From Academic Kids

Macbeth is also a Scottish clan and an opera.
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Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I

Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, based loosely on the historical events, such as the King Macbeth of Scotland, and including characteristic features of a morality play. Scholars think it an archetypal Jacobean play, with plenty of endorsements of James I's reign, and place its composition around 1606.

There is considerable evidence that the text of the play as we have it incorporates later revisions by Thomas Middleton, who inserted popular passages (notably extra scenes involving the witches, for such scenes proved highly popular with audiences) from his own play The Witch (1615).

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular works—as well as his shortest tragedy—and is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world. It is seen as an archetypal tale of dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.

On the stage, Lady Macbeth is seen by many as one of the most challenging roles for women in Western theater. Actors often consider the play to be 'unlucky', and usually refer to it as 'the Scottish play' rather than by name. To say the name of the play inside a theatre is considered to doom the production to failure.



The play opens with three bearded witches discussing when they will again meet. They say: "Where the place? / upon the heath./ There to meet with Macbeth" They decide to meet Macbeth and this meeting is what sends him down a path of destruction.

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and a general of the army of Duncan, King of Scotland, has gained great renown after defeating an invasion by the forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald. Duncan grants Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor and the honor of an official visit to Macbeth's home at Inverness.

At this time, Macbeth and his friend Banquo are wandering along a heath, where they meet three Witches. The first witch greets Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis," the second as "Thane of Cawdor," and the third tells him that he shall "be King hereafter." The Witches also inform Banquo: "Thou shalt get [beget] kings, though thou be none." Macbeth is confused at being called "Thane of Cawdor," until the messenger arrives and tells Macbeth of his new title. Immediately, Macbeth wonders whether the Witches were also correct in predicting that he would become king.

Macbeth writes about the witches' prophecies in a letter to his wife (referred to only as "Lady Macbeth"). She immediately resolves that her husband will be king, and, moreover, will do it by killing Duncan. As luck would have it, Duncan is coming to stay in the Macbeths' castle that very night.

In the dead of night, Macbeth and his Lady kill Duncan and arrange the bloody daggers to make it look like two servants committed the murder. After the murder, Macbeth hears a voice inside his head, proclaiming "Sleep no more... Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more."

Duncan's body is discovered by Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, who is immediately suspicious of Macbeth. However, Macbeth kills the two servants who ostensibly committed the crime (so they won't talk). Without giving a reason the rightful heir, Malcolm flees to England, and his brother, Donalbain, flees to Ireland for fear that they would be the next victims—after all they're the king's sons. Since one of them would rightfully become king with his father dead, and since they flew, they are suspected of having commited the regicide. The Thanes choose Macbeth as the new king of Scotland.

Macbeth is still uneasy, though. He is apparently childless (although Lady Macbeth claims to have nursed a baby: "I have given suck") and worries about the Witches' prophecy that Banquo would be the father of kings. Macbeth's friend Banquo, who, the witches have predicted, will "get kings, though [he] be none," (that is, be progenitor of the kings of Scotland, thereby jeopardizing Macbeth's rule) begins to suspect Macbeth. Macbeth, becoming more paranoid, evil, and suffering from insomnia, orders Banquo's murder in order to prevent the prediction from coming true. The murder is carried out, and later that night, at the royal banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Macbeth is the only person who can see the ghost, and frightens his guests with his display of terror and guilt.

Macbeth goes to the Witches again and receives three more prophecies. Urged on by Macbeth, the witches conjure spirits which tell him that he will not "vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him" and that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," but also to "fear Macduff". Since Macduff is in exile, Macbeth orders the murder of his wife and children. The stabbing of Macduff's childish son by the nameless "first murderer" is graphically depicted onstage.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff lament Macbeth's seizing of power, and lay plans for an invasion of Scotland.

Lady Macbeth eventually goes mad with guilt for the crimes she has committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands. She eventually dies, which causes Macbeth to ruminate on the futility of life.

Macduff, spurred into seeking revenge, cries "Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself / Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape / Heaven forgive him..." and leads a camouflaged army with Malcolm and Englishman Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane castle. Macbeth delivers a nihilistic soliloquy upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the text does not explain how she died) but is interrupted by a messenger declaring that he "look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought / The wood began to move....Within this three mile may you see it coming;/ I say, a moving grove." A furious Macbeth responds in typical form: "At least we'll die with harness on our back." Meanwhile, the army is advancing on the castle. Malcolm appoints Siward and Macduff to lead the assault.

A battle ensues, culminating in Macduff's confrontation of Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he "was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd"—that is, born by Caesarean section or its medieval equivalent —and was therefore was not "of woman born." The two fight, ending with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the witches' prophecies.

In the final scene of the play, Malcolm promises to be crowned as rightful king of Scotland, and peace is restored to the kingdom.

Recurring motifs and themes

Macbeth's visions. Macbeth sees an imaginary bloody knife in the air pointing to King Duncan’s resting chamber “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand” (Act II Scene I). Macbeth knows what he is doing will change his life. Committing regicide is a sin that can’t be forgiven. Macbeth may see this through the supernatural powers of the three witches, or it may be another hallucination. Lady Macbeth believes there is blood on her hands that won’t come off “Out damned spot! Out I say!” (Act 5 Scene 1). Lady Macbeth here is sleepwalking and spot is being referred to as blood stained hands. Lady Macbeth can’t cleanse herself of the guilt of plotting King Duncan’s murder.

Blood and bloodshed. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth’s army has just defeated Norwegian invaders in a gruesome battle. A captain is mortally wounded and the king remarks on it, “What bloody man is that? He can report, as seemeth by his plight” (Act I Scene II). The shedding of blood continues throughout the play until the very end, when Macbeth is slain by Macduff “Hail King! For so thou art: behold, where stands Th’ usurpers cursed head”. Macduff then shows Malcolm, the new king, Macbeth’s head dripping with blood. Blood can also be shown as representing guilt. When Macbeth kills King Duncan blood on his hand symbolizes guilt. Later in the play, Lady Macbeth believes that she sees blood on her hands.

Thematically, Macbeth is seen as warning of the dangers of ambition, showing that ambition can be a morally corrupting agent. Ambition can be seen as Macbeth's tragic flaw: it consumes him--ironically, by the end of the play, it consumes him in the other sense of the word. Betrayal goes hand-in-hand with ambition, and it is another theme: Macbeth betrays both his own king and his friend by killing Duncan and then Banquo, respectively. Interestingly, Macbeth's murder of Duncan early in the play (Act I) can be seen as the play's climax, while the murder of Banquo at the middle of the play (Act III) emphasizes the thematic importance of that dastardly act.

Other themes include illusion vs. reality, as evinced in Lady Macbeth's visions and the optical illusion of the moving forest and kingship, which deals with questions of who should be the rightful monarch (which is why the regicide of Duncan leads to abberations in the natural world). Destiny vs. free will comes into play as a theme, with destiny ultimately winning out (no matter how hard Macbeth tries, he is not destined to beget kings).

Shakespeare's sources

  • Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, based on Hector Boece's 1527 Scotorum Historiae.
  • Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft
  • King James I of England's 1599 Daemonologie
  • Macbeth's words on dogs and men in Act 3, scene 1, (91-100), likely came from Erasmus' Colloquia

Film versions


External links

Template:Wikisourcepar Template:Wikiquote

  • The Text of Shakespeare's Macbeth (
  • Macbeth ( - searchable, indexed version
  • The Tragedie of Macbeth ( - HTML version of this title.
  • Macbeth ( - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
  • Macbeth ( - text of Macbeth

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