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A cura di
Di Fabio Niki
1. Introduction
Probably composed in late 1606 or early 1607, Macbeth is the last of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, the others being Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. It is a relatively short play without a major subplot, and it is considered by many scholars to be Shakespeare's darkest work. Lear is an utter tragedy in which the natural world is amorally indifferent toward mankind, but in Macbeth, Shakespeare adds a supernatural dimension that purposively conspires against Macbeth and his kingdom. In the tragedy of Lear, the distraught king summons the goddess of Chaos, Hecht; in Macbeth, Hecate appears as an actual character. On the level of human evil, Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy is about Macbeth's bloody rise to power, including the murder of the Scottish king, Duncan, and the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds generating still more evil deeds. As an integral part of this thematic web is the play's most memorable character, Lady Macbeth. Like her husband, Lady Macbeth's ambition for power leads her into an unnatural, phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft, insomnia and madness. But while Macbeth responds to the prophecies of the play's famous trio of witches, Lady Macbeth goes even further by figuratively transforming herself into an unnatural, desexualized evil spirit. The current trend of critical opinion is toward an upward reevaluation of Lady Macbeth, who is said to be rehumanized by her insanity and her suicide. Much of this reappraisal of Lady Macbeth has taken place in discussions of her ironically strong marriage to Macbeth, a union that rests on loving bonds but undergoes disintegration as the tragedy unfolds.
2. Summaries
Act I, Scene 1 The witches plan to meet after the battle, which we find is a rebellion in Scotland. They are summoned by their familiars and end with the theme of the play.
Act I, Scene 2 The king and his thanes are at a camp and hear word of the battle from the bleeding sergeant. The sergeant had saved Malcolm earlier. He says that the battle was doubtful, with the rebel Macdonwald receiving reinforcements and luck. However, Macbeth man aged to fight well, and killed the slave Macdonwald. A second attack by the Norweyan lord angered Macbeth and he met their attacks so the Norwegians got their butts kicked. The sergeant goes to get some medical attention, and then Ross tells the rest of the story. Norway and the rebel Thane of Cawdor were met by Macbeth and were defeated. The Norwegian king Sweno was forced to pay ten thousand dollars. Macbeth is given the rebel Cawdor's title.
Act I, Scene 3 The witches meet again, as planned. One has been killing pigs. Another witch is getting revenge on the captain of the Tiger, who's wife has not given her a chestnut. Winds summoned by her will blow in every direction, making the sailor throw up and nev er sleep, though the ship will never be lost. The witch has the pilot's thumb. Then Macbeth comes. The witches sing a little song. Macbeth comments on the good and bad day, then Banquo sees the witches. They look human in some ways, but don't in others. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, his current title, as well as Cawdor, which he doesn't know he is to receive, and King, which is a complete shock. Banquo is suprised that Macbeth isn't ecstatic at the prophecy, and asks the witches why they have no prophecy for him. The witches make important predictions to Banquo, as lesser but greater, less happy but happier than Macbeth. They also say his children will become Kings. Macbeth wants to know more. The witches vanish, and the two puzzle over the disapperance. Ross and Angus come. Ross tells them the kind heard of his victory in battle. They tell him the King will honor him in person, but that he has also received the t itle of Cawdor. Macbeth asks why he is given someone else's title and is told of the treason. Now Macbeth starts thinking the prophecy might come true. Banquo is still worried. Macbeth is scared as he considers killing the king to complete the prophecy. Banquo says he is getting used to his new title. Macbeth comes out of his thinking and thanks the men. He tells Banquo they will talk later.
Act I, Scene 4 The king asks if Cawdor is executed yet and if the people who did it are back yet. Malcolm says the aren't back but someone who saw it said Cawdor confessed and apologized, at peace with himself so that death was not a problem, and the way he left was be tter than the way he lived. Duncan makes a comment important to theme, saying he trusted Cawdor, because he was deceptive in the way he acted. When Macbeth arrives, Duncan thanks him for what he did, saying he can never repay him. Macbeth says he was just doing his duty. Duncan says Macbeth will grow, and Banquo will be close to his heart. Banquo also expresses his loyalty, saying the benefit would be for Duncan. Duncan says he is happy despite troubles, and declares his son Malcolm his successor, making Malcolm a problem in Macbeth's getting the throne. Duncan decides to go to Macbeth's castle, and Macbeth goes to tell his wife. Macbeth talks of how he is having dark thoughts about trying to become king. Duncan comments on how great Banquo is and then follows him.
Act I, Scene 5 Lady Macbeth is reading a letter from Macbeth, which tells about the witches prophecy. Lady Macbeth says that her husband is too nice to get the greatness he is promised. She decides to help him gain the crown. A messenger tells her the King is coming. Lady Macbeth decides that Duncan will be killed while staying there. She tries to get rid of all kind thoughts so that she can do the deed. She tells her husband to appear normal, even while he plans to kill the King.
Act I, Scene 6 Duncan talks about how pleasant the castle is. Banquo notes how the birds are abundant, marking it for a nice place. Duncan greets Lady Macbeth, who returns the formality and assures her loyalty. She leads them into the castle.
Act I, Scene 7 Macbeth contemplates the crime and says he should do it soon if he does it. If this was all there was to it, and all he had to worry about was the afterlife, he would do it. But he is also judged here, and murdering may lead to his own death. He is supposed to be loyal to Duncan as a relative and subject and host. And Duncan is such a nice, great leader that whoever kills him will be damned. Everyone will be sad. There is nothing to make him do it except ambition, which is like a spur but also like a rider who jumps on a horse but falls off the other side. Lady Macbeth says Duncan almost finished dinner. Macbeth doesn't want to kill someone who has done him so well. Lady Macbeth asks what happened to his hope that he had so much. She will not love him if he doesn't do this, what he wants. Macbeth doesn't want to do it, and Lady Macbeth asks what happened since he was so willing to do it before. She says that if she had sworn to, she would kill a baby suckling at her breast. Lady Macbeth says they won't fail because they will get the King's attendants drunk and make it look like they did it. Macbeth comments on his wife's mannly mettle, and starts to believe his wife. She says it will look like the servants did it, so Macbeth agrees to do it, while hiding what he did from his face, a refernce to the theme.
Act II, Scene 1 Banquo and Fleance are walking around and wondering at the time. Baquo is worried about the dark thoughts in his head. Macbeth comes up and Banquo asks why he isn't sleeping when Duncan went to bed happy and sent them gifts. Macbeth responds that he wasn't as good a host because he was unprepared. Banquo dreamt of the witches and Macbeth says they should talk about that later. Banquo wants to maintain his loyalty to the king. Macbeth dismisses his servant and then imagines a dagger before him, but he isn't sure if it is real. He says it encourages to do the deed, showing him how. In the night, he dreams of Hecate and the witches, of a wolf howling the time for murder, and compares his stealthy approach to that of Tarquin. In horror, he resolves to do the deed.
Act II, Scene 2 Lady Macbeth says that the alcohol that made the attendants drunk has given her courage. Omens of death wish the king good night, and Macbeth is going to kill him as the drunk attendants are unconscious. When Macbeth shows up she is afraid they woke up and it didn't work. She would have done it if Duncan didn't look like her fathe. But he did it, after some trouble. One attendant woke up and said "Murder" but then they went ack to sleep. Donalbain either said "God bless us" or "Amen" in response to Duncan saying it. Macbeth is troubled because he could not say "Amen". Lady Macbeth says not to think that way. Macbeth says he heard a voice saying he murdered sleep, which is described as such a sweet and pleasant thing. She tells him not to think of such sickly things and to wash his hands. She then agrees to put the daggers back, because Macbeth doesn't want to. She says only kids fear death and sleep. She will get some blood on the attendants to make them look guilty. Macbeth is troubled by knocking and says that nothing can wash his hands clean, and the blood will make the seas red. Lady Macbeth feels bad to have red hands but to be innocent of the crime itself. She tells him to wash his hands and retire and put on his nightgown so that they will not be suspicious to the watchers. Macbeth wishes he did not know what he had done.
Act II, Scene 3 The porter hears knocking and says that a porter at hell would have a busy job. He pretends to be the porter of hell, and imagines the sort of people who would come, such as a farmer who didn't get the high prices wanted, a traitor, and a tailor who tried to overprice his garments. Finally he lets Macduff and Lennox in, and they have a discussion about drinking. The porter tells how drink causes red noses, sleep, and urine. He also says it causes lechery, though it takes away the performance. Macbeth comes and greets Lennox and Macduff. Macbeth leads Macduff to the king. Lennox comments on weird things that happened during the night. Macduff returns, having discovered the murder. He is in hysterics, telling them of the horror of horrors and calling for an alarm. He compares the events transpiring to Judgement Day, when the dead rise up to a trumpet. Lady Macbeth comes and asks what is going on. And Macduff tells Banquo when he enters. Macbeth reenters commenting on how awful life is with the death of his king. Malcolm and Donalbain are then informed what happened. Lennox says it looked like the chamber attendants had done it. Macbeth says that in his fury, he killed the attendants. Malcolm and Donalbain are afraid and agree to leave. Banquo says they should reassemble to investigate the matter. Malcolm, in a comment relevant to the theme, says it is easy to show a false sorrow. They both agree it is not safe there and depart.
Act II, Scene 4 The old man says this is the worst night he has ever seen. Ross speaks metaphorically of the battle between light and dark. The old man compares it to an owl killing a great falcon. Ross then talks of the mysterious event with the horses of Duncan getting loose and eating each other. Macduff says it is thought the attendants did the murder. He thinks they were paid by Malcolm and Donalbain. Macbeth is said to have gone to Scone to get the crown. Duncan's body is said to be buried. Macduff and Ross bid each other farewell. The old man bids them farewell with a comment alluding again to the theme.
Act III, Scene 1 Banquo comments on how Macbeth has everything he was promised, but he thinks Macbeth gained it through evil. But Banquo hopes now that his prophecies will come true and his kids will be kings. Macbeth invites Banquo, his chief guest, to a feast. Banquo and Fleance are riding that afternoon, but can be back by supper. Macbeth says that Malcolm and Donalbain, their cousins whom guilt rests upon, are in England and Ireland but don't admit to the crime. Macbeth bids them farewell then tells the servant to fetch the murderers. While waiting, he deliver a soliloquy about how it is insufficient to be king, unless he is secure. He fears Banquo, with his wisdom and temper, will try to unseat him, as the prophecies said his children would be kings. Macbeth fears he has given up his soul and committed an evil act, just to put Banquo's descendants on the throne. He tells fate to fight him to the death. Macbeth has been convincing the murderers that Banquo is a bad person over the course of two earlier meetings. Macbeth tells the murderers they have a special role as men, and the murderers say they have had a rough life and would do anything. Macbeth tells them to kill Banquo, their mutual enemy. He compares is battle with Banquo to fencing, but says he can't kill him himself. He tells them to do it carefully, and to kill Banquo's son Fleance as well.
Act III, Scene 2 Lady Macbeth sends a servant for Macbeth, then says something that reminds of Macbeth's earlier soliloquy. It is no good to be insecure in what you have, and you might as well be destroyed. She asks Macbeth why he is keeping to himself and acting worried when he can't change what he has done. Macbeth says there is still a threat, and he wishes he were one of the dead who are in peace, than have such constant worries. Lady Macbeth tells him to act happy. Macbeth says his wife needs to remember that, too, and that they need to flatter Banquo to cover up for their dark plans. Lady Macbeth says not to kill Banquo and that they won't live forever. Macbeth says they can be happy after Banquo and Fleance are dead, which will happen that night. Macbeth doesn't want to tell his wife of his plans so that she can be innocent. He says this evil deed will help what was badly begun.
Act III, Scene 3 A new murderer appears, claiming to be sent by Macbeth. Banquo approaches and they kill him, but Fleance escapes. They go to tell Macbeth.
Act III, Scene 4 At the banquet, they seat themselves according to rank. Lady Macbeth goes to play hostess, while Macbeth meets with the Murderer. He learns Fleance escaped and says he is now surrounded by fears instead of being calm and safe. Macbeth is grateful that at least the snake is gone, thought the worm Fleance will likely return. He tells the murderer they will meet again. Lady Macbeth tells him to be a good host, otherwise the guests might as well be eating at home or paying for the meal. Macbeth then sees a ghost of Banquo sit in his chair, but Ross and Lennox tell him to sit since they don't see the ghost. Lady Macbeth tells the guests to wait, that this is just a temporary fit. She tells Macbeth that it is just his imagining from fear. Macbeth says he is just ill and drinks wine to Banquo. He tells the ghost to go away, that it is not real. Lady Macbeth tells the lords to leave after Macbeth continues to act strangely. He wonders then where Macduff is. He says he will go to see the witches again.
Act III, Scene 5 Hecate is angry because the witches have been dealing with Macbeth without consulting her. She says he will be told his destiny at the cave the next day. The various spells she contrives will lure him into a false sense of security. The witches prepare for her return.
Act III, Scene 6 Lennox thinks it is suspicious how Macbeth has been acting and how two people killed their fathers. Macduff is reported to be in the English court, rallying forces to remove Macbeth.
Act IV, Scene 1 The witches meet again and cook up a spell in their cauldron with all sorts of interesting ingredients. Macbeth approaches them to answer his question, regardless of any havoc it might wreak. Macbeth opts to hear it from the witches' masters and is greeted by an apparition that can read his mind and answer his question. The armed head represents Macbeth, telling him to beware of Macduff. The bloody child represents Macduff, who we later find out was not of woman born. Macbeth wonder why, then, he should fear Macduff but just to be safe he will kill him anyway. The crowned child is Malcolm, with the tree representing Burnham Wood, and says not to fear until Great Burnham wood moves against him. Macbeth feels safe since a wood can never move and he knows no people not of woman born. He thinks the prophecy is a good and insures him a safe life. Then a line of kings is seen, thought to represent the descendents of Banquo that eventually lead to King James. The last king holds a mirror to make the line seem endless. So Macbeth gets his question answered about Macbeth's descendents and the witches try to cheer him up by dancing. Then they disappear. Lennox tells Macbeth than Lennox has gone to England. Macbeth comments in his aside about how he was overtaken by time because he failed to act on his plan. He decides to kill Macduff's children.
Act IV, Scene 2 Lady Macduff is wondering why her husband left. She thinks he was mad, looking like a traitor, loveless and cowardly to leave his family and possessions. Ross tries to comfort her, telling her he knows what is wrong at the moment. People don't know they are traitors, when they know fear. Ross leaves and says he will be back. Lady Macduff has an interesting conversation with her son Sirrah about what they will do without a father. The messenger tells her to leave, that she is in danger. But Lady Macduff doesn't know where to go, and she has done no wrong. As she realizes that doing good is sometimes a bad thing, the murderers arrive. The murderers kill the Son, but Lady Macduff escapes.
Act IV, Scene 3 Malcolm says they should find some place to cry, while Macduff says they should defend their native country the way they would a fallen comrade. Scotland is full of cries. Malcolm says this could be true, but he fears that Macduff could betray him to Macbeth for a reward. Malcolm says that even is Macduff isn't treacherous, he good give in to the royal command the way a cannon recoils after it is fired. He says bad things can look good while good things still look good. Malcolm asks why Macduff left his family. Macduff says he is not a bad person, that the tyrant Macbeth hurts Scotland as legal ruler. Malcolm says he does want to retake Scotland, but then to check still if Macduff is a spy, he lies, saying how he is a man of vices who would be an even worse ruler. At first, Macduff says the vices won't be a problem, that Scotland can deal with them and that Macbeth is worse. When Malcolm persists, Macduff says that Malcolm truly unfit to rule and fears for his country. Malcolm then says his fears are allayed, and that he really is virtuous person. Macduff says this is hard to deal with all of a sudden. The doctor then talks about how the king is healing people with the evil. Malcolm does not recognize Ross since he's been in England for a while. Ross tells how awful things are in Scotland, but assures Macduff his family is fine. He encourages them to return and save Scotland. Ross then tells Macduff that his family is actually dead. He encourages revenge. Macduff thinks Macbeth wouldn't have killed his kid if he had any of his own. They plan to go to Scotland.
Act V, Scene 1 The gentlewoman who cares for Lady Macbeth has summoned a doctor, but in two nights the reported symptoms of waking up and writing something have not occurred. The doctor says it is a disturbance of nature for her to do such things while appearing to sleep. The gentlewoman will not repeat anything Lady Macbeth has said for she is unsure, but then Lady Macbeth appears, carrying a light. Lady Macbeth acts as if washing her hands, seeing a spot of blood. She questions why her husband should be scared, but complains still of the blood that was shed. She is wracked with guilt that troubles her as the two observe. The doctor says she needs the help of god, not a doctor for her troubles
Act V, Scene 2 The English forces with the Scottish thanes are near, Menteith reports. The revenge they seek is a strong enough cause to raise the dead and wounded. Angus says they will met at Burnham wood, and Caithness asks if Donalbain is coming. Lennox explains he has a list of everyone, including boys ready to show their manhood in their first battle, and Donalbain is not on the list. Caithness explains that Macbeth is strengthening his castle, and is acting crazy, unable to rule. Angus explains these are the consequences of the murder; people don't willingly follow him and his title means little. Menteith explains Macbeth is afraid of himself, and Caithness compares Malcolm to doctor, and by working with him they will cure their country by shedding their blood.
Act V, Scene 3 Macbeth is wondering how the prophecy will come true, and tries to remain confident. Macbeth upraids his servant for seeming afraid, but is told of the English forces. Mcabeth tells Seyton this revolt will either remove or leave him happy, as right now he has none of things due a man of old age. Macbeth asks for his armor, planning to defend himself to the end. Macbeth asks the doctor to cure his wife. The doctor wishes he weren't there.
Act V, Scene 4 Malcolm hopes to regain the safety they once had. Menteith is sure it will happen. Malcolm tells each soldier to cut down a large tree branch and put it in front of him, thereby camouflaging himself. The scouts will think there are less of them. Macbeth waits in his castle, his only hope of defense. Though they have hopes of what they want to accomplish, now is the time for actual blows and battle to win.
Act V, Scene 5 Macbeth says let them come to the castle, he can hold them off. If they didn't have his soldiers, then he could have met them on the field and beat them back. Macbeth has forgotten what it is like to be afraid, having as much fear as a man can bear. Macbeth wishes his wife had died later, at a better time. He comments on how life passes at this little speed, with people dying after a futile life. Macbeth says the messenger comes to speak, he should give his report quickly. The messenger, unsure of how to report what he saw, says Birnham wood appeared to move (remember that the soldiers are carrying boughs to hide themselves as they move), thus the prophecy is fulfilled. Macbeth starts wishing this were just all over and prepares for death fighting.
Act V, Scene 6 Macolm and Macduff split off from Siward, and they throw down their boughs, preparing to fight.
Act V, Scene 7 Macbeth knows he is stuck fighting, and he wonders who was not born of woman. Macbeth tells Young Siward who he is, and Macbeth says he should be not just hateful but fearful to Young Siward's ears. Macbeth says he doesn't fear any not of woman born and kills Young Siward. Macduff says he must kill Macbeth to avenge his family, and only Macbeth. By the noise of Macbeth's armor, he locates him. Siward explains the battle is easy. Malcolm enters the castle.
Act V, Scene 8 Macbeth asks why he should kill himself when the wounds he might inflict upon himself would look better upon his living enemies. Macbeth says he has avoided Macduff and does not want to kill him after killing his family. Macduff says he will speak with his sword instead of words. Macbeth says the Macduff will not hurt him. Macduff then reveals that he was ripped from his mother's womb while she died. Macbeth is angry to discover that the prophecy will come true and only provided him false hope. Macduff tells him to give up and explains he will be put on a pole and displayed as a tyrant. Macbeth says he will try despite the prophecy rather than yield to Malcolm.
Act V, Scene 9 Malcolm wishes no one had to die, but Siward says it is necessary and the cost wasn't that high for such a good day. Ross tells Siward that Young Siward, who just became a man in fighting, died. He tells him not to have sorrow, though. Siward says he died well then. Macduff hails Malcolm as king holding Macbeth's head.
3. List of Characters
Macbeth - Macbeth is a Scottish general and the thane of Glamis who is led to wicked thoughts by the prophecies of the three witches, especially after their prophecy that he will be made thane of Cawdor comes true. Macbeth is a brave soldier and a powerful man, but he is not a virtuous one. He is easily tempted into murder to fulfill his ambitions to the throne, and once he commits his first crime and is crowned king of Scotland, he embarks on further atrocities with increasing ease. Ultimately, Macbeth proves himself better suited to the battlefield than to political intrigue, because he lacks the skills necessary to rule without being a tyrant. His response to every problem is violence and murder. Unlike Shakespeare’s great villains, such as Iago in Othello and Richard III in Richard III, Macbeth is never comfortable in his role as a criminal. He is unable to bear the psychological consequences of his atrocities.
Lady Macbeth - Macbeth’s wife, a deeply ambitious woman who lusts for power and position. Early in the play she seems to be the stronger and more ruthless of the two, as she urges her husband to kill Duncan and seize the crown. After the bloodshed begins, however, Lady Macbeth falls victim to guilt and madness to an even greater degree than her husband. Her conscience affects her to such an extent that she eventually commits suicide. Interestingly, she and Macbeth are presented as being deeply in love, and many of Lady Macbeth’s speeches imply that her influence over her husband is primarily sexual. Their joint alienation from the world, occasioned by their partnership in crime, seems to strengthen the attachment that they feel to each another.
The Three Witches - Three “black and midnight hags” who plot mischief against Macbeth using charms, spells, and prophecies. Their predictions prompt him to murder Duncan, to order the deaths of Banquo and his son, and to blindly believe in his own immortality. The play leaves the witches’ true identity unclear—aside from the fact that they are servants of Hecate, we know little about their place in the cosmos. In some ways they resemble the mythological Fates, who impersonally weave the threads of human destiny. They clearly take a perverse delight in using their knowledge of the future to toy with and destroy human beings.
Banquo - The brave, noble general whose children, according to the witches’ prophecy, will inherit the Scottish throne. Like Macbeth, Banquo thinks ambitious thoughts, but he does not translate those thoughts into action. In a sense, Banquo’s character stands as a rebuke to Macbeth, since he represents the path Macbeth chose not to take: a path in which ambition need not lead to betrayal and murder. Appropriately, then, it is Banquo’s ghost—and not Duncan’s—that haunts Macbeth. In addition to embodying Macbeth’s guilt for killing Banquo, the ghost also reminds Macbeth that he did not emulate Banquo’s reaction to the witches’ prophecy.
King Duncan - The good king of Scotland whom Macbeth, in his ambition for the crown, murders. Duncan is the model of a virtuous, benevolent, and farsighted ruler. His death symbolizes the destruction of an order in Scotland that can be restored only when Duncan’s line, in the person of Malcolm, once more occupies the throne.
Macduff - A Scottish nobleman hostile to Macbeth’s kingship from the start. He eventually becomes a leader of the crusade to unseat Macbeth. The crusade’s mission is to place the rightful king, Malcolm, on the throne, but Macduff also desires vengeance for Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s wife and young son.
Malcolm - The son of Duncan, whose restoration to the throne signals Scotland’s return to order following Macbeth’s reign of terror. Malcolm becomes a serious challenge to Macbeth with Macduff’s aid (and the support of England). Prior to this, he appears weak and uncertain of his own power, as when he and Donalbain flee Scotland after their father’s murder.
Hecate - The goddess of witchcraft, who helps the three witches work their mischief on Macbeth.
Fleance - Banquo’s son, who survives Macbeth’s attempt to murder him. At the end of the play, Fleance’s whereabouts are unknown. Presumably, he may come to rule Scotland, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s sons will sit on the Scottish throne.
Lennox - A Scottish nobleman.
Ross - A Scottish nobleman.
The Murderers - A group of ruffians conscripted by Macbeth to murder Banquo, Fleance (whom they fail to kill), and Macduff’s wife and children.
Porter - The drunken doorman of Macbeth’s castle.
Lady Macduff - Macduff’s wife. The scene in her castle provides our only glimpse of a domestic realm other than that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. She and her home serve as contrasts to Lady Macbeth and the hellish world of Inverness.
Donalbain - Duncan’s son and Malcolm’s younger brother.
4. Themes
The Corrupting Power of Unchecked Ambition
The main theme of Macbeth—the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints—finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her conscience. In each case, ambition—helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witches—is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne—Banquo, Fleance, Macduff—and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them.
The Relationship between Cruelty and Masculinity
Characters in Macbeth frequently dwell on issues of gender. Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishes that she herself could be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the murderers he hires to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression, and whenever they converse about manhood, violence soon follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos.
At the same time, however, the audience cannot help noticing that women are also sources of violence and evil. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior; Lady Macbeth provides the brains and the will behind her husband’s plotting; and the only divine being to appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Arguably, Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women, which has led some critics to argue that this is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. While the male characters are just as violent and prone to evil as the women, the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave. Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be as ambitious and cruel as men. Whether because of the constraints of her society or because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on deception and manipulation rather than violence to achieve her ends.
Ultimately, the play does put forth a revised and less destructive definition of manhood. In the scene where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles him by encouraging him to take the news in “manly” fashion, by seeking revenge upon Macbeth. Macduff shows the young heir apparent that he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolm’s suggestion, “Dispute it like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.221–223). At the end of the play, Siward receives news of his son’s death rather complacently. Malcolm responds: “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him” (V.xi.16–17). Malcolm’s comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the sentient nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolm’s coronation, order will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Difference between Kingship and Tyranny
In the play, Duncan is always referred to as a “king,” while Macbeth soon becomes known as the “tyrant.” The difference between the two types of rulers seems to be expressed in a conversation that occurs in Act IV, scene iii, when Macduff meets Malcolm in England. In order to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth. He tells Macduff of his reproachable qualities—among them a thirst for personal power and a violent temperament, both of which seem to characterize Macbeth perfectly. On the other hand, Malcolm says, “The king-becoming graces / [are] justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, [and] lowliness” (IV.iii.92–93). The model king, then, offers the kingdom an embodiment of order and justice, but also comfort and affection. Under him, subjects are rewarded according to their merits, as when Duncan makes Macbeth thane of Cawdor after Macbeth’s victory over the invaders. Most important, the king must be loyal to Scotland above his own interests. Macbeth, by contrast, brings only chaos to Scotland—symbolized in the bad weather and bizarre supernatural events—and offers no real justice, only a habit of capriciously murdering those he sees as a threat. As the embodiment of tyranny, he must be overcome by Malcolm so that Scotland can have a true king once more.
5. Motifs
Visions and hallucinations recur throughout the play and serve as reminders of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s joint culpability for the growing body count. When he is about to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air. Covered with blood and pointed toward the king’s chamber, the dagger represents the bloody course on which Macbeth is about to embark. Later, he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in a chair at a feast, pricking his conscience by mutely reminding him that he murdered his former friend. The seemingly hardheaded Lady Macbeth also eventually gives way to visions, as she sleepwalks and believes that her hands are stained with blood that cannot be washed away by any amount of water. In each case, it is ambiguous whether the vision is real or purely hallucinatory; but, in both cases, the Macbeths read them uniformly as supernatural signs of their guilt.
Macbeth is a famously violent play. Interestingly, most of the killings take place offstage, but throughout the play the characters provide the audience with gory descriptions of the carnage, from the opening scene where the captain describes Macbeth and Banquo wading in blood on the battlefield, to the endless references to the bloodstained hands of Macbeth and his wife. The action is bookended by a pair of bloody battles: in the first, Macbeth defeats the invaders; in the second, he is slain and beheaded by Macduff. In between is a series of murders: Duncan, Duncan’s chamberlains, Banquo, Lady Macduff, and Macduff’s son all come to bloody ends. By the end of the action, blood seems to be everywhere.
Prophecy sets Macbeth’s plot in motion—namely, the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become first thane of Cawdor and then king. The weird sisters make a number of other prophecies: they tell us that Banquo’s heirs will be kings, that Macbeth should beware Macduff, that Macbeth is safe till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth. Save for the prophecy about Banquo’s heirs, all of these predictions are fulfilled within the course of the play. Still, it is left deliberately ambiguous whether some of them are self-fulfilling—for example, whether Macbeth wills himself to be king or is fated to be king. Additionally, as the Birnam Wood and “born of woman” prophecies make clear, the prophecies must be interpreted as riddles, since they do not always mean what they seem to mean.
6. Symbols
Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, beginning with the opening battle between the Scots and the Norwegian invaders, which is described in harrowing terms by the wounded captain in Act I, scene ii. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embark upon their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolize their guilt, and they begin to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that cannot be washed clean. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” Macbeth cries after he has killed Duncan, even as his wife scolds him and says that a little water will do the job (II.ii.58–59). Later, though, she comes to share his horrified sense of being stained: “Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks as she wanders through the halls of their castle near the close of the play (V.i.30–34). Blood symbolizes the guilt that sits like a permanent stain on the consciences of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one that hounds them to their graves.
The Weather
As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth’s grotesque murder spree is accompanied by a number of unnatural occurrences in the natural realm. From the thunder and lightning that accompany the witches’ appearances to the terrible storms that rage on the night of Duncan’s murder, these violations of the natural order reflect corruption in the moral and political orders.