MACBETH opens after the victory of Macbeth and Banquo, two Scottish generals, over rebels against the crown. Three witches appear and greet Banquo as the ancestor of kings and Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and “king hereafter.”
Emboldened by these prophecies and urged on by his wife, Macbeth murders Duncan, his king and kinsman, while Duncan is a guest in his home. After Macbeth is proclaimed king, he decides to forestall the prophecy of the witches by murdering Banquo’s family. Haunted by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth awakens the suspicions of Macduff, who flees the country.
Warned by the witches to beware of Macduff, Macbeth proceeds to murder Macduff’s family. He feels secure since the witches promise him that he will not be vanquished by anyone of woman born, nor will he be defeated until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill” has come.
Lady Macbeth becomes insane and commits suicide. The enemy troops cut down Birnam trees to use as camouflage. Revealing that he was delivered in a Caesarian operation and so not of woman born, Macduff confronts the usurper Macbeth in combat. Macduff wins the battle and brandishes Macbeth’s head on a sword. Duncan’s son Malcolm is proclaimed king.
Shakespeare’s dramatic mastery is fully mature in MACBETH. Even though Macbeth trespasses against the standards of human decency, he successfully claims our interest and understanding, his despair evokes our sympathy.
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1905. A classic study. Chapters on Macbeth deal with fundamental issues of evil, flawed nobility of character, and tragic choice; Bradley’s eloquent prose helps the reader appreciate the grandeur of the subject.
Harbage, Alfred. William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963. An excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s plays, accessible to the general reader while providing masterful analyses of selected plays. Discussion of Macbeth gives a scene-by-scene synopsis, illuminated by wide-ranging, sensitive, analytical commentary.
Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Informative, readable discussions of Shakespeare’s major plays based on a series of educational television lectures. Introductory chapters provide a good background to the beliefs and values of Shakespeare’s times. The chapter on Macbeth discusses elements of the play such as theme, characterization, atmosphere, and imagery.
Long, Michael. Macbeth. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to the play as well as original critical commentary. Includes chapters on stage history, literary counterparts and antecedents, and dramatic symbols, as well as scene-by-scene analysis. Long characterizes Macbeth’s tragedy as both Christian and classical, a story of radical isolation from humanity.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Alan Sinfield. Houndsmills, England: Macmillan, 1992. Contains a dozen articles on Macbeth that together provide a good idea of the intellectual issues, political concerns, and style of postmodernist criticism not only of this play but also of literature in general. Includes a useful introduction and summative chapter endnotes, plus an annotated bibliography.
Wills, Garry. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This study of Macbeth reconstructs the political and historical context of Shakespeare’s dark and troubling play, suggesting the links that its first audiences would have perceived between the Gunpowder Plot and this imaginative text.