“Macbeth” was first performed in 1606, a private performance for King James at Hampton Court. Shakespeare’s troupe of actors, The King’s Men, were James’s favoured players – their name speaks for itself. Even so, a quick summary of the plot must have left the monarch feeling a touch nervous: it’s about the murder of a Scottish king. Still, there was reassurance to be had from the convention that such an act couldn’t be shown on stage – and indeed, the murder of King Duncan takes place between 2.1 and 2.2. One minute, it’s being discussed, the next minute, it’s happened, and the consequences have to be faced.
Once Duncan is dead, it’s a further essential convention that the murderers cannot profit from their act. Once again, this convention is observed. From the moment Macbeth returns from the scene of the crime with the daggers, he and his wife hardly know a moment’s peace: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking!” Macbeth exclaims in his desperation when there’s someone at the gate. “I would thou couldst!”
Nonetheless this is in some ways a risky and courageous play to write. In the first place Macbeth himself, for all his wickedness, emerges as a relatable and at times sympathetic figure. There are plenty of villains in Shakespeare whom it is quite easy to dislike – Iago, Don John, Richard III, Edmund, Duke Frederick – but Macbeth is not really one of them.
Moreover, though victim-blaming is to be avoided, there is at least the suggestion that Duncan is partly responsible for what happens to him. When his country is invaded by Norway, some of his most trusted allies desert him. Unhappily, Duncan fails to learn his lesson, and with victory guaranteed over the rebels, he rashly puts his trust in someone who will shortly finish what the Norwegians started.
Is there a message for James in “Macbeth”? Beyond the familiar Shakespearean theme that things are not always what they seem (“Look like the innocent flower,” Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “but be the serpent under it”), that seems unlikely. Nonetheless it’s a striking co-incidence that in the year before “Macbeth” was first performed, a group of intelligent and educated conspirators had secreted 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament, intending to blow to smithereens the whole of the English governing class.
As I say, it’s unlikely that this potentially shattering event had any influence on Shakespeare as he wrote, but it’s hard to believe he put it out of his mind entirely. Or that the monarch, watching the play performed a few months later, was able to confidently dismiss the whole idea behind the plot of “The Scottish Play” as inherently unrealistic.
Scene by Scene
ACT ONE SCENE ONE
Three witches arrange the time and place for their forthcoming encounter with Macbeth.
ACT ONE SCENE TWO
A soldier who fought in the battle against the Norwegians testifies to Macbeth’s bravery.
News from the battlefield confirms that the Scottish army has seen off the invasion.
The traitorous Thane of Cawdor is stripped of his title, which is now awarded to Macbeth.
ACT ONE SCENE THREE
The witches encounter Macbeth and make three predictions about his future fortunes.
He is to become Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, and finally to take the throne itself.
They then issue predictions to his companion Banquo: his descendants will be kings.
Macbeth’s predictions begin to come true when messengers arrive with news of his promotion.
Both Banquo and Macbeth suspect that this encounter will have ominous consequences.
But they agree that when time allows they will discuss it freely with one another.
ACT ONE SCENE FOUR
The King is told that Macbeth’s treacherous predecessor as Thane of Cawdor died a brave death.
Duncan admits it is hard to trust others, as Macbeth arrives after his encounter with the witches.
The King praises Macbeth and Banquo before announcing his son Malcolm as his heir.
Macbeth immediately reflects that Malcolm’s promotion is problematic since “in my way it lies”.
ACT ONE SCENE FIVE
At her castle in Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads of her husband’s encounter with the witches.
He concludes his factual account of the meeting by referencing “what greatness is promised thee”.
Lady Macbeth reflects that he is ambitious, but lacks the ruthlessness he needs to win the crown.
Told that Duncan is to stay at her castle, she resolves that the King will not leave alive.
She steels herself to murder him, envisaging the knife she will use and the wound she’ll leave.
When Macbeth arrives, she tells him to seem loyal but join with her in this “great business”.
ACT ONE SCENE SIX
Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth’s castle, to be fulsomely greeted by their hostess.
ACT ONE SCENE SEVEN
Alone, Macbeth agonises over a lengthy sequence of reasons not to murder the king.
When Lady Macbeth hears of his decision not to proceed, she denounces him for cowardice.
She inaccurately suggests that it was Macbeth who initially suggested murdering the King.
Macbeth is quickly persuaded that the “unguarded Duncan” can be despatched with impunity.
ACT TWO SCENE ONE
Macbeth meets Banquo late at night and denies that he ever thinks about the witches’ prophecies.
Left alone, he hallucinates a vision of a dagger that seems to lead him to Duncan’s chamber.
He imagines himself like the rapist Tarquin in Ancient Rome, treading towards his crime.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Lady Macbeth has drugged the guards and laid the daggers ready for Macbeth to commit the crime.
She admits that she could not kill the King since he resembled her father as he slept.
Macbeth appears. He has committed the murder and returns covered in Duncan’s blood.
He is still carrying the daggers that should have been left behind to frame the guards.
He refuses to return to the scene of his crime, leaving his wife to return the daggers.
Macbeth on the edge of his nerves fears that he will never find rest after committing this crime.
Macbeth expresses his regret and remorse while a loud knocking pounds on the castle gate.
ACT TWO SCENE THREE
The castle porter in a drunken state imagines himself minding the gates of Hell.
Macduff banters with him while they discuss the positive and negative consequences of alcohol.
Macduff goes to wake Duncan while Macbeth discusses the ominous weather overnight.
Macduff discovers the body of the king, apparently stabbed to death by his guards.
Macbeth announces that he has killed the guards as an act of revenge for their crime.
When he is called upon to explain his actions, co-incidentally Lady Macbeth faints.
The king’s sons, frightened for their own safety, resolve to flee to England and Ireland.
ACT TWO SCENE FOUR
Ross is told about various recent unnatural and violent events in the aftermath of the murder.
Macduff reveals he will not be attending the celebrations following the coronation of Macbeth.
ACT THREE SCENE ONE
Time has passed: Banquo now suspects that Macbeth was responsible for Duncan’s death.
Macbeth believes that the witches’ prophecies will hand his throne to Banquo’s sons.
Macbeth resolves to have Banquo and his son Fleance killed when they go riding this afternoon.
He meets the murderers and persuades them that their bad luck in life was Banquo’s doing.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
Lady Macbeth, deeply unhappy, asks a servant to arrange for her to meet her husband briefly.
Macbeth reveals that his fear of Banquo and Fleance has afflicted him with “terrible dreams”.
But he encourages his wife to be particularly friendly to Banquo at this evening’s feast.
When Lady Macbeth asks her husband for his plans he tells her to be patient, to wait and see.
ACT THREE SCENE THREE
The murderers ambush Banquo and Fleance, but though Banquo dies, his son escapes alive.
ACT THREE SCENE FOUR
During a feast for his courtiers that night, Macbeth learns that Banquo is dead but Fleance escaped.
Banquo’s ghost appears at the feast, visible only to Macbeth, who is horrified by the vision.
Lady Macbeth attempts to calm her guests while rebuking her husband for his loss of self-control.
The ghost disappears, prompting Macbeth to pretend regret that Banquo missed the feast.
The ghost returns, triggering further panic, at which his wife abruptly brings the feast to a close.
Macbeth, concerned at Macduff’s absence, reveals that he keeps spies in his nobles’ houses.
He discloses to his wife that he means to return to the witches to learn more of his fate.
ACT THREE SCENE FIVE
Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, rebukes the three witches for failing to consult her.
ACT THREE SCENE SIX
Lennox reveals his suspicions that Macbeth is responsible for the deaths of Duncan and Banquo.
Learning that Macduff has fled to England, Lennox hopes that liberation may come from there.
ACT FOUR SCENE ONE
The witches mix various esoteric ingredients in their cauldron in preparation for their visitor.
Macbeth arrives to demand of the witches that they reveal the future that lies in store for him.
Macbeth is warned about Macduff, but is also given two apparently reassuring prophecies.
Emboldened, he is shown a vision that suggests that Banquo’s descendants will indeed be kings.
The witches vanish, leaving Macbeth to be told by Lennox that Macduff has fled to England.
Macbeth resolves to act fast and attack Macduff’s castle, butchering his “unfortunate” family.
ACT FOUR SCENE TWO
Lady Macduff, alone with her son, feels herself abandoned by her husband’s flight to England.
Her son asks why, if evil men are so numerous, they don’t “beat the honest men and hang them up”.
Murderers sent by Macbeth arrive and ruthlessly despatch mother and son.
ACT FOUR SCENE THREE
In England, Malcolm greets his visitor Macduff sceptically, unsure who he can trust.
In a discussion about kingship, Malcolm modestly describes himself as flawed and unworthy.
Malcolm resolves that he can trust Macduff and recruits him to his forces.
Ross arrives from Scotland to reveal that Macduff’s family have been butchered by Macbeth.
Macduff resolves to grieve for his family “like a man” but also to avenge their slaughter.
ACT FIVE SCENE ONE
Observed by her servant and a doctor in her sleep, Lady Macbeth reveals a troubled conscience.
Her incoherent speech centres on the deaths of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff, the Thane of Fife.
Her observers sense that they have been privy to secrets that reflect a wider malaise in Scotland.
ACT FIVE SCENE TWO
Malcolm’s forces, closing in on Macbeth’s castle, reveal that he is now increasingly friendless.
The presence of Angus, Menteith, Caithness and Lennox reveals a flood of desertions to Malcolm.
ACT FIVE SCENE THREE
Preparing for battle Macbeth puts his faith in the witches’ seemingly reassuring prophecies.
In a sad soliloquy, Macbeth regrets that he must live without the friendship and respect of others.
The doctor reports to Macbeth that his wife is acutely troubled by her dreams and ‘fancies’.
Macbeth reveals that he remains sure of his prospects “till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane”
ACT FIVE SCENE FOUR
Malcolm’s army look to disguise their numbers by cutting down branches to conceal themselves.
Reports say that Macbeth is “confident” of victory and is prepared for a siege of his castle.
ACT FIVE SCENE FIVE
Hearing of his wife’s death, a taciturn Macbeth reflects on the futility of life in general.
A messenger reports that he believes he has seen Birnam wood advancing on Macbeth’s castle.
Macbeth denounces the “equivocation” of the witches, and feels for the first time he is trapped.
ACT FIVE SCENE SIX
Malcolm orders his soldiers to reveal themselves and he organises the plan to defeat Macbeth.
ACT FIVE SCENE SEVEN
Despite the confusion over Birnam Wood, Macbeth still puts his faith in the witches’ prophecies.
Now, confronted by Young Siward, one of Malcolm’s leading soldiers, he despatches him efficiently.
But Macduff now emerges, driven by a desire to avenge the massacre of his wife and children.
Old Siward and Malcolm notice that many of Macbeth’s soldiers “on both sides do fight”.
ACT FIVE SCENE EIGHT
When Macduff appears before him, Macbeth tells him he need not yield “to one of woman born”.
Macduff reveals that he was born by Caesarian section, “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d”.
Macbeth acknowledges that he has no choice but to fight, and the two enemies “Exeunt, fighting”.
ACT FIVE SCENE NINE
Malcolm’s soldiers count the cost of their victory over Macbeth.
Macduff arrives with the tyrant’s head in his possession, and salutes the new king of Scotland.
Malcolm invites his generals and nobles to join him at his forthcoming coronation.
The play opens in the most provocative and dramatic way, with the three witches and their various plans for Macbeth: they know where he will be (“upon the heath”) and when they will meet him there – after the battle. They exercise control over their relationship with him from the first scene.
Throughout the play, the witches will tell the truth. What they predict comes true. This is a radical angle for a Jacobean playwright. Shakespeare could equally have shown them to be misleading, to be liars. But their predictions are accurate.
The witches have privileged knowledge. When in Act 1 Scene 2 Duncan promotes Macbeth to be Thane of Cawdor, only around half a dozen people know that he has done so. The witches know it too.
The witches are proactive. They decide (in 1.1) they want to meet Macbeth, and they do so. They come and go as they please. When in 1.3 they have said what they want to say, they disappear. When Macbeth visits them in 4.1, they are ready for him.
Though the witches equivocate with Macbeth, and in practice deceive him, offering him false reassurance about his fate, they are also pretty brusque with him. In 4.1 for instance, when Macbeth is about to explain to them why he has come to find them, they speak very plainly: “He knows thy thought: / Hear his speech, but say thou nought.”
Banquo understands the witches better than Macbeth. They are “instruments of darkness” in his view, who, though honest and accurate in what they predict, will bring harm. But Banquo is misled in one sense, in that he thinks the witches have given Macbeth his new title. This is inaccurate, since as ever they have merely informed him. It was Duncan who gave Macbeth his new title.
Lady Macbeth similarly thinks that “metaphysical aid” is behind the witches. But they did not aid Macbeth to kill Duncan. Once again, the witches simply convey information. They tell Macbeth he will be king, and he becomes king.
Macbeth later tries to be more ambivalent, more cautious. He hangs on to their predictions (in 5.3 they are “the spirits that know all mortal consequence”), but admits (in 4.1) “damn’d [be] all those that trust them.” In the end (5.6) he does learn to “doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth.”
But this is to simplify their role. They do not lie: they shape their predictions in ways that allow their listeners to feel reassured if they choose. Macbeth is manipulated by the witches because he lacks scepticism, until it is too late. Then, in Act Five, he finally abandons his faith in them and their equivocation: “And be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense; / That keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope.” Macbeth has been manipulated by them because he wants to believe them.
Turning to Shakespeare’s language, there is a rich field of figurative language in the opening act of the play. Metaphors include: grain / seed / growing; hail; robes, garments; leaf (=page), read; growing, harvest; stars (“signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine …”, 324); milk; chastisement; book; flower / serpent; coursing; compt / audit; bank / shoal; teach; plague; Angels, cherubim; golden opinions … worn; hope drunk … dressed … wakes etc.
Among the striking metaphors employed in the play is the question Macbeth levels at Ross and Angus when he hears that he is to be promoted by the king: “The thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me / In borrow’d robes?” This vivid figure of speech is a reminder that dress codes in Tudor English were rigidly drawn up and routinely updated to ensure that people did not “get above their station”. These laws, known as Sumptuary Laws, identified certain styles of dress as appropriate for people of a given status in society. Laws to this effect were passed in England and Wales in 1571 and 1597.
In inciting Macbeth to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth is as persuasive in her own way as other influential Shakespearean characters like Iago (in “Othello”) or Edmund (in “King Lear”). This is roughly the 25th play Shakespeare wrote, and by the time he composes “Macbeth” he has been writing plays for around fifteen years. Almost invariably his evil characters have been male. In this year, however (probably 1606), he experiments for the first time with evil female characters. “King Lear” was also written around this time – it is impossible to be sure – and here too, though events are mainly driven by Edmund, nonetheless two female characters (Goneril and Regan) play a significant part in the tragedy the play describes. A modern Shakespeare critic describes the portrayal of Lady Macbeth as misogynistic, but in practice, Shakespeare had written numerous female characters who seem to modern eyes to present as either wallflowers or victims. Lady Macbeth is a dynamic if somewhat unattractive but nevertheless formidable departure.
“But I must feel it like a man” says Macduff in 4.3, when he hears that his family has been massacred: one of numerous references to gender in the play. See the murder of Duncan (“When you durst do it, then you were a man,” 1.7) and the appearance of Banquo’s ghost (“What man dare, I dare”, 3.4). Nevertheless the most memorable characters in the play (the witches, Lady Macbeth) are women.
A reminder that “thou” and “you” are not quite the same: “thou” is familiar, used among equals, whereas “you” is formal and respectful. In 2.2, Macbeth and Banquo address one another as “you” – presumably an index of the distance between them, and perhaps of their mutual respect. In the scene that follows, Macbeth addresses his wife as “thou” while she uses the more formal “you” (“my hands are of your colour” etc) even when she is rebuking him. In the next scene (2.3), Macduff first addresses the porter respectfully (“Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed?”) but quickly switches to the more informal “thou” (“Is thy master stirring?”). This may be a response to the porter’s monologue on the pitfalls of mixing sex with alcohol.
The murder of Duncan takes place off-stage. Shakespeare is a remarkably brave playwright, tackling numerous delicate subjects in an age notable for the cruelty of its justice system, but he knew where the lines were: showing the murder of a king on stage was ill-advised. So at the end of Act 2 Scene 1, Macbeth is pictured waiting for his cue to murder Duncan. At the beginning of the next scene, Macbeth is able to announce “I have done the deed”. Curiously the rule that keeps the death of the King off-stage extends even to Macbeth. He is last seen at the end of 5.8 leaving the stage in combat with Macduff (“Exeunt, fighting”). But that is not quite the last we see of him since his head is brought back on stage in 5.9: “Re-enter Macduff, with Macbeth’s head”. But once again, the deed itself is not for public consumption.
Macbeth has no detailed plan when he kills Duncan. He gives many reasons not to kill the king (1. 7): the fact that Duncan’s son Malcolm will succeed to the throne if Duncan is killed might well have been prominent among these. As it happens this question doesn’t arise, because when Duncan is murdered, Malcolm flees to England: a somewhat unpredictable outcome, but much to Macbeth’s advantage. Nonetheless it’s a measure of what a porly-planned enterprise this was that neither Macbeth nor his wife says “But what about Malcolm?” He is, after all, the heir to the throne, as 1.4 is at pains to make clear.
Three types of superstition are explored in the play. First, as we have seen, it is possible to tell the future accurately and in detail. Second: ghosts exist, and may take a range of forms – Banquo’s ghost appears twice in 3.4, the second time with his wounds exposed. Third, it is possible to hallucinate material objects (like daggers) without first taking drugs.
The elements shadow events on earth with striking accuracy: in 2.4, for example, we are told that “by the clock, ’tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.” This meteorological phenomenon, which reflects events on earth, recalls the starless black night when Duncan was murdered. Moreover, “On Tuesday last, / A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.” When a king is murdered, nature is turned upside down. The play was written in the year after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
One particular field of metaphors as the play develops is the snake or serpent. Macbeth is told by his wife to look like a flower but be the serpent under it; later, commenting on the murder of Banquo (and the escape of Fleance) Macbeth informs his wife “We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it”; next Macbeth reports on Banquo’s death “There the grown serpent lies.” In Western culture, the snake has been an evocative symbol since Genesis. Curiously, snakes in Elizabethan times were symbols of wisdom – though not here, perhaps.
More generally the play abounds with imagery drawn from wild animals: beetles, scorpions and “magot-pies and choughs and rooks” are pervasive. Lady Macduff compares her husband to a wren, and he in turn laments the death of his pretty chickens. Late in the play Macbeth compares himself to a bear, trapped and ready for baiting: an image familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, incidentally, since this cruel activity was a routine pastime in Jacobean London close to the theatres south of the river.
In Shakespeare’s England, equivocation was a sin and a crime. It means: telling less than the whole truth. It was a technique practised by many Catholics to avoid being prosecuted for their faith. In 2.3, the drunken porter, pretending to be looking after the gates of Hell, presumably for his own amusement, includes among his fictional clients an equivocator “who committed treason enough”. An example of equivocation occurs in Act 4 Scene 3, when Ross is asked by Macduff whether his family in Scotland has been attacked. Ross answers “they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.” His answer is true, but it is not the whole truth. Shakespeare’s audience would have recognised the contemporary resonance of the way he answers Macduff’s question. Later, about to meet his fate, and beginning to “doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth”, Macbeth accuses the witches of the same crime – and rightly so, since they did indeed tell less than the whole truth.
Who’s Who / Characters
Initially brave in battle and loyal to the king, an exemplary asset to the state, he emerges as pliable and easily influenced, first by the witches, then by his wife. His assassination of the king is impetuous and badly thought through – and immediately regretted. From this murder emerges a ruthless and driven tyrant, somewhat estranged from his wife but narrowly focused on his own immediate interests. His last speeches return to the plaintive regret he experienced after killing Duncan.
A clear understanding of her husband’s character and a supreme confidence that he will follow her lead combine with a certain humanity – for example her inability to kill Duncan herself. As queen she is marginalised by Macbeth and made to wait on events (asking a servant to arrange for her to meet her husband for example), and though she retains aspects of her old fire in rescuing her husband during the banquet in 3.4, she is a troubled soul, “without content”, unable to sleep for painful dreams. Her death, such is her decline in importance, is announced but not explained, and not regretted, even by her husband.
A trusting man but not a strong king. At the play’s outset, some of his nobles have joined forces with the Norwegian invasion, a pattern that repeats when he puts his faith in the pliable and evidently ambitious Macbeth. At the time of the battle, he has no appointed successor, though he rectifies this, once victory has been won. His ability to read the motives and characters of those around him is fragile.
Honourable, and apparently honest, a brave and successful general, a better prospective host than Macbeth with whom to celebrate victory. Insightful as to the witches’ potential for damaging those they affect, he is admirably sceptical about Macbeth’s path to the throne.
Inexplicably weak when his father is killed – he surely has every reason to remain in Scotland rather than fleeing to England – he is nonetheless admirably modest about his own character in his conversation with Macduff (Act 4 Scene 3), and he manages the final victory over Macbeth with dignity and aplomb.
Loyal first to Duncan (he is appointed to wake the king on the morning of his murder), then to his son Malcolm, Macduff is less solicitous as to the safety of his own wife and children, who are abandoned to their fate when he is most needed. He is responsible for Macbeth’s demise at the play’s conclusion.
- What is Macduff’s title?
- What is the name of Banquo’s son?
- Where does Donalbain take refuge after Duncan’s murder?
- What is the witches’ first prophecy to Macbeth?
- What is Macbeth waiting to hear as he hallucinates the dagger before he murders Duncan?
- What does Macbeth tell his wife he maintains in every one of his nobles’ houses?
- Who apart from her doctor observes Lady Macbeth as she sleep walks in Act 5 Scene 1?
- Who is blamed at first for Duncan’s death?
- Where is Macbeth’s castle?
- What relation to Malcolm is young Siward, who is killed by Macbeth in Act Five.
- The Thane of Fife
- Thane of Glamis
- The bell
- A spy in his pay
- Serving woman
- The guards
“Macbeth” is the only Shakespeare play to be set in Scotland. He was writing at a time of intense discussion about the relationship between England and her northern neighbour – then a completely separate country, with its own legal and educational systems and its own foreign policy. This debate was particularly driven by the arrival on the English throne of James, the King of Scotland. Among his ancestors he numbered Banquo, who is presented in “Macbeth” as a loyal and honourable soldier. It would have required a brave man to have presented him otherwise.
Shakespeare writes this play quite late in his career. Hitherto, he has used Scotland as a location out of reach of the English powers-that-be. In “Henry IV Part Two”, for example, the Earl of Northumberland is dithering about whether to join the English King’s enemies and optimise their prospects with the loan of his private army. His wife is not supportive: “O, fly to Scotland”, she tells him, because north of the border the family will be out of harm’s way. Northumberland agrees. He’d like to join the rebellion, he says, but “many thousand reasons hold me back. / I will resolve for Scotland”. In other words, Scotland is a place where traitors to the English crown find sanctuary.
It’s not quite the positive view of Scotland conveyed in “Macbeth”. There again, “Henry IV, Part Two” was written in around 1597. James becomes King of England in 1603. “Macbeth” is written in 1605 / 6. Shakespeare was in many ways a brave writer but, as mentioned earlier, he knew where the lines were.