'Macbeth' is one of the four great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote in the first few years of the seventeenth century. The constant theme of the great tragedies is the conflict between order and chaos. This conflict is closely associated with the opposition between reason and passion. The Elizabethans saw reason as the principal characteristic of man, which governs the baser passions. Whenever passion gets the upper hand, man becomes the slave of his lower instincts and disaster is the result. This struggle between good and evil, between reason and passion, is shown not only in Macbeth. It is presented in the contrast between the world of light and that of darkness. The former is that of the rightful king Duncan and his heirs Malcolm and Donalbain, the latter is the world of Macbeth and his wife. For a time evil succeeds in conquering good, but at the end of the play the normal order of things is restored. Scotland becomes a happy, stable country again. Evil has worked itself out, which is symbolized by the Macbeths dying childless.
The interest is focused on Macbeth and his evil genius, his wife. Shakespeare shows us a brave soldier and loyal subject of his king, a loving husband and honourable leader, being morally destroyed. The causes of his destruction are on the one hand the influence of his wife, on the other the mysterious power of evil, symbolized by the witches. Macbeth does not go down without a struggle: he is never able to silence the voice of his conscience. Nor is his wife: ultimately her mind breaks down under the weight of her crimes. Opposed to the Macbeths is King Duncan, the symbol of gooodness and happiness, who showers benefits upon his subjects, including Macbeth and his wife.We feel his influence throughout the play, even after his death. He is the virtuous ruler who protects his people from the powers of darkness and chaos. His influence lives on in his successor Malcolm, who ultimately conquers the tyrannical, murderous Macbeth.
The plot moves at great speed. The central incident, the murder of King Duncan, is the first of three murders committed by Macbeth. The motives for these murders show a gradual moral deterioration: the first is ambition, the second - of Banquo - is fear, and the third - of Lady Macduff and her children - mere spite. The solution is provided by the death of Macbeth. The play is extremely rich in powerful images which underline the tragic violence of the action, such as blood and birds of prey. It also stands out by the effective contrasts of light and dark; most of the scenes in which the Macbeths are engaged upon their evil schemes are set in darkness. Scenes in which King Duncan or Malcolm enter the stage, on the other hand, are full of light. The story is based on the 'Chronicle of Scottish History' written by the Elizabethan chronicler Raphael Holinshed. For several of his plays Shakespeare derived his material from him as well as from another well-known chronicler, Edward Hall. 'Macbeth' is both a tragedy and a history play.
The Scottish generals Macbeth, thane of Glamis, and Banquo return victorious from a campaign against an army of rebels led by Macdonwald and the thane of Cawdor, supported by a force of Viking invaders. On the heath Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches, who confuse and excite Macbeth by greeting him as 'thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor and king hereafter'. To Banquo they prophesy that he 'shall beget kings though he be none'. Part of their prophecy to Macbeth is immediately fulfilled when messengers arrive with the news that King Duncan, to whom Macbeth's splendid generalship and valiant conduct have been reported, has made him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth's mind is in great agitation at the thought that the latter part of the prophecy might likewise come true, for he is of the royal line. His high hopes are shattered, however, when King Duncan nominates his son Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and successor to the Scottish throne. In the light of Malcolm's nomination Macbeth regards his own as a petty reward for the great services he has rendered to King Duncan and his country. Lady Macbeth feeds her husband's resentment and together they start plotting the death of King Duncan. When the king and his sons Malcolm and Donalbain visit them at their castle, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to seize this opportunity and kill the king.
After Lady Macbeth has drugged the two attendants who guard the king's bedroom Macbeth drives a dagger into the heart of the sleeping Duncan. When in the small hours of the night the murder is discovered, Macbeth puts on a show of great grief and indignation. In order to turn suspicion from himself to the king's attendants he rushes into their room and, as if overcome by indignation and fury at their wicked deed, he stabs them to death. Malcolm and Donalbain are not taken in, however, and fearing to be killed by Macbeth they flee the country, Malcolm to England and Donalbain to Ireland. Macbeth now takes the crown, though the loyal Macduff and Banquo, as well as many other Scottish thanes, already suspect him.
Macbeth fears Banquo because he knows that his friend suspects him of the murder and because of the witches' prophecy that Banquo's descendants will be kings. Therefore Macbeth, now king, lays a trap for Banquo by inviting him and his son Fleance to a banquet at his castle. On their way to the banquet-hall Banquo and Fleance are ambushed by murderers, who are hired by Macbeth. Banquo is killed, but to Macbeth's disappointment Fleance escapes. At the banquet - table Banquo's ghost appears and takes a seat, invisible to anyone but Macbeth. His utter terror at the apparition betrays his guilt to the assembled noblemen. From now on Macbeth is publicly known as a bloodthirsty tyrant. Macduff, the thane of Fife, leaves the country and joins Malcolm in England.
Haunted by the ghost of Banquo and tormented by terrible doubts and fears, Macbeth consults the witches on the heath. By means of a show of apparitions they prophesy his fate, telling him to beware of Macduff. They reassure him that 'none of woman born shall harm Macbeth' and that he will never be conquered until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, his castle. Macbeth is encouraged by these pprophecies, but his fears return when a vision of eight future kings of Scotland appears to him, accompanied by the smiling ghost of Banquo, who points to them as his descendants. When the news of Macduff's flight reaches Macbeth, he has Lady Macduff and her children cruelly slaughtered. In England Malcolm and Macduff raise an army and prepare to liberate Scotland from Macbeth's reign of terror.
In Dunsinane castle lady Macbeth is 'sorely charged' by her crimes which weigh like lead on her conscience. She walks and talks in her sleep and ultimately loses her reason altogether. Her wild words betray the terrible secrets she hides in her heart. Meanwhile the English army under Siward, Malcolm and Macduff starts the attack on Dunsinane. At Birnam Wood they combine with the Scottish forces that have risen against Macbeth. Here every soldier cuts himself a bough and under cover of this 'leafy screen' they march to Dunsinane. When it is reported to Macbeth that his beloved wife has died and that Birnam Wood is really moving against him, he determines to fight to the last and die a soldierly death. He confidently meets macduff in single combat, but his trust in the witches' prophecy is shaken when his opponent tells him that he is not of woman born, but was 'from his mother's womb untimely ripped'. Macduff kills Macbeth and is first to greet Malcolm as King of Scotland.
The witches set the tone of the play. By the end of Act I, Scene 1 we know we cannot be sure of anything. Everything about the scene is unsettling- they seem to have evil intentions, but the way they talk in riddles stops us understanding exactly what they mean. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, and plays on our fascination with the supernatural. When they meet Macbeth their choreographed speech, bringing to the surface Macbeth's deepest and most closely guarded ambitions, immediately hits home. They act as a team, instinctively timing their speech so that the listener is in no doubt that they know what they are saying. Their departure is timed, too, to leave Macbeth almost begging for more. The confirmation he is seeking does come - in the form of Ross and Angus, something that intensifies Macbeth's imagination.
It is difficult to be sure of Macbeth's frame of mind at the start of the next scene. His words seem decisive- he does not want to kill Duncan- but this is based on the glow of good feeling he has so soon after the battle. Lady Macbeth sets out to dismantle this front with a carefully controlled attack, hitting at everything Macbeth cares about- his manhood, the depth of his love for her and finally their dead child. She saves this until last as a kind of shock tactic. Using the most terrible images of violence, she says that she would smash the child's head open rather than do what he has done- back out of his initial decision. The root of her anger is partly selfish; she is a woman, and can only succeed in relation to her husband. If he stops, she does as well. It is this that gives her ferocity, and which breaks Macbeth's resolve so easily. By the end of the scene he is the one who is driving the dialogue.
The language of the next scene is full of ambiguity. When Lennox is describing the unnaturally turbulent night, he is reminding the audience and Macbeth of the enormity of killing a king. At first Macbeth seems to want to cover everything up in short, monosyllabic answers, but suddenly he explodes into action. He kills the two guards, and defends his action like a lawyer summing up in a trial. The speech is suddenly rhetorical and composed, and full of sinister double meaning. When he mourns Scotland, he also mourns his own past. Other characters pick up on this scent of danger, none more so than Lady Macbeth. This is the first sign we have of the isolation that will haunt her at the end of the play. Her faint can be played either as a device to attract attention away from Macbeth, or as a genuine shock, but either way, it shows that she feels the situation is getting out of control.
The banquet is to be the occasion when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are seen to be the fitting King and Queen of Scotland. Lady Macbeth is sure that this state function will confirm that the bloody path to the throne is behind them. Macbeth on the other hand, is on a knife-edge. The news that Fleance has escaped brings on a fit of panic, which must be controlled before the guests. Within minutes, though, Banquo's ghost has swept away his efforts, and he has been reduced to a state of hysteria. Both the appearances of the ghost follow his attempts at bravado in mentioning Banquo, and serve as reminders to the audience of how limited Macbeth's power is. He banishes the ghost with a desperate challenge, but the night marks a turning point. From this moment he and Lady Macbeth cease to be a couple. His strength will now come from the witches, while Lady Macbeth can only try to offer the remedy of sleep.
As the doctor watches Lady Macbeth in her private chamber he is uneasy. He does not like what he hears, and does not like witnessing such distress. Lady Macbeth cuts a pitiful figure, obsessively rubbing her hands and re-running her part in the murder, desperately trying to find the point at which it all went wrong. All she can return to is her faith in the natural cures: water and sleep. The reason for this state could lie in her intense loneliness- we saw at the end of the banquet scene how distant she seemed, how adrift from Macbeth's evil intentions, and, cut off from him, she has retreated into her own thoughts. These come to the surface in jagged fragments, changing tone quickly from aggression to tenderness and intimacy. The servant who brings news of her death to Macbeth is equally uneasy. He expects the edge of a sword, but Macbeth's reaction is strangely muted - almost a shrug of his shoulders as he ironically reflects on the timing of her death, and the futility of going on. He becomes introverted and philosophical - what was it all about?
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches.
First Witch: When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch: When the hurly burly 's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch: Where the place?
Second Witch: Upon the heath.
Third Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch: I come, Graymalkin!
Second Witch: Paddock calls. Third Witch: Anon.
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
- Exeunt -
Enter Macbeth and Banquo
Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
Banquo: How far is 't call'd to Forres? What are these,
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on 't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
M: if you can; what are you?
First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter.
1st Witch: Where have you been, sister?
2nd Witch: Killing swine.
3rd Witch: Sister, where you?
Sit, worthy friends. My Lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
He will again be well. If much you note him,
You shall offend him, and extend his passion;
Feed, and regard him not. - Are you a man?
Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the Devil.
O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear:
This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said,
Led you to Duncan. O! these flaws and starts
(Impostors to true fear), would well become
A woman's story at a winter's fire,
Authoris'd by her grandam. Shame itself!
Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
You look but on a stool.
Pr'ythee, see there!
Behold! Look! Lo! How say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.-
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury, back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.
What! quite unmann'd in folly?
Macbeth: If I stand here, I saw him.
Fie ! For shame !
Blood hath been shed ere now, i'th'olden time,
Ere humane statute purg'd the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murthers have been perform'd
Too terrible for the ear: the time has been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now, they rise again,
With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murther is.
My worthy Lord,
Your noble friends do lack you.
I do forget.-
Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends,
I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing
To those that know me. Come, love and health to all;
Then, I'll sit down. - Give me some wine: fill full: -
I drink to th'general joy o'th'whole table,
And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss;
Would he were here !
The huge doors of the glittering state dining room opened and the King and Queen stood there, smiling.
Behind them the long table was set for a banquet. The anteroom was crowded: everyone of importance in Scotland had
been commanded to attend - from the great thanes down to the lesser lords and their ladies - and almost everyone
'You all know your own rank,' said Macbeth. 'Come in and sit down. From the greatest to the least you're all most heartily welcome.'
They filed past the King and Queen and took their seats: the more powerful a man was the nearer he sat to the royal couple at the head of the table. When they were all seated Macbeth stood up and smiled round at them. 'We ourselves will mingle with you and play the humble host,' he said. He swung round and beamed down at his radiant queen. 'Our hostess will keep her place for now: she will receive you later.'
'Greet our friends for me, Sir,' she said, for I welcome them with all my heart.'
While acknowledging the clapping and table thumping Macbeth glanced up at the doorway and saw that a new face
had appeared among those of the servants. It was one of the murderers. 'See?' Macbeth said to his wife.
'They greet you in turn with their hearts' thanks.' Lady Macbeth smiled graciously at the applauding guests.
When the noise had subsided Macbeth spoke again. 'Both sides are even, then. Enjoy yourselves.
In due course we'll drink a round of toasts.' He made his way to the doorway, stopping every now and then
to greet one of the guests, until he stood beside the murderer. 'There is blood on your face!' he said.
'It's Banquo's, then.'
'It's better outside you than inside him. Has he been dealt with?'
'My Lord, his throat is cut. I did that for him.'
'You're the best of the cut - throats. But whoever did the same for Fleance would be even better. If you did that you would be the best of them all.'
'Most Royal Sir.' The murderer came closer. 'Fleance escaped.'
Macbeth stared at him. He felt one of his fits of terror coming on. Just when everything was going perfectly; when he was feeling safe - as firm as marble, as solid as rock, as free as air. Now, suddenly, he was enclosed, cramped, full of the most painful fears and doubts.
'But Banquo's safe?'
'Yes, my Lord, quite safe, buried in a ditch with twenty deep gashes in his head - each one of them enough to kill him.'
'Thanks for that', said Macbeth.
Banquo's death was all very well but Fleance was the issue: he was the mature snake - his escape breeding venom
in time - even though it had no teeth at present. There was only one thing in the world to be feared - the seed of
Banquo. 'Go now,' he said. 'We'll talk again tomorrow.' Lady Macbeth watched him and became concerned when he
stopped halfway to his chair and seemed to be lost in thought. She got up and went to him. 'My royal Lord,' she said.
'You're neglecting your guests. They might as well be at an inn, paying for their meal, without the warmth of your
hospitality. If it was just food they wanted they could have stayed at home. Ceremony adds flavour to the meat:
without it it's tasteless.'
'Thanks for reminding me,' said Macbeth. Lady Macbeth went back to her place and Macbeth clapped his hands loudly. 'Now!' he said. 'Bon appetite! And your good health!' He took a tankard from the table and raised it. They all stood up and drank. Lennox, who sat at the top end of the table, signaled him to return and sit. He walked towards his old friend who was seated beside Ross. 'All the greatest in the land would be under one roof if we had been honoured with Banquo's presence,' he said. 'I hope I'll have cause to confront him for his discourtesy rather than pity him for any accident.'
'He is at fault for breaking his promise,' said Ross. Ross indicated the vacant chair beside Lady Macbeth's. 'Will it please Your Highness to grace us with your royal company?'
'The table is full', said Macbeth. Lennox pointed to the empty chair. 'There's your place, reserved for you,' he said.
Macbeth looked up. All the colour in his cheeks drained away. He swayed. 'What's the matter?' asked Lennox.
Macbeth backed away, not taking his eyes off the chair. Then: 'Which of you have done this?' he shouted.
There was a change of atmosphere as people stopped eating and talking and looked at him. 'Done what?' they asked
each other. They watched as the King pointed to the empty chair.
'You can't say I did it!' he screamed. 'Don't shake your gory locks at me!' Ross sprang to his feet,
'Ladies and gentlemen, rise: his Highness is not well.'
'Sit!' cried Lady Macbeth. She was moving fast to her husband. 'Sit, worthy friends. His Majesty is often like this - has been since childhood. Please, just stay seated. It's only a brief fit. He'll be himself again in an instant. Take no notice of it: if you give him too much attention it will make him worse. Carry on eating and take no notice of him.'
She reached his side: she took his arm and spoke urgently into his ear. 'Are you a man?'
'Yes, and a bold one, daring to look at something that would frighten the devil!'
Lady Macbeth dragged him to the side of the hall. The guests had turned back to their conversations. 'What nonsense!' she said. 'This is just a picture of your fear - the same thing as the dagger which you told me led you to Duncan. Come on, now - these outbursts are ridiculous, far more suitable for women telling winter's tales. You should be ashamed of yourself.'
Read more: Macbeth and the Witches