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
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