passion. The course of action suggested by it is extremely perilous: it sets his good name, his position, and even his life on the hazard. It is also abhorrent to his better feelings. Their defeat in the struggle with ambition leaves him utterly wretched, and would have kept him so, however complete had been his outward success and security. On the other hand, his passion for power and his instinct of self-assertion are so vehement that no inward misery could persuade him to relinquish the fruits of crime, or to advance from remorse to repentance.

In the character as so far sketched there is nothing very peculiar, though the strength of the forces contending in it is unusual. But there is in Macbeth one marked peculiarity, the true apprehension of which is the key to Shakespeare’s conception. This bold ambitious man of action, has, within certain limits, the imagination of a poet,—an imagination on the one hand extremely sensitive to impressions of a certain kind, and on the other, productive of violent disturbance both of mind and body. Through it he is kept in contact with supernatural impressions and is liable to supernatural fears. And through it, especially, come to him the intimations of conscience and honour. Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe. But his wife quite misunderstands it, and he himself understands it only in part. The terrifying images which deter him from crime and follow its commission, and which are really the protest of his deepest self, seem to his wife the creations of mere nervous fear, and are sometimes referred by himself to the dread of vengeance or the restlessness of insecurity. His conscious or reflective mind, that is, moves chiefly among considerations of outward success and failure, while his inner being is convulsed by conscience. And his inability to understand himself is repeated and exaggerated in the interpretations of actors and critics, who represent him as a coward, cold-blooded, calculating, and pitiless, who shrinks from crime simply because it is dangerous, and suffers afterwards simply because he is not safe. In reality his courage is frightful. He strides from crime to crime, though his soul never ceases to bar his advance with shapes of terror, or to clamour in his ears that he is murdering his peace and casting away his “eternal jewel.”

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Macbeth, with his daggers, and Lady Macbeth just after the murder of Duncan, in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth Macbeth, with his daggers, and Lady Macbeth just after the murder of Duncan, in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth (Painting by Samuel John Stump)

Modern Criticism and Critical Controversies

New Criticism

Criticism of Shakespeare in the 19th century focused on his characters, who were treated as real people with lives outside the confines of the text. In “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” (1932), L. C. Knights objected to this approach and singled out A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Criticism (1904) as an exemplar of what he disliked. For Knights and his fellow New Critics, “The only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response” (20). In Some Shakespearean Themes, he applies his analysis to Macbeth. He notes, for example, that when Lady Macbeth speaks of dashing out her infant’s brains (1.7.54–59), her violent imagery connects with the many violent occurrences throughout the work. Also, her willingness to kill her own child is unnatural in a play that abounds in unnatural actions. According to Knights, noting these connections is more important than figuring out whether Lady Macbeth really had a child, when she might have had it, why it never appears in the play, and so on.

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Knights also observes that the witches’ “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11) expresses the play’s “reversal of values” and carries “premonitions of the conflict, disorder and moral darkness into which Macbeth will plunge himself” (Some Shakespeare Themes 122). The play’s references to nature reveal that Macbeth’s actions are unnatural and also define the values against which those actions are to be judged. He contrasts Lady Macbeth’s “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements” (1.5.38–40) with Banquo’s description of the castle (1.6.3–10). Banquo speaks of the breeding martin, of life rather than death. These two speeches epitomize a central conflict in the play between the Macbeths’ destructive impulses and “a natural and wholesome order, of which the equivalent in the human sphere is to be found in those mutualities of loyalty, trust and liking that Macbeth proposes to violate” (136). Malcolm’s final speech marks the return of those positive values.

Cleanth Brooks’s “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,” in The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, considers the play’s use of clothes imagery. Macbeth initially rejects titles and honors not his. Greeted by Ross as thane of Cawdor, Macbeth asks, “why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” (1.3.108–109). He wants to wear the good reputation he has won, that belongs to him. He tells his wife, “I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon” (1.7.32–35). As the play progresses, he steals the royal crown. As his reign is about to end, he finds, in Angus’s words, “his title / Hang[s] loose about him, like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (5.20–22). Brooks links the play’s clothing imagery to other forms of concealment, as when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both invoke darkness to hide their killing of Duncan.

Brooks also examines the play’s references to babies, which he calls “the most powerful symbol in the tragedy” (39). These images are significant because what drives Macbeth to tyranny, according to Brooks, is his attempt to keep the throne in his family rather than let it pass to Banquo’s. When Fleance escapes, Macbeth returns to the witches, who show him babies bloody and crowned. Since babies represent the future Macbeth cannot control, he wars against them, killing Macduff’s family. Babies also symbolize pity: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe” (1.7.21). Macbeth and his wife reject this emotion that defines humanity. Brooks concludes:

[B]etween them—the naked babe, essential humanity, humanity striped down to the naked thing itself, and yet as various as the future—and the various garbs which humanity assumes, the robes of honor, the hypocrite’s disguise, the inhuman “manliness” with which Macbeth endeavors to cover up his essential humanity—between them, they furnish Shakespeare with his most subtle and ironically telling instruments. (49)

Psychological Criticism

Sigmund Freud applied his own theories to Shakespeare’s plays. His “Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work” (1915–16) attributes Lady Macbeth’s decline to her childlessness. If Shakespeare had followed his source and allowed Macbeth a number of years of good rule before he became a tyrant, the significance of their barrenness would be more evident. Freud in “Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work” also argues that Macbeth and his wife may be viewed as one person. He hallucinates; she succumbs to mental disorder. He hears a voice that cries, “Sleep no more!” (2.2.32), and she walks in her sleep. He says, in Act II, Scene 2, that no amount of water can cleanse Duncan’s blood from his hands. In Act V, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth imagines attempting unsuccessfully to wash away that stain. She suffers the pangs of conscience he feared. She feels remorse while he is defiant. They thereby display the two possible reactions to crime, “like two disunited parts of the mind of a single individuality, and perhaps they are divided images of a single prototype.”

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Another depiction of the Macbeths just after the murder of Duncan, in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth Another depiction of the Macbeths just after the murder of Duncan, in Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth (Painting by Joshua Cristall)

Robert J. Lordi, in “Macbeth and His ‘dearest partner of greatness,’ Lady Macbeth,” (Upstart Crow 4 [Fall 1982]: 94–106) develops this idea, describing Lady Macbeth as her husband’s alter ego. Early in the play, she is “the pragmatic, unscrupulous side of Macbeth’s nature that compels him to perform his tragic deed” (94). Lordi approvingly references James Kirgh’s observation, in Shakespeare’s Royal Self, “[In] the characterization of Lady Macbeth we do not have a separate individual, a living woman, but the personification of Macbeth’s ambition and darkest possibilities” (347).

Derek Russell Davis picks up on Freud’s discussion of childlessness; his essay “Hurt Minds” argues that Macbeth’s barrenness causes him to question his manliness. He is therefore susceptible to his wife’s taunts. One reason he kills Duncan is “to remove, however ineptly, a threat to his conception of himself as a man of valour and to reinstate himself in his own esteem and in the esteem of Lady Macbeth” (216).

Macbeth’s sensitivity to sounds after Duncan’s murder and his insomnia indicate a mental breakdown. Lady Macbeth protects her sanity for a time by denying the enormity of her crime. Yet, she understands the lurking danger: “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will drive us mad” (2.2.30–31). Davis believes that Lady Macbeth’s fainting in Act II, Scene 3 is real; unconsciousness offers her a temporary relief from remorse. Unable to confide in her husband, Lady Macbeth’s denial of criminality continues until she descends into psychosis. Macbeth is equally isolated. Consequently, his sense of guilt turns to paranoia. Davis writes: “His unquestioning belief in his invulnerability has something of the quality of the delusions of grandeur and omnipotence which are typical of paranoid illnesses” (222).

Crane, in The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, regards Macbeth as a good person who imagines he can improve his condition by acting against his natural impulses. Having gained the kingship, he discovers that he must continue in that manner, becoming “progressively hardened morally” as a result (173). Bertrand Evans, in The College Shakespeare, disagrees: “Macbeth is not basically a good man at all, but a man of criminal mentality, either already corrupted or in any event corruptible, because he possesses a severely defective moral mechanism, or no moral sense at all” (600).

Harvey Birenbaum, in “Consciousness and Responsibility in Macbeth,” agrees with both Crane and Evans. Lady Macbeth asks, “Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire?” (1.7.39–41). She thus “focuses him on the very basic relation between act and desire, behavior and experience, the inner subjective reality by which we directly know ourselves and the deeds that issue from us and earn our images in others’ eyes” (19). Is the real Macbeth what he feels within or what he shows without? In killing Duncan, Macbeth accepts his inner horror. Birenbaum quotes Jan Kott’s claim that Macbeth kills Duncan because he cannot accept his fear of doing so. Having committed the crime, he cannot accept himself as a murderer. Birenbaum concludes that Claudius (Hamlet), Angelo (Measure for Measure), and Macbeth “remain with a consciousness that consciousness itself is impotent, even though it is the ultimate and the fundamental level of experience” (29).

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Feminist Criticism

Many modern critics examine the presentation of gender roles in literature. Caroline Asp exemplifies this approach in “ ‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute’: Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth.” Asp maintains that Lady Macbeth rejects her feminine qualities because she recognizes that in her society, these are equated with weakness. Macduff does not want to tell Lady Macbeth about Duncan’s murder because “The repetition in a woman’s ear / Would murther as it fell” (2.3.85–86). Macduff does not tell his wife why he is going to England, again to protect someone he perceives as weak.

Masculinity in the world of Macbeth is defined through violence. Macbeth initially rejects this vision. He is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.17). He treats his wife as an equal, calling her “my dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11). Lady Macbeth convinces him to adopt his culture’s vision of manhood and kill Duncan. His new understanding of masculinity surfaces in his discussion with those he has hired to murder Banquo and Fleance. He asks them what kind of men they are. If they “have a station in the file, / Not i’ th’ worst rank of manhood” (3.1.101–102), they will be willing to kill. Once Macbeth equates manhood with violence, he subordinates his wife. He does not tell her about his plan to kill Banquo and Fleance, and after Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth and his wife do not appear on stage together. Asp concludes, “The tension which raises them [the Macbeths] to the level of tragedy in the eyes of the audience is created by the conflict between the roles they think they must play to actualize the self and achieve their destiny and the limits imposed by both nature and society” (393).

Peter Stallybrass’s “Macbeth and Witchcraft” also argues that the world of Macbeth marginalizes women. Ideal families in the play are all male: Duncan, Malcolm, and Donalbain; Banquo and Fleance. Women are associated with destruction of the family. Lady Macbeth would kill her infant. The witches’ brew includes “finger of birth-strangled babe” (4.1.30) and the blood of a sow that “hath eaten / Her nine farrow” (4.1.64–65). “Witchcraft,” Stallybrass writes, “is associated with female rule and the overthrowing of patriarchal authority which in turn leads to the ‘womanish’ (both cowardly and instigated by women) killing of Duncan, the ‘holy’ father who establishes both family and state” (201). Heinrich Institoris and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (1486), a treatise on witchcraft, claimed that women were responsible for the downfall of most kingdoms and described women as deceitful. Macduff, not born of woman, restores order at the end of the play.

Janet Adelman’s “ ‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth” maintains, contrary to Asp, that at the beginning of Macbeth, women are powerful. The witches and Lady Macbeth dominate the central male figure. The play reasserts masculine domination by eliminating women. Macbeth imagines his wife as masculine: “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7. 73–75). Like Stallybrass, Adelman sees in Macduff further rejection of the female. To be born of woman is to be vulnerable; Macduff lacks this weakness.

Marilyn French, in Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, offers a different perspective of the play, which she regards as a warning against rejecting the feminine. Duncan is an ideal king because he unites both male and female traits: he exercises authority but also nourishes his kingdom. (Adelman also views Duncan as androgynous.) Duncan dies in part because Lady Macbeth “fails to uphold the feminine principle” and aligns herself with the masculine (244–245). With Duncan’s death, chaos ensues, as described in Act II, Scene 4. For French, this loss of androgyny leads directly to the massacre of Macduff’s family. French concludes that Macbeth demonstrates “We may not repudiate the qualities associated with pleasure and procreation, with nature and giving up control, without injuring ourselves, perhaps even destroying ourselves” (251).

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Mrs. David P. Bowers as Lady Macbeth in an 1887 production of Macbeth. This photogravure was published by Gebbie Company. Mrs. David P. Bowers as Lady Macbeth in an 1887 production of Macbeth. This photogravure was published by Gebbie & Company.

New Historicism

Combining social science and literary theory, New Historicism seeks to place a work in its larger historical context. It rejects New Criticism’s treatment of a text as a self-contained artifact. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of this critical school, warns against “permanently sealing off one type of discourse from another or decisively separating works of art from the minds of their creators and their audiences” (5). Specifically, Greenblatt’s “Shakespeare Bewitched” disagrees with Stally-brass that Macbeth endorses the patriarchal fear of the feminine. He also rejects Adelman’s claim that the play eliminates the female principle and consolidates masculine authority. For Greenblatt, the play is more ambiguous, and this ambiguity is embodied in the witches. He cites Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which challenges the belief in witches. (King James ordered this work burned.) Also, George Gifford’s 1593 A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes denied that witches have supernatural powers, though they receive knowledge from the devil and so should be destroyed. Greenblatt notes that in The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare mocks Antipholus of Syracuse’s fear of witches, although in Henry VI, Part 1, Joan of Arc is regarded as a real witch, and in Henry VI, Part 2, so is Margery Jordan.

Elizabethan society and Shakespeare’s own writing thus offer diverse views of witches. The three in Macbeth exhibit many traits associated with witches: They raise storms, call upon familiars, sail in a sieve, and foretell the future. Yet, their role in the play remains uncertain. They may influence events, or they may not. They serve as a useful theatrical device, but Shakespeare takes no position on them. Like theater itself, the witches exist, according to Greenblatt, “on the boundary between fantasy and reality, the border or membrane where the imagination and the corporeal world... meet” (“Shakespeare Bewitched” 123).

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Steven Mullaney’s The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England also takes a New Historical approach to reveal Macbeth’s ambiguities. In typical New Historicist fashion, Mullaney starts with an obscure event, in this case Robert Kette’s 1549 rebellion against Edward VI. Contemporary accounts claimed that Kette relied on prophecies that the rebels would fill the vale of Dussindale with dead bodies. Kette and his followers assumed the bodies would be those of their opponents, but the rebels were defeated, and their own corpses packed the valley. Macbeth, like Kette, understands the witches’ words as favoring him, but at the end of the play, he recognizes the ambiguity of their pronouncements. For Mullaney, Macbeth illustrates the uncertainty of all language and therefore challenges any monolithic source of authority.

The Play Today

Macbeth is perennially popular on the stage; its relative brevity and its straightforward, highly dramatic nature make it among the most appealing of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, it presents headline roles for both a male and a female actor. Famous actors who have played Macbeth on stage include Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Ian McKellen. Famous Lady Macbeths include Vivien Leigh, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench. Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production, with McKellen and Dench as the Macbeths, has become legendary and is available on DVD.

In production, Macbeth is widely associated with regicide and tyranny, betrayal and war. Although Welles set his 1936 stage production of the play in the West Indies, critics assumed he was alluding to the long-standing unrest in Haiti. An article in the New York Times for April 5, 1936, noted, “the stormy history of Haiti during and subsequent to the French colonization in Napoleon’s day—and the career of Henri Christophe, who became ‘the Negro King of Haiti’ as a result of civil war, and ended by killing himself when his cruelty led to a revolt—form a striking parallel to the bloody story of ‘Macbeth.’ ” A loose adaptation called MacBird (1967) portrayed an evil Lyndon Johnson as a Macbeth figure who was responsible for the assassination of the good president John F. Kennedy. In a Washington Post article on August 9, 1974 (“High Drama and Flawed Character in a Theater Too Accustomed to Tragedy”), William Greider offered an extensive analogy between Macbeth and the discredited Richard Nixon. Such trends have continued in recent productions. The well-known Shakespearean actor and film and television star Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in the West End in London and later in New York on Broadway in a production that seemed to compare Macbeth’s regime in Scotland to Joseph Stalin’s in the Soviet Union; that production was filmed for television by PBS in 2010.

Lady Macbeth tries to wash her hands while she sleepwalks in Act V, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in this print published in 1797. Lady Macbeth tries to wash her hands while she sleepwalks in Act V, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in this print published in 1797. (Illustration by Richard Westall)

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Other notable film versions emphasized different aspects of the play. Welles’s low-budget 1948 version emphasized the play’s moral concerns. Roman Polanski’s 1971 version seemed typically (for Polanski) preoccupied with blood and sex. The movies Joe Macbeth (1955) and Men of Respect (1990) set Shakespeare’s play in the criminal underworld. The famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted the story loosely but powerfully in his Throne of Blood (1957). Literary critic Bloom called Kurosawa “uncannily the most successful film version of Macbeth, though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play.”

In recent years, scholars analyzing the play have focused on political themes as well as feminist themes inspired by the play’s depiction of Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters. One relatively recent trend is to explore the play’s effect on its audience, both in Shakespeare’s time and subsequently. Still other critics continue to explore more traditional concerns, such as the ethics and theology in the play, and offer new analyses of the play’s characters, particularly Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Five Topics for Discussion and Writing

  1. Nature of the tragedy: Is Macbeth the tragedy of a man caught up in forces beyond his control? Is Macbeth a hero with a single flaw that causes his downfall? If so, what is that flaw? Ambition? Credulity?
  2. Appearance vs. reality: According to G. Wilson Knight in The Wheel of Fire (1930), “Reality and unreality change places” in the play (153). Is Knight correct? Are characters deluded into mistaking reality for unreality? Do they attempt to confuse others without being mystified themselves?
  3. Theme of evil: What is the source of evil in the play? Is it an external force ushered into the world of the play by demonic forces? Is it inherent in the violent society that praises Macbeth for brutally killing Macdonwald? Does it lie within the individual psyche?
  4. Role of women: The section on “Modern Criticism” discusses some feminist writers who interpret the play as rejecting female values, but Stephen Greenblatt, a New Historicist, disagrees. Is androgyny the play’s ideal, as exemplified by Duncan and by Macduff’s emotional response to the loss of his family? Does the play regard women as weak? As destructive? As essential for society to function as it should?
  5. The role of the supernatural: Do the play’s supernatural elements detract from an appreciation of the play in a secular age that does not believe in witches and ghosts? Would removing these features eviscerate the play or strengthen its psychological dimension?


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Aitchinson, Nick. Macbeth, Man and Myth Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Batholomeusz, Dennis. Macbeth and the Players. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Blissett, William. “ ‘The Secret’st Man of Blood’: A Study of Dramatic Irony in Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 397–408.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1999.

Bloom, Harold. ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House, 2006.

Booth, Stephen. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.

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Braunmuller, A. R., ed. Macbeth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Brooks, Cleanth. “ ‘The Naked Babe’ and the Cloak of Manliness.” In The Well Wrought Urn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947.

Brown, John Russell, ed. Focus on Macbeth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

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Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 7: Major Tragedies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Calderwood, James L. If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: A Guide to the Play. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Crane, R. S. The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1953.

Dawson, Lawrence. Tragic Alphabet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

Elliott, G. R. Dramatic Providence in Macbeth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Evans, Gareth Lloyd. “Macbeth: 1946–1980 at Stratford-upon-Avon. In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, 87–110. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Fawkner, H. W. Deconstructing Macbeth: The Hyper-ontological Voice. London: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Furness, Horace Howard, ed. Macbeth. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1901.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Grove, Robin. “Multiplying Villainies of Nature.” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, 113–130. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Harbage, Alfred. William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Noonday, 1963.

Hawkes, Terence, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Macbeth. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Jorgensen, Paul. Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Kemble, Fanny. “Lady Macbeth.” In Every Saturday. Boston: Ticknor and fields, 1868.

Kinney, Arthur. Lies Like Truth: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Cultural Moment. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Kliman, Bernice W. Shakespeare in Performance: Macbeth. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Knights, L. C. “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth.” In Explorations. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

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Leavis, F. R. “Education and the University.” Scrutiny 9 (March 1941): 306–322.

Leggatt, Alexander, ed. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2006.

Long, Michael. Macbeth. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Muir, Kenneth. “Image and Symbol in Macbeth.”Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 45–54.

Muir, Kenneth, and Philip Edwards. Aspects of Macbeth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Mullin, Michael, ed. Macbeth Onstage: An Annotated Facsimiles of Glen Byam Shaw’s 1955 Promptbook. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976.

Norbrook, David. “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography.” In Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker, 78–116. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Nostbakken, Faith. Understanding Macbeth: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Paul, Henry N. The Royal Play of Macbeth. New York: Macmillan, 1950.

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Macbeth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

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Wickham, Glynn. “Hell-Castle and Its Door-Keeper.” Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 68–74.

Film and Video Productions

Casson, Philip, dir. A Performance of Macbeth. With Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, and John Brown. Thames Television, 1979.

Doran, Gregory, dir. Macbeth. With Richard Armitage, Diane Beck, and Ken Bones. Illuminations and Royal Shakespeare Company, 2001.

Gold, Jack, dir. Macbeth. With Brenda Bruce, Eileen Way, and Anne Dyson. BBC, 1983.

Goold, Rupert, dir. Macbeth. With Oliver Burch, Suzanne Burden, and Ben Carpenter. BBC and PBS, 2010.

Polanski, Roman, dir. Macbeth. With Jon finch, Francesca Annis, and Martin Shaw. Playboy Productions and Caliban films, 1971.

Warren, Charles, dir. Macbeth. With Brian Badcoe, Brian Godfrey, and Tim Hardy. Thames Television, 1988.

Welles, Orson, dir. Macbeth. With Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, and Dan O’Herlihy. Mercury Productions, 1948.

Winarski, Paul, dir. Macbeth. With Stephen J. Lewis, Dawn Winarski, and John Schugard. Showcase Films, 1998.

—Joseph Rosenblum

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2025400127