On March 24 1603, the Scottish king James VI ascended the English throne as James I, thus uniting the crowns of England and Scotland. It has often been argued that Macbeth, thought to have been one of three plays performed at Hampton Court on 7 Aug 1606 for James and Christian IV of Denmark, is a reflection of the new king's personal and political preoccupation with regicide and kingship. James was something of an authority on the complexities of royal succession and hereditary rights, and had written, amongst others, The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), which insisted on the divine right of kings, and Basilikon Doron (1599) which was concerned with the distinction between good monarchs and tyrants.
Macbeth was also written not long after James discovered the Gunpowder Plot (November 5, 1605), a Catholic conspiracy to blow up King James and the entire court when Parliament was in session. The perpetrators were captured and executed, but not until they revealed the names of Jesuits traveling undercover throughout England. Among these was Father Henry Garnet, who in his trial espoused the practice of “equivocation,” the art of saying one thing while meaning another. Shakespeare draws on this practice frequently in Macbeth: the witches’ prophecies are equivocal, the drunken Porter describes an Equivocator on his way to hell (2.3.8-11), and in a quest for truth, Malcolm lies to MacDuff in the “testing scene” (4.3).
Based on Raphael Holinshed's account of the reigns of the Scottish kings Duncan and Macbeth (1034-57), the play opens with the three witches, or “weird sisters” who describe where and when they will meet Macbeth, who is currently fighting for Duncan against the Thane of Cawdor's rebel army. The next scene introduces Duncan and his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, who are told by a wounded officer about Banquo and Macbeth's heroism. Duncan orders that after the battle has been won and the treacherous Thane of Cawdor executed, “with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66). The action then returns to the witches, and when Macbeth and Banquo appear before them, the first witch hails Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, the second as Thane of Cawdor, while the third greets him as “Macbeth that shall be king hereafter!” Banquo meanwhile is deemed “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater” (1.3.65) because “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (1.3.67). The witches disappear, and Ross and Angus enter to inform Macbeth that he is now the Thane of Cawdor; one of the witches’ prophecies has come true.
Meanwhile Duncan, informed of Cawdor's execution, thanks Macbeth and Banquo for their service, and announces that Malcolm is now the Prince of Northumberland and the heir to the Scottish throne. Macbeth realises:
The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'er-leap,
For in my way it lies.
In the following scene at Macbeth's Inverness castle, his wife, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband in which he confides the witches' prophecy. She is consumed with ambition on Macbeth's behalf, but fears that he lacks the requisite heartlessness to commit murder:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature.
It is too full o'th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
When informed that the king will arrive at the castle that night, Lady Macbeth calls upon the “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top full / Of direst cruelty.” (1.5.40-3). Macbeth agrees to his wife's plan, but when he contemplates the murder, he agonises, both over killing an anointed king and a blood relative, fearing that Duncan's virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
but both Macbeth's “vaulting ambition, which o'er leaps itself” (1.7.27) and Lady Macbeth's ruthlessness overwhelm him, and he agrees to “screw [his] courage to the sticking-place” (1.7.61) and carry out her plan to kill the king in his sleep and frame his guards.
Act Two opens with Banquo begging for “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (2.1.7-9), and the sleepless Banquo warns Macbeth of the evil that may come of the witches prophecy. (In Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), Banquo assists in the murder of Duncan but Shakespeare ignores this, perhaps unsurprisingly as King James allegedly was able to trace his ancestry back to the historical figure of Banquo.) After Banquo and Fleance depart, Macbeth hallucinates: “Is this a dagger that I see before me[?]” (2.1.33). He is horrified at the prospect of the murder, but still proceeds. After the murder, full of terror and contrition, he refuses to smear the sleepy grooms with Duncan's blood. His wife cries:
Infirm of purpose,
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures; 'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.
Macbeth, for his part, fears that he will never be able to “wash this blood / Clean from my hand” (2.2.61-2). In the next scene Lennox and Macduff arrive; it is Macduff who finds the king's body and reports the murder. The Macbeths accuse the guards. Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's sons, fear they will be blamed and flee. Suspicion does soon fall upon them, and Macduff announces that Macbeth is the new King of Scotland.
Banquo, remembering the witches' prophecy, now fears that Macbeth has “played'st most foully” (3.1.3) for his reward. But he also recalls their claim that his line will one day rule Scotland. Macbeth, for his part, also remembers the witches' prophesy:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.
Realising that he has killed Duncan only for Banquo's children to inherit the throne, he resolves to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. Macbeth's murderers kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes. The murderers then arrive at the Macbeths' banquet to inform the King of Banquo's death. However, when Macbeth returns to his guests, he alone sees Banquo's ghost seated at the table:
Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee.
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with.
Lady Macbeth despairs that Macbeth is “unmanned in folly” and tells their guests to depart (3.4.71).
The witches, along with the demon goddess Hecate, are reintroduced in 3.5 (in a scene believed to have been adapted by Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Middleton). Hecate predicts that Macbeth will soon return to learn his destiny and tells the witches to cast spells on him. When Macbeth consults the witches again in 4.1, they tell him that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.79) and that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.91-3). Macbeth asks if Banquo's issue will reign and is greeted by an apparition of eight kings, ending with Banquo. Lennox arrives with news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England, and Macbeth resolves to:
Seize upon Fife, give to th'edge of th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That have him in his line.
The action then moves to Macduff's castle, where Lady Macduff complains about her husband's departure. A messenger tells Lady Macduff and her son to leave as well, but before she can respond, Macbeth's murderers arrive and slaughter her and the children. 4.3 shifts to England, where Macduff attempts to persuade Malcolm of his trustworthiness. He tells Malcolm that Scotland is a “nation miserable! / With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered” (4.3.103-4). The Earl of Ross arrives to tell Macduff “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes / Savagely slaughtered” (4.3.205-6).
Act Five opens with a doctor and a gentlewoman discussing the tormented Lady Macbeth, whose sleepwalking the doctor attributes to “A great perturbation in nature” (5.1.9). Lady Macbeth enters rubbing her hands together and mumbling, “Out damned spot, out I say” (5.1.35) and “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean” (5.1.41-42), ramblings that appear nonsensical but that express her guilt. Meanwhile, a group of Scottish rebels join Malcolm and Macduff's army, and tell them that Macbeth is fortifying Great Dunsinane.
Macbeth, comforted by the witches' vow that no man born of woman may defeat him, is determined to fight “till from my bones my flesh be hacked” (5.3.32). He declares that he has forgotten fear: “I have supped full with horrors; / Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts / Cannot once start me” (5.5.13-15). But with the news that the Queen is dead, a stunned Macbeth utters his most famous soliloquy:
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. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale,
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The following scenes alternate between Macbeth's and Malcolm's camps, until in 5.10, Macduff and Macbeth meet and fight. Macbeth gloats that “I bear a charmed life, which must not yield / To one of woman born” (5.10.12-13), to which Macduff replies
Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
Macduff kills Macbeth offstage and re-enters with his head. After Malcolm is hailed as King of Scotland, he make his thanes and kinsmen earls and vows to call home those exiled because of “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (5.10.35). On the surface it appears that Scotland has been restored to political, natural, and social order, but the ending is often seen to be ambiguous.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, and is generally considered alongside Hamlet, Othello and King Lear as a great tragedy. It portrays a potentially great man who succumbs to a fatal character flaw, and it shares with Othelloa fascination with the psychology of evil. But while Iago delights in his evil doings, Macbeth is filled with horror at both his and his wife's wickedness. Indeed, the relationship between Macbeth and his ambitious wife is at the heart of the play, and is particularly interesting in its portrayal of the intersecting themes of gender and violence. The character of Lady Macbeth has at times been the most reviled in the Shakespeare canon, mostly because of her “unfeminine” behaviour, reflected in one of her most famous speeches:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple out from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
She is consumed by a lust for power, which is often expressed in sexualised language: she vows to “chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round” (1.5.27-8), and denigrates Macbeth's masculinity by mocking “Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?” (1.7.39-41). In her wish to be “unsexed” and her vow that she would kill “the babe that milks me”, she demonstrates a desire to negate both the biological and social indicators of her femininity. Lady Macbeth destabilises the conventional boundaries of gender and acts on a notion that political success is possible only if one eschews care and compassion: she can only envisage helping Macbeth to the crown by ridding herself of her “femaleness” which she believes hinders her. The hopelessness of the feminine subject position is underlined when Macbeth, on his way to murder Duncan envisages himself walking in “Tarquin's ravishing strides” (2.1.55), thus positioning Duncan as the raped Lucrece. Success and power only result from masculinity that is inherently violent and violence, in turn, constructs masculinity.
Macbeth's killing of Duncan is considered horrifying because it is done in the service of the self, not for the state. Even when Macbeth kills those who rebel against his reign (which was legitimate warfare under Duncan), it is still murder because he is an “unlawful” king. Yet, to see the play as the tale of a usurping tyrant versus a good and lawful monarch is to view it in too schematic terms. The “rightful” Duncan's naiveté and lack of perception show when he is told of Cawdor's execution:
There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
It is also clear that Macbeth's usurpation did not disrupt a peaceful kingdom: Duncan's reign is in chaos from the play’s beginning, and for some reason never elaborated upon, his trusted ally has joined the rebel army. Despite the seemingly conventional restorative ending, many questions remain, such as whether Malcolm's accession is truly a happy ending according to natural law, or could Macduff, who has already killed one king/rebel (Macbeth), turn out to be another usurper? Like so much of the play, these final moments are equivocal.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, ed. Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. Third Arden Series. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Citation: Harrington, Louise, Virginia Mason Vaughan. "Macbeth". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 July 2004; last revised 15 May 2020. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3798, accessed 05 March 2024.]