Macbeth Attitude Changes Essay, Research Paper
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Macbeth was first performed in 1606, three years after James I
succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. By that time, William
Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in England, and his
company, which had been called the Chamberlain’s Men under Queen
Elizabeth, was renamed the King’s Men.
You can see from the subject and content of Macbeth that Shakespeare
was writing to please the new king. At the time James became James I
of England, he was already James VI of Scotland, so a play like
Macbeth about Scottish history was a tribute to him. This play was
especially flattering because James was of the Stuart line of kings,
and supposedly the Stuarts were descended from Banquo, who appears in
the play as a brave, noble, honest man. Also, James wrote a book
called Demonology, and he would have been very interested in the
scenes with the witches.
It is not unusual that Shakespeare would have written Macbeth with an
eye toward gratifying his patron. Shakespeare was a commercial
playwright–he wrote and produced plays to sell tickets and make
One of his early plays–Titus Andronicus–was popular for the same
reason certain movies sell a lot of tickets today: it is full of
blood and gore. The witches and the battles of Macbeth, too, may
have been there in part to appeal to the audience.
It was Shakespeare’s financial success as a playwright that restored
his family’s sagging fortunes. John Shakespeare, William’s father,
was the son of a farmer. He opened a shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and
eventually become one of the town’s leading citizens.
John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father’s landlord. Mary
was a gentle, cultivated woman, and their marriage helped John
socially in Stratford.
William, their first son, was born in 1564. It seems that by the
time he was twenty his father was deeply in debt, and John’s name
disappeared from the list of town councillors. Years later, when
William was financially well off, he bought his father a coat of
arms, which let John sign himself as an official “gentleman.”
So Shakespeare was no aristocrat who wrote plays as an intellectual
pursuit. He was a craftsman who earned his living as a dramatist.
We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life. When he was eighteen,
he married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six. They had three
children, two girls and a boy, and the boy, Hamnet, died young. By
his mid-twenties, Shakespeare was a successful actor and playwright
in London, and he stayed in the theater until he died, in 1616.
Macbeth was written relatively late in Shakespeare’s career–when he
was in his forties. It was the last of what are considered the four
great tragedies. (The others are Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.)
Macbeth is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s works, and its
economy is a sign that its author was a master of his craft. You are
amazed at the playwright’s keen understanding of human nature and his
skill in expressing his insights through dramatic verse as, step by
step, he makes the spiritual downfall of Macbeth, the title
character, horrifyingly clear.
All Shakespeare’s plays seem to brim over with ideas–he is always
juggling several possibilities about life. England, too, was in the
midst of a highly interesting period, full of change.
Queen Elizabeth was a great queen, and under her rule England had won
a war against Spain, which established it as a world power. America
was being explored. Old ideas about government and law were
changing. London was becoming a fabulous city, filling with people
from the countryside. Even the English language was changing, as
people from distant areas came together and added new words and
expressions to the common language.
More than a half-century earlier, Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had
broken away from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church
of England. Forty years later, in the middle of the 17th century,
King Charles I would lose his head, executed by the Puritans in a
Elizabeth was not as secure on the throne as you might think. Though
her grandfather, Henry VII, had stripped the nobles of England of
much power, Elizabeth still struggled with them throughout her reign.
She had to be a political genius to play them against each other, to
avoid the plottings of the Roman Catholics and to overcome the
country’s financial mess created by her father, Henry VIII.
A lot was “modern,” a lot was “medieval” about the way people thought
in Shakespeare’s time. People were superstitious, and the
superstitions became mixed up with religion. Things that nobody
understood were often attributed to supernatural forces.
You can feel some of these things moving behind the scenes as you
read Macbeth. But none of this background–not the influence of
James I or the intrigues of Elizabeth’s court or the superstitions of
the times–should determine the way you read the play. It has a life
of its own, breathed into it by Shakespeare’s talent and art. It
stands on its own and must be evaluated on its own terms. So now
let’s turn to the play itself.
MACBETH: THE PLOT
On a deserted field, with lightning and thunder overhead, we see
three eerie witches. They chant spells, make plans to meet someone
named Macbeth, and vanish into thin air.
In a military camp not far away are King Duncan of Scotland and some
of his followers. A battle is raging nearby. We learn there is a
rebellion against the King. He is too old to fight himself, and
wants to know how his army is doing.
A badly wounded soldier reports that the battle was horribly bloody
but the brave Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, saved the day, fighting
fearlessly and killing the rebels’ leader. (Thanes were Scottish
noblemen.) Duncan is moved by Macbeth’s courage.
The Thane of Ross arrives with more news: the Thane of Cawdor, one
of Duncan’s trusted captains, is a traitor. When Duncan learns that
his army has won, he orders the Thane of Cawdor executed and
indicates that Macbeth inherit his title.
Before Duncan’s men can reach Macbeth to tell him the good news,
Macbeth and Banquo, who have led Duncan’s army together, come upon
the three witches. Banquo thinks the three weird women are bizarre
and funny, but Macbeth is strangely fascinated by them. They greet
Macbeth with two predictions: that he will be Thane of Cawdor and
that he will be king. Then they prophesy that though Banquo will
never be a king, his children will be kings. And then the witches
Macbeth and Banquo cannot believe their eyes. As they joke uneasily
about the predictions, they are interrupted by Duncan’s messengers,
who announce that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. Suddenly, the
witches are no laughing matter. Macbeth’s mind is racing. Could he
actually become king someday? King Duncan personally thanks Macbeth
for his bravery in the following scene, at his palace. But at the
same time Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will inherit the
throne. That is not good news for Macbeth. You can see already that
he wants to wear the crown himself.
At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband
telling her about the witches. It is clear that she will be willing
to do anything to see Macbeth king. When the news arrives that
Duncan will spend the night at her castle, she’s amazed at his
stupidity–or his innocence–and thrilled to have the chance to
That night, as the royal party is being entertained, Duncan’s hosts
secretly plot his death. Macbeth is scared of what he is about to
do, and wants to back out, but his wife makes it clear that if he
doesn’t kill Duncan, she won’t consider him a man. Macbeth commits
the murder, but he is appalled by his deed.
When the King’s body is discovered the next morning, nobody seems
more shocked or surprised than Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth blames
Duncan’s servants and kills them–pretending he is so enraged he
cannot stop himself. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, sense
treason and treachery and decide to run away, afraid that they will
be killed, too. Macbeth has himself crowned king. The witches’
predictions have come true, and Macbeth seems to have all he wants.
But Macbeth is not happy. He’s afraid that some of the thanes
suspect Duncan was not really killed by his servants. Worse,
Macbeth’s friend Banquo was told by the witches that he would father
kings. To prevent that, Macbeth decides, he must also murder Banquo.
This time without Lady Macbeth’s help, Macbeth sends three men to
kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Banquo’s throat is slit, but
Fleance manages to escape.
On the night of his friend’s murder Macbeth holds a great feast. But
the merrymaking is spoiled by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost.
Macbeth is the only person there who can see him, and it makes him
rave like a madman.
Terrified now of losing the crown, Macbeth goes back to the witches.
They tell him three things: first, that he should fear Macduff, the
Thane of Fife; second, that Macbeth will never be harmed by any man
born of woman; and third, that he will never be defeated until Birnam
Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Two out of three of the predictions
sound comforting, but the witches go on to show Macbeth a vision of
Banquo as father to a line of kings. The vision makes Macbeth
furious, but the predictions make him even more ruthless.
Macbeth soon learns that the witches gave him good advice about
fearing Macduff. The Thane of Fife has gone to England to meet with
Malcolm, the rightful king, and plan a revolt. In his rage, Macbeth
has Macduff’s wife and children murdered.
When Macduff hears the news, his grief makes him even more determined
to overthrow the tyrant Macbeth. He and Malcolm set out from England
with ten thousand men.
In Scotland, Macbeth’s world is falling apart. His followers are
deserting him; his wife has lost her mind. Only his pride and his
confidence in the witches’ predictions keep him going.
As Malcolm is approaching Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane, he orders
his troops to cut branches from trees in nearby Birnam Wood and carry
them as disguises.
Macbeth at Dunsinane is waiting for the attackers when he’s told that
his wife is dead; she has killed herself. He barely has time to
react before a report arrives that Birnam Wood seems to be
moving–toward the castle! Furious, frightened, and desperate,
Macbeth calls out his troops.
Malcolm’s army throw down the branches and the battle begins.
Macbeth’s men hardly put up a fight, but Macbeth battles like a
Finally, Macbeth comes face to face with Macduff, who has been
looking for him in the battlefield. Macbeth warns his enemy that no
man born of woman can harm him. Macduff isn’t frightened–he was
“untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. (Today we would call it a
cesarean section.) Though he knows the end has come, Macbeth fights
on and is killed. In triumph, Macduff carries Macbeth’s severed head
out to the people, who turn to Malcolm as their rightful king.
Macbeth is a character of powerful contradictions. He is a man who,
for the sake of his ambition, is willing to murder his king and his
best friend. At the same time, he has a conscience that is so strong
that just the thought of his crimes torments him. In fact, even
before he commits his crimes the thought of them makes him miserable.
Is Macbeth a horrible monster or is he a sensitive man–a victim of
witches and his own ambitions? Or is he both? If he is both, how
can the two sides of his nature exist side by side?
To answer those questions, let’s first look at what he does. Then we
will look at how he feels about what he does. In the play, of
course, the two go together.
His actions are monstrous. If Macbeth were a criminal brought to
trial, the list of the charges against him would be long:
1. He murders his king, who is also a relative. The crime is
treasonous and sacrilegious, since every king is set on his throne by
God. Macbeth’s guilt is even blacker because the King was his guest
at the time of the murder. A host has responsibility to protect his
2. He hires men to kill his best friend, Banquo. He wants the men
to kill Banquo’s young son, Fleance, too, but Fleance escapes.
3. He sends men to kill Macduff’s wife and children.
4. Having taken the crown by murder, he keeps it by deception. He
plants spies in all the nobles’ homes and spreads lies about Malcolm,
who should rightfully inherit the throne.
5. More crimes are referred to but not specified. Macbeth rules by
terror, since he does not deserve–or have–anybody’s loyalty.
Describing Scotland under Macbeth’s rule, Macduff says, “Each new
morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven
on the face…” (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 4-6).
So Macbeth does horrible things, but that is not the whole story.
Macbeth is different from some of Shakespeare’s other villains like
Iago (in Othello) and Richard III. The latter enjoy doing evil; they
have renounced what we think of as normal ethics and morality.
Macbeth’s feelings are more complicated. In the beginning of the
play, at least, he appears to have a conscience that tells him what
he’s doing is wrong. Or is he just afraid of the consequences of his
He is never able to enjoy the crown he has taken. He experiences
nothing but anguish. Is that simply because he is afraid of losing
the crown, or is his conscience bothering him?
None of these questions is answered directly in the play. Each
reader has to form his or her own opinion, based on the text.
Let’s look at how Macbeth feels about each of the crimes we listed before:
1. Killing Duncan horrifies Macbeth. Before the murder, he tries to
tell Lady Macbeth that he will not go through with it. She has to
goad him into killing the King. After committing the murder, Macbeth
seems almost delirious. He says that “…all great Neptune’s ocean
[will not] wash this blood / Clean from my hand” (Act II, Scene ii,
2. When he murders Banquo, Macbeth is still in torment, but the
cause of his anguish seems to have changed. He is afraid of Banquo,
because Banquo knows about the witches and because the witches
predicted that his descendents would be kings. Banquo’s death, he
says, will put his mind at rest.
3. We are never told how Macbeth feels about the murder of Macduff’s
wife and children. Their killing gains him nothing. He has good
reason to fear Macduff, but slaughtering his enemy’s family is
Macbeth seems to order their murder for spite, out of a feeling of
desperation. Despite the witches’ new prophesies, which appear to be
reassuring, he is afraid of losing the crown. Since he cannot get at
Macduff directly, he lets loose this senseless violence.
4. The spies Macbeth plants show how desperate and paranoid he is.
He sees enemies–real or imagined–everywhere.
5. The other unspecified acts of violence serve no purpose, as far
as we can see, beyond terrifying his subjects so much they won’t
resist him. Macbeth is striking out at random, and his moral sense
seems to have entirely disappeared. The brave hero we met in Act I,
who at least seemed honorable, is completely twisted.
You can see how much his crimes have cost Macbeth. His reaction to
Lady Macbeth’s death is a sign of complete despair–all feeling is
dead in him. His famous speech upon hearing of her
suicide–”Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” (Act V, Scene v,
lines 17-28)–is less an expression of grief than it is a speech
about the utter meaninglessness of life.
You wonder how all this has happened. If he was so horrified by
first the idea and then the fact of Duncan’s murder, why did he do
it? And why commit the other crimes?
Apparently his ambition is stronger than his conscience. The witches
tempt him with the idea of becoming king. Lady Macbeth helps him
overcome his natural hesitation to commit murder. But Macbeth
himself chooses between his honor and the crown–and between
salvation in the next world and material gain in this one.
Once he has killed to get the crown, the other crimes seem
inevitable. In order to keep what he has taken, Macbeth learns to
lie and kill as a matter of course. His values become totally
confused. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” to him now; he has lost
track of the difference.
All that seems left in the end is his pride. You respect him when he
fights to the death rather than be displayed as the monster he is.
But some people think that if Macbeth had not been so proud he would
not have wanted to be king to begin with, and that if he had been
humbler he would have repented.
Another aspect of Macbeth is his active imagination. Considering
Duncan’s murder, he can vividly picture all the possible
consequences. His imagination pursues him throughout the play. He’s
continually reliving his crimes and fantasizing about present and
future dangers. Nothing Lady Macbeth can say will quiet his mind.
At times he seems crazy–or haunted.
Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air.
After the murder, he hears voices. And later he sees Banquo’s ghost.
You are never quite sure if these are hallucinations–the imaginings
of a sick mind–or if they are apparitions, like the witches. You
begin to wonder how real they are.
MACBETH: LADY MACBETH
At the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, seems
to have only one opinion about murder: if it helps her to get what
she wants, she is in favor of it. For the first two acts of the
play, some readers think she is the most interesting character.
Their fascination is probably based on her total lack of scruples.
Lady Macbeth is a strong woman. She is a twisted example of the
saying, “Behind every great man there’s a woman.” Once she sees that
her husband’s ambition has been inflamed, she is willing to risk
anything to help him get the crown.
She understands her husband very well:
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
(Act I, Scene v, lines 17-19)
In other words, she knows that Macbeth’s conscience will stand in the
way of his ambition.
For the sake of their “prize,” she renounces all the soft, human
parts of her own nature. In a play so full of supernatural events,
we can take her literally if we want to when she calls upon
“…spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts…” to “Stop up th’ access
and passage to remorse / That no compunctious visitings of nature /
Shake my fell purpose…” (Act I, Scene v, lines 41-42 and 45-47).
It is as if she were tearing her heart out to make her husband king.
Lady Macbeth’s singleness of purpose seems to prove that she has been
successful in emptying herself of human feeling. When Macbeth tries
to back out of committing the murder, she treats him with contempt.
She questions his manhood and shames him into doing it.
Look at how effortlessly she lies. When Duncan, whom she plans to
kill, arrives at the castle, her welcoming speech drips with false
graciousness. While Macbeth has horrifying visions, Lady Macbeth
seems cool and literal minded. To her, Duncan’s blood is just
something to be washed off her hands. Worrying over things you
cannot alter is a waste of time, she says.
But Lady Macbeth is not as simple as she seems. By the end of the
play she has killed herself to escape the horrible nightmares that
torment her. Shakespeare seems to be saying that guilt and fear can
be suppressed for a time, but they cannot be done away with entirely.
Some readers find Lady Macbeth a fascinating portrait of a horrible
murderer. They see her actions as frighteningly amoral, and her
madness and death as divine justice. Others see Lady Macbeth as a
tragic figure. They are awed by her strength, her determination, and
her resourcefulness. To them, the tragedy is that she wastes such
qualities on evil deeds. And by the end, when her mind is rotten
with madness, they can say she has struggled with her guilt every bit
as much as her husband has with his.
We can learn a lot about Macbeth by looking at Banquo. Banquo is a
man of integrity. He is brave in battle but cautious in his actions.
It is valuable to look at how he and Macbeth react differently to
At the beginning of the play, they are equals. Macbeth and Banquo
are leading Duncan’s army–they fight side by side. They seem to be
equally brave in combat.
Banquo and Macbeth meet the witches together, and Banquo’s response
to the prophesies is wiser than Macbeth’s. He is skeptical from the
beginning. When the witches first appear, he taunts them: “Speak
then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate.”
(Act I, Scene iii, lines 61-62). After the prediction that Macbeth
will become Thane of Cawdor comes true, Banquo is more cautious. He
warns his friend not to be won over by small truths only to be
betrayed in more important matters. He senses the women are evil,
and he expects a trick.
Banquo has an honest and trusting nature. It never occurs to him
that Macbeth may want to kill Duncan to make the prophesy come true.
Later, even when he suspects that Macbeth killed the old King, Banquo
does not suspect that he himself is in any danger.
It is interesting to note that Banquo does have some interest in the
things the “weird sisters” promise him. He tells Macbeth that he
dreamed about them. He also wonders if, since their prophesy for
Macbeth came true, he should hope that his descendents will be kings.
But Banquo refuses to compromise his honor and his integrity to get
the things he wants. He is willing to wait for the fullness of time
to bring about whatever is coming. Also notice that Banquo, unlike
Macbeth, does not hide the fact that he sometimes thinks about the
So it seems that Shakespeare formed Banquo’s character the way he did
to show how a man of honor would respond to the kind of temptation
that Macbeth gives in to. There is probably another reason why
Banquo is portrayed as he is. historically, Banquo was an ancestor
of King James I of England. Macbeth was first presented for James.
In Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was Shakespeare’s source for the
story, Banquo helped Macbeth murder the king. Many critics believe
that Shakespeare changed Banquo’s role to please King James.
MACBETH: THE WITCHES
The three witches that Macbeth and Banquo meet are also called the
“weird sisters.” In Old English wyrd meant “fate.” And it is part of
their role in the play to act as the forces of fate.
But “fate” in what sense? Do they cause Macbeth’s actions? What
powers do they have, and what are the limits of their powers? In
other words, do they dictate what will happen?
They certainly know things that no mortal could know. Even a person
who knew that the Thane of Cawdor was a traitor would be awfully
shrewd to guess that Macbeth would be given his title. And who
without supernatural powers could have known that Macbeth would only
be defeated when Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane?
The witches have other supernatural powers. They can cause storms,
and they appear and disappear at will.
But their powers are limited. Look at Act I, Scene iii. The First
Witch has been insulted by a sailor’s wife. When the witch asked the
woman for a chestnut, the woman says, “Aroint thee, witch!” In other
words, “Get lost!” The witch doesn’t seem to be able to harm the
woman directly. Instead, she sends a storm to disturb the sailor’s
ship. Even at that, her powers are limited: “…his bark cannot be
lost…”, the witch says.
These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Their predictions are
temptations. They never lie, they never tell Macbeth he has to do
anything, they just give the trick answers. In that sense they are
agents of the devil, out for his soul; they trick him into damning
But it is clear that the responsibility for the crimes is Macbeth’s.
Nothing the witches did forced him to commit them. He was wrong to
hear their words as an invitation to murder the King. Still, you
wonder if Macbeth would have murdered anybody if he had not met the
witches. And you can argue that either way.
Malcolm represents the rightful order that Macbeth disturbs. Duncan,
who is a good and wise king, names his son the Prince of Cumberland
and heir to the throne.
Will Malcolm make a good king? Clearly, Shakespeare wants us to
believe he will. Though Malcolm is young, he is already wise. He
and his brother Donalbain are smart enough to get away from Macbeth’s
castle as soon as possible after their father’s murder. After safely
reaching England, Malcolm does not rashly try to reclaim the throne.
Instead, he waits until the time is right.
In his scene with Macduff, Malcolm displays cleverness and verbal
skill. He manipulates Macduff, testing his loyalty, but he does it
only for the good of his people and his country.
In the final speech of the play, Malcolm demonstrates his fitness for
kingship. Macbeth has been killed, and Malcolm is about to be
crowned. Like his father, in Act I, Malcolm’s first concern is to
reward those who have helped him. The speech is full of images of
divine grace and natural order.
The King makes his final exit before the end of Act I, and he is
murdered offstage early in Act II. Not having a lot of time to
develop Duncan’s character, Shakespeare works in broad, clear
Duncan is “a most sainted king” (Act IV, Scene iii, line 109), as
Macduff calls him. His murder is a crime that has no justification.
Even Macbeth calls him “the gracious Duncan” (Act III, Scene i, line
We know that Duncan is old–otherwise he would be in combat with his
army. Owing to his age, he has to anxiously await word from the
His generosity is clearly demonstrated by the way he treats Macbeth.
He rewards the noble Macbeth immediately after hearing about his
Duncan is also gracious to Lady Macbeth. Even though he is actually
honoring Macbeth and his wife by spending the night at their castle,
he behaves as if they were doing him a favor.
The person who best sums up Duncan’s nature is his murderer–Macbeth:
“…this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So
clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like
angels…” (Act I, Scene vii, lines 16-19).
Macduff is Macbeth’s major adversary. Malcolm is the rightful king
and leads the forces to overthrow the tyrant, but Macduff is a thorn
in Macbeth’s side from the beginning. In the end, he kills Macbeth.
Until the murder of his wife and children, Macduff has not been hurt
personally by Macbeth. He opposes Macbeth because he knows right
from wrong. He never wants the crown for himself. His desire is to
see the rightful king on the throne.
He refuses to play games. He will not attend Macbeth’s crowning or
put in an appearance at the tyrant’s feast just to keep up
Macduff is not clever with words. He voices his disapproval of
Macbeth not by statements but by his absence. Macduff’s simple
honesty is revealed when he is tested by Malcolm in Act IV, Scene
iii. In a play like Macbeth, in which many people and things are not
what they appear to be, Macduff is like a breath of fresh air.
Maturity is another trait of Macduff’s. He takes the news of his
wife and children’s murder like a blow squarely on the chin. By
having the courage to feel his grief, he is able to convert his pain
into a burning desire for righteous revenge.
The settings of Shakespeare’s plays generally come more from the
dramatic needs of the story than from any literal sense of the place.
Macbeth is no exception.
Most of the action takes place in Scotland. There are at least two
reasons: 1. Shakespeare invented the plot of Macbeth by combining
several stories out of Scottish history he found in Holinshed’s
Chronicles; and 2. James I, who was King of England when the play
was written, was a Scot. But reading books about the Scottish
landscape will not help you understand the setting of Macbeth.
Instead, read the play.
The Scotland of Macbeth seems rough and somewhat primitive. Each
thane has his castle, and in between there are woods and fields.
None of the action takes place in anything like a city.
The play has a murky feeling, which is reflected in the setting. The
action starts in the open fields, but the air is clouded by the smoke
of battle. Lightning and thunder fill the sky. Most of the scenes
in Macbeth’s castle take place at night. Torches are needed to see
anything at all.
Here are some of the major themes in Macbeth. Notice that each is
expressed through some combination of plot, character, and language.
1. AN ANATOMY OF EVIL
A powerful sense of evil hangs over every scene in the play. Each
character has to either fight or give in to it. The play makes
several points about the nature of evil. The first point is that
evil is contrary to human nature. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to
contort their natures to murder Duncan. First, Lady Macbeth has to
beg evil spirits to tear all human feeling from her, and then she has
to make her husband ignore his own conscience. But the play also
says that human nature cannot be avoided indefinitely. By the end of
the play, both characters have been destroyed from within. Fear and
guilt drive Lady Macbeth mad; Macbeth sees life as an empty,
The second point is that it is evil to disrupt the natural order of
the world. In nature, everything happens in its own time. A flower
blooms when the laws of nature say it should, neither sooner nor
later. When Macbeth takes the crown by murder, he upsets the natural
order of his life–and the order of Scotland. Without the rightful,
God-given king on the throne all society is disordered; under a
usurper there can only be evil and chaos. Even nature becomes upset:
it’s dark during the day; horses eat each other; owls kill falcons.
Nearly every scene has references to unnatural deeds or occurrences.
When Macbeth is killed and Malcolm takes the throne, the natural
order is restored.
The third point is that evil is a disease. Like a disease, evil
infects its victims and makes them sicken until they die. Once
Macbeth kills Duncan, he is committed to a course of lying and
killing. His sense of right and wrong is eaten away. Even before he
is killed, Macbeth is dying of a diseased spirit. Scotland is also
infected, and Macbeth is its disease. The longer he is king, the
worse things get. When Macbeth is overthrown, the country is healed.
Many readers feel that Macbeth’s downfall is caused by his ambition.
At the beginning of the play, Macbeth seems to be a brave, noble, and
loyal thane. For his desire to become king, he is willing to turn
his back on what he knows to be right. Lady Macbeth, because of her
ambition for her husband, uses all her strength and intelligence for
evil purposes. They are very unlike Banquo, who will not compromise
his honor for anything.
3. APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY
Practically nothing in the play is what it appears to be. The
witches’ predictions sound like good news; actually, they lead to
death and destruction. Macbeth and his wife seem like gracious
hosts; actually, they are plotting murder. The Macbeths appear to
achieve their heart’s desires; in reality, they only gain torment and
death. In reading the play, examine each scene to compare what
appears to be happening with what is really happening.
4. HONOR AND LOYALTY
In a feudal society such as the one in Macbeth, peace and order are
maintained largely through honor and loyalty. Men of honor obey
certain rules. Macbeth throws all ideas of honor out the window.
Once he has done that, the country is in turmoil. Nobody knows whom
he can trust. Look at what Macduff has to go through to win
Malcolm’s trust in Act IV. In Act V, it is made very clear that the
few followers Macbeth has left have been forced to stay with him.
They feel no sense of loyalty toward him. When it comes time to
fight, they just give up.
5. FATE AND DESTINY
The play suggests that a person should trust his destiny to a higher
power. After encountering the three witches, Macbeth tries to take
fate into his own hands, and that action brings him nothing but
grief. Malcolm, on the other hand, trusts that all things will work
out “…by the grace of Grace [in other words, heaven]” (Act V, Scene
viii, line 72). “Be what you’re meant to be,” the play seems to be
The story of Macbeth is a combination of two stories found in
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Shakespeare developed many of the plots and characters for his plays
from this book of history and legend.
Holinshed tells one story about a man named Macbeth who killed a king
named Duncan, but this story is different from the play in several
important ways. The Duncan of the story was a bad king. He did not
care about his people, and Banquo helped Macbeth overthrow him.
Shakespeare combined that story with another Holinshed story about
someone named Donwald who killed a king named Duff. Duff was a good
and pious king, and was Donwald’s guest when he was murdered. Also,
Donwald killed Duff because his wife urged him to.
For the supernatural elements of the play, Shakespeare might have
consulted a book called Demonology, written by none other than King
James I himself. (Remember that Macbeth was first presented at
James’ court.) In his book, James states that witches can predict the
MACBETH: POINT OF VIEW
Shakespeare takes a clear moral stance in telling the story of
Macbeth. He portrays humans as creatures capable of good but in
danger of giving in to the temptations of evil. Evil is introduced
through supernatural beings–the witches. You could say Macbeth is
as much a victim of their deception and his own ambition as he is a
victimizer of others.
All evildoers are punished. The numerous mentions of heaven and hell
remind us that good people who are killed will find eternal
happiness, while those who do evil will suffer eternal damnation.
It is important not to confuse the point of view that Shakespeare
gives to a character with the playwright’s own point of view. For
example, Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech says that life is
meaningless, but the play as a whole says just the opposite.
Macbeth’s utter despair at that moment is a result of his evil deeds.
The very fact that he and Lady Macbeth are punished for their
wickedness is proof of a higher good which gives meaning to life.
MACBETH: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is divided into five acts.
Each act is broken down further into scenes. Editors disagree about
the proper division of scenes in Act V. Some divide it into six
scenes. Others make eight scenes from the same text, as we have in
the scene-by-scene analysis, and still others make it into nine
scenes. All these versions have the same text; only the divisions
Let’s look at the form of the play in terms of storytelling. At each
moment in the play, there is a question that keeps our interest.
That is called dramatic tension.
From the point when Macbeth hears the witches’ prophesies, he is
obviously enticed by the idea of becoming king. We wonder what he
will do about it. Will he kill Duncan? Once the murder has been
committed, we wonder what the consequences will be.
Macbeth becomes king, but some are suspicious. What will happen to
Banquo and Macduff? In the next section of the play, Macbeth tries
to make his position secure through murder. We can see that things
are only getting worse for him, and we wonder how long he can hold
In Act IV, the end of the play is set up. Macbeth visits the
witches, who give him new prophesies. Anybody who is following the
story should suspect that they are deceiving him somehow, but we do
not know how. In the same act, Malcolm and Macduff join together to
defeat Macbeth. Now we wait for the final battle.
Notice how skillfully Shakespeare maintains suspense up to the end.
Macbeth’s followers have deserted him; Birnam Wood has come to
Dunsinane. He seems doomed, but we know that he cannot be defeated
by any man born of woman. Who can beat him, then? Finally, Macduff
reveals his secret, and Macbeth is killed. All that remains is to
cheer the new and rightful king, Malcolm.
MACBETH: ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice
are apparent even between parents and their children. If language
differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected
that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will
diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following
information on Shakespeare’s language will help you to a fuller
understanding of Macbeth.
MACBETH: CHANGES IN WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular
classes in Shakespeare’s day. For example, verbs were often used as
nouns. In Act I, Scene vii, line 5, Macbeth uses be as a noun:
…that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all…
And nouns could be used as verbs, as when incarnadine, which was a
color, was used to mean “redden”:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarndine
(II, ii, 59-61)
Adjectives could also be used as adverbs. In the above quotation
clean is used in a position where contemporary usage would require a
form like entirely, and easy is used for “easily” in:
Let’s not consort with them.
To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy.
(II, iii, 137-38)
They could also be used as nouns, as in:
If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have
old turning the key.
(II, iii, 1-2)
In this instance, old is the equivalent of “frequent opportunity.”
MACBETH: CHANGES IN MEANING OF WORDS
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be
illustrated by the fact that chip extended its meaning from a small
piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in
Shakespeare’s plays still exist today but their meanings have
changed. The “astonishment” in:
and when he reads
Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight,
His wonders and his praises do contend.
(I, iii, 90-92)
Or, more fundamental, earnest meant “token of an agreement” (I, iii,
104), line meant “strengthen” (I, iii, 112), missives meant
“messengers” (I, v, 6), illness meant “wickedness” (I, v, 20), and
sightless meant “invisible”:
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
(I, v, 50-51)
MACBETH: VOCABULARY LOSS
Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded
from the language. In the past leman meant “sweetheart” and sooth
meant “truth.” The following words used in Macbeth are no longer
current in English but their meaning can usually be gauged from the
context in which they occur.
PADDOCK (I, i, 9): toad
MASTERDOM (I, v, 70): mastery
FAVOUR (I, v, 72): countenance, face
JUTTY (I, vi, 6): part of a building
IN COMPT (I, vi, 26): subject to account
TRAMMEL UP (I, vii, 3): entangle
AFEARD (I, vii, 39): afraid
LIMBECK (I, vii, 68): skull, container of the brain
DUDGEON (II, i, 46): handle
SLEAVE (II, ii, 36): silk thread, silk
GOOSE (II, iii, 15): smoothing iron
AVOUCH (III, i, 119): justify
ECSTASY (III, ii, 22): fit
SEELING (III, ii, 46): blinding
LATED (III, iii, 6): belated
TRENCHED (III, iv,, 26): cut
FLAWS (III, iv, 62): sudden gusts
OWE (III, iv, 112): own
DRAB (IV, i, 31): prostitute
SWEATEN (IV, i, 65): irregularly formed
GIN (IV, ii, 35): snare
FOISONS (IV, iii, 88): abundant harvests
TEEMS (IV, iii, 176): brings forth
MATED (V, i, 75): confused
Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in these three main ways.
1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did, as
when Lady Macbeth asks “Know you not, he has?” (I, vii, 30). Today
we would say, “Do you not know that he has?” Another instance occurs
when Macbeth tells Banquo “I think not of them” (II, i, 21); modern
usage demands, “I do not think of them.”
Shakespeare had the option of using the following two forms, whereas
contemporary usage permits only the a forms:
Is the king going? Goes the king?
Did the king go? Went the king?
You do not look well You look not well
You did not look well You looked not well
2. A number of past participles and past-tense forms are used that
would be ungrammatical today. Among these are: forbid for
“forbidden,” as in: “He shall live a man forbid” (I, iii, 21); holp
for “helped,” as in: “And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath
holp him” (I, v, 23); eat for “ate,” as in:
‘Tis said they eat each other. They did so,
to th’ amazement of mine
eyes” (II, iv, 18)
3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with thou and with he/she/it:
As thou art in desire? Would’st thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
(I, vii, 41-42)
Hath he asked for me?
(I, vii, 30)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun–thou–which
could be used in addressing a person who was one’s equal or social
inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:
“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (I, iii, 70), but it
could also be used to indicate respect, as when Lady Macbeth told
Your servants ever
Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt.
To make their audit at your Highness’ pleasure,
Still to return your own.
(I, vi, 25-28)
Frequently, a person in power used thou to a child or a subordinate
but was addressed you in return, as when Lady Macduff spoke to her
Lady Macduff: Now, God help thee, poor monkey!
But how wilt thou do for a father?
Son: If he were dead, you’d weep for him.
If you would not, it were a good sign
that I should quickly have a new father.
(IV, ii, 57-61)
But if thou was used inappropriately, it might be offensive. One of
the witches uses thou in addressing Macbeth to underline the fact
that Macbeth has, by his murders, reduced himself to their level:
Say if th’ hadst rather hear it from our mouths,
Or from our masters?
(IV, i, 62-63)
One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. Duncan uses the
royal plural we to stress the honor he is bestowing on Lady Macbeth
by staying with her:
Fair and noble hostess,
We are your guest tonight.
(I, vi, 24-25)
But he uses I to stress his debt to Macbeth for winning the battle:
O worthiest cousin!
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me
(I, iv, 14-16)
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they
are today, and so we find several uses in Macbeth that would have to
be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are on for “to” in:
“The victory fell on us” (I, ii, 59); with for “by” in: “Thence to
be wrenched with an unlineal hand” (III, i, 62); for for “on account
of” in: “For certain friends that are both his and mine” (III, i,
120); and at… and for “from… to” in:
You know your own degrees; sit down:
At first and last, the hearty welcome.
(III, iv, 1-2)
MACBETH: MULTIPLE NEGATION
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and
regards such utterances as “I haven’t none” as nonstandard.
Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when
Macduff found the King dead:
O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee.
(II, iii, 66-67)
And Macbeth says:
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
(III, ii, 24-26)
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE I
Imagine that you are sitting in a theater waiting to see a play about
a man named Macbeth. As the play begins lightning flashes, and
instead of seeing this Macbeth, you see three weird-looking women.
They must be witches; they are chanting spells. After making plans
to meet Macbeth, they leave.
That’s the whole scene-ten lines! Look at what Shakespeare
accomplishes with this opening. By beginning the play with the
witches instead of starting with Macbeth, he makes it clear that
something wicked is going to happen. When we hear more about Macbeth
and finally see him, we have to wonder why the three witches have
business with him. So this scene establishes the mood of the play.
NOTE: Always read a scene in Shakespeare first to find out what
happens and what the characters say to each other. Then read it
again to see what you can learn not from what they say but how they
say it. In other words, examine Shakespeare’s use of language. For
example: The witches say “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (line 10).
That line is like a riddle; it seems like nonsense but you can see it
means something. Different versions of the same idea turn up all
through the play. One thing the line is saying is that nothing in
the play will be what it seems to be. And it is also letting you
know, right away, that in Macbeth’s Scotland everything is going to
be confused and perverted.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE II
Lightning, thunder, and witches give way in this scene to blood,
soldiers, and fighting. We still do not meet Macbeth, but we learn
more about him.
What happens is simple: King Duncan, too old to fight, wants to know
how his army is doing. A wounded soldier tells him. We learn that
the Scottish soldiers are fighting two enemies at once: rebels from
their own country and invaders from Norway.
The main thing we learn from this “bloody captain” is that Macbeth is
a hero. The battle was awful but Macbeth was fearless, fighting his
way through the enemy and literally cutting the rebel leader in half.
King Duncan is suitably impressed. We also hear for the first time
about Macbeth’s fellow-captain, Banquo, who is described as being
just as brave as Macbeth.
The Thane of Ross arrives with a new report: the Thane of Cawdor is
a traitor, but King Duncan’s army has won. Duncan is upset that the
Thane of Cawdor, whom he trusted, is a traitor. At the same time, he
is very moved by Macbeth’s bravery. He orders Cawdor’s execution and
rewards Macbeth by making him the new Thane of Cawdor. The Thanes of
Ross and Angus leave to tell Macbeth.
NOTE: A lot of what you find out in this scene is
“exposition”–information you have to have so you will know who
people are and what has been happening before the play starts. Have
you ever seen a play or movie in which somebody comes on and, for no
apparent reason, starts telling who is who and what is going on?
That is bad exposition. Look how skillfully Shakespeare gets his
information across. By bringing on a bloody soldier, he dramatizes
the offstage battle. Even without the words, you can tell how bad
the fighting must have been. By keeping Duncan in the dark,
Shakespeare justifies having the soldier give his report.
The theme of honor is introduced in this scene. Duncan says the
bloody soldier’s words and wounds both “smack of honor” (line 45).
Macbeth is described as “brave” and “worthy,” and he gets his reward.
You can see that honor is very important to these people.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE III
In this scene we finally meet Macbeth. Macbeth encounters the
witches, who tempt him with the idea of becoming king.
MACBETH: LINES 1-37
We learn more about the nature of the witches. They talk among
themselves about the nasty things they have been doing. One has been
passing the time killing swine (pigs), another has been plotting
revenge on a sailor’s wife who refused to give her a chestnut.
Listening to them, we get the impression that a lot of bad things
that happen to people and are called bad luck are actually caused by
MACBETH: LINES 37-87
Now we have heard that Macbeth is brave and worthy, but we also know
that these evil creatures want to meet with him. We are ready to
meet Macbeth himself, and in he comes with Banquo.
Look at the first thing he says: “So foul and fair a day I have not
seen” (line 37). That sounds like what the witches said in Scene i!
Is Shakespeare suggesting that Macbeth is not what he seems to be–a
brave and loyal thane? You do not know yet, but you begin to wonder.
The witches predict what the future holds for Macbeth and Banquo.
Macbeth, who is Thane of Glamis, will be Thane of Cawdor. That comes
as a surprise to Macbeth, but not to us, of course. They also say he
will be king one day. They tell Banquo he will be father to a line
of kings, though he will never be one himself.
NOTE: We can learn something about Macbeth by studying the different
ways he and Banquo respond to these predictions. Banquo asks
Macbeth, “why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound
so fair?” (lines 51-52). Why indeed? Has he already been plotting
to become king? Does he feel the witches have read his mind, and
guessed how much he wants the crown? Or has his mind flashed ahead,
wondering how this could possibly happen? Whatever, his reaction is
that of a guilty man. Banquo, on the other hand, makes fun of the
witches. He is curious about what they have to say, but that is all.
MACBETH: LINES 88-156
Ross and Angus arrive and tell Macbeth that he is now Thane of
Cawdor. The witches told the truth! Look once again at the
difference between Macbeth’s response and Banquo’s. Banquo is
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 123-26
He seems to be saying, “This could be a trick.” Fair words can mean
Macbeth is already obsessed with the idea of being king. He knows
Duncan would have to die first, and even though he says that the idea
of murder “doth unfix my hair” (line 135), he’s started to think
about it. From this point on, Macbeth is clearly hiding things.
When Banquo comments that Macbeth is lost in thought, Macbeth lies to
his friend, saying he was thinking about something else.
MACBETH: LINES 1-14
Duncan learns that the traitor Cawdor has been executed. It is
important to note that he repented and asked for Duncan’s forgiveness
before he died. Through his honorable death, he seems to have made
up for his sinful life.
MACBETH: LINES 15-59
Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus enter. In the exchange that
follows, you can see Macbeth’s desire to become king, even if the
The King greets Macbeth with genuine love and gratitude. In the
presence of all the thanes, however, he names his son Malcolm the
Prince of Cumberland. That means that Malcolm will inherit the
throne when Duncan dies.
Macbeth responds to that announcement in an “aside,” which means that
he speaks his thoughts directly to the audience and it is understood
that the other characters don’t hear what he is saying. In his
aside, Macbeth grumbles that Malcolm is now in his way. You begin to
realize nothing will stop him.
NOTE: Notice the imagery of light and darkness in lines 15-52:
“Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep
desires.” Throughout the play, light symbolizes good, and dark stands
for evil. Macbeth has just taken one giant step toward evil.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE V
At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth gets a letter from her husband
telling her about the predictions. She dedicates herself to helping
Macbeth become king. When she learns that Duncan will spend the
night at their castle, she immediately decides to kill him.
Lady Macbeth tells us something vital about her husband–that, by
nature, he is not ruthless. She says that even if he wants something
so badly he feels like his life depends on it, he will not cheat to
get it. She sees that as a flaw in his character!
Lady Macbeth does not have that problem. The woman’s resolution is
so intense it is frightening. Her speech in lines 39-55 is worth
looking at, because it expresses her determination with some of the
most potent imagery to be found anywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. She
actually asks spirits to “unsex” her and “take [her] milk for gall.”
And look how she picks up the light-dark imagery: “Come, thick
night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.” If Macbeth took
a giant step toward evil, his wife makes a gigantic leap!
Notice how when Macbeth comes in, Lady Macbeth takes charge and
starts talking about the murder right away. She doesn’t even have to
ask if he’s considered it; she knows he has. She does most of the
talking, and several times she tells him to leave everything to her.
Macbeth does not agree to killing Duncan, but he does not refuse,
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE VI
Duncan, his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, and Banquo and some other
thanes arrive at Macbeth’s castle. They comment on what a pleasant
place it is. Lady Macbeth welcomes them warmly.
Here is a scene in which nothing is what it seems. Macbeth’s castle
is really a place of evil and death. The gracious hostess who
delivers such pretty speeches is actually just waiting for the chance
to murder her guest of honor.
NOTE: Shakespeare uses a technique in this scene called dramatic
irony. We as readers know about the double meanings in the scene.
Except for Lady Macbeth, the characters are not aware of them. The
scene is more interesting for us, because we know more than the
characters do. Depending upon the way the scene is played, the
effect can be funny, scary, or both.
MACBETH: LINES 1-28
Macbeth starts this scene in a state of emotional turmoil. As Lady
Macbeth predicted, he wants to be king but he’s afraid to kill
Duncan. Having a vivid imagination, he can picture all the
consequences of the murder before he commits it.
Two things make Macbeth hesitate: the fact that the murder is
morally wrong, and the fear that he’ll be punished for his crime.
It’s hard to say which reason, if either, is stronger. Though
Macbeth does not seem like a religious man, there is a lot of
religious imagery in this speech, with references to “angels” and
“deep damnation” (lines 19-20).
MACBETH: LINES 29-82
Macbeth tells his wife that he cannot go through with the murder.
She works on him to change his mind.
Lady Macbeth’s first ploy is to mock her husband. She implies that
he is a coward and even questions his manhood. Using the fact that
she is a woman, and his wife, she twists the idea of motherhood into
a way to get at him further:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was sniffing in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
(Act I, Scene vii, lines 54-59)
It is hard to argue with that kind of resolution. Macbeth gives in a
little. Instead of refusing again, he asks “If we should fail?”
Sensing she is about to win, Lady Macbeth coolly recites the details
of their plan; while Duncan’s servants are in a drunken sleep,
Macbeth can kill the king and blame the servants.
Macbeth himself is chilled by his wife’s hard attitude toward the
murder, but he’s also convinced. The scene and the act end on a note
of resolution. Macbeth will kill Duncan.
MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE I
In the first scene of Act II, Shakespeare builds up suspense before the murder.
MACBETH: LINES 1-9
Banquo and his son Fleance talk casually about the night. In their
short exchange, we learn three things: 1. that it is late and
Banquo is sleepy (and we know what will happen once everybody goes to
sleep); 2. that Banquo has some strange uneasiness which makes him
unwilling to go to sleep; and 3. that Banquo has a son (that fact
will become important later).
MACBETH: LINES 10-30
Macbeth comes in and talks with Banquo. Notice how nervous Banquo
is. When he hears somebody coming he calls for his sword, even
though he should feel safe in his friend’s castle.
Shakespeare again uses the technique of dramatic irony. Banquo gives
Macbeth a ring that is a present from Duncan for Lady Macbeth. We
know, as Banquo does not, that the king is giving a gift to his
murderer. We can imagine how Macbeth feels when Banquo says he
dreamed of witches, and we know Macbeth is lying when he claims, “I
think not of them” (line 21).
The two friends move further apart in this scene. When Banquo
mentions the three witches, he is confiding his private thoughts to
his friend. Macbeth dodges Banquo’s honest comments, and begins
hinting around by talking with Banquo about some business that will
“make honor” for Banquo (line 26). Banquo responds politely but
cautiously, saying that whatever he can do for Macbeth with a clear
conscience he will do.
MACBETH: LINES 31-64
After Banquo and Fleance leave, Macbeth sends his servant off to Lady
Macbeth with a message about his nightcap drink. That is probably a
secret signal that everybody has gone to bed.
Macbeth prepares to commit the murder. His speech here is called a
soliloquy because he is alone on stage. When you read or hear a
soliloquy, you can assume that the character is speaking his true
thoughts. Since he is talking to himself, why should he lie?
As soon as Macbeth is alone he has a vision. He sees a dagger
floating in the air in front of him. It melts through his fingers
when he tries to grab it but it will not go away. Then suddenly, the
dagger appears to be covered with blood. Has Macbeth lost his mind?
Or could the dagger be as real as the witches? Is he hallucinating
or has some devil sent it as a sign? You cannot tell; and neither
can Macbeth. He does not know whether to trust his eyes or his
reason: “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the’ other senses, / Or
else worth all the rest” (lines 44-45).
At line 47, Macbeth’s rational will takes over. “There’s no such
thing,” he says about the dagger, and he never mentions it again.
The imagery in the rest of this soliloquy shows that Macbeth knows
exactly what he is doing. He says that “nature seems dead” (line
50). He mentions witchcraft and ghosts.
NOTE: Unnatural means “perverted,” and in Macbeth the word works in
many ways. In Shakespeare’s time, people thought in terms of God’s
plan for mankind. This grand design was the “natural” order of the
world. The devil was always trying to mess it up by tempting people
to sin. So evil was “unnatural”; it corrupted the people God wanted
to be good.
You will see the image of “unnaturalness” multiply around Macbeth as
he mutilates his soul–or you might say his human nature, And since
he’s the king, the country reflects his spiritual sickness. It, too,
becomes mutilated. Also notice as you read how the unnatural acts
are reflected in nature–in animals and weather, for instance.
MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE II
In this scene, the murder takes place. Macbeth is nearly driven mad
by the horror of what he’s done. Lady Macbeth urges him to be
practical: after all, there is no going back. They have killed
NOTE: It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to have Macbeth
kill Duncan offstage. We can only guess why he wrote the scene that
way, but here are two possible reasons: 1. Shakespeare wanted to
focus not on the murder but on Macbeth’s reaction to it; and 2. the
bloody details supplied by our imaginations will be much worse than
anything that could be done onstage.
MACBETH: LINES 1-13
Lady Macbeth waits alone while her husband kills Duncan. She seems
excited by the idea of murder and pleased with herself because of her
part in the plan.
Yet we also get a peek at her softer side. She says that she would
have killed Duncan herself, but the old man looked too much like her
father. This small reminder of Lady Macbeth’s humanity will be
important to our understanding of what happens to her at the end of
MACBETH: LINES 13-56
Macbeth enters, his hands covered with Duncan’s blood. Notice how
the sharp, quick exchange of words between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
underscores the tension:
Lady: Did you not speak?
Macbeth: As I descended?
Act II, Scene ii, lines 16-17
As the scene proceeds, Macbeth and his wife behave in a manner
exactly opposite from what we would expect. According to
conventional logic, Macbeth, who is a soldier and has already killed
many men in battle that day, should not be bothered by the murder.
On the other hand, we would understand perfectly if his wife were
upset by having been involved in a killing.
Look at what actually happens: Macbeth is horrified by what he has
done. He says he has “hangman’s hands” (line 27), and he is afraid
that after having committed such a horrible deed he will never sleep
again. Lady Macbeth is practical. She gives the advice you would
expect to come from a soldier: “These deeds must not be thought /
After these ways; so, it will make us mad” (lines 32-33).
When Lady Macbeth tells her husband to take the daggers he used for
the murder back into Duncan’s room, he refuses. She makes fun of him
and takes them up herself.
We can understand the torture Macbeth is going through by realizing
that he seems to consider the murder one of the most evil deeds ever
committed. We would have to call this statement exaggeration:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Act II, Scene ii, lines 59-62
But he is not consciously exaggerating. That is the way he feels.
Contrast his attitude with Lady Macbeth’s. She says that their hands
can be cleaned with a little water and that he should be ashamed to
be carrying on so. She tries to make him snap out of the state he’s
in and get on with their plan.
Macbeth’s final lines as his wife hurries him off sum up how he feels:
“To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself. [There is a knock at
the gate.] / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”
(lines 72-73) He never thought himself capable of such evil, and he
would love to be able to undo what he has done.
MACBETH: LINES 1-20
The previous scene of horror and murder is followed by a comic scene.
The Porter, one of Macbeth’s servants, is awakened by the same
knocking at the gate which sent Macbeth and his wife scurrying off to
clean up. The Porter is still drunk from the feast. As he weaves
his way to the gate, he talks to himself as if he were the porter at
the gates of Hell.
The comedy of the Porter provides a contrast to the gruesome murder.
By allowing the audience to relax a little, Shakespeare makes the
scenes of horror even more effective.
The Porter also has a serious purpose. The little routine he makes
up about being porter of “hell gate” reminds the audience of the
spiritual consequences of the murder that has just been committed.
NOTE: Audiences in Shakespeare’s time would recognize the “Porter of
Hell-Gate” as a stock character in the so-called morality plays of
the time. Morality plays were simple stories in which good was
rewarded and evil was punished. So Shakespeare is, in effect,
hinting that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not going to get away with
what they have just done.
Let’s take a moment to examine one of the imaginary sinners the
Porter says he lets in: “here’s an equivocator, that could swear in
both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough
for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (lines 8-11).
Equivocation means lying, and we will soon see Macbeth and his wife
doing a lot of that. But remember the Porter’s speech: the liar
cannot “equivocate to heav
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