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.

Frequently Asked Questions about Macbeth

Macbeth

Macbeth is presented as a multi-layered figure, a tragic character whose heroism erodes as ambition and fear overtake any noble qualities he once possessed. His fall is great, from the good...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:47 am (UTC)

2 educator answers

Macbeth

Although some would argue that Lady Macbeth or even the witches are the real villains of Macbeth, the most obvious villain in the play is Macbeth himself. It is true that the witches seem to...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 12:34 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Macbeth

The three Weird Sisters are important in Macbeth in primarily because they provide the inciting incident: the moment when Macbeth, the protagonist, is thrust into the action, and his inner conflict...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:44 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

There are many elements of tragedy in Macbeth, including the deaths of a number of characters, multiple betrayals, and of course, the tragic downward spiral of Macbeth himself. Macbeth's path to...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Macbeth

King Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff, Macduff's son, and two chamberlains are all murdered over the course of the play. There is also the attempted murder of Banquo’s son, Fleance, but it is...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 2:40 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

Macbeth tells the story of Macbeth, a Scottish lord who is blinded by greed and ambition. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is presented as a brave warrior who is loyal to his king. When...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 1:48 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Macbeth

On the night of Duncan's murder, Macbeth exits the king's chamber with bloody hands, seemingly even more anxious over the deed than he was before he committed it. Macbeth experiences auditory...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 2:29 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

Macbeth encounters the witches twice during the play, and both times, the witches offer him three prophecies.In act 1, scene 3, the three witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (which he is),...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:31 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

In this soliloquy, Macbeth is headed toward King Duncan's chamber to commit regicide when a vision of a bloody dagger suddenly appears before him. A bit confused, Macbeth reaches for the floating...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:26 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

Although Macbeth is filled with numerous well-known and oft-quoted lines, perhaps the most famous one is spoken by the witches in act 4, scene 1: By the pricking of my thumbs,Something wicked this...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 12:36 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

The characters who die in Macbeth meet their ends in the following ways: Macdonwald, the rebel, is killed in battle by Macbeth just before the play begins, and the treacherous Thane of Cawdor is...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 12:01 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

At the start of the play, Macbeth is a hero who is revered and respected by King Duncan and his fellow countrymen. Macbeth excels on the battlefield and wins decisive victories for his king—in...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 3:13 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Macbeth

In Shakespeare's classic play, Macbeth's tragic flaw is his "vaulting ambition," which leads him to murder King Duncan in his sleep, setting off a chain of events that culminates in Macbeth's...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 12:57 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Macbeth

After Macbeth becomes king, he grows increasingly paranoid. Consumed by the desire to maintain his position of power, he constantly looks for signs of disloyalty in his thanes and even hires...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 4:27 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

It's never actually definitively stated that Lady Macbeth commits suicide, but the overwhelming scholarly consensus is that she does indeed take her own life. Long before Lady Macbeth's untimely...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:07 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

Lady Macduff and her children are killed by a professional cutthroat, generally denoted in the play as "First Murderer," who works for Macbeth. The First Murderer is one of the men Macbeth hires to...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 11:11 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

In literature, a foil is a character with qualities that contrast with those of a main character. These contrasts typically highlight the main character's strengths or weaknesses, particularly as...

Latest answer posted September 11, 2020, 12:15 pm (UTC)

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Macbeth

It's never explicitly spelled out how Lady Macbeth dies, and her death takes place offstage. However, the general consensus among scholars and literary critics is that Lady Macbeth commits...

Latest answer posted September 10, 2020, 11:08 am (UTC)

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Macbeth

Macbeth fulfills most of the criteria for an Aristotelian tragedy, in which a tragic hero experiences a fall from grace. Macbeth initially appears to be of noble character and occupies a high...

Latest answer posted September 10, 2020, 11:15 am (UTC)

4 educator answers

Macbeth

Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth is not itself a true story, but many of the figures and events in the play are rooted in real history. The historical Macbeth was a Scottish warlord who lived from...

Latest answer posted September 10, 2020, 2:22 pm (UTC)

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Summary