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Macbeth Attitude Changes Essay Research Paper WILLIAM

Macbeth Attitude Changes Essay, Research Paper

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

Macbeth was first performed in 1606, three years after James I

succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. By that time, William

Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in England, and his

company, which had been called the Chamberlain’s Men under Queen

Elizabeth, was renamed the King’s Men.

You can see from the subject and content of Macbeth that Shakespeare

was writing to please the new king. At the time James became James I

of England, he was already James VI of Scotland, so a play like

Macbeth about Scottish history was a tribute to him. This play was

especially flattering because James was of the Stuart line of kings,

and supposedly the Stuarts were descended from Banquo, who appears in

the play as a brave, noble, honest man. Also, James wrote a book

called Demonology, and he would have been very interested in the

scenes with the witches.

It is not unusual that Shakespeare would have written Macbeth with an

eye toward gratifying his patron. Shakespeare was a commercial

playwright–he wrote and produced plays to sell tickets and make

money.

One of his early plays–Titus Andronicus–was popular for the same

reason certain movies sell a lot of tickets today: it is full of

blood and gore. The witches and the battles of Macbeth, too, may

have been there in part to appeal to the audience.

It was Shakespeare’s financial success as a playwright that restored

his family’s sagging fortunes. John Shakespeare, William’s father,

was the son of a farmer. He opened a shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and

eventually become one of the town’s leading citizens.

John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father’s landlord. Mary

was a gentle, cultivated woman, and their marriage helped John

socially in Stratford.

William, their first son, was born in 1564. It seems that by the

time he was twenty his father was deeply in debt, and John’s name

disappeared from the list of town councillors. Years later, when

William was financially well off, he bought his father a coat of

arms, which let John sign himself as an official “gentleman.”

So Shakespeare was no aristocrat who wrote plays as an intellectual

pursuit. He was a craftsman who earned his living as a dramatist.

We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life. When he was eighteen,

he married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six. They had three

children, two girls and a boy, and the boy, Hamnet, died young. By

his mid-twenties, Shakespeare was a successful actor and playwright

in London, and he stayed in the theater until he died, in 1616.

Macbeth was written relatively late in Shakespeare’s career–when he

was in his forties. It was the last of what are considered the four

great tragedies. (The others are Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.)

Macbeth is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s works, and its

economy is a sign that its author was a master of his craft. You are

amazed at the playwright’s keen understanding of human nature and his

skill in expressing his insights through dramatic verse as, step by

step, he makes the spiritual downfall of Macbeth, the title

character, horrifyingly clear.

All Shakespeare’s plays seem to brim over with ideas–he is always

juggling several possibilities about life. England, too, was in the

midst of a highly interesting period, full of change.

Queen Elizabeth was a great queen, and under her rule England had won

a war against Spain, which established it as a world power. America

was being explored. Old ideas about government and law were

changing. London was becoming a fabulous city, filling with people

from the countryside. Even the English language was changing, as

people from distant areas came together and added new words and

expressions to the common language.

More than a half-century earlier, Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had

broken away from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church

of England. Forty years later, in the middle of the 17th century,

King Charles I would lose his head, executed by the Puritans in a

civil war.

Elizabeth was not as secure on the throne as you might think. Though

her grandfather, Henry VII, had stripped the nobles of England of

much power, Elizabeth still struggled with them throughout her reign.

She had to be a political genius to play them against each other, to

avoid the plottings of the Roman Catholics and to overcome the

country’s financial mess created by her father, Henry VIII.

A lot was “modern,” a lot was “medieval” about the way people thought

in Shakespeare’s time. People were superstitious, and the

superstitions became mixed up with religion. Things that nobody

understood were often attributed to supernatural forces.

You can feel some of these things moving behind the scenes as you

read Macbeth. But none of this background–not the influence of

James I or the intrigues of Elizabeth’s court or the superstitions of

the times–should determine the way you read the play. It has a life

of its own, breathed into it by Shakespeare’s talent and art. It

stands on its own and must be evaluated on its own terms. So now

let’s turn to the play itself.

MACBETH: THE PLOT

On a deserted field, with lightning and thunder overhead, we see

three eerie witches. They chant spells, make plans to meet someone

named Macbeth, and vanish into thin air.

In a military camp not far away are King Duncan of Scotland and some

of his followers. A battle is raging nearby. We learn there is a

rebellion against the King. He is too old to fight himself, and

wants to know how his army is doing.

A badly wounded soldier reports that the battle was horribly bloody

but the brave Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, saved the day, fighting

fearlessly and killing the rebels’ leader. (Thanes were Scottish

noblemen.) Duncan is moved by Macbeth’s courage.

The Thane of Ross arrives with more news: the Thane of Cawdor, one

of Duncan’s trusted captains, is a traitor. When Duncan learns that

his army has won, he orders the Thane of Cawdor executed and

indicates that Macbeth inherit his title.

Before Duncan’s men can reach Macbeth to tell him the good news,

Macbeth and Banquo, who have led Duncan’s army together, come upon

the three witches. Banquo thinks the three weird women are bizarre

and funny, but Macbeth is strangely fascinated by them. They greet

Macbeth with two predictions: that he will be Thane of Cawdor and

that he will be king. Then they prophesy that though Banquo will

never be a king, his children will be kings. And then the witches

vanish.

Macbeth and Banquo cannot believe their eyes. As they joke uneasily

about the predictions, they are interrupted by Duncan’s messengers,

who announce that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. Suddenly, the

witches are no laughing matter. Macbeth’s mind is racing. Could he

actually become king someday? King Duncan personally thanks Macbeth

for his bravery in the following scene, at his palace. But at the

same time Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will inherit the

throne. That is not good news for Macbeth. You can see already that

he wants to wear the crown himself.

At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband

telling her about the witches. It is clear that she will be willing

to do anything to see Macbeth king. When the news arrives that

Duncan will spend the night at her castle, she’s amazed at his

stupidity–or his innocence–and thrilled to have the chance to

murder him.

That night, as the royal party is being entertained, Duncan’s hosts

secretly plot his death. Macbeth is scared of what he is about to

do, and wants to back out, but his wife makes it clear that if he

doesn’t kill Duncan, she won’t consider him a man. Macbeth commits

the murder, but he is appalled by his deed.

When the King’s body is discovered the next morning, nobody seems

more shocked or surprised than Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth blames

Duncan’s servants and kills them–pretending he is so enraged he

cannot stop himself. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, sense

treason and treachery and decide to run away, afraid that they will

be killed, too. Macbeth has himself crowned king. The witches’

predictions have come true, and Macbeth seems to have all he wants.

But Macbeth is not happy. He’s afraid that some of the thanes

suspect Duncan was not really killed by his servants. Worse,

Macbeth’s friend Banquo was told by the witches that he would father

kings. To prevent that, Macbeth decides, he must also murder Banquo.

This time without Lady Macbeth’s help, Macbeth sends three men to

kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Banquo’s throat is slit, but

Fleance manages to escape.

On the night of his friend’s murder Macbeth holds a great feast. But

the merrymaking is spoiled by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost.

Macbeth is the only person there who can see him, and it makes him

rave like a madman.

Terrified now of losing the crown, Macbeth goes back to the witches.

They tell him three things: first, that he should fear Macduff, the

Thane of Fife; second, that Macbeth will never be harmed by any man

born of woman; and third, that he will never be defeated until Birnam

Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Two out of three of the predictions

sound comforting, but the witches go on to show Macbeth a vision of

Banquo as father to a line of kings. The vision makes Macbeth

furious, but the predictions make him even more ruthless.

Macbeth soon learns that the witches gave him good advice about

fearing Macduff. The Thane of Fife has gone to England to meet with

Malcolm, the rightful king, and plan a revolt. In his rage, Macbeth

has Macduff’s wife and children murdered.

When Macduff hears the news, his grief makes him even more determined

to overthrow the tyrant Macbeth. He and Malcolm set out from England

with ten thousand men.

In Scotland, Macbeth’s world is falling apart. His followers are

deserting him; his wife has lost her mind. Only his pride and his

confidence in the witches’ predictions keep him going.

As Malcolm is approaching Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane, he orders

his troops to cut branches from trees in nearby Birnam Wood and carry

them as disguises.

Macbeth at Dunsinane is waiting for the attackers when he’s told that

his wife is dead; she has killed herself. He barely has time to

react before a report arrives that Birnam Wood seems to be

moving–toward the castle! Furious, frightened, and desperate,

Macbeth calls out his troops.

Malcolm’s army throw down the branches and the battle begins.

Macbeth’s men hardly put up a fight, but Macbeth battles like a

trapped animal.

Finally, Macbeth comes face to face with Macduff, who has been

looking for him in the battlefield. Macbeth warns his enemy that no

man born of woman can harm him. Macduff isn’t frightened–he was

“untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. (Today we would call it a

cesarean section.) Though he knows the end has come, Macbeth fights

on and is killed. In triumph, Macduff carries Macbeth’s severed head

out to the people, who turn to Malcolm as their rightful king.

MACBETH: MACBETH

Macbeth is a character of powerful contradictions. He is a man who,

for the sake of his ambition, is willing to murder his king and his

best friend. At the same time, he has a conscience that is so strong

that just the thought of his crimes torments him. In fact, even

before he commits his crimes the thought of them makes him miserable.

Is Macbeth a horrible monster or is he a sensitive man–a victim of

witches and his own ambitions? Or is he both? If he is both, how

can the two sides of his nature exist side by side?

To answer those questions, let’s first look at what he does. Then we

will look at how he feels about what he does. In the play, of

course, the two go together.

His actions are monstrous. If Macbeth were a criminal brought to

trial, the list of the charges against him would be long:

1. He murders his king, who is also a relative. The crime is

treasonous and sacrilegious, since every king is set on his throne by

God. Macbeth’s guilt is even blacker because the King was his guest

at the time of the murder. A host has responsibility to protect his

guest.

2. He hires men to kill his best friend, Banquo. He wants the men

to kill Banquo’s young son, Fleance, too, but Fleance escapes.

3. He sends men to kill Macduff’s wife and children.

4. Having taken the crown by murder, he keeps it by deception. He

plants spies in all the nobles’ homes and spreads lies about Malcolm,

who should rightfully inherit the throne.

5. More crimes are referred to but not specified. Macbeth rules by

terror, since he does not deserve–or have–anybody’s loyalty.

Describing Scotland under Macbeth’s rule, Macduff says, “Each new

morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven

on the face…” (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 4-6).

So Macbeth does horrible things, but that is not the whole story.

Macbeth is different from some of Shakespeare’s other villains like

Iago (in Othello) and Richard III. The latter enjoy doing evil; they

have renounced what we think of as normal ethics and morality.

Macbeth’s feelings are more complicated. In the beginning of the

play, at least, he appears to have a conscience that tells him what

he’s doing is wrong. Or is he just afraid of the consequences of his

actions?

He is never able to enjoy the crown he has taken. He experiences

nothing but anguish. Is that simply because he is afraid of losing

the crown, or is his conscience bothering him?

None of these questions is answered directly in the play. Each

reader has to form his or her own opinion, based on the text.

Let’s look at how Macbeth feels about each of the crimes we listed before:

1. Killing Duncan horrifies Macbeth. Before the murder, he tries to

tell Lady Macbeth that he will not go through with it. She has to

goad him into killing the King. After committing the murder, Macbeth

seems almost delirious. He says that “…all great Neptune’s ocean

[will not] wash this blood / Clean from my hand” (Act II, Scene ii,

lines 60-61).

2. When he murders Banquo, Macbeth is still in torment, but the

cause of his anguish seems to have changed. He is afraid of Banquo,

because Banquo knows about the witches and because the witches

predicted that his descendents would be kings. Banquo’s death, he

says, will put his mind at rest.

3. We are never told how Macbeth feels about the murder of Macduff’s

wife and children. Their killing gains him nothing. He has good

reason to fear Macduff, but slaughtering his enemy’s family is

pointless.

Macbeth seems to order their murder for spite, out of a feeling of

desperation. Despite the witches’ new prophesies, which appear to be

reassuring, he is afraid of losing the crown. Since he cannot get at

Macduff directly, he lets loose this senseless violence.

4. The spies Macbeth plants show how desperate and paranoid he is.

He sees enemies–real or imagined–everywhere.

5. The other unspecified acts of violence serve no purpose, as far

as we can see, beyond terrifying his subjects so much they won’t

resist him. Macbeth is striking out at random, and his moral sense

seems to have entirely disappeared. The brave hero we met in Act I,

who at least seemed honorable, is completely twisted.

You can see how much his crimes have cost Macbeth. His reaction to

Lady Macbeth’s death is a sign of complete despair–all feeling is

dead in him. His famous speech upon hearing of her

suicide–”Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” (Act V, Scene v,

lines 17-28)–is less an expression of grief than it is a speech

about the utter meaninglessness of life.

You wonder how all this has happened. If he was so horrified by

first the idea and then the fact of Duncan’s murder, why did he do

it? And why commit the other crimes?

Apparently his ambition is stronger than his conscience. The witches

tempt him with the idea of becoming king. Lady Macbeth helps him

overcome his natural hesitation to commit murder. But Macbeth

himself chooses between his honor and the crown–and between

salvation in the next world and material gain in this one.

Once he has killed to get the crown, the other crimes seem

inevitable. In order to keep what he has taken, Macbeth learns to

lie and kill as a matter of course. His values become totally

confused. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” to him now; he has lost

track of the difference.

All that seems left in the end is his pride. You respect him when he

fights to the death rather than be displayed as the monster he is.

But some people think that if Macbeth had not been so proud he would

not have wanted to be king to begin with, and that if he had been

humbler he would have repented.

Another aspect of Macbeth is his active imagination. Considering

Duncan’s murder, he can vividly picture all the possible

consequences. His imagination pursues him throughout the play. He’s

continually reliving his crimes and fantasizing about present and

future dangers. Nothing Lady Macbeth can say will quiet his mind.

At times he seems crazy–or haunted.

Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air.

After the murder, he hears voices. And later he sees Banquo’s ghost.

You are never quite sure if these are hallucinations–the imaginings

of a sick mind–or if they are apparitions, like the witches. You

begin to wonder how real they are.

MACBETH: LADY MACBETH

At the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, seems

to have only one opinion about murder: if it helps her to get what

she wants, she is in favor of it. For the first two acts of the

play, some readers think she is the most interesting character.

Their fascination is probably based on her total lack of scruples.

Lady Macbeth is a strong woman. She is a twisted example of the

saying, “Behind every great man there’s a woman.” Once she sees that

her husband’s ambition has been inflamed, she is willing to risk

anything to help him get the crown.

She understands her husband very well:

Yet do I fear thy nature;

It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way.

(Act I, Scene v, lines 17-19)

In other words, she knows that Macbeth’s conscience will stand in the

way of his ambition.

For the sake of their “prize,” she renounces all the soft, human

parts of her own nature. In a play so full of supernatural events,

we can take her literally if we want to when she calls upon

“…spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts…” to “Stop up th’ access

and passage to remorse / That no compunctious visitings of nature /

Shake my fell purpose…” (Act I, Scene v, lines 41-42 and 45-47).

It is as if she were tearing her heart out to make her husband king.

Lady Macbeth’s singleness of purpose seems to prove that she has been

successful in emptying herself of human feeling. When Macbeth tries

to back out of committing the murder, she treats him with contempt.

She questions his manhood and shames him into doing it.

Look at how effortlessly she lies. When Duncan, whom she plans to

kill, arrives at the castle, her welcoming speech drips with false

graciousness. While Macbeth has horrifying visions, Lady Macbeth

seems cool and literal minded. To her, Duncan’s blood is just

something to be washed off her hands. Worrying over things you

cannot alter is a waste of time, she says.

But Lady Macbeth is not as simple as she seems. By the end of the

play she has killed herself to escape the horrible nightmares that

torment her. Shakespeare seems to be saying that guilt and fear can

be suppressed for a time, but they cannot be done away with entirely.

Some readers find Lady Macbeth a fascinating portrait of a horrible

murderer. They see her actions as frighteningly amoral, and her

madness and death as divine justice. Others see Lady Macbeth as a

tragic figure. They are awed by her strength, her determination, and

her resourcefulness. To them, the tragedy is that she wastes such

qualities on evil deeds. And by the end, when her mind is rotten

with madness, they can say she has struggled with her guilt every bit

as much as her husband has with his.

MACBETH: BANQUO

We can learn a lot about Macbeth by looking at Banquo. Banquo is a

man of integrity. He is brave in battle but cautious in his actions.

It is valuable to look at how he and Macbeth react differently to

similar circumstances.

At the beginning of the play, they are equals. Macbeth and Banquo

are leading Duncan’s army–they fight side by side. They seem to be

equally brave in combat.

Banquo and Macbeth meet the witches together, and Banquo’s response

to the prophesies is wiser than Macbeth’s. He is skeptical from the

beginning. When the witches first appear, he taunts them: “Speak

then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate.”

(Act I, Scene iii, lines 61-62). After the prediction that Macbeth

will become Thane of Cawdor comes true, Banquo is more cautious. He

warns his friend not to be won over by small truths only to be

betrayed in more important matters. He senses the women are evil,

and he expects a trick.

Banquo has an honest and trusting nature. It never occurs to him

that Macbeth may want to kill Duncan to make the prophesy come true.

Later, even when he suspects that Macbeth killed the old King, Banquo

does not suspect that he himself is in any danger.

It is interesting to note that Banquo does have some interest in the

things the “weird sisters” promise him. He tells Macbeth that he

dreamed about them. He also wonders if, since their prophesy for

Macbeth came true, he should hope that his descendents will be kings.

But Banquo refuses to compromise his honor and his integrity to get

the things he wants. He is willing to wait for the fullness of time

to bring about whatever is coming. Also notice that Banquo, unlike

Macbeth, does not hide the fact that he sometimes thinks about the

three witches.

So it seems that Shakespeare formed Banquo’s character the way he did

to show how a man of honor would respond to the kind of temptation

that Macbeth gives in to. There is probably another reason why

Banquo is portrayed as he is. historically, Banquo was an ancestor

of King James I of England. Macbeth was first presented for James.

In Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was Shakespeare’s source for the

story, Banquo helped Macbeth murder the king. Many critics believe

that Shakespeare changed Banquo’s role to please King James.

MACBETH: THE WITCHES

The three witches that Macbeth and Banquo meet are also called the

“weird sisters.” In Old English wyrd meant “fate.” And it is part of

their role in the play to act as the forces of fate.

But “fate” in what sense? Do they cause Macbeth’s actions? What

powers do they have, and what are the limits of their powers? In

other words, do they dictate what will happen?

They certainly know things that no mortal could know. Even a person

who knew that the Thane of Cawdor was a traitor would be awfully

shrewd to guess that Macbeth would be given his title. And who

without supernatural powers could have known that Macbeth would only

be defeated when Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane?

The witches have other supernatural powers. They can cause storms,

and they appear and disappear at will.

But their powers are limited. Look at Act I, Scene iii. The First

Witch has been insulted by a sailor’s wife. When the witch asked the

woman for a chestnut, the woman says, “Aroint thee, witch!” In other

words, “Get lost!” The witch doesn’t seem to be able to harm the

woman directly. Instead, she sends a storm to disturb the sailor’s

ship. Even at that, her powers are limited: “…his bark cannot be

lost…”, the witch says.

These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Their predictions are

temptations. They never lie, they never tell Macbeth he has to do

anything, they just give the trick answers. In that sense they are

agents of the devil, out for his soul; they trick him into damning

himself.

But it is clear that the responsibility for the crimes is Macbeth’s.

Nothing the witches did forced him to commit them. He was wrong to

hear their words as an invitation to murder the King. Still, you

wonder if Macbeth would have murdered anybody if he had not met the

witches. And you can argue that either way.

MACBETH: MALCOLM

Malcolm represents the rightful order that Macbeth disturbs. Duncan,

who is a good and wise king, names his son the Prince of Cumberland

and heir to the throne.

Will Malcolm make a good king? Clearly, Shakespeare wants us to

believe he will. Though Malcolm is young, he is already wise. He

and his brother Donalbain are smart enough to get away from Macbeth’s

castle as soon as possible after their father’s murder. After safely

reaching England, Malcolm does not rashly try to reclaim the throne.

Instead, he waits until the time is right.

In his scene with Macduff, Malcolm displays cleverness and verbal

skill. He manipulates Macduff, testing his loyalty, but he does it

only for the good of his people and his country.

In the final speech of the play, Malcolm demonstrates his fitness for

kingship. Macbeth has been killed, and Malcolm is about to be

crowned. Like his father, in Act I, Malcolm’s first concern is to

reward those who have helped him. The speech is full of images of

divine grace and natural order.

MACBETH: DUNCAN

The King makes his final exit before the end of Act I, and he is

murdered offstage early in Act II. Not having a lot of time to

develop Duncan’s character, Shakespeare works in broad, clear

strokes.

Duncan is “a most sainted king” (Act IV, Scene iii, line 109), as

Macduff calls him. His murder is a crime that has no justification.

Even Macbeth calls him “the gracious Duncan” (Act III, Scene i, line

66).

We know that Duncan is old–otherwise he would be in combat with his

army. Owing to his age, he has to anxiously await word from the

field.

His generosity is clearly demonstrated by the way he treats Macbeth.

He rewards the noble Macbeth immediately after hearing about his

bravery.

Duncan is also gracious to Lady Macbeth. Even though he is actually

honoring Macbeth and his wife by spending the night at their castle,

he behaves as if they were doing him a favor.

The person who best sums up Duncan’s nature is his murderer–Macbeth:

“…this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So

clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like

angels…” (Act I, Scene vii, lines 16-19).

MACBETH: MACDUFF

Macduff is Macbeth’s major adversary. Malcolm is the rightful king

and leads the forces to overthrow the tyrant, but Macduff is a thorn

in Macbeth’s side from the beginning. In the end, he kills Macbeth.

Until the murder of his wife and children, Macduff has not been hurt

personally by Macbeth. He opposes Macbeth because he knows right

from wrong. He never wants the crown for himself. His desire is to

see the rightful king on the throne.

He refuses to play games. He will not attend Macbeth’s crowning or

put in an appearance at the tyrant’s feast just to keep up

appearances.

Macduff is not clever with words. He voices his disapproval of

Macbeth not by statements but by his absence. Macduff’s simple

honesty is revealed when he is tested by Malcolm in Act IV, Scene

iii. In a play like Macbeth, in which many people and things are not

what they appear to be, Macduff is like a breath of fresh air.

Maturity is another trait of Macduff’s. He takes the news of his

wife and children’s murder like a blow squarely on the chin. By

having the courage to feel his grief, he is able to convert his pain

into a burning desire for righteous revenge.

MACBETH: SETTING

The settings of Shakespeare’s plays generally come more from the

dramatic needs of the story than from any literal sense of the place.

Macbeth is no exception.

Most of the action takes place in Scotland. There are at least two

reasons: 1. Shakespeare invented the plot of Macbeth by combining

several stories out of Scottish history he found in Holinshed’s

Chronicles; and 2. James I, who was King of England when the play

was written, was a Scot. But reading books about the Scottish

landscape will not help you understand the setting of Macbeth.

Instead, read the play.

The Scotland of Macbeth seems rough and somewhat primitive. Each

thane has his castle, and in between there are woods and fields.

None of the action takes place in anything like a city.

The play has a murky feeling, which is reflected in the setting. The

action starts in the open fields, but the air is clouded by the smoke

of battle. Lightning and thunder fill the sky. Most of the scenes

in Macbeth’s castle take place at night. Torches are needed to see

anything at all.

MACBETH: THEMES

Here are some of the major themes in Macbeth. Notice that each is

expressed through some combination of plot, character, and language.

1. AN ANATOMY OF EVIL

A powerful sense of evil hangs over every scene in the play. Each

character has to either fight or give in to it. The play makes

several points about the nature of evil. The first point is that

evil is contrary to human nature. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to

contort their natures to murder Duncan. First, Lady Macbeth has to

beg evil spirits to tear all human feeling from her, and then she has

to make her husband ignore his own conscience. But the play also

says that human nature cannot be avoided indefinitely. By the end of

the play, both characters have been destroyed from within. Fear and

guilt drive Lady Macbeth mad; Macbeth sees life as an empty,

meaningless charade.

The second point is that it is evil to disrupt the natural order of

the world. In nature, everything happens in its own time. A flower

blooms when the laws of nature say it should, neither sooner nor

later. When Macbeth takes the crown by murder, he upsets the natural

order of his life–and the order of Scotland. Without the rightful,

God-given king on the throne all society is disordered; under a

usurper there can only be evil and chaos. Even nature becomes upset:

it’s dark during the day; horses eat each other; owls kill falcons.

Nearly every scene has references to unnatural deeds or occurrences.

When Macbeth is killed and Malcolm takes the throne, the natural

order is restored.

The third point is that evil is a disease. Like a disease, evil

infects its victims and makes them sicken until they die. Once

Macbeth kills Duncan, he is committed to a course of lying and

killing. His sense of right and wrong is eaten away. Even before he

is killed, Macbeth is dying of a diseased spirit. Scotland is also

infected, and Macbeth is its disease. The longer he is king, the

worse things get. When Macbeth is overthrown, the country is healed.

2. AMBITION

Many readers feel that Macbeth’s downfall is caused by his ambition.

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth seems to be a brave, noble, and

loyal thane. For his desire to become king, he is willing to turn

his back on what he knows to be right. Lady Macbeth, because of her

ambition for her husband, uses all her strength and intelligence for

evil purposes. They are very unlike Banquo, who will not compromise

his honor for anything.

3. APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

Practically nothing in the play is what it appears to be. The

witches’ predictions sound like good news; actually, they lead to

death and destruction. Macbeth and his wife seem like gracious

hosts; actually, they are plotting murder. The Macbeths appear to

achieve their heart’s desires; in reality, they only gain torment and

death. In reading the play, examine each scene to compare what

appears to be happening with what is really happening.

4. HONOR AND LOYALTY

In a feudal society such as the one in Macbeth, peace and order are

maintained largely through honor and loyalty. Men of honor obey

certain rules. Macbeth throws all ideas of honor out the window.

Once he has done that, the country is in turmoil. Nobody knows whom

he can trust. Look at what Macduff has to go through to win

Malcolm’s trust in Act IV. In Act V, it is made very clear that the

few followers Macbeth has left have been forced to stay with him.

They feel no sense of loyalty toward him. When it comes time to

fight, they just give up.

5. FATE AND DESTINY

The play suggests that a person should trust his destiny to a higher

power. After encountering the three witches, Macbeth tries to take

fate into his own hands, and that action brings him nothing but

grief. Malcolm, on the other hand, trusts that all things will work

out “…by the grace of Grace [in other words, heaven]” (Act V, Scene

viii, line 72). “Be what you’re meant to be,” the play seems to be

saying.

MACBETH: SOURCES

The story of Macbeth is a combination of two stories found in

Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Shakespeare developed many of the plots and characters for his plays

from this book of history and legend.

Holinshed tells one story about a man named Macbeth who killed a king

named Duncan, but this story is different from the play in several

important ways. The Duncan of the story was a bad king. He did not

care about his people, and Banquo helped Macbeth overthrow him.

Shakespeare combined that story with another Holinshed story about

someone named Donwald who killed a king named Duff. Duff was a good

and pious king, and was Donwald’s guest when he was murdered. Also,

Donwald killed Duff because his wife urged him to.

For the supernatural elements of the play, Shakespeare might have

consulted a book called Demonology, written by none other than King

James I himself. (Remember that Macbeth was first presented at

James’ court.) In his book, James states that witches can predict the

future.

MACBETH: POINT OF VIEW

Shakespeare takes a clear moral stance in telling the story of

Macbeth. He portrays humans as creatures capable of good but in

danger of giving in to the temptations of evil. Evil is introduced

through supernatural beings–the witches. You could say Macbeth is

as much a victim of their deception and his own ambition as he is a

victimizer of others.

All evildoers are punished. The numerous mentions of heaven and hell

remind us that good people who are killed will find eternal

happiness, while those who do evil will suffer eternal damnation.

It is important not to confuse the point of view that Shakespeare

gives to a character with the playwright’s own point of view. For

example, Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech says that life is

meaningless, but the play as a whole says just the opposite.

Macbeth’s utter despair at that moment is a result of his evil deeds.

The very fact that he and Lady Macbeth are punished for their

wickedness is proof of a higher good which gives meaning to life.

MACBETH: FORM AND STRUCTURE

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is divided into five acts.

Each act is broken down further into scenes. Editors disagree about

the proper division of scenes in Act V. Some divide it into six

scenes. Others make eight scenes from the same text, as we have in

the scene-by-scene analysis, and still others make it into nine

scenes. All these versions have the same text; only the divisions

are different.

Let’s look at the form of the play in terms of storytelling. At each

moment in the play, there is a question that keeps our interest.

That is called dramatic tension.

From the point when Macbeth hears the witches’ prophesies, he is

obviously enticed by the idea of becoming king. We wonder what he

will do about it. Will he kill Duncan? Once the murder has been

committed, we wonder what the consequences will be.

Macbeth becomes king, but some are suspicious. What will happen to

Banquo and Macduff? In the next section of the play, Macbeth tries

to make his position secure through murder. We can see that things

are only getting worse for him, and we wonder how long he can hold

on.

In Act IV, the end of the play is set up. Macbeth visits the

witches, who give him new prophesies. Anybody who is following the

story should suspect that they are deceiving him somehow, but we do

not know how. In the same act, Malcolm and Macduff join together to

defeat Macbeth. Now we wait for the final battle.

Notice how skillfully Shakespeare maintains suspense up to the end.

Macbeth’s followers have deserted him; Birnam Wood has come to

Dunsinane. He seems doomed, but we know that he cannot be defeated

by any man born of woman. Who can beat him, then? Finally, Macduff

reveals his secret, and Macbeth is killed. All that remains is to

cheer the new and rightful king, Malcolm.

MACBETH: ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH

All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice

are apparent even between parents and their children. If language

differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected

that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will

diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following

information on Shakespeare’s language will help you to a fuller

understanding of Macbeth.

MACBETH: CHANGES IN WORD CLASSES

Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular

classes in Shakespeare’s day. For example, verbs were often used as

nouns. In Act I, Scene vii, line 5, Macbeth uses be as a noun:

…that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all…

And nouns could be used as verbs, as when incarnadine, which was a

color, was used to mean “redden”:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarndine

(II, ii, 59-61)

Adjectives could also be used as adverbs. In the above quotation

clean is used in a position where contemporary usage would require a

form like entirely, and easy is used for “easily” in:

Let’s not consort with them.

To show an unfelt sorrow is an office

Which the false man does easy.

(II, iii, 137-38)

They could also be used as nouns, as in:

If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have

old turning the key.

(II, iii, 1-2)

In this instance, old is the equivalent of “frequent opportunity.”

MACBETH: CHANGES IN MEANING OF WORDS

The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be

illustrated by the fact that chip extended its meaning from a small

piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in

Shakespeare’s plays still exist today but their meanings have

changed. The “astonishment” in:

and when he reads

Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight,

His wonders and his praises do contend.

(I, iii, 90-92)

Or, more fundamental, earnest meant “token of an agreement” (I, iii,

104), line meant “strengthen” (I, iii, 112), missives meant

“messengers” (I, v, 6), illness meant “wickedness” (I, v, 20), and

sightless meant “invisible”:

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief.

(I, v, 50-51)

MACBETH: VOCABULARY LOSS

Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded

from the language. In the past leman meant “sweetheart” and sooth

meant “truth.” The following words used in Macbeth are no longer

current in English but their meaning can usually be gauged from the

context in which they occur.

PADDOCK (I, i, 9): toad

MASTERDOM (I, v, 70): mastery

FAVOUR (I, v, 72): countenance, face

JUTTY (I, vi, 6): part of a building

IN COMPT (I, vi, 26): subject to account

TRAMMEL UP (I, vii, 3): entangle

AFEARD (I, vii, 39): afraid

LIMBECK (I, vii, 68): skull, container of the brain

DUDGEON (II, i, 46): handle

SLEAVE (II, ii, 36): silk thread, silk

GOOSE (II, iii, 15): smoothing iron

AVOUCH (III, i, 119): justify

ECSTASY (III, ii, 22): fit

SEELING (III, ii, 46): blinding

LATED (III, iii, 6): belated

TRENCHED (III, iv,, 26): cut

FLAWS (III, iv, 62): sudden gusts

OWE (III, iv, 112): own

DRAB (IV, i, 31): prostitute

SWEATEN (IV, i, 65): irregularly formed

GIN (IV, ii, 35): snare

FOISONS (IV, iii, 88): abundant harvests

TEEMS (IV, iii, 176): brings forth

MATED (V, i, 75): confused

MACBETH: VERBS

Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in these three main ways.

1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did, as

when Lady Macbeth asks “Know you not, he has?” (I, vii, 30). Today

we would say, “Do you not know that he has?” Another instance occurs

when Macbeth tells Banquo “I think not of them” (II, i, 21); modern

usage demands, “I do not think of them.”

Shakespeare had the option of using the following two forms, whereas

contemporary usage permits only the a forms:

a b

Is the king going? Goes the king?

Did the king go? Went the king?

You do not look well You look not well

You did not look well You looked not well

2. A number of past participles and past-tense forms are used that

would be ungrammatical today. Among these are: forbid for

“forbidden,” as in: “He shall live a man forbid” (I, iii, 21); holp

for “helped,” as in: “And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath

holp him” (I, v, 23); eat for “ate,” as in:

‘Tis said they eat each other. They did so,

to th’ amazement of mine

eyes” (II, iv, 18)

3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with thou and with he/she/it:

As thou art in desire? Would’st thou have that

Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life

(I, vii, 41-42)

Hath he asked for me?

(I, vii, 30)

MACBETH: PRONOUNS

Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun–thou–which

could be used in addressing a person who was one’s equal or social

inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:

“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (I, iii, 70), but it

could also be used to indicate respect, as when Lady Macbeth told

Duncan:

Your servants ever

Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt.

To make their audit at your Highness’ pleasure,

Still to return your own.

(I, vi, 25-28)

Frequently, a person in power used thou to a child or a subordinate

but was addressed you in return, as when Lady Macduff spoke to her

son:

Lady Macduff: Now, God help thee, poor monkey!

But how wilt thou do for a father?

Son: If he were dead, you’d weep for him.

If you would not, it were a good sign

that I should quickly have a new father.

(IV, ii, 57-61)

But if thou was used inappropriately, it might be offensive. One of

the witches uses thou in addressing Macbeth to underline the fact

that Macbeth has, by his murders, reduced himself to their level:

Say if th’ hadst rather hear it from our mouths,

Or from our masters?

(IV, i, 62-63)

One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. Duncan uses the

royal plural we to stress the honor he is bestowing on Lady Macbeth

by staying with her:

Fair and noble hostess,

We are your guest tonight.

(I, vi, 24-25)

But he uses I to stress his debt to Macbeth for winning the battle:

O worthiest cousin!

The sin of my ingratitude even now

Was heavy on me

(I, iv, 14-16)

MACBETH: PREPOSITIONS

Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they

are today, and so we find several uses in Macbeth that would have to

be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are on for “to” in:

“The victory fell on us” (I, ii, 59); with for “by” in: “Thence to

be wrenched with an unlineal hand” (III, i, 62); for for “on account

of” in: “For certain friends that are both his and mine” (III, i,

120); and at… and for “from… to” in:

You know your own degrees; sit down:

At first and last, the hearty welcome.

(III, iv, 1-2)

MACBETH: MULTIPLE NEGATION

Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and

regards such utterances as “I haven’t none” as nonstandard.

Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when

Macduff found the King dead:

O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart

Cannot conceive nor name thee.

(II, iii, 66-67)

And Macbeth says:

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,

Can touch him further.

(III, ii, 24-26)

MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE I

Imagine that you are sitting in a theater waiting to see a play about

a man named Macbeth. As the play begins lightning flashes, and

instead of seeing this Macbeth, you see three weird-looking women.

They must be witches; they are chanting spells. After making plans

to meet Macbeth, they leave.

That’s the whole scene-ten lines! Look at what Shakespeare

accomplishes with this opening. By beginning the play with the

witches instead of starting with Macbeth, he makes it clear that

something wicked is going to happen. When we hear more about Macbeth

and finally see him, we have to wonder why the three witches have

business with him. So this scene establishes the mood of the play.

NOTE: Always read a scene in Shakespeare first to find out what

happens and what the characters say to each other. Then read it

again to see what you can learn not from what they say but how they

say it. In other words, examine Shakespeare’s use of language. For

example: The witches say “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (line 10).

That line is like a riddle; it seems like nonsense but you can see it

means something. Different versions of the same idea turn up all

through the play. One thing the line is saying is that nothing in

the play will be what it seems to be. And it is also letting you

know, right away, that in Macbeth’s Scotland everything is going to

be confused and perverted.

MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE II

Lightning, thunder, and witches give way in this scene to blood,

soldiers, and fighting. We still do not meet Macbeth, but we learn

more about him.

What happens is simple: King Duncan, too old to fight, wants to know

how his army is doing. A wounded soldier tells him. We learn that

the Scottish soldiers are fighting two enemies at once: rebels from

their own country and invaders from Norway.

The main thing we learn from this “bloody captain” is that Macbeth is

a hero. The battle was awful but Macbeth was fearless, fighting his

way through the enemy and literally cutting the rebel leader in half.

King Duncan is suitably impressed. We also hear for the first time

about Macbeth’s fellow-captain, Banquo, who is described as being

just as brave as Macbeth.

The Thane of Ross arrives with a new report: the Thane of Cawdor is

a traitor, but King Duncan’s army has won. Duncan is upset that the

Thane of Cawdor, whom he trusted, is a traitor. At the same time, he

is very moved by Macbeth’s bravery. He orders Cawdor’s execution and

rewards Macbeth by making him the new Thane of Cawdor. The Thanes of

Ross and Angus leave to tell Macbeth.

NOTE: A lot of what you find out in this scene is

“exposition”–information you have to have so you will know who

people are and what has been happening before the play starts. Have

you ever seen a play or movie in which somebody comes on and, for no

apparent reason, starts telling who is who and what is going on?

That is bad exposition. Look how skillfully Shakespeare gets his

information across. By bringing on a bloody soldier, he dramatizes

the offstage battle. Even without the words, you can tell how bad

the fighting must have been. By keeping Duncan in the dark,

Shakespeare justifies having the soldier give his report.

The theme of honor is introduced in this scene. Duncan says the

bloody soldier’s words and wounds both “smack of honor” (line 45).

Macbeth is described as “brave” and “worthy,” and he gets his reward.

You can see that honor is very important to these people.

MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE III

In this scene we finally meet Macbeth. Macbeth encounters the

witches, who tempt him with the idea of becoming king.

MACBETH: LINES 1-37

We learn more about the nature of the witches. They talk among

themselves about the nasty things they have been doing. One has been

passing the time killing swine (pigs), another has been plotting

revenge on a sailor’s wife who refused to give her a chestnut.

Listening to them, we get the impression that a lot of bad things

that happen to people and are called bad luck are actually caused by

these hags.

MACBETH: LINES 37-87

Now we have heard that Macbeth is brave and worthy, but we also know

that these evil creatures want to meet with him. We are ready to

meet Macbeth himself, and in he comes with Banquo.

Look at the first thing he says: “So foul and fair a day I have not

seen” (line 37). That sounds like what the witches said in Scene i!

Is Shakespeare suggesting that Macbeth is not what he seems to be–a

brave and loyal thane? You do not know yet, but you begin to wonder.

The witches predict what the future holds for Macbeth and Banquo.

Macbeth, who is Thane of Glamis, will be Thane of Cawdor. That comes

as a surprise to Macbeth, but not to us, of course. They also say he

will be king one day. They tell Banquo he will be father to a line

of kings, though he will never be one himself.

NOTE: We can learn something about Macbeth by studying the different

ways he and Banquo respond to these predictions. Banquo asks

Macbeth, “why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound

so fair?” (lines 51-52). Why indeed? Has he already been plotting

to become king? Does he feel the witches have read his mind, and

guessed how much he wants the crown? Or has his mind flashed ahead,

wondering how this could possibly happen? Whatever, his reaction is

that of a guilty man. Banquo, on the other hand, makes fun of the

witches. He is curious about what they have to say, but that is all.

MACBETH: LINES 88-156

Ross and Angus arrive and tell Macbeth that he is now Thane of

Cawdor. The witches told the truth! Look once again at the

difference between Macbeth’s response and Banquo’s. Banquo is

skeptical:

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.

Act I, Scene iii, lines 123-26

He seems to be saying, “This could be a trick.” Fair words can mean

foul things.

Macbeth is already obsessed with the idea of being king. He knows

Duncan would have to die first, and even though he says that the idea

of murder “doth unfix my hair” (line 135), he’s started to think

about it. From this point on, Macbeth is clearly hiding things.

When Banquo comments that Macbeth is lost in thought, Macbeth lies to

his friend, saying he was thinking about something else.

MACBETH: LINES 1-14

Duncan learns that the traitor Cawdor has been executed. It is

important to note that he repented and asked for Duncan’s forgiveness

before he died. Through his honorable death, he seems to have made

up for his sinful life.

MACBETH: LINES 15-59

Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus enter. In the exchange that

follows, you can see Macbeth’s desire to become king, even if the

others can’t.

The King greets Macbeth with genuine love and gratitude. In the

presence of all the thanes, however, he names his son Malcolm the

Prince of Cumberland. That means that Malcolm will inherit the

throne when Duncan dies.

Macbeth responds to that announcement in an “aside,” which means that

he speaks his thoughts directly to the audience and it is understood

that the other characters don’t hear what he is saying. In his

aside, Macbeth grumbles that Malcolm is now in his way. You begin to

realize nothing will stop him.

NOTE: Notice the imagery of light and darkness in lines 15-52:

“Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep

desires.” Throughout the play, light symbolizes good, and dark stands

for evil. Macbeth has just taken one giant step toward evil.

MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE V

At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth gets a letter from her husband

telling her about the predictions. She dedicates herself to helping

Macbeth become king. When she learns that Duncan will spend the

night at their castle, she immediately decides to kill him.

Lady Macbeth tells us something vital about her husband–that, by

nature, he is not ruthless. She says that even if he wants something

so badly he feels like his life depends on it, he will not cheat to

get it. She sees that as a flaw in his character!

Lady Macbeth does not have that problem. The woman’s resolution is

so intense it is frightening. Her speech in lines 39-55 is worth

looking at, because it expresses her determination with some of the

most potent imagery to be found anywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. She

actually asks spirits to “unsex” her and “take [her] milk for gall.”

And look how she picks up the light-dark imagery: “Come, thick

night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.” If Macbeth took

a giant step toward evil, his wife makes a gigantic leap!

Notice how when Macbeth comes in, Lady Macbeth takes charge and

starts talking about the murder right away. She doesn’t even have to

ask if he’s considered it; she knows he has. She does most of the

talking, and several times she tells him to leave everything to her.

Macbeth does not agree to killing Duncan, but he does not refuse,

either.

MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE VI

Duncan, his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, and Banquo and some other

thanes arrive at Macbeth’s castle. They comment on what a pleasant

place it is. Lady Macbeth welcomes them warmly.

Here is a scene in which nothing is what it seems. Macbeth’s castle

is really a place of evil and death. The gracious hostess who

delivers such pretty speeches is actually just waiting for the chance

to murder her guest of honor.

NOTE: Shakespeare uses a technique in this scene called dramatic

irony. We as readers know about the double meanings in the scene.

Except for Lady Macbeth, the characters are not aware of them. The

scene is more interesting for us, because we know more than the

characters do. Depending upon the way the scene is played, the

effect can be funny, scary, or both.

MACBETH: LINES 1-28

Macbeth starts this scene in a state of emotional turmoil. As Lady

Macbeth predicted, he wants to be king but he’s afraid to kill

Duncan. Having a vivid imagination, he can picture all the

consequences of the murder before he commits it.

Two things make Macbeth hesitate: the fact that the murder is

morally wrong, and the fear that he’ll be punished for his crime.

It’s hard to say which reason, if either, is stronger. Though

Macbeth does not seem like a religious man, there is a lot of

religious imagery in this speech, with references to “angels” and

“deep damnation” (lines 19-20).

MACBETH: LINES 29-82

Macbeth tells his wife that he cannot go through with the murder.

She works on him to change his mind.

Lady Macbeth’s first ploy is to mock her husband. She implies that

he is a coward and even questions his manhood. Using the fact that

she is a woman, and his wife, she twists the idea of motherhood into

a way to get at him further:

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was sniffing in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.

(Act I, Scene vii, lines 54-59)

It is hard to argue with that kind of resolution. Macbeth gives in a

little. Instead of refusing again, he asks “If we should fail?”

(line 59).

Sensing she is about to win, Lady Macbeth coolly recites the details

of their plan; while Duncan’s servants are in a drunken sleep,

Macbeth can kill the king and blame the servants.

Macbeth himself is chilled by his wife’s hard attitude toward the

murder, but he’s also convinced. The scene and the act end on a note

of resolution. Macbeth will kill Duncan.

MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE I

In the first scene of Act II, Shakespeare builds up suspense before the murder.

MACBETH: LINES 1-9

Banquo and his son Fleance talk casually about the night. In their

short exchange, we learn three things: 1. that it is late and

Banquo is sleepy (and we know what will happen once everybody goes to

sleep); 2. that Banquo has some strange uneasiness which makes him

unwilling to go to sleep; and 3. that Banquo has a son (that fact

will become important later).

MACBETH: LINES 10-30

Macbeth comes in and talks with Banquo. Notice how nervous Banquo

is. When he hears somebody coming he calls for his sword, even

though he should feel safe in his friend’s castle.

Shakespeare again uses the technique of dramatic irony. Banquo gives

Macbeth a ring that is a present from Duncan for Lady Macbeth. We

know, as Banquo does not, that the king is giving a gift to his

murderer. We can imagine how Macbeth feels when Banquo says he

dreamed of witches, and we know Macbeth is lying when he claims, “I

think not of them” (line 21).

The two friends move further apart in this scene. When Banquo

mentions the three witches, he is confiding his private thoughts to

his friend. Macbeth dodges Banquo’s honest comments, and begins

hinting around by talking with Banquo about some business that will

“make honor” for Banquo (line 26). Banquo responds politely but

cautiously, saying that whatever he can do for Macbeth with a clear

conscience he will do.

MACBETH: LINES 31-64

After Banquo and Fleance leave, Macbeth sends his servant off to Lady

Macbeth with a message about his nightcap drink. That is probably a

secret signal that everybody has gone to bed.

Macbeth prepares to commit the murder. His speech here is called a

soliloquy because he is alone on stage. When you read or hear a

soliloquy, you can assume that the character is speaking his true

thoughts. Since he is talking to himself, why should he lie?

As soon as Macbeth is alone he has a vision. He sees a dagger

floating in the air in front of him. It melts through his fingers

when he tries to grab it but it will not go away. Then suddenly, the

dagger appears to be covered with blood. Has Macbeth lost his mind?

Or could the dagger be as real as the witches? Is he hallucinating

or has some devil sent it as a sign? You cannot tell; and neither

can Macbeth. He does not know whether to trust his eyes or his

reason: “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the’ other senses, / Or

else worth all the rest” (lines 44-45).

At line 47, Macbeth’s rational will takes over. “There’s no such

thing,” he says about the dagger, and he never mentions it again.

The imagery in the rest of this soliloquy shows that Macbeth knows

exactly what he is doing. He says that “nature seems dead” (line

50). He mentions witchcraft and ghosts.

NOTE: Unnatural means “perverted,” and in Macbeth the word works in

many ways. In Shakespeare’s time, people thought in terms of God’s

plan for mankind. This grand design was the “natural” order of the

world. The devil was always trying to mess it up by tempting people

to sin. So evil was “unnatural”; it corrupted the people God wanted

to be good.

You will see the image of “unnaturalness” multiply around Macbeth as

he mutilates his soul–or you might say his human nature, And since

he’s the king, the country reflects his spiritual sickness. It, too,

becomes mutilated. Also notice as you read how the unnatural acts

are reflected in nature–in animals and weather, for instance.

MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE II

In this scene, the murder takes place. Macbeth is nearly driven mad

by the horror of what he’s done. Lady Macbeth urges him to be

practical: after all, there is no going back. They have killed

their king.

NOTE: It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to have Macbeth

kill Duncan offstage. We can only guess why he wrote the scene that

way, but here are two possible reasons: 1. Shakespeare wanted to

focus not on the murder but on Macbeth’s reaction to it; and 2. the

bloody details supplied by our imaginations will be much worse than

anything that could be done onstage.

MACBETH: LINES 1-13

Lady Macbeth waits alone while her husband kills Duncan. She seems

excited by the idea of murder and pleased with herself because of her

part in the plan.

Yet we also get a peek at her softer side. She says that she would

have killed Duncan herself, but the old man looked too much like her

father. This small reminder of Lady Macbeth’s humanity will be

important to our understanding of what happens to her at the end of

the play.

MACBETH: LINES 13-56

Macbeth enters, his hands covered with Duncan’s blood. Notice how

the sharp, quick exchange of words between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

underscores the tension:

Lady: Did you not speak?

Macbeth: When?

Lady: Now.

Macbeth: As I descended?

Lady: Ay.

Act II, Scene ii, lines 16-17

As the scene proceeds, Macbeth and his wife behave in a manner

exactly opposite from what we would expect. According to

conventional logic, Macbeth, who is a soldier and has already killed

many men in battle that day, should not be bothered by the murder.

On the other hand, we would understand perfectly if his wife were

upset by having been involved in a killing.

Look at what actually happens: Macbeth is horrified by what he has

done. He says he has “hangman’s hands” (line 27), and he is afraid

that after having committed such a horrible deed he will never sleep

again. Lady Macbeth is practical. She gives the advice you would

expect to come from a soldier: “These deeds must not be thought /

After these ways; so, it will make us mad” (lines 32-33).

When Lady Macbeth tells her husband to take the daggers he used for

the murder back into Duncan’s room, he refuses. She makes fun of him

and takes them up herself.

We can understand the torture Macbeth is going through by realizing

that he seems to consider the murder one of the most evil deeds ever

committed. We would have to call this statement exaggeration:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

Act II, Scene ii, lines 59-62

But he is not consciously exaggerating. That is the way he feels.

Contrast his attitude with Lady Macbeth’s. She says that their hands

can be cleaned with a little water and that he should be ashamed to

be carrying on so. She tries to make him snap out of the state he’s

in and get on with their plan.

Macbeth’s final lines as his wife hurries him off sum up how he feels:

“To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself. [There is a knock at

the gate.] / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”

(lines 72-73) He never thought himself capable of such evil, and he

would love to be able to undo what he has done.

MACBETH: LINES 1-20

The previous scene of horror and murder is followed by a comic scene.

The Porter, one of Macbeth’s servants, is awakened by the same

knocking at the gate which sent Macbeth and his wife scurrying off to

clean up. The Porter is still drunk from the feast. As he weaves

his way to the gate, he talks to himself as if he were the porter at

the gates of Hell.

The comedy of the Porter provides a contrast to the gruesome murder.

By allowing the audience to relax a little, Shakespeare makes the

scenes of horror even more effective.

The Porter also has a serious purpose. The little routine he makes

up about being porter of “hell gate” reminds the audience of the

spiritual consequences of the murder that has just been committed.

NOTE: Audiences in Shakespeare’s time would recognize the “Porter of

Hell-Gate” as a stock character in the so-called morality plays of

the time. Morality plays were simple stories in which good was

rewarded and evil was punished. So Shakespeare is, in effect,

hinting that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not going to get away with

what they have just done.

Let’s take a moment to examine one of the imaginary sinners the

Porter says he lets in: “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” (lines 8-11).

Equivocation means lying, and we will soon see Macbeth and his wife

doing a lot of that. But remember the Porter’s speech: the liar

cannot “equivocate to heav

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