Introduction to Macbeth
Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth tells a tale of greed and lust for power and how the pursuit of such things inevitably leads one to their ultimate downfall. Macbeth is a Scottish general who has managed to lead his army to defeat invaders. Near the beginning of the play, a chorus of witches prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be made king of Scotland. Intrigued by the prophecy, Macbeth writes to his wife to tell her about it. She becomes consumed with thoughts of power and control and pushes Macbeth to commit unthinkable crimes in order to make the prophecy come true.
Literary Elements of Macbeth
Author: William Shakespeare
Type of Work: Drama
Published Date: First performed in 1606
Setting: 11th century Scotland
Main Characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth. See full characters list.
Protagonist/Antagonist: Protagonist – Macbeth (he is considered a tragic hero); Antagonist – every other character acts to threaten Macbeth and therefore almost every other character can be considered the antagonist. Macbeth vs. the world. See character descriptions.
Major Thematic Elements: Corruption and unchecked ambition, cruelty and masculine authority, guilt, the loss of children. See major themes.
Motifs: Hallucinations, acts of violence, prophecy
Exposition: Macbeth is a military general who has recently seen significant success in battle. As he returns home, he encounters three witches who deliver a prophecy.
Conflict: Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to resort to murder to make the prophecy come true. Once Macbeth has been made king, political mistrust adds another layer of conflict.
Plot: Linear; chronological
Major Symbols: Blood, dark/gloomy/stormy weather. See major symbols.
Climax: The assassination of King Duncan
Literary Significance of Macbeth
Macbeth is a timeless classic from one of the most widely read playwrights of all time. Shakespeare’s legacy on the Western literary canon is upheld in this tragic play. As one of his most recognizable tragedies, Macbeth helped to define the genre and reflects Shakespeare’s close relationship with James I, king of England. James I had been James VI of Scotland before he succeeded to the English throne. Shakespeare’s focus on Scottish royalty is considered to be an homage to his friend. Furthermore, the character Banquo is a supportive nod to James I family’s claims to be related to the historical Banquo. Overall, it is believed that Shakespeare wrote the play to pay respects to the Scottish historical background in the English sovereignty which allowed the play to have great success in the English royal court.
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest and most violent play that speaks to Scottish bravery. It is a complex and emotionally intense play that gained wide popularity when it was first performed. To this day, Macbeth remains a wildly popular drama. Macbeth differs from Shakespeare’s other tragedies which explore intellectually complicated dilemmas by exploring the rapid descent into madness that results from greed and power. Because it is so jarring and fascinating, it has shocked audiences for centuries and is likely not going out of rotation any time soon.
Summary of Macbeth
Macbeth Act 1 Summary
The play opens with a storm raging in the Scottish moors, three old witches plan to meet Macbeth after his battle in order to deliver a prophecy. King Duncan learns that his two generals, Macbeth and Banquo led valiant battles against invaders and successfully defended Scotland with acts of great bravery. The king is informed that the thane of Cawdor led a traitorous army against Scotland and the king orders his execution and Macbeth should be awarded his title.
As Macbeth and Banquo make their way back to the king’s palace in a storm, they encounter the three witches who reveal that Macbeth is about to discover that he has been appointed thane of Cawdor. Macbeth asks for more information and they declare that he will also one day be king of Scotland. As for Banquo, they say that he is “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” and although he will never hold the throne, a long line of his descendants will. The witches vanish, leaving Macbeth and Banquo stunned.
Back at the palace, King Duncan announces the changes and reveals that he intends to make his son, Malcom, heir to the throne. Macbeth notes that Malcom stands between himself and the throne. Learning her husband’s prophecy, Lady Macbeth is wild with lust for her husband to become king and resolves that murder is the best course of action. She informs her husband of her intentions and begins planning. When Macbeth later reveals that he does not wish to murder King Duncan, Lady Macbeth verbally berates him until he complies. Lady Macbeth devises a plan to frame King Duncan’s chamberlains by smearing the king’s blood all over them as they drunkenly sleep.
Macbeth Act 2 Summary
After briefly running into Banquo and his son, Macbeth has a vision of a dagger floating before him in the air. The tip of the dagger is aimed towards King Duncan. Macbeth tries in vain to grasp the dagger and he has trouble discerning if it is real or imagined. He gazes at the dagger in wonder and realizes that there is blood on the blade. He decides it is a figment of his imagination and Macbeth resolves to follow through with his wife’s plan.
Lady Macbeth ponders about the event that is about to take place, feeling bold. Soon after, Macbeth returns, covered in blood, and informs her that the deed is done. He is badly shaken.
In the early morning hours, a knocking comes at the door of the Macbeth castle. It is fellow military men Macduff and Lennox who request to speak with the king. Macbeth says that the king is still asleep but agrees to take them to him. Macduff discovers the king’s murdered body. Macbeth says that the chamberlains must have done it. However, Macduff grows suspicious. King Duncan’s sons become concerned for their own safety and flee the castle. This causes suspicion to fall on the sons.
Macbeth Act 3 Summary
Macbeth is preparing for his coronation as king. Banquo is pondering the witches’ prophecy and thinks that since everything else has come true, his descendants will probably wind up as heirs to the throne. He feels ambitious but makes no plans of action. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth invite Banquo to attend the feast they will be throwing later that night.
Once alone, a servant informs Macbeth that some men have come to meet with him. The servant leaves to get the visitors and while alone, Macbeth delivers a soliloquy about Banquo and how his friend has turned into someone he fears. He worries that if the witches’ prophecy is true, he will not have any heirs to whom he will be able to leave the crown. The murder of King Duncan weighs heavily on his conscious and his suspects that may be his undoing. The men who were waiting to meet with Macbeth are two murderers who he has hired to murder Banquo and his son. Later, the murderers ambush Banquo and his son on their way to the feast and manage to kill Banquo, but his son escapes.
At the feast, Macbeth is outraged to learn that Banquo’s son escaped. He returns from speaking with the reporting murderer and sees the ghost of Banquo seated in his chair at the table. Macbeth begins speaking to him, but none of the other guests understand what he was doing. Lady Macbeth makes an excuse, and everyone decides to ignore Macbeth. Concerned, Macbeth plans to try and meet with the witches once more.
Elsewhere in Scotland, Lennox is meeting with other lords and it is revealed that Macbeth is starting to be seen as a usurper and is believed to be responsible for the murders of King Duncan and Banquo. Macbeth is preparing to fight to defend his role as king and Lennox and the lord hope that the King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and Macduff can successfully save Scotland.
Macbeth Act 4 Summary
Macbeth finds the witches and asks them to reveal more information to clarify their prophecies for him. The witches provide confusing visions for him. Later, Lennox informs Macbeth that Macduff has left for England. Macbeth decides to have Macduff’s family murdered to prevent any meddling. In her home, Lady Macduff and her son are assaulted by a group of murderers. Her son is stabbed, and Lady Macduff flees with the killers chasing after her. Elsewhere, Malcom and Macduff worry about the future of Scotland.
Macbeth Act 5 Summary
Lady Macbeth is descending into madness, seeing visions of blood all over herself that can never be washed off. The English army approaches the Macbeth castle and Macbeth prepares by donning his armor. Macbeth soon learns that Lady Macbeth has died but he refuses to believe the news. Macbeth goes into battle to defend his castle and court. Macbeth and Macduff engage in battle, until Macbeth is slain by Macduff who carries Macbeth’s head back to the castle to announce victory in overthrowing the tyrant. Malcom is declared King of Scotland