Macbeth Analysis

  • Shakespeare sets the tone for the play in Act I, Scene I, when the Weird Sisters appear on stage in the midst of a thunderstorm. Together, the trio of witches proclaim, "Fair is foul, and foul is air," introducing the theme of good vs. evil that weaves through the entire play.
  • Images of blood recur throughout the play, becoming symbols of guilt and evil. When Lady Macbeth cries, "Out, damned spot!" in Act V, Scene I, she's tormented by guilt over King Duncan's murder. Her remorse ultimately drives her to suicide.
  • The Weird Sisters' prophecies bring an element of ambiguity to the play, even as they seem to predict the future. For example, the final prophecies suggests that Macbeth can't be killed, because "none of woman born" can harm him. Shakespeare cleverly circumvents these prophecies, suggesting that Macbeth's fate was always open to interpretation.

Act I Commentary

Scene i: In what is perhaps the most attention-grabbing opening scene of all of Shakespeare's plays, we are introduced to the Weird Sisters. The witches (as they are known) would have been considered by the Elizabethans to be human representatives of supernatural or dark forces. The thunder and lightening used to mark their entrance emphasises their "other worldliness." Graymalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad, are mentioned as their special accomplices, as would be dogs, rats, and spiders. This association of animals and insects with horror and evil is still evident in our Halloween decorations and scary movies.

The stage direction gives no indication of where the scene takes place, and the first word, "When," indicates that time rather than place will be a major motif of the play. Although the events in Shakespeare's original source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, cover a ten year period, the play compresses the action so that events quickly follow each other.

The sing-song meter of the lines adds to the witches' mystery and underlines the effect that this opening "spell" will cast over the play. With all this "hurly burly," it is easy to miss a crucial piece of information: the witches will meet Macbeth on the heath at sunset. Why? What do they want with him?

Prophecies are used in Shakespeare's plays for two reasons: (1) to alert the audience to what will definitely happen, and (2) to alert the audience to what may or may not happen. Either way, this playwriting technique sets up the debate of whether characters are fated to meet to their ends or whether they have free choice. Here, however, the audience is only aware that the witches will meet Macbeth. The atmosphere of thunder, lightening, "fog and filthy air" imply that it will not be a good meeting.

As if all this were not enough, this opening scene has thirteen lines!

Scene ii: As predicted by the witches, a battle opens this scene. The king, Duncan, and his son, Malcolm, receive a report on the battle with the rebel, Macdonald, from the Captain. The King's language, however, is deceptively simple. He judges from the blood on the Captain that the man "can report/…of the revolt/ the newest state" (1.2.1-3). Duncan is thus established as a man who draws his conclusions from appearances. Malcolm, on the other hand, seems to put his trust in loyalty and tradition: "This is the sergeant/who like a good and hardy soldier fought/'Gainst my captivity" (1.2.3-5). When the bleeding Captain is questioned by Duncan about Macbeth and Banquo, two of his thanes (lords), he says that the two men "doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe" (1.2.38).

The Thane of Ross (known simply as Ross) and his companion, Angus, enter the scene to confirm the report of the Captain, adding that the Thane of Cawdor (another rebel) is defeated. Since a thane received his lands from the king and owed his loyalty directly to the king, the actions of the Thane of Cawdor is a serious offence punishable by death. Duncan not only orders this punishment immediately, but also awards the title, Thane of Cawdor, to Macbeth for his services to the crown.

Thus, the witches' vague prediction, "when the battle's lost and won", is enacted before the audience who now knows about Macbeth's promotion before he does. This knowledge will be especially important for the scene that follows. Here and now, however, it seems a very normal thing for a king to reward "noble" (1.2.66) Macbeth's military service with a promotion. Yet, nagging in the back of the mind is the fact that the meeting of the witches with Macbeth is close at hand. What do they want with him? What will happen next?.

Scene iii: Like scene 1, this scene opens with a peal of thunder and the appearance of the Three Witches. Here the audience receives an explanation of what the 'unnatural hags' have been up to since last saw them. The Second Witch has been 'killing swine' (1.3.2), while the First Witch is plotting revenge against a sailor's wife who had refused to share her chestnuts. While the three give many details about just what it is they plan to do to the sailor, Shakespeare is cleverly hinting at the limits of their power. The witches plan to torment the man with buffeting winds, sleeplessness, starvation, and a faulty compass. All these misfortunes are natural events and do not directly cause death. The limit to the witches' power is stated clearly: 'his bark cannot be lost' (1.3.24). Although the witches can inflict malice, it is the sailor's choices in dealing with them that will determine whether his ship sinks.

Immediately following is Macbeth's and Banquo's entrance. We only know the meeting is on the heath in the fog from Act One, scene one. The placement of the entrance here emphasises the limits of the witches' power over Macbeth and Banquo. The veracity f the prophecies that follow depend on two factors: (1) Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis and does not know that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor; (2) Macbeth alone can choose the means to make the leap from 'Thane of Cawdor' to 'King hereafter' (1.3.48, 49).

Banquo reinforces this free will to choose in his lines 'If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not' (1.3.58-59). The prophecy for Banquo, 'Lesser than Macbeth, and greater./ Not so happy, yet much happier./ Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none' (1.3.6567) does not mention titles for Banquo, but rather intangible aspirations such as greatness and happiness which can be achieved by any man. The audience, however, knows that Macbeth's prophecy will soon be confirmed.

The witches disappear without further explanation, but they have made a deep impression on Macbeth, one that shows his initial belief in the prophecies: 'Would they had stayed' (1.3.82), followed by his realisation that Banquo's children will be kings. We will learn later that while Macbeth is childless, Banquo does have a son, so that while Macbeth will be king, he will not be able to pass on his regency.

Ross and Angus enter at this point to confirm that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. At first he does not believe the two messengers, but once the events, 'treasons capital, confessed and...

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Act II Commentary

Scene i: By now the audience is anxious to find out how the Macbeths' murder plan will work, but Shakespeare continues to build the suspense. In this scene we meet Fleance (Flay-ahns), Banquo'' young son. Both father and son are restless and Macbeth too cannot sleep. The time is carefully noted as after 'twelve' (2.1.3), midnight, the witching hour. Banquo delivers a diamond from the King to Macbeth for his wife to thank her for being a 'most kind hostess' (2.1.16)

Now might Banquo and Macbeth have the discussion promised in 1.3. Banquo tells Macbeth that he 'dreamt last night of the three weird sisters' (2.1.20), and that they apparently spoke the truth to Macbeth. Macbeth, however, lies to Banquo: 'I think not of them' (2.1.21), the response completing Banquo's line that ends in the word 'truth' (2.1.21). Macbeth also tells Banquo that now is not the time for their proposed discussion and goes one step further, telling Banquo that when the time comes, he shall gain honour if he sides with Macbeth. Banquo agrees, on the condition that the affair will not compromise his conscience. Banquo and Fleance go off to bed, leaving Macbeth alone.

Macbeth imagines that he sees a dagger before him and questions whether it is a real thing or 'a dagger of the mind' (2.1.28). The remainder of his soliloquy contains many references to witchcraft, as had Lady Macbeth's in 1.5: 'gouts of blood' (46); 'wicked dreams' (50); 'witchcraft' (51); 'Hecate' (52); 'wolf' (53); 'ghost' (56); 'horror' (59). The scene serves a dual purpose. In the first place, it poses Macbeth without a child against Banquo and Fleance, reinforcing the prophecy for Banquo. Secondly, it shows the inner workings of Macbeth's mind. It is a rule for Shakespeare that any time a character is speaking in an aside or to the audience, the character is telling the truth. Macbeth is no longer plagued by any doubt whatsoever, and his instruction to the servant to have Lady Macbeth ring a bell reminds us of her complicity. When the bell does ring, Macbeth describes it as a death knell. On one level it is, but on another, it is the audio signal of the instigation of Lady Macbeth's plan and the herald of her entrance for scene 2.

Scene ii: In the middle of a restless, moonlit night (which we would recognise as the beginning of a horror movie), an owl shrieks and a King is killed. The act that we have waited happens off-stage, while Lady Macbeth describes how she drugged the wine of Duncan's guards and left the doors open, the daggers ready for her husband's use. Curiously, Lady Macbeth explains that she herself would have killed Duncan 'had he not resembled/ My father as he slept' (2.2.12-13). Apparently, her moral code includes regicide but draws the line at patricide. The point that murder is murder and is wrong is lost on her.

What follows is even more curious. The two conspirators have an exchange about the sound of voices. Two of the court guests have awakened, but then prayed themselves back to sleep. Macbeth could not say 'Amen' and this weakness upsets him. His wife's advice is most patronising: 'Consider it not so deeply' (2.2.29). Macbeth, however, continues to ramble, accusing himself of murdering sleep. Lady Macbeth chides him to get a hold of himself and wash the blood from his hands. She then notices that he has the daggers with him. Angrily she tells him to go back and put the daggers by the guards and to smear the guards with Duncan's blood. When Macbeth refuses, she goes herself. In her absence, Macbeth tries to wash his hands but they will not come clean. When Lady Macbeth returns, she is covered in royal blood and believes 'a little water clears us of this deed' (2.2.66). As someone knocks at the gate, they go to bed, Macbeth obviously shocked at what he has done.

This long-anticipated scene is somewhat disappointing in that we do not see the murder, but we do see is even more terrifying: murder from the point of view of the murderers. The blood on Macbeth's hands is not nearly so shocking as his simple comment on the taking of a human life, 'I have done the...

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Act III Commentary

Scene i: Structurally, Act III is the mid-point or centre of the five act play. Here we find Banquo thinking that the prophecies of the witches concerning Macbeth have all come true. He wonders if their prophecy concerning him may also be true. Banquo, however, suspects that to make the prophecies come to pass, Macbeth has 'play'dst most foully for't' (3.1.3).

Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast and asks if he can meet with him. Banquo informs the King that he plans to send the afternoon riding with his son, Fleance. Macbeth tells the unsuspecting Banquo 'Fail not our feast' (3.1.27). He also mentions that he learned that Malcolm and Donalbain are in England and Ireland. It is obvious that Macbeth is intent on...

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Act IV Commentary

Scene i: According to Hecate's wishes, the Three Witches have gathered the ingredients for the spell. Here we see them blend them together to the famous chant:

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (10-11)

Hecate approves of their efforts and promises them a 'share i'th'gains' (40). Macbeth has questions and asks for answers, not from the Weird Sisters, but from what he thinks are their more powerful masters. The answers take the form of three apparitions: an 'Armed Head', 'a Bloody Child', and 'a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand' (Act IV, stage directions).
The Armed Head tells Macbeth to 'Beware Macduff' (71). The...

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Act V Commentary

Scene i: Having set us up for the invasion of Scotland by its rightful king, Shakespeare returns us to the domestic tragedy and another famous scene. When we last saw Lady Macbeth, she was leading her husband to bed to sleep. This scene opens, ironically, with another Doctor and a Gentlewoman discussing a female sleep-walker. When the Doctor asks the Gentlewoman to repeat what she heard the sleep-walker say, she steadfastly refuses, since there were no witnesses.

Here enters Lady Macbeth with a lit taper which she has ordered to be constantly by her side. In her sleep, Lady Macbeth relates details of Duncan's murder and her husband's part in it, the murder of Banquo, and the holocaust at Fife. The Doctor tells...

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Historical Background

Shakespeare drew from many sources when he wrote—the Holingshed Chronicles of England was one of these. From this source he drew much of his historical knowledge, as Holingshed was the definitive historical source of that time. The story of Macbeth comes from this source. However, Shakespeare changed several characters to meet the theatrical purpose of the play. In Holing¬shed’s account Macbeth is older than Duncan, but Shakespeare reverses their ages and Duncan is portrayed as the older of the two.

Macbeth was written especially for James I and was performed in 1606. James I was King of Scotland when he came to the English throne; his descendants can be traced back to Banquo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, often referred to in theater circles as “The Scottish Play,” Banquo is portrayed as an honorable man who promotes goodness and fairness. In this way, Shakespeare was keenly aware of his audience and his political responsibilities. His plays reflect not only timeless conflicts and resolutions, but a view of the Elizabethan society.

The society in which Shakespeare lived was reflected in the characters he wrote about. London was a crowded city teaming with aristocrats, working class people, and indigents—it was a hub of activity. By today’s standards the sanitation was very poor, and there were frequent epidemics of the plague. The city was infested with rats, and the fleas on the rats caused the Bubonic plague. There were no sewers, only open drains in the middle of the street. The conditions were difficult; however, the spirit of the people prevailed. It was in this society that Shakespeare wrote and created his characters.
Shakespearean Theatre

The support of theatre in England varied depending on who was the reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603) was the monarch when Shakespeare came into the public eye. Elizabeth supported the theater and the company performed at the castle on a regular basis. She reigned until her death in 1603 when James I became ruler.

James I was also an avid supporter of the theatre. Shakespeare’s company, “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” came under royal...

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Places Discussed

*Scotland

*Scotland. British country north of England that historically had its own language, monarchy, parliament, and culture. In the period in which Macbeth is set, 1040 to 1057, Scotland was beginning to form as a nation, building on its Viking and Saxon tribal nucleus, while constantly wracked by bloody internal disputes and wars with England. Shakespeare’s choice of this period in Scottish history is far from accidental, as it pertains to the origin of the two Scottish royal lineages—those of Malcolm and Banquo—through which James I constructed his successful claims to the thrones of both England and Scotland. Shakespeare even stages the constitutional shift from feudal elective monarchy to patrilineal inheritance and the construction of “divine right” (to which James constantly referred), when Duncan names Malcolm as heir and prince of Cumberland.

By the seventeenth century, Scotland was usually described in the English cultural imagination as wild and ungovernable because of its difficult topography, harsh weather, and uncivilized people. Images of Scotland, like those of Ireland and Wales, suffered from English Tudor nation-building—that is, “England” was constructed negatively, by defining what it was not. Hence, Shakespeare’s Scotland becomes England’s antithetical Other, a nightmarish land of barren heaths and misty crags, populated not only by aggressive clansmen and regicides but also by supernatural forces and demoniac spirits. The play’s “England,” on the other hand, is depicted as graciously ruled by a “good king,” the saintly Edward the Confessor, who heals with a royal touch and possesses a “heavenly gift of prophecy.”

This imaginary rugged Scottish landscape, with its crags, hollows, and storms, is symbolically central to Shakespeare’s depiction of a turbulent political structure. Consequently, in the play’s denouement, as the nation is returned to “natural” order, the wild countryside itself seems to rise up against the murderous Macbeth, as Birnam Wood comes toward Dunsinane, in the shape of Malcolm’s camouflaged troops and in accordance with the weird (or wyrd) sisters’ prophecy. Simultaneously, the disruptions of the natural world, the “hours dreadful and things strange” with cannibalistic horses and “strange screams of death,” which accompany Macbeth’s regicide and rule, are apparently purged as health is restored to the “sickly weal.” However, the replacement of one regicide by another reveals the similarities between the regimes, staging the play’s equivocal wordplay and eliding the differences, as each term becomes “what is not,” both “fair” and “foul,” like the landscape itself.

Heath

Heath. Fictional Scottish wasteland of uncontrollable natural and supernatural forces. As inhabited by the three weird sisters, the “blasted heath” is a symbolically liminal site of transformation and equivocal multivocality, in which weather is both “foul and fair,” where the sisters are both “women” and bearded males, who can appear and disappear, and where prophecy is both “ill” and “good” as language subverts sight and meaning. In addition, the sisters’ presence gives Scotland gender as (super-)naturally “female” in its uncontrollable wildness throughout the play, in contrast to Scotland’s strongly masculine warrior culture.

*Scone

*Scone. Ancient castle and holy site, immediately north of Perth and thirty miles north of Edinburgh. The Pictish capital of the early Scots, Scone became the traditional site for the “investment” or crowning of new monarchs, who sat on the Stone of Scone, a legendary symbol of nationalism that traces back to the eighth century. The stone was seized by England’s Edward I in 1296 and removed to London, where it remained for many centuries.

*Inverness

*Inverness. Scottish town on the Moray Firth, at Loch Ness, about thirty miles west of Forres and about ninety miles north of Fife. Inverness is the site of the Macbeths’ feudal castle, located on the northern edge of Duncan’s territory and strategically placed to guard against incursions from northern Europe. However, this distant frontier also makes it an ideal place for rebellion against a centralized government, as evidenced by Cawdor’s insurrection. The town of Cawdor is only ten miles east of Inverness.

*Dunsinane Hill

*Dunsinane Hill. Thousand-foot-high crag, part of the Sidlaw hills and less than ten miles north of Scone. The site of Macbeth’s military fortress and last stand, the daunting hill faces a forested area which stretches twelve miles northwest to the town of Birnam. It is through this “wood” that Malcolm and Siward make their final, disguised attack.

Modern Connections

The witches, or weird sisters, of Macbeth have remained one of the most popular aspects of the play. The three witches, the first...

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Bibliography

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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Adventures in English Literature. Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth.”...

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