Historical Context of Macbeth

Macbeth was written in 1606 by popular English playright William Shakespeare.  It is believed to have been performed during the reign of King James 1 as the play reflects James 1 interests and obsessions.  Politically the play has marked relevance to the reign of James 1 as it is about treason and the betrayal of a legitimate monarch.

Shakespearean Drama is Multi-Dimensional

Macbeth can be seen and taken in many ways and many levels.  It seems a simple story with a moral that crime does not pay, the goodies win in the end.  It can also be seen as a thriller with evil at every turn. The witches assist the audience in displaying the idea that the play has supernatural evil in it.  They are malicious, gossipying and spreading rumours and yet terrifying because we consider that there might be a supernatural consciousness within the play.  All the imagery of darkness has a subliminal point.  This dark play dramatises the wilful disrupting of harmony and paints a bleak picture of what happens when that is undone.  Disorder, and its political equivalent, tyranny, can only lead to suffering and unhappiness.  In Macbeth, the nightmare continues until the evil-doer who has disordered nature is despatched.  Then harmony is restored.

The Divine Right of Kings, Order versus Disorder and the Chaos Theory

As a classical drama the play has a strong moral element to it.  The natural order in the play is broken by Macbeth’s actions.  Elizabethans believed that God alone was responsible for the appointment of a person to kingship.  Therefore any attempt to remove a king was a crime against human nature and a crime against God that would result in chaos.  Killing a good king and usurping his throne throws up the forces of darkness and disorder.  Macbeth breaks the cosmic pattern and unnatural acts follow.  Elizabethans believed also that disorder and chaos were symbols of evil so that the order of the universe is disrupted by evil deeds (Act 2.4:10-13).  The doctor says of Lady Macbeth’s illness ‘Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles’ (Act 4.2:75).

Genre, Structure and Style of Macbeth

Macbeth is an Elizabethan tragedy in 5 acts written in blank verse.  Generally the most important note in approaching Macbeth is that it is a tragedy.  Macbeth is set in the wild Scottish Highlands.  The murders occur at night and often during storms.  The witches are found on a barren, wind-swept heath (moorland).

The main conventions Elizabethan audiences expected in a play was:

  • 5 acts with little or no scenery
  • themes such as love, jealousy, greed, ambition, the divine right of kings and the supernatural
  • noble characters (using blank verse) and submissive characters (using prose)
  • lots of conflict
  • chaos, sword fighting and possible deaths
  • resolution of conflict and re-establishment of the order at the end of the play

The main conventions / perspectives of Macbeth are similar to the conventions expected by Elizabethan audiences:

  • Macbeth butchers an old king (Duncan) in his sleep, murders 2 servants, orders assassinations of the wife and child of his enemy and is still seen as a tragic hero
  • How did Shakespeare make Macbeth a tragic hero?  He did so by giving Macbeth a conscience and making him suffer guilt
  • Macbeth is an exploration of ambition and evil
  • The protagonist, Macbeth is not alone in his fatal ambition.  Lady Macbeth is equally to blame
  • Are the supernatural powers responsible for Macbeth’s fate?

Language of Macbeth

Shakespeare’s language is complex and rich in colour and meaning.  Shakespeare used dramatic irony in Macbeth where one scene, event or line contrasts sharply with another.  For example Duncan’s line “he was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust” is immediately followed by the stage direction ‘Enter Macbeth’ (Act 1.4:13-14).  The audience has only moments ago seen Macbeth thinking of murdering Duncan.

Shakespeare also uses verbal irony (that is saying one thing but meaning another).  For example when Macbeth says to Banquo “Fail not our feast” (Act 3.1:29), knowing that Banquo will never arrive, because he will be murdered by Macbeth’s hired killers.  The audience already knows this but Banquo does not.

 The Plot of Macbeth Simplified

  1. Witches’ prophesy
  2. Macbeth and Banquo return from battle – witches’ prophesy
  3. Duncan murdered
  4. Malcolm flees
  5. Banquo murdered
  6. Fleance flees
  7. Dinner party – Banquo’s ghost
  8. Witches’ prophesy
  9. Macduff’s wife and children murdered
  10. Malcolm and Macduff raise army
  11. Lady Macbeth descends into madness
  12. Camouflage in ‘woods of Birnam’
  13. Lady Macbeth suicides
  14. Macbeth is slain by Macduff

Themes of Macbeth

  1. Ambition: The main theme being central to the play is Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ that leads him to murder and his own self-destruction. Macbeth says he possesses “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on the other (Act I, Scene 7).  While Macbeth is a Scottish general who is not inclined to commit evil deeds, he deeply desires power and advancement.  He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia.  Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness.  The real driving force behind Macbeth’s ambition is Lady Macbeth.  She pursues her goals with great determination as she urges Macbeth on to murder Duncan.  Yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts.  The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop.
  2. The Tragedy of Pride: Linked with ambition above.  In all Greek tragedies the hero is a person whose basic nature is good, but who, through some fatal flaw, falls from his state of grace.  The most common of these tragic flaws in classical literature was pride.  Macbeth represents the terrible temptation of taking advantage of someone else for gain, commiting a wrong act simply because it suits him.  Macbeth understands at the end that what he has done is wrong and it has ruined him.
  3. Good versus Evil and Supernatural: Macbeth depicts the dark side of human life with a profound vision of evil.  The supernatural theme enables evil to be explored via the witches and shown in Lady Macbeth when she calls on the dark forces to help her (Act 1.5:36-52).  Darkness permeates the play with the greater part of the action taking place in the murk of night.  We see a man (Macbeth) who conceives a goal (killing the king and seizing the throne), and who decides to pursue that goal at the expense of all other considerations. By seeing his own desire for power as the only thing of significance and abandoning notions of loyalty, legality and pity, he moves from humanity (the person he was at the outset of the play), to what he implies with his metaphor of ‘bear-like’, an animal, and what Malcolm eventually calls a ‘butcher’.  We can take the essence of the play to heart ie. the nature of evil and its fatal consequences, not only for the evil-doer but for all those whom he affects.
  4. The Corruption of Power Unchecked and ‘Kingly Virtues’:  Malcolm describes what a ruler ought to be “The king-becoming graces / As justice, verity [truth], temp’rance, stableness / Bounty [generosity], perserverance, mercy, lowliness / Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude …”  This scene establishes what are the desirable qualities of good leaders but in the play Macbeth represents all that a ruler should not be.  Macbeth’s nature is clearly defined as his selfish desire to ‘climb up’ and take what is not rightfully his by any means, an immoral motive that brings him down.  In contrast, the ‘good’ kings are seen to be motivated by nobility of mind and loyalty to their people.
  5. The Relationship between Cruelty and Masculinity: Characters in Macbeth frequently dwell on issues of gender.  Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood equating masculinity with naked aggression.  The problem of misogyny centres on two damning portraits of feminine evil – Lady Macbeth and the witches.  Can Macbeth be excused of his wrong decisions because he was seduced into evil by women?  The aggression of the female characters in the play is striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave.  Lady Macbeth’s behaviour certainly shows that women can be as ambitious and cruel as men.

Motifs of Macbeth

  1. Hallucinations: Visions and hallucinations recur throughout the play and serve as reminders of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s joint culpability for the growing body count.  When he is about to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air.  Covered with blood and pointed toward the king’s chamber, the dagger represents the bloody course on which Macbeth is about to embark.  Later, he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in a chair at a feast, pricking his conscience by mutely reminding him that he murdered his former friend.  The seemingly hardheaded Lady Macbeth also eventually gives way to visions, as she sleepwalks and believes that her hands are stained with blood that cannot be washed away by any amount of water.  In each case, it is ambiguous whether the vision is real or purely hallucinatory; but, in both cases, the Macbeths read them uniformly as supernautural signs of their guilt.
  2. Violence: Macbeth is a famously violent play.  Interestingly, most of the killings take place offstage, but throughout the play the characters provide the audience with gory descriptions of the carnage, from the opening scene where the captain describes Macbeth and Banquo wading in blood on the battlefield, to the endless references to the bloodstained hands of Macbeth and his wife.  The action is bookended by a pair of bloody battles: in the first, Macbeth defeats the invaders, in the second, he is slain and beheaded by Macduff.  In between is a series of murders: Duncan, Duncan’s chamberlains, Banquo, Lady Macduff and Macduff’s son all come to bloody ends.  By the end of the action, blood seems to be everywhere.
  3. Prophecy: Prophecy sets Macbeth’s plot in motion – namely, the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become first thane of Cawdor and then King.  The weird sisters make a number of other prophecies: they tell us that Banquo’s heirs will be kings, that macbeth should beware Macduff, that Macbeth is safe till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth.  Save for the prophecy about Banquo’s heirs, all of these predictions are fulfilled within the course of the play.  Still, it is left deliberately ambigous whether some of them are self-fulfilling – for example, whether Macbeth wills himself to be king or is fated to be king.  Additionally, as the Birnam Wood and “born of woman” prophecies make clear, the prophecies must be interpreted as riddles, since they do not always mean what they seem to mean.

Symbols of Macbeth

  1. Blood: Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, beginning with the opening battle between the Scots and the Norwegian invaders, which is described in harrowing terms by the wounded captain in Act 1, scene 2.  Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embark upon their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolise their guilt, and they begin to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that cannot be washed clean.  “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?”  Macbeth cries after he has killed Duncan, even as his wife scolds him and says that a little water will do the job.  Later, though, she comes to share his horrified sense of being stained “Out, damned spot; out, I say … who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”  she asks as she wanders through the halls of their castle near the close of the play.  Blood symbolises the guilt that sits like a permanent stain on the consciences of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one that hounds them to their graves.
  2. The Weather: As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth’s grotesque murder spree is accompanied by a number of unnatural occurrences in the natural realm.  From the thunder and lightening that accompany the witches’ appearances to the terrible storms that rage on the night of Duncan’s murder, these violations of the natural order reflect corruption in the moral and political orders.

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