Macbeth Questions and Answers

William Shakespeare

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Macbeth questions.

How does Shakespeare humanize Lady Macbeth?


Alack, I am afraid they have awaked
And ‘tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready.
He could not miss ‘em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t (Act II, Scene 2).

This whole speech by Lady Macbeth is intended to "humanize" her. It shows that she is not nearly as confident as she has been acting with her husband. She is good about hiding her fears, worries, and guilt from other people, but she is still human. Shakespeare usually tried to show that all his characters were mixtures of good and bad, strength and weakness. That was why he showed the wicked King Claudius at prayer in Hamlet. It is the only way an author can create the illusion that his characters are real people.

When Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth say "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t," the purpose is consistent with everything else he has her say in this speech. It shows she has a tender side to her nature. She loved her father, as most daughters do. She is not a complete monster.

How is Lady Macbeth an anti-mother figure?

Mother figures are an extremely common trope in literature. They are asexual, kind, warm, nurturing women who act as caregivers for other characters. Lady Macbeth is an oppositional figure to this device. She is ambitious, cruel, and sexual. She greets her husband passionately, and displays clear power. In the play, there is a vague reference to a child she and Macbeth had conceived together, who might possibly have died. This, combined with her famous line about her willingness to dash the brains out of an infant, presents her as a woman with a metaphorically cold and barren womb. 

How is King James relevant to Macbeth?

The only surviving source of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which seems to have been adapted for a court performance for King James, is centralized around the struggles of different power dynamics. This works well in the context of interpolated compliments to King James and his right to rule.

As a nod towards King James as the rightful ruler of both England and Scotland, Macbeth transfers its power symbolically from Scotland to England. After King Duncan’s murder, his son Malcolm flees to England to ask for help. He is “received/Of the most pious King Edward with such grace/That the malevolence of fortune nothing/Takes from his high respect” (Act 3, Scene 6, Lines 27-9). King Edward is recruiting the English forces to help Scotland get rid of Macbeth, their tyrant king. “Upon his aid,/To wake Northumberland and warlike Siward,/That by the help of these—with Him above/To ratify the work” (Act 2, Scene 6, Lines 30-3). This puts the English king in the position of the divine savior. Scotland is sick, and England has got the cure. At the end, everything is put right by the power of pure England and its divine king. Holding Macbeth’s head, Macduff announces that “the time is free” (Act 5, Scene 8, Line 55). Macbeth’s evil has been swept away out from Scotland and replaced with a rightful ruler. Malcolm says, “My thanes and kinsmen,/Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland/In such an honor named” (Act 5, Scene 8, Lines 63-5). Already, the old Scottish ways are being replaced by the greatness of England. Although Malcolm is crowned at the end rather than Fleance, the witches’ prophecy was known to be true by Shakespeare’s audience, because King James was a descendant of Banquo’s.

Why is Macbeth portrayed as a tyrant?

For plot purposes, Macbeth has to become a terrible tyrant. There is no psychological reason why he should become so tyrannical just because he killed Duncan, or because he had Banquo killed, or because he had dealings with the witches. He could have become a good king and capable ruler, which was probably exactly what he intended. He certainly seems to have those benign capabilities when the play opens. Claudius in Hamlet is a villain and a usurper, but he seems to be a wise and popular monarch. The reason Shakespeare had to emphasize Macbeth's tyranny was to make it plausible that the English king, at great expense, would authorize the raising of what in those days was a enormous army of ten-thousand men to invade Scotland. Otherwise, the English king would not have felt morally justified in interfering in Scottish politics.

Malcolm and Macduff are not this king's friends or favorites. Macbeth has been lawfully elected king of Scotland, and it would be impossible for Malcolm to ask the English king for military assistance just because Malcolm was next in the line of succession. The English king has no way of knowing that Malcolm was not responsible for Duncan's murder. Even if the king had believed Malcolm's story, those assassinations and coups were common in Scotland and none of his business. He had nothing to gain by trying to place Malcolm on the Scottish throne, and of course there was no assurance that his army would have been victorious. He could be making a bitter enemy of Macbeth and even risking a counter-invasion.

Another reason why, for plot purposes, Macbeth had to be depicted and reported as tyrannical was to make it plausible that so many people would flee Scotland to join the ranks of the English army. Evidently, those who were fleeing were not only many of the important thanes, but liegemen of those thanes and ordinary commoners as well. This flight of so many people was creating additional havoc in Scotland. Crops were being neglected and animals untended. A state of anarchy was emerging. If economic hardships developed in that country, it could affect English imports and exports and might also lead to a influx of refugees who could commit thefts, robberies, burglaries, assaults, and murders, and who could become a permanent threat and liability to the English people and their government.

Thus, the unprecedented crisis in Scotland would give the English king a practical motive for attempting to overthrow the great tyrant Macbeth, and Macbeth's tyranny would lead to the swelling of the ranks of the English army, which could make the difference in the military balance. Macbeth himself says in Act V, Scene 5:

Were they not forced with those that should be ours,
We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
And beat them backward home.

What does the line "Duncan is in his grave; After life's fitful fever he sleeps well" mean?

Macbeth is using a metaphor to compare life to a sickness in which the patient suffers a fitful fever and death to a cure of that sickness after the patient has passed through a crisis. This is a marvelous metaphor because it is so paradoxical. We think of life as a healthy condition and death as a misfortune. Macbeth is full of beautiful and strange metaphors and similes, which in itself is paradoxical because it is such a morbid tragedy.

The alliteration of F sounds in "After life's fitful fever" should be noted. They are followed by "he sleeps well," which seems especially tranquil after all the F sounds preceding it. They are in "After," "life's," "fitful" (two F's), and "fever." The word "fever" will seem to contain two F sounds because the "v" in fever will sound very much like an "F." So there will be six F sounds in quick succession, since there are two "F's" in "fitful." Is this important? Yes, but only because of its effect on the audience; it makes them glimpse life—their own others'—as nothing but a sort of mad frenzy, a "tale told by an idiot," as Macbeth will decide later on.

What does "Only for them, and mine eternal jewel Given to the common enemy of man, To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!" mean?

In this soliloquy, Macbeth expresses his frustration due to the fact that he has killed King Duncan but is still jealous, envious, and suspicious of Banquo because of the witches' prophecy that Banquo's offspring will become kings of Scotland. In this metaphor, Macbeth is saying he has sold his soul (his eternal jewel) to the devil (the common enemy of man), but he cannot bring himself to say as much in plain words because he doesn't even want to think about that terrible truth. That is why the words "Given to the common enemy of man" seem to come out so hastily. Perhaps Shakespeare intended the actor to say, "and mine eternal jewel," then take a deep breath, release all the air from his lungs with a sigh, and then say, "Given to the common enemy of man" with his lungs virtually empty. The fact that the actor is saying the words "Given to the common enemy of man" with empty lungs naturally forces him to speak the eleven syllables quickly, and this is what suggests that Macbeth doesn't want to dwell on what lies ahead of him after his death. Since Macbeth feels he is already damned, and that therefore nothing worse can happen to him in the afterlife, this explains why he becomes more and more tyrannical until his ruthless and insupportable behavior forces numerous subjects to flee the land and ultimately brings an invasion of an army from England led by Malcolm.

How is the Peter Principle relevant to Macbeth?

Macbeth's main problem seems to be that he has risen above his station. He is not fit to be a king. 

The Peter Principle was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their book on management titled The Peter Principle (1969). This is the principle that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence."

It is common to see people in real life who have been given positions of authority which they are incompetent to fill. Many such people seem subject to delusions of grandeur, even if they are only deputy sheriffs or parking-lot attendants. Their behavior can become laughable.

A good example of the Peter Principle is to be seen in the old movie comedy The Bank Dick (1940). The main character Egbert Souse, played by W. C. Fields, gets a job as an armed guard in a small-town bank. He sees a little boy playing with a cap pistol and sneaks up on him to arrest him with a drawn handgun.

Macbeth first inherited the title of Thane of Glamis. Then he receives a promotion from the grateful King Duncan and becomes Thane of Cawdor. These titles go to his—and his wife's—head. After murdering Duncan, Macbeth becomes the King of Scotland. Macbeth is a good soldier, but not a good king. He has risen to his "level of incompetence." We can see from his behavior even before becoming king that he has many character flaws. He is indecisive, absent-minded, has hallucinations, and is dominated by his wife. He will be feared but not loved like Duncan, who was the rightful monarch. Macbeth is treacherous and vicious. We see his cruel and inconsiderate nature in the way he talks to his servants. He is superstitious, petulant, unpredictable, ill-tempered, and rash. Duncan is portrayed as a gentle, generous, thoughtful ruler who is loved by his subjects, including the man who murders him. Macbeth misgoverns his kingdom so badly that there is chaos, exodus, and rebellion, which he is forced to put down with his brutal soldiers.

Toward the end of the play, Angus pretty well sums up Macbeth's character and the reason for his imminent downfall in these words:

Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

It was relatively easy for Macbeth to become king, but impossible for him to retain power because of his incompetence. That seems to be Shakespeare's message.

How does psychology play into Macbeth?

Judging from Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's behavior and its psychological consequences, Shakespeare understood the human psyche long before Freud analyzed it and modern psychiatry categorized the ways it can come unglued. The Macbeths’ killing Duncan to steal the crown illustrates clearly the interaction of the id, the ego, and the super ego, as Freud identified them, and in the couple’s subsequent psychological deterioration, several manifestations of mental illness are evident.

The complexity in the Macbeths’ characters, and a great deal of the play’s drama, is developed through the interplay among these elements of the psyche. As psychologist Kendra Cherry explains, the id “strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs.” After the witches' prophesy that Macbeth will be king one day, he and Lady Macbeth want the crown, and they waste no time in murdering Duncan to get it—the id at work.  

After deciding to kill the king, the Macbeths are controlled by the ego, the part of the psyche that puts the brakes on the primitive id. The ego demands they satisfy their desires in a way that is acceptable to society. Initially, Macbeth rejects the idea of murdering Duncan, willing to delay gratification by waiting for the witches’ prophecy to be fulfilled without his intervention. Lady Macbeth, however, will not deny her need for immediate gratification. Through psychological manipulation in which she belittles her husband’s character and courage, Lady Macbeth forces Macbeth to proceed. There is no way to kill the beloved Duncan that will not outrage society, but through deceit, the Macbeths can make their behavior appear acceptable. They commit the murder surreptitiously with great attention to detail and skillfully deflect suspicion from themselves when the king’s body is discovered. With Malcolm and Donalbain blamed for their father’s murder, the Macbeths claim the throne, but they cannot enjoy the gratification of their desires because the super ego, the repository of the conscience, asserts itself.

The super ego is obvious in Macbeth even before the murder. Macbeth hungers for the crown, but the thought of killing Duncan, his king, benefactor, and friend, appalls him. Before entering the sleeping Duncan’s chamber, Macbeth agonizes over what he is about to do; after committing the murder, he is tortured by his conscience. Unable to sleep, he obsesses about the horrendous nature of his crime. In Lady Macbeth, the super ego is submerged temporarily through an act of will; before the murder, she steels herself against it, mistakenly assuming it is an expression of feminine weakness. After the murder, she denies its existence, insisting to Macbeth that “a little water clears us of this deed.” Washing Duncan’s blood from their hands, she believes, is all that’s necessary to escape retribution. She fails to recognize the presence and power of the super ego. Ultimately, however, it overrides Lady Macbeth’s psychological defenses, and she commits suicide.

Shakespeare doesn't employ the vocabulary of mental illness, but the manifestations of depression and psychosis are evident in the Macbeths’ mental and emotional deterioration. Shakespeare also understands their source—relentless, unalleviated guilt and fear. Macbeth lives in fear from the moment he first consents to murder the king, and after killing Duncan, he is consumed with guilt and plagued with insomnia. At various times, he suffers from visual and auditory hallucinations, and as his condition deteriorates, he becomes increasingly paranoid. Macbeth feels hopeless, his despair and bitterness expressed most vividly in the play’s conclusion as he prepares to go to war.

Shakespeare devotes much of the play to detailing Macbeth’s psychological deterioration, but he illustrates Lady Macbeth’s in one scene. As she walks in her sleep, sighing pitifully and trying to wash her hands of blood that now exists only in her unconscious mind, the extent of her mental destruction is made clear. That she soon kills herself, as her servants feared she would, comes as no surprise. Her death is entirely consistent with the psychological unraveling of her personality.

Why doesn't Macbeth kill Malcolm and Donalbain?

Macbeth and his wife plot to murder King Duncan while they have him sleeping under their roof for the first and probably the only time. They talk as if Duncan’s death will somehow automatically make Macbeth king. What about Malcolm and Donalbain, though? Malcolm is next in line of succession. Shakespeare specifically points this out: Duncan announces he is appointing Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland, which makes him heir apparent to the Scottish throne.

Malcolm and Donalbain are also sleeping in Macbeth’s castle for that one night only. He has no way of foreseeing that they will decide to flee for their lives after their father’s mutilated body is found. It seems that Macbeth must be planning to murder both of them on the same night he kills their father—but he and his wife say nothing about the two sons. The only indication in the text that Macbeth intends to dispose of Malcolm and Donalbain is in his reaction to the appointment of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland.

[aside] The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step On which I must fall down or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Macbeth seems to be telling himself that he doesn’t even want to think about what he is going to do to Malcolm, but that he nonetheless has made his plans. If he kills Malcolm, he would also have to kill Donalbain; otherwise, the younger son would become next in line for succession. The crucial words in the above lines are “yet let that be.” Not only does Macbeth have plans for the boys, but he and his wife must have discussed them thoroughly. Shakespeare may have “finessed” the whole problem for at least two reasons. One was that it would complicate the drama. The other was that Macbeth would lose audience sympathy if he was thought to be planning to kill two boys in their sleep. Shakespeare wanted to preserve some modicum of sympathy for his titular character.

Shakespeare invents several reasons why Macbeth could not murder the sons along with their father, assuming that was what Macbeth planned to do. He returns to his chamber holding two bloody daggers. The audience might think he had killed the whole family, but he tells his wife:

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

This beautiful tribute to sleep seems intended to explain that Macbeth was afraid of getting caught with the two daggers in his hands and decided to abort the plan to kill the sleeping boys. He thought the imaginary voice was going to wake up all the household and he would be found in flagrante delicto. If the voice was going to wake people up, it could easily wake Malcolm and Donalbain.

Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house. “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.”

Macbeth was already unnerved before he thought he heard the voice crying “Sleep no more!” He tells his wife that when he was in Duncan’s chamber he might have been seen by both of the guards.

One cried “God bless us” and “Amen” the other, As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands, List’ning their fear.

Then, just as Lady Macbeth exits to return the daggers to Duncan’s chamber and smear the faces of the sleeping grooms with the King’s blood, there comes the first “Knock within.” The prolonged knocking, which became the subject of a famous essay by Thomas De Quincey, has many functions, the first being to make it obviously impossible for Macbeth to murder Malcolm and Donalbain—assuming that was his intention. The knocking continues through the rest of Act II, Scene 2, and is not explained until the the drunken Porter enters in Scene 3. De Quincey apparently thought of it as only a stage effect, but I would argue Shakespeare intended it to prevent Macbeth from considering killing Duncan’s two sons and also to force Macbeth to go down in his nightshirt to find out why nobody was opening the gate. This meant that—much against his will and contrary to his original plan—Macbeth had to be present when Duncan’s body was discovered by Macduff, who immediately raised such a clamor that he woke up everyone in the castle. It isn’t until Malcolm and Donalbain appear onstage that the audience knows whether they were alive.

The two boys were not killed because Shakespeare did not want them killed. He especially wanted Malcolm to flee to England and raise an army to overthrow King Macbeth. Shakespeare seems to have wanted to leave the impression that Macbeth actually did intend to kill the boys but was prevented from doing so by his own imagination and by the knocking at the gate.

What does Macbeth mean by his "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech?

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.

These beautiful lines are especially impressive because of the contrast between "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," and "all our yesterdays." The word "tomorrow" is looking forward to the future. We are always doing this. If today hasn't brought the good thing we were hoping for, then maybe it will come tomorrow. If Godot didn't come today, maybe he will come tomorrow. Each successive tomorrow becomes a yesterday. Tomorrows represent hope; yesterdays represent memory. The number of tomorrows dwindles as we age. The number of yesterdays piles up as we get older and seem to extend back into a dark infinity. These are the musings of a depressed and thoroughly disappointed man. In looking back on all his "yesterdays," he can't help thinking that "life is but a walking shadow." Every person who appears in our memories, as in our dreams, looks like a shadow or a ghost of the person we knew. Macbeth evidently does not feel much of anything about his wife's demise because he regards her as just another walking shadow like himself.

What does "There's daggers in men's smiles" mean?

At the end of Act II, Scene 3, Malcolm and Donalbain both decide to flee for their lives. It is Donalbain who says, "There's daggers in men's smiles. The near in blood, The nearer bloody." Both boys obviously know that whoever murdered their father must intend to murder them, as the motive for killing Duncan must have been to usurp the throne, and they both stand in the way. This strongly suggests that Macbeth must have intended to kill them on the same night he killed King Duncan. The most important reason for Macbeth's failure to kill the King's two sons is that he thought he heard a voice crying "to all the house," and therefore crying loud enough to wake everybody, including the intended victims themselves.

Methought a heard a voice cry "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Then there is the ominous knocking, which goes on and on and gets louder and louder. There can be no question of going back and murdering Malcolm and Donalbain when the knocking is sure to wake a lot of people. 

Shakespeare solved the problem of having Macbeth become king without murdering the heir apparent Malcolm and his brother Donalbain, who would become the heir apparent if Macbeth only murdered Malcolm. The solution was to have the two boys flee for their lives, enabling Macbeth to pin their father's murder on them. According to Macbeth's accusation, Malcolm and Donalbain paid the two grooms to kill Duncan. Macbeth had killed the grooms before they had any chance to protest the boys' innocence.

Macbeth and his wife spend a lot of time discussing the proposed murder of Duncan, but say nothing about disposing of his two sons. The only indication that they had discussed it at all is in Macbeth's aside in Act I, Scene 4, right after Duncan announces his appointment of Malcolm as the Prince of Cumberland and therefore his successor to the Scottish throne.

The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step On which I must fall down or else o'erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Shakespeare proably wanted to retain some modicum of audience sympathy for his tragic hero Macbeth and was afraid he would lose it altogether if he had him kill two innocent boys in their sleep—or even talk about doing it onstage.

Malcolm and Donalbain have no idea who bribed the grooms to kill their father. It could have been anyone. It could have been a plot by several of the thanes to establish a new government. Shakespeare, when he finally faced this plot problem, realized the two young men might decide to flee and thus make themselves vulnerable to the accusation that they were responsible for their father's murder. After all, Malcolm was the heir apparent and had the most to gain from his father's death. If Donalbain could be framed as a co-conspirator, he could become the Prince of Cumberland. Both boys are young, inexperienced, shocked, and badly frightened. They have no one to turn to for advice, since they can't trust anyone. Their idea of getting away from Dunsinane is a wise one. As Donalbain tells his brother, "Where we are There's daggers in men's smiles."

What happens during the interaction between Macbeth and the Doctor?

MACBETH How does your patient, doctor?
DOCTOR Not so sick, my lord, As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies That keep her from her rest.
MACBETH Cure her of that. Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, And with some sweet oblivious antidote Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?
DOCTOR Therein the patient Must minister to himself.
MACBETH Throw physic to the dogs. I’ll none of it.

Macbeth knows quite well what is the matter with his wife because the same thing is the matter with him. They are both plagued by guilt, remorse, pity, sorrow, and the resulting insomnia. If she can’t sleep, he can’t sleep either. Macbeth is being slightly sarcastic with the doctor, and the doctor knows it. Macbeth is implying that the doctor doesn’t really know medicine. This is true enough. Doctors in those dark days knew little about causes and cures. They had to do a lot of pretending. This doctor has at least had experience with all kinds of people. He understands that Macbeth is talking on several different levels of meaning. Macbeth is expressing concern about his wife, but he is really concerned about himself. The doctor’s reply is intentionally ambiguous. He does not say the patient must minister to herself but that the patient must minister to himself, letting Macbeth take it either way he wants—that the doctor is advising him to heal himself or that people in general must heal themselves when they are afflicted with “a mind diseased” and not with a physiological ailment.

Macbeth counters the doctor’s sage advice by expressing the contempt for medicine implicit throughout his long question. He says, “throw physic to the dogs.” This is his way of telling the doctor that his wife may be plagued by guilt and remorse, but he has no such problems himself. In other words, he is lying when he says he was only asking about his wife and not about himself.

All of us, if we live long enough, will be troubled with painful memories, although hopefully not as terrible as those of Macbeth and his wife. Looking back over our past, we are sure to regret some of the actions we took and others we failed to take. Somerset Maugham wrote,

What makes old age hard to bear is not the failing of one’s faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one’s memories.

No one can pluck from our memory a single rooted sorrow. We have to live with them. Shakespeare expresses a similar idea in "Sonnet 30."

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe, And moan the expense of many a vanished sight. Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, Which I new pay as if not paid before. But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

The sonnet ends on an up-note, but this does not mean all his losses are permanently restored or all his sorrows permanently end. The poet is suggesting that we think about something else, which is pretty much what we do anyway. In fact, that seems to be what Macbeth is doing and has been doing ever since he murdered King Duncan. Perhaps all Macbeth’s acts of tyranny have been his way of keeping his mind off his guilt, remorse, and shame.

What is Macbeth's plan to take the throne?

Macbeth has no reason to assume he could become king simply by assassinating Duncan. In fact, when the Three Witches suggest it, he says such a “prospect” is out of the question.

By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Glamis. But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives A prosperous gentleman, and to be king Stands not within the prospect of belief, No more than to be Cawdor (Act I, Scene 3).

The main reason Macbeth thinks his prospect of becoming king is infinitely remote is that Duncan has two sons who are both quite properly ahead of him in the line of succession. When Duncan proclaims Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland, it is a guarantee that the elder son will be king after Duncan. If anything should happen to Malcolm, there is still Donalbain to become heir apparent. This raises the unavoidable question of why Macbeth does not plan to kill Duncan, Malcolm, and Donalbain all on the same night. To put it another way, what can Macbeth hope to achieve if he kills Duncan and leaves the sons alive?

Shakespeare could not avoid the problem altogether. His audience would naturally be wondering what Macbeth intended to do about the sons. Act I, Scene 4 has the only hint. Macbeth says to himself,

The Prince of Cumberland. That is a step On which I must fall down or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

What these cryptic words suggest is that Shakespeare wanted to give his audience some assurance. Macbeth realizes he has to do something about Duncan's sons and has plans to dispose of them, but does not want to think about it at this point. Macbeth does not like murdering a couple of young boys in their beds, but he believes that is what he is going to have to do after taking care of their father. It is hard enough for Macbeth to commit that one awful murder, as we see, but to have to think about committing three murders in one night is more than his mind or conscience can handle.

As it turns out, Macbeth had to retreat to his bedchamber after killing the King. He could not have killed the sons, if that is what he intended to do, because he had something like a nervous breakdown after committing the first atrocity. To his credit, he is not a cold-blooded killer. He could not just go from chamber to chamber killing off an entire family. Furthermore, he imagined he heard a voice shouting loud enough to wake the entire castle.

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house. “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more”  (Act II, Scene 2).

A few lines later, there begins the terrible knocking at the gate, which Thomas De Quincey discusses in his famous essay. There are at least three reasons why Macbeth cannot murder Malcolm and Donalbain, assuming that was what he intended to do:

  1. He loses his nerve.
  2. He thinks he hears a loud voice crying “Sleep no more!” to all the house—which is the same as crying “Wake up, everybody!”
  3. There is a knocking at the gate which goes on and on until the drunken Porter finally opens it in the next scene; and Macbeth—far from being able to murder two young men who may already be awake, far from being able to pretend to have been asleep in bed while Duncan was being murdered—is forced to put in a personal appearance and conduct Macduff and Lennox to the scene of the crime.

Macbeth has no way of foreseeing that Malcolm and Donalbain would decide to flee for their lives, enabling him to pin their father’s murder on them. Their decision is plausible because they suspect there may be a widespread conspiracy against them involving many of the assembled thanes. They are certainly right to think their lives are in danger. They don’t know how close they may have come to being killed in their sleep.


What do Macbeth and King Lear have in common?

Both Macbeth and King Lear seem to impose their problems and suffering gratuitously upon themselves. Macbeth murders Duncan and manages to pin the crime on Malcolm and Donalbain after they flee for their lives. Once he is King of Scotland, Macbeth is not satisfied with what he has achieved. He commits further crimes and becomes a terrible tyrant. People flee the land. Chaos ensues. The English monarch raises an army to invade Scotland, and Macbeth is killed in a duel with Macduff. Malcolm probably could not have received the military assistance of the English king just on his own merits and his claim to be the rightful Scottish monarch.

King Lear is so proud and inflexible that he will not consent to his daughters' terms. He could live in luxury with both of them alternately and be treated with respect and courtesy if he relinquishes his one hundred knights. Instead, he insists on living outdoors. Macbeth's problem is not that he murdered Duncan, but rather that he elected, unnecessarily it would seem, to become more and more tyrannical until he turned everyone in Scotland and England against him.

What do Macbeth, Brutus, Othello, and Hamlet have in common?

It is interesting to note that Macbeth resembles three of Shakespeare's other famous characters: Brutus, Othello, and Hamlet. All four have serious inner conflicts about committing murder. Macbeth is ambitious, but he would not have killed King Duncan if he had not been influenced by the three witches and persuaded by his wife. At one point, he tells her,

We will proceed no further in this business: He hath honor'd me of late, and I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people,Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, Not cast aside so soon (Act I, Scene 7).

Lady Macbeth's will is stronger than her husband's, and he goes ahead with the assassination, which he will bitterly regret for the rest of his life.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus has serious misgivings about joining in the plot to assassinate Caesar. He would not have done so without the persuasion and machinations of Cassius. 

Othello is like Macbeth and Brutus in that he commits a murder he does not want to commit. Here, it is the wicked fabrications of Iago that finally make him feel compelled to kill Desdemona. Some of Shakespeare's most beautiful lines are spoken by Othello as he prepares to kill the woman he loves more than anyone in the world.

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars! It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood, Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow And smooth as monumental alabaster.Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men. Put out the light, and then put out the light. If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again (Act V, Scene 2).

Shakespeare's Hamlet is all about a man who must commit a murder but procrastinates because he can't quite bring himself to do it in cold blood. In Hamlet's soliloquies, he keeps telling himself why he should do it and asking himself why he hasn't. He can't refrain from acting, though. He has sworn an oath to his dead father. He knows Claudius deserves to die for killing his father, usurping the throne, and marrying his father's widow.

It isn't until almost the end of the last scene of the last act that Hamlet, dying of a poisonous wound and in the heat of anger, finally does what he is bound to do. His procrastination costs many other lives.

Shakespeare must have enjoyed writing dialogue for characters who were experiencing severe inner conflicts. These tormenting problems make such characters more realistic and multidimensional. Perhaps viewers relate to them because all of us experience inner conflicts throughout our lives, though not usually of such a serious nature as those of Macbeth, Brutus, Othello, and Hamlet.

What does Macbeth's "life's but a walking shadow" speech mean?

Macbeth is utterly dejected by the end of the play and doesn't see much difference between winning the coming battle with the invading army or losing it. He doesn't care whether he lives or dies. What does he mean when he says that life is "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more"? By "life," Macbeth--or rather Shakespeare speaking through his character--means all of us. We are all actors strutting and fretting our way through life, pretending to be something more than we know ourselves to be underneath the costumes and makeup. Some of us are better actors than others, and some not as good. But we are all acting. We are poor in the sense that we are always looking for a part, a gig. Without that role to play we are nothing. If we lose our jobs, we quickly realize our nakedness. Macbeth sees himself as an actor trying to play the role of a king, and he knows that he is just playing a part, strutting and fretting a little more than the others because he has to keep up appearances. 

How would an Elizabethan audience react to witchcraft?

Since one of the play's most dramatic set pieces is the appearance of the witches, it is important to note that Shakespeare's lifetime saw a pervasive belief in witchcraft that led to the widespread accusation, imprisonment, torture, and execution of thousands of people for crimes related to witchcraft.

The witch craze was centered mainly in France, Germany, and the British Isles, and later spread to the North American Colonies with the English Puritans (culminating in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692-3). This means the presence of the witches in the play would carry an especially menacing context for contemporary audiences in Shakespeare's day. It is also important to consider how Shakespeare felt about including them in the story.

In 1486, a medieval treatise on witchcraft was written by two Germans, Kramer and Sprenger: The Hammer of Witches, or Malleus Maleficarum. The book, which became very popular and was read widely, suggests women are very susceptible to witchcraft, stating "All witchcraft stems from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable." This sexual undercurrent flows through Macbeth as well: Lady Macbeth seductively manipulates her husband and convinces him that murder is the best course to fulfill his goals. Her own murderous acts place her in a menacing light, and she appears unrepentant, even as she seems to feel guilt and shame ("Out, damned spot!").

How does Lennox mature throughout the play?

When Lennox first appears in Act II, Scene 3 of Macbeth, he is represented as an innocent, naive youth. He indicates that he is young and inexperienced when he tells Macbeth, regarding the stormy night:

My young remembrance cannot parallel
A fellow to it.

Lennox is nervous when he finds himself alone with the grim and strangely silent Macbeth, who is dreading the moment when Macduff discovers Duncan's body and raises an outcry. The young lad tries to find something to talk about to ease the silence, so he talks about the weather.

The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible, 
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch'd to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamor'd the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Everything about Lennox shows that he is young, inexperienced, and naive. Yet in Act III, Scene 6, he seems to have done a lot of growing up in a very short time. Shakespeare is using Lennox's speech to convey a great deal of information, but also to show how the tyrannical reign of Macbeth has affected the entire population. The change that has taken place in Lennox is symbolic of the change that has taken place in the Scottish people. They all suspect that Macbeth may have killed King Duncan and had Banquo ambushed. Lennox has become hardened, worldly, wise, cynical, cautious, and disillusioned—a far cry from the young man who came with Macduff to wake the murdered king. 

My former speeches have but hit your thoughts,
Which can interpret farther: only I say
Things have been strangely borne. The gracious Duncan
Was pitied of Macbeth: Marry, he was dead.
And the right valiant Banquo walk'd too late,
Whom, you may say, if't please you, Fleance kill'd,
For Fleance fled. Men must not walk too late.
Who cannot want the thought, how monstrous
It was for Malcolm and for Donalbain
To kill their gracious father? Damned fact!
How it did grieve Macbeth! Did he not straight,
In pious rage, the two delinquents tear,
That were the slaves of drink and thralls of sleep?
Was not that nobly done? Ay, and wisely too,
For ’twould have anger'd any heart alive
To hear the men deny't. So that, I say,
He has borne all things well; and I do think
That, had he Duncan's sons under his key—
As, an't please heaven, he shall not—they should find
What ’twere to kill a father; so should Fleance.
But, peace! For from broad words, and ’cause he fail'd
His presence at the tyrant's feast.

Lennox has learned how to use innuendo and double entendre. A good example of his sophistication is to be seen in these lines:

And the right valiant Banquo walk'd too late,
Whom, you may say, if't please you, Fleance kill'd,
For Fleance fled.

He is alluding to the fact that Macbeth was able to pin Duncan's murder on Malcolm and Donalbain because they fled for their lives. Fleance, of course, did the same thing when his father was being murdered. The young lad might have stayed to try to help his father, but Banquo cried out:

O, treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!

From Lennox's words and insinuations, we can picture the reign of terror he has lived through in recent years, with executions, confiscations, disappearances, spies everywhere, troops of horsemen riding in all directions on mysterious errands. Meanwhile, the tyrant grows more disturbed and vindictive inside his gloomy castle.

What does "the milk of human kindness" mean?

Shakespeare seems to be doing his best to retain some modicum of audience sympathy for his tragic hero Macbeth by placing some of the blame for the murder of King Duncan upon Macbeth's ambitious and totally heartless wife. Scene 5 of Act I begins with a long soliloquy in which Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being too full of the milk of human kindness. This hardly sounds like an accurate description of Macbeth, the man who specializes in killing other men in battle without mercy. Nevertheless, his wife should know him better than anyone. We are to understand that Macbeth's biggest problem in achieving the crown will be that he is too soft-hearted. Here is his wife's assessment.

Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'ldst have, great Glamis, That which cries, “Thus thou must do, if thou have it; And that which rather thou dost fear to do Than wishest should be undone.” Hie thee hither, That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, And chastise with the valor of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round, Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem To have thee crown'd withal.

She does succeed in persuading her husband to commit the murder, but Shakespeare does a better job of making Macbeth appear to be a tyrant than in making him a sympathetic figure. Macbeth is full of the milk of human kindness, but nevertheless he sneaks into Duncan's chamber and kills the old man without wanting to do so. A short time later, he will kill Duncan's two guards mercilessly to prevent them from having any chance of protesting their innocence. We feel no pity for the mad tyrant when he meets his end.

What is significant about the coronation banquet?

The Coronation Banquet in Act III, Scene 4 of Macbeth seems intended to dramatize the fact that Macbeth and his wife, though they have attained the royal status they so badly wanted, will never be able to enjoy the advantages they thought it would bring. Everything is set up for an evening of regalement, and everyone present seems prepared to honor the new king and queen with the greatest show of respect and affection, regardless of what they might really think of them. All these distinguished men are on their best behavior. Macbeth can no longer get any satisfaction or enjoyment out of anything, though. He is haunted by his guilty memory of what he did to steal the crown, and is further haunted by his knowledge that he had his good friend Banquo murdered. Macbeth is also troubled by the knowledge that Banquo's descendants are apparently destined to inherit the Scottish throne rather than his own offspring, should he manage to produce any. Poor Lady Macbeth has gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange a nice party for all these important men. We have seen how the best-laid plans of hostesses are often thwarted in this life because of arguments or disturbances of one kind or another. She tells her husband,

My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer. The feast is sold
That is not often vouch'd, while ’tis a-making,
’Tis given with welcome. To feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.

The great satisfaction this husband and wife expected to experience by becoming king and queen never happens. It is nullified from the very beginning. They are two lonely, isolated people without a single friend in the world. Our great expectations are often disappointed in this life. In the end, Macbeth realizes he made a terrible mistake, as shown in the excerpt from Act IV, Scene 3 below:

I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

When was Macbeth written?

William Shakespeare's Macbeth was probably written sometime between 1599 and 1606. The first performance of the play of which we have a record occurred in the summer of 1606, and was probably intended to flatter James I, who was himself Scottish. The main source for the play was Holinshed's Chronicles. The historical Macbeth MacFindlaech was King of Scotland from 1040 to 1059.

What is the motive of the witches?

The three witches like to cause trouble. This is demonstrated at the beginning of Act I, Scene 3. The Second Witch tells the First Witch that she has been killing swine. Evidently, this is just one of the things the Second Witch enjoys doing. The First Witch tells the other two that she intends to get revenge on a sailor's wife who refused to give her chestnuts. 

Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger;
But in a sieve I'll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do.

The other two witches are eager to help their sister. Both promise to give her winds to enable her to sail towards Aleppo in her sieve. They listen with obvious pleasure as the First Witch tells them how she plans to torment the husband of the girl who refused to share her chestnuts.

I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman's card.
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary se'n nights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine;
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.

This is quite a cruel revenge to be taking over a few chestnuts. If the three witches spend their time causing trouble and take such delight in doing so, then it seems possible that their sole intention in meeting Macbeth and Banquo in this scene is to cause the two men trouble, and, further, that none of the troubles would have occurred if they had not made their predictions. In that case, it may be that these wicked creatures are devious enough to invent lies calculated to cause the maximum trouble for both men.

They tell Macbeth that he will be king of Scotland, and they tell Banquo that he will be the sire of future Scottish kings, although he will not be a king himself. Both prophecies may be utter lies. Macbeth has been thinking of murdering Duncan in order to usurp him. The witches' prophecy only encourages him to give the idea deeper consideration. He writes a letter to his wife in which he tells her about his meeting with the witches. Lady Macbeth reads the letter aloud at the beginning of Act I, Scene 5.

They met me in the day of success, and I have learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire to question them further, they made themselves air, into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came missives from the King, who all-hailed me "Thane of Cawdor"; by which title, before, these weird sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of time with "Hail, King that shalt be!" This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.

This letter spreads the witches' possibly false information further. Lady Macbeth is, as she says, "transported." She will become the most important instrument in carrying out the witches' destructive plans. Macbeth kills Duncan and his two guards. Duncan's two sons flee for their lives, enabling Macbeth to blame Duncan's murder on them and become king of Scotland, as predicted. 

Then, the hypothetically false predictions of the three witches work further troubles. In fact, it might be said that all the troubles in the play emanate from the witches' evil minds. Macbeth and Banquo now hate and fear each other. Macbeth arranges to have Banquo and his son Fleance ambushed. Banquo is killed, but Fleance escapes, so there is still the possibility that the prophecy will come true that Banquo's descendants will be kings of Scotland.

Macbeth becomes a tyrannical ruler. Evidently, he finds it necessary to rule by terror because everyone hates him. They know he murdered Duncan and had Banquo murdered. The whole country falls into chaos. Is this another result of the witches' wicked planning? The English king sends an army to Scotland, and Macduff kills Macbeth in a death duel. The troubles created by the Weird Sisters finally come to an end. Macbeth realizes he has been tricked.

And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. 

It might be maintained that the three witches had no other motive from the very beginning than to cause troubles—and they certainly succeeded. The audience is left guessing as to whether the witches acted independently to lie and manipulate Macbeth or if they truly were reporting inevitable prophecies.

Why doesn't Macbeth kill Banquo himself?

Shakespeare was trying to maintain some degree of audience sympathy for Macbeth because this was his tragic hero. He had to put some distance between Macbeth and the murders for the audience to maintain any sympathy for him. We feel little enough sympathy for Macbeth in the end as it is. The only good thing to be said about him is that he is extremely courageous. He even challenges Fate itself and goes down fighting Fate, which he ultimately finds to be invincible.

Furthermore, Macbeth has had enough of cold-blooded murder when he kills Duncan in his sleep, as we can see in the aftermath. In Act II, Scene 2, when his wife tells him he must go back to Duncan's chamber and smear the faces of the drugged grooms with blood from the two daggers, he replies, "I'll go no more: I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on't again I dare not."

So his wife has to take the daggers and go back to do the grisly job for him. She is one of the first to do his dirty work. When Macbeth thinks of killing Banquo, it is natural for him to find someone else to do it. He doesn't mind killing men in battle, but he doesn't like committing villainous murders. We can say that for him, too that he is not much good as a murderer. He delegates Banquo's and Fleance's murders to two men who are joined by a third murderer just before the assault takes place. Later when he has a number of soldiers slaughter Macduff's family and everyone else in Macduff's castle, Macbeth is getting someone else to do his dirty work. This is partly because he is squeamish about the criminal kind of killing, and also because Shakespeare didn't want to make Macbeth look any worse than he already does. We are supposed to feel some pity for Macbeth at the end, when he is all alone and everybody hates him, and he is totally depressed.

Additionally, Macbeth becomes king almost immediately after Duncan's assassination. As king, Macbeth has more power. He can kill anybody he wants to, but he has to be concerned about public opinion. When he has Banquo killed at some distance from his castle, he makes sure he has a good alibi. He is hosting a big banquet. How could he have killed Banquo and tried to kill Fleance? 

Macbeth might have another reason for not planning to kill Banquo himself. Banquo is a warrior. He would not be as easy to kill as an old man sound asleep in his bed. Macbeth might feel that he would need help. After all, there are two people involved: Banquo and his son Fleance. Fleance might get away while he was fighting with the boy's father, which is pretty much what happens. Banquo and his son may stay at Dunsinane for another night, but we can be sure Banquo would be wide awake and have his door securely bolted and barricaded. We see in Act II, Scene 1 that Banquo keeps his sword with him while he is in Macbeth's castle. Early in the scene, he tells Fleance:

Hold, take my sword.

He does this because Shakespeare wanted to show his audience that he has a sword. When Macbeth enters, Banquo says,

Give me my sword!

Banquo knows he is in danger because he knows Macbeth cannot like the idea of Banquo's descendants forming a long line of Scottish monarchs. Banquo is also sure Macbeth killed Duncan, even though Macbeth managed to pin the blame on Malcolm and Donalbain. Banquo knows Macbeth is a very dangerous man, and he doesn't like being a guest in his castle.

Shakespeare may not have wanted to write yet another murder scene in which Macbeth goes creeping down the corridors in the dark. It would be too repetitive. The playwright had wrung about as much emotion out of the first murder as he could expect to get. He needed some variety. A writer has to keep changing things in order to hold the interest of the audience.

Why is the knocking at the gate significant?

The whole purpose of the knocking at the gate and the Porter's slowness in responding is to force Macbeth to come down in his nightgown to find out what is going on. He planned to pretend to have been in bed asleep when Duncan was killed. In Act II, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth says:

Get on your nightgown, lest occasion call us
And show us to be watchers.

This indicates that Macbeth will be in his nightgown when he appears in Act II, Scene 3. But he can't pretend to be sleeping through all that knocking, which undoubtedly gets louder and more insistent until the Porter finally opens the gate.

Shakespeare wanted Macbeth to be present when Macduff discovers the king's body. This makes the discovery much more dramatic. The drunken Porter may be used for comic relief, but he is also used to explain why there had to be so much knocking. In Act II, Scene 1, Banquo tells Macbeth:

The king's abed.
He hath been in unusual pleasure and
Sent forth great largess to your offices.

This "largess" explains why Macbeth's entire household staff is drunk and doesn't respond to the knocking. Macbeth can hardly complain, since the king himself was responsible for getting all the servants drunk.

Thomas De Quincey wrote a famous essay "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" in which he focuses on the effect of the knocking. But he does not explain the purpose of the knocking, which is to force Macbeth to put in an appearance. When he does make an appearance he seems stiff and cold. This is because he is dreading the discovery of Duncan's body. But innocent Macduff thinks it is because Macbeth is angry at having been wakened out of a sound sleep. In reality Macbeth has never been to bed. 


Why does Banquo's murder not happen offstage?

Although Shakespeare has Duncan murdered offstage and Macduff's family also murdered offstage, he enacts the murder of Banquo onstage because he wants the audience to see with their own eyes that Banquo is really and truly dead. This will assure the audience that it is Banquo's ghost who appears at the banquet scene in Act 3, Scene 4. Otherwise some spectators could get the erroneous idea that Banquo, albeit somewhat tattered and bloody from the assault, has somehow managed to survive and put in an appearance. Shakespeare also has one of the Murderers appear at the door to the banquet hall to verify that Banquo is unquestionably dead. The actual murderous assault convinces the audience that Banquo is dead, but the Murderer must convince Macbeth, who only knows about it from hearsay.

Notice that the three murderers apparently all attack Banquo. They do not consider Fleance a problem. But this gives Fleance, probably played by a boy about twelve years old, a chance to run for his life, which is what his father encourages him to do. Once the boy starts to run, the murderers have no chance of catching him because they are too involved with Banquo, and also because they probably couldn’t catch a young boy who was running for his life.

Why does Macbeth hire murderers?

Since this play is intended to be the tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare does his best to preserve some slight degree of audience sympathy for him. It is to be noted that, although Macbeth is responsible for the murders of Duncan and Banquo, the attempt to Fleance's life, and the slaughter of Macduff's whole family along with every other unfortunate in the castle, Macbeth himself is never actually shown doing any of these evil deeds. He murders Duncan offstage--and then he even sends his wife back to return the grooms' daggers and smear their faces with blood. He is too squeamish to look at what he has done to the King. Then he sends agents to attack Banquo and his son Fleance. When confronted by the ghost of Banquo at the coronation banquet, Macbeth tells him:

Thou canst not say I did it: never shake
Thy gory locks at me. III.4  

Macbeth seems to think he isn't guilty of murder so long as he wasn't present when it occurred.

Then in Act IV.2 we see a force of soldiers invade Macduff's castle and murder Lady Macduff and her innocent little boy. Macbeth must have sent them, but we see nothing of Macbeth himself. He is doing everything by agents. It is possible that Shakespeare is tying to keep the audience from completely hating this man so that they can still appreciate his fall from brave warrior to cruel tyrant.

Macbeth even remains somewhat defiant at the end. He is not fighting Macduff so much as he is fighting against the laws of the universe, against the invincible hand of fate, against God himself.

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield! Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!” V.8


What is Duncan's debt to Macbeth?

In Act 1, Scene 4, King Duncan thanks Macbeth profusely for championing him against the invaders. Duncan ends by saying:

Only I have left to say,
More is thy due than more than all can pay.

This means Duncan can never sufficiently repay Macbeth; even if Duncan gave Macbeth his whole kingdom, it still would be insufficient recompense. This may be another way in which Shakespeare is trying to keep Macbeth from seeming like a complete villain when he seizes power. After all, Macbeth could twist Duncan's statement of gratitude to mean that he is entitled to anything from Duncan, even the crown. 

Shakespeare wanted his play to be a tragedy and for Macbeth to be a tragic hero. He had to preserve some modicum of audience sympathy for his protagonist. 

The playwright tries to pin part of the blame for Duncan's assassination on the Three Witches. If they hadn't deceived and encouraged him, Macbeth wouldn't have gone ahead with it. They make it seem as if he can't help himself; it is already predetermined that he will become king--and the way to do that is obvious. Then Shakespeare makes Lady Macbeth take at least half of the guilt. Her husband really doesn't want to kill Duncan and tells her so. He wouldn't have gone through with it if she hadn't forced him.

Even Banquo helps to make Macbeth look less bad. The honorable Banquo is perhaps also tempted by the witches prophecies. In Act II, Scene 1 he says:

Merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose.

The fact that Duncan and his two sons are staying overnight in Macbeth's castle makes it seem as if fate is conspiring with Macbeth by offering him the opportunity he needs to do what he and his wife have been discussing for some time. As she tells her husband:

Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.   (I.7)

In the end Macbeth has become such a dastardly tyrant that the only thing heroic about him is his courage in defying Fate itself. 



What does Duncan say about physiognomy?

Duncan says of the traitor the Thane of Cawdor whom he has ordered executed:

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

Shakespeare himself did not necessarily believe what he has his character King Duncan say. In The Tempest, for example, Shakespeare has the character Gonzalo say something quite different during the big storm in the first scene of the first act.

I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging. Make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable. 

Gonzalo is speaking of the Boatswain, who has just been insolent. Later Gonzalo will repeat his prediction:

I'll warrant him for drowning, though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an unstanched wench.

Gonzalo is assuming that if the ship sinks they will all necessarily be drowned together, so if the Boatswain survives to be hanged later on, as his face indicates to Gonzalo that he must, then they will all be saved from drowning.

Does an innocent and kindly face mean that a person has an innocent and kindly nature? Does a brutal face mean that a person must be brutal? It is an interesting speculation. We tend to judge people by their faces, and particularly by their expressions. But some wicked people are clever and skilled enough to look benign. Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet is always smiling although he is a sinister person with a guilty conscience. Hamlet says of Claudius in Act 1, Scene 5 of that play:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables--meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; (I.5)



Why is there a third murderer?

The Third Murderer may have been introduced primarily to explain something the other two murderers apparently did not know. The First Murderer says

His horses go about.

He is wondering why Banquo and his son Fleance are approaching on foot when they have been out riding all day. The Third Murderer explains:

Almost a mile; but he does usually,
So all men do, from hence to th' palace gate
Make it their walk.

This line may have been written to explain to his audience why Banquo and Fleance are walking rather than riding their horses up to the palace. It would have been impossible to bring two horses onto Shakespeare's Elizabethan stage. And even if Shakespeare considered doing such a thing, it would have been extremely difficult for the three murderers to attack the mounted riders. If three men suddenly leaped at two men on horseback, the horses might rear up and create chaos on the stage.

An alternative Shakespeare might have considered would have been to have Banquo and his son murdered somehow offstage. But the playwright wanted the audience to see Banquo being murdered so that they would be sure he was dead and had to be a ghost when he appeared at Macbeth's coronation banquet. Otherwise, some members of the audience might get the idea that Banquo had somehow survived the assault and had made it to the banquet looking bloody and disheveled. Shakespeare even has the First Murderer appear at the banquet in Act III, Scene 4, to assure Macbeth that Banquo is truly dead.

My lord, his throat is cut:
That I did for him.


How does Lady Macbeth employ argumentum ad hominem?

In logic the argumentum ad hominem is defined as a fallacy of attacking the character or motives of the other person instead of attempting to disprove the truth of his statement or the soundness of his argument. The argumentum ad hominem is often called a personal attack. It is to be noted that when Macbeth and his wife are arguing about killing King Duncan, Lady Macbeth relies almost exclusively on the argumentum ad hominem. For example:

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? 
What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth, on the other hand, never makes a personal attack on his wife. When he is by himself and thinking about killing the King, he considers the matter objectively. And as he tells his wife:

We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor'd me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

She seems to interpret every one of her husband's reasons as signs of cowardice. She feels that he was brave enough to think about killing Duncan when the king was many miles away but that he has lost his nerve now that he has the golden opportunity to do the actual deed.

Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. 

Actually, Lady Macbeth is probably right. Her husband could think about killing Duncan and his two sons when they were far away, but now that they are right under his roof he can think of a dozen reasons for not acting. Many of his reasons for abstaining are sound enough--but he didn't think about them until it was a question of acting and time was of the essence. He is really afraid and she knows it. Ironically, she uses his fear to make him prove he isn't afraid. 

What does Macbeth mean when he says "she should have died hereafter"?

Macbeth does not mean that he would have preferred to have his wife die later, that she "ought to" have died hereafter, or that it would have been more convenient if she had died later. He is using the subjunctive mood, which is gradually disappearing from the English language.

Shakespeare liked the subjunctive mood because it gave him poetic license. Here is an example of how far Shakespeare could go with the subjunctive mood from Mark Antony's famous funeral address in Julius Caesar.

But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

The subjunctive tense is used in "But were I Brutus," "there were an Antony," and "should move."

What genre is Macbeth?

Macbeth is often classified as a drama or a tragedy.