Macbeth Study Guide
Introduction to Macbeth
Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, estimated to have been first performed in 1606. Shakespeare drew inspiration most notably from the story of King Macbeth in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a popular Anglo-Saxon history published in 1587. Macbeth is commonly regarded as a celebration of the Stuart lineage, of which Shakespeare’s patron, King James I, was a descendant. Indeed, King James I claimed to be a descendant of the noble Banquo, who sacrificed his life in order to ensure the safety of his son, Fleance. Fleance would go on to father the first Stuart monarch. The historical veracity of this account is questionable, with many modern historians believing that Banquo and Fleance were entirely fictitious. However, for an early-seventeenth-century audience, King James I’s rule would have represented a direct fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s descendants would become kings.
In addition to its historical implications, Macbeth is an exploration of fate, power, morality, and guilt. The titular Macbeth begins the play as a heroic figure, having recently proven victorious in battle. He is beloved by his king, and his deeds have been richly rewarded. When three witches promise Macbeth that he will become the king of Scotland, however, ambition and greed take root in his psyche. Lady Macbeth fuels her husband’s desire for power, and together they kill the reigning king and seize the throne for themselves. They soon learn that power won through immoral means comes with consequences.
Macbeth has been a fixture on the stage since its publication, and it has been adapted numerous times for film, print, television, and radio. Its complex considerations of good versus evil, fate versus free will, and the devastating impacts of guilt and ambition on the human psyche provide rich ground for performance and critical study. Its political relevance has also endured: power sought for selfish reasons results in tyranny, and the masses will not suffer tyrants.
A Brief Biography of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet and playwright. Despite his widely accepted status as the greatest and most influential figure in the history of English-language literature, relatively little of his life is known. He grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in a family of comfortable means. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children. As a young man, Shakespeare moved to London and became involved in the theater community as an actor, playwright, and company owner. Over the next two decades, his plays became increasingly popular, and his theater company thrived. In 1613, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died several years later of unknown causes. Given the immense erudition of Shakespeare’s work and the paucity of information about his life, some critics and readers have suspected that Shakespeare was in fact an aristocrat writing under a pseudonym. However, these suspicions remain unsubstantiated.
Shakespeare’s literary output includes a cycle of 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and 39 plays that range across comedy, tragedy, and history. His formal virtuosity—especially his mastery of prosody, metaphor, and wordplay—are evident throughout all of his work, and his plays are celebrated for their rich dramatic structures and psychological depth.