Macbeth Study Guide

Introduction to Macbeth

Macbeth is one of the well-known tragedies of William Shakespeare that was performed with the full title of The Tragedy of Macbeth. It is one of the plays written during the reign of James I to please him as he was the patron of Shakespeare’s acting troupe. The play was first performed in 1606. It was first published in the First Folio in 1623. Interestingly, Macbeth is also the shortest tragic play by Shakespeare, with no subplots.  It was inspired by the story of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan from the historical record found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in1587. The historical Macbeth is very different from Macbeth in the play. It dramatizes the psychological and physical impacts of the ambition a thane of Scotland harbors in his heart and then wreaks havoc with the appearance of order. Thus, creating chaos and disorder.

Summary of Macbeth

The play begins with the witches quickly appear and disappear. They plot and predict about meeting Macbeth, who would return after winning the battle against Thane of Cawdor.

King Duncan receives the testimonies of his conquering generals, Banquo and Macbeth, and the surrender of the rebel from a wounded soldier. His appreciation for both generals increase, and he decides to give all his land and the new title to Macbeth. As foretold in the beginning, after the battles, both the generals meet the witches when crossing the moor. Macbeth listens and believes when the witches predict that he will be the next Thane of Cawdor and eventually become the king. They address Macbeth Glamis, Cawdor, and the King of Scots. They also prophesy that Banquo’s descendants will become future kings. Their prophecy is filled with a puzzle as they call Banquo ‘lesser than Macbeth and greater’ and confuse him further by saying ‘Not so happy, yet much happier’. Macbeth demands answers for their prediction because Thane of Cawdor and King Duncan were still alive who held the title. However, the witches disappear without answering.

When Macbeth and Banquo discuss these prophecies, King Duncan’s representatives, Ross and Angus, arrive with the news. They tell that Macbeth is given the title of the Thane of Cawdor as a reward for winning the battle. Banquo and Macbeth are stunned as they see the witches’ first prophecy come true and wonder about the rest.

Later, they meet King Duncan at his castle, who praises both Macbeth and Banquo for their courage and devotion. King Duncan informs Macbeth about his plans to stay at his place at Iverness and also proclaims his son Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland. King Duncan, at that time, indirectly declares Malcolm as the next king of Scotland. Macbeth’s loyalty is replaced with the greed for the crown as he recalls the prophecies of the witches. He excuses himself to make arrangements for King Duncan’s visit Iverness.

Before King Duncan’s visit, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife, learns about the prophecy. She resolves to be the queen and recalls the idea of killing King Duncan. She disapproves of Macbeth’s gentle nature and loyalty as a weakness. However, she does understand that Macbeth has always been ambitious with the desire to be the king. His mind is filled with excitement at the thought of killing the king. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to plot, and she decides to murder King Duncan believing that Macbeth does not have enough courage.

King Duncan arrives with his sons, Banquo, Macduff, Lennox, and few more envoys. Banquo senses the ‘moral decay’ at Macbeth’s place. Lady Macbeth greets the king and everyone else, and they hear King Duncan praise Macbeth once more. When Macbeth’s alone, he worries about his afterlife, wondering what kind of punishment he would receive for killing the king, who is a good man. At that moment, Lady Macbeth manipulates him emotionally and convinces him to murder King Duncan.

Surprisingly, Banquo feels uneasy during his stay. When he tries to talk to Macbeth about the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth refuses to discuss. Macbeth hallucinates a bloodied dagger as they drug the guards. While trying to commit the act, Lady Macbeth hesitates as King Duncan looks like her father. After killing the guards, Macbeth returns to kill the king. He hears someone cry out these final words ‘Glamis hath murther’d sleep: and therefore Cawdor/Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more!‘. Though restless, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pretends to sleep.

The next morning, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are composed and come to greet the others as if nothing happened. Macduff goes to the king’s chamber first and tells the others. Macbeth kills the guards before they can speak to maintain his innocence and push the blame on them. However, King Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain, know that their lives are in danger and run away from Scotland. Later, Malcolm goes to England and Donalbain goes to Ireland. Surprisingly the others believe that King Duncan’s sons were behind the murders as they have fled the crime scene. At the end of Act 2, Macbeth is crowned as the king.

After the coronation, Macbeth still lingers to the witches’ prophecies. He remembers that Banquo’s sons or descendants were meant to be the future kings. So, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son Fleance.  Now, Macbeth has completely become evil by nature and willing to do anything to secure the throne. On the other hand, Lady Macbeth is overcome with guilt over the murders. When the assassins return, they inform him that Banquo is killed when but his son had escaped.

During a banquet, Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth, leaving him startled. The guests see Macbeth talking to an empty chair. Lady Macbeth tells the guests that he is suffering from a lack of sleep. Macbeth is back to self once the ghost disappears. However, during the stay, Banquo’s ghost reappears, making Macbeth hallucinate again. Lady Macbeth believes, Macbeth is going insane. There is a brief reappearance of witches where they further plot to fool Macbeth. They want him to be overconfident and proud of his evil nature.

Meanwhile, Lennox, one of the thanes under King Duncan and the lord, begins to suspect that Macbeth had murdered the king and Banquo. He, Macduff, along with King Edward, decides to support Malcolm.

The witches summon Macbeth and show him the future again. At first, they warn him about Macduff returning to Scotland. Next, they tell him that only a child not born from a woman can kill him. Finally, they show him a child wearing a crown and holding a tree. They tell him that unless the Great Birnam wood (forest) moves, Macbeth will not be killed. Though Macbeth’s confidence is restored, he asks the witches about the prophecy on Banquo’s descendants. During his confrontation with the witches, Banquo’s ghost is present, and the witches leave without giving him the answer. Lennox meets Macbeth at the cave and informs the alliance between Malcolm and Macduff with the English. Macbeth, in the fit of rage, decides to kill Macduff himself. Though the messenger tries to save Macduff’s family, at Macduff’s castle, Lady Macduff is killed, and his son tries to escape. Ross, one of the noblemen, informs Macduff about his family’s murder. As Macduff grieves over the death of his family, Malcolm, King Duncan’s son, asks Macduff to turn his sorrow into revenge.

Macbeth begins to prepare for the battle. Lady Macbeth is left alone and hallucinates, filled with guilt. Her maid brings a doctor, who advises her to get divine help. While Macbeth is prepared at the royal palace for the attack, Lennox rebels against him and waits for the English army.

Macbeth believes in the witches’ prophecy and remains overconfident. Recalling the first apparition shown by the witches, that nobody born of a woman could kill him, he remains anxious but unmoved. He worries about his wife, Lady Macbeth’s failing mental health.

On the other side, Malcolm asks the soldiers to cut the branch from the Birnam Wood to hide themselves. Later, Macbeth comes to know that the forest is moving towards his fort. Despite the growing tension, Macbeth remains arrogant and unmoved. Lady Macbeth commits suicide (which is shown off-stage).

Now, Macbeth heads to the battle with no choice. He learns that Macduff that he was born early by cesarean birth instead of natural birth. Hence the witches’ prophecies flash before his eyes. He realizes that the witched deceived him and doomed his life. He resolves to die and his beheaded by Macduff. In the end, Malcolm declares himself the king and invites the nobilities to Scone to crown him.

Major Themes in Macbeth

  1. Ambition: At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is loyal. However, his over-ambitious nature leads him to lust for power. Macbeth, along with his wife, Lady Macbeth, murders King Duncan, Banquo, guards, and Macduff’s family. Their deaths are avenged by Malcolm and Macduff. So, they also lose their lives because of their ambition to take over the crown of Scotland. Shakespeare was inspired by 1605’s rebellion again King James 1 in England.
  2. Supernatural Elements: The witches and their manipulating prophecies are the supernatural elements in Macbeth. The three witches are the harbinger of chaos and death. They corrupt overly ambitious Macbeth when they prophesy about him and Banquo. They declare that he will be king and Banquo’s descendants will be future kings. The prophecies change Macbeth and his wife and turn them into monstrous people. They kill the competitors for the throne. While the lead characters do not experience anything supernatural throughout the play, the incantation by witches sets the series of murders, suicide, and betrayals in the play.
  3. Treachery and Betrayal: The play also displays betrayal and treachery. At first, Macbeth was a trustworthy general of King Duncan. He is corrupted by the witches and chooses to be treacherous and betrays King Duncan, who comes to Macbeth’s home as a guest. He kills the king and his friend, Banquo, as he gives in to the selfish desires. He betrays the family of Macduff too. Macbeth is also betrayed by his general, Lennox.
  4. Crime: The witches’ prophecies manipulate Macbeth and his wife and turn them to criminals. Though they are bestowed with luxury and royalty, they commit heinous crimes because of their never-ending greed. Macbeth commits the first crime by killing his guest, King Duncan. Then he betrays his friend, Banquo, gets him killed and later target’s Macduff’s family. Hence, the play shows the world of crime until justice is done at the end, and Macbeth is beheaded.
  5. Violence: The eerie atmosphere the play demonstrates, in the beginning, leads immediately to violence when Macbeth falls upon his guest, King Duncan, and then hires killers for his friend Banquo and his son. Even Lady Macbeth joins hands with him in these killings. The final assault of Macduff and Malcolm ends Macbeth and his treacherous fellows when he comes out of his fortress to fight them.
  6. Conflict between Good and Evil: Macbeth and his wife represent evil, while King Duncan, his generals, Banquo, and Macduff represent the good. Shakespeare has shown that Lady Macbeth is schemer, just like the witches without magical powers. While her attempts to kill the king fails, Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to do the job by taunting him when he hesitates. However, ‘good’ is always victorious as the play ends when Macduff and his forces behead Macbeth as a punishment for his crimes.
  7. Loyalty: When the play begins, Macbeth and Banquo show their loyalty to King Duncan by fighting for him. While Macbeth begins to corrupt his loyalty after the witches’ prophecies, Banquo resolves to ignore them to stay loyal to King Duncan. The play also shows Macduff’s and Malcolm’s loyalty to the people of Scotland and the dead king.
  8. Guilt: Guilt is one of the major internal conflicts that move the play further. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer from guilt until their last breath. Lady Macbeth suffers from paranoia, hallucinations, and mental illness after King Duncan is murder. Macbeth feels guilty at first, and he is haunted by the past. He also sees Banquo’s ghost, which is the result of his guilt.
  9. Statecrafts: It means government or control. The deaths of King Duncan, Banquo, guards, Macduff’s family were perfectly planned murders by power-hungry Macbeth and his wife. This shows that statecraft is an important theme of the play. Macbeth did not know the statecraft though he becomes a king. Hence he faced a rebellion by Lennox at the end. At the same time, Macduff and Malcolm, with the help of the King of England, defeat Macbeth and take over the kingdom.
  10. Trust: In Macbeth, King Duncan trusts his generals, Macbeth, and Banquo. Sadly, his trust is broken when Macbeth and his wife plot and murder him. Banquo trusts Macbeth as they fought wars together. However, Macbeth kills him after he loses his mind over witches’ prophecies. On the other hand, Malcolm trusts Macduff, and together they win against Macbeth in the end.

Major Characters in Macbeth

  1. Macbeth: At first, Macbeth, a Scottish army general. He and Banquo defeat the Thane of Cawdor. King Duncan bestows the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’ to Macbeth, just when he meets the three witches who cast a spell on him. The witches’ fake prophecies also turn him into a despicable person making him make terrible decisions to fulfill them. He is also manipulated by his wife and kills King Duncan. Once he becomes the king, he goes on a killing spree after revisiting the witches. As Macbeth was fooled and cursed by the witches, we can call him an anti-hero, with the qualities of both hero and a villain. At the end of the play, he receives the punishment for all the crimes he had committed when Macduff beheads him.
  2. King Duncan: King Duncan is shown as one of the most generous kings. Sadly, King Duncan is stabbed to death by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when they are cursed by the witches. He is a fatherly figure who was kind and caring for the Scottish. However, his gruesome murder shows his trusting nature cost him his life and many others.
  3. Lady Macbeth: She is villainous by nature with immense strength. She mostly influences Macbeth’s decisions without worrying about the consequence. She also shows extraordinary femininity when she pushes Macbeth to kill anyone who comes in his ways of becoming the king. She even takes part in the killing of King Duncan. Eventually, she feels immense guilt for King Duncan’s death and becomes insane. She begins to sleepwalk and hallucinates bloodstains on her hand. When she could not bear the guilt, she commits suicide just before Macbeth is killed.
  4. Malcolm and Donalbain: They are sons of King Duncan. They are forced to flee their separate ways after their father is murdered by Macbeth at his castle. At first, they do not retaliate immediately but suspect that Macbeth had intentionally killed their father. Since their life was also under threat, they leave Scotland, Malcolm goes to England and Donalbain takes refuge in Ireland.
  5. Banquo: Banquo is a capable and trustworthy general of the Scottish army. He is also Macbeth’s friend, who fought with him against the Thane of Cawdor. Banquo is with him when the witches prophecy and curse Macbeth. Banquo discards his temptation of his descendants being the king and leaves the witches’ prophecies behind. He remains faithful to the kingdom. Sadly, Banquo is killed by the assassins hired by Macbeth. His Fleance escapes at the last minute.
  6. Macduff: Macduff is one of Thanes of Scotland (Thane of Fife) and a loyal servant to King Duncan. He discovers King Duncan’s dead body and also suspects the foul play. Sadly, Macbeth kills his wife and son. He helps Malcolm get to reclaim the throne, along with Lennox and King Edward. Macduff reveals that he had a cesarean birth. Hence, as prophesied by witches, he kills Macbeth to avenge the deaths of his family and King Duncan.
  7. Siward: Old Siward is the Earl of Northumberland, King Duncan’s brother, and Malcolm’s uncle. He lends his army to Malcolm to take the throne of Scotland back. Sadly, young Siward is killed by Macbeth just before the war ended.
  8. Three Witches: The witches appear twice in the play to account for prophecies and set the ball of the action rolling. On both occasions, they have encouraged Macbeth to take the next step, involving him in a vicious cycle. This created mayhem in the orderly world of Scotland until Macbeth himself is killed.
  9. Ross: He is Macduff’s cousin and a loyal noble of the Scottish Kingdom. Ross delivers Macbeth’s and Banquo’s victory of the war again, the King of Norway. After the witches’ first prophecy, Ross delivers the news of Macbeth’s new title. He is one of the thanes who leave Macbeth when Malcolm and Macduff arrive with the army.
  10. Lady Macduff: Macduff’s wife, Lady Macduff, is the opposite of Lady Macbeth. She is loyal, kind, and has a family. When Macbeth becomes the king, he sends his army to kill her and her family. She displays her innocence by refusing to run away and is killed along with her son. Macduff avenges her death in the end.

Writing Style of Macbeth

The play, Macbeth, shows the language of magnificence, irony, and fluency through the dialogue of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. However, the language becomes mysterious, halting, and somewhat cryptic by the end of the play. When the play starts, the language is highly charged, and the readers/audiences are given the foreshadowing of future events. Using diverse literary devices, Shakespeare has exquisitely demonstrated that even a villain could be win sympathy and become a hero of the play.

Analysis of Literary Devices in Macbeth

1. Alliteration: A play written in blank verse; Macbeth shows many examples of the use of alliteration such as:

  • That will be ere the set of the sun. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 05)
  • That seems to speak things strange. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 46)
  • She should have died hereafter. (Act-V, Scene V, Line, 16)

The above lines taken from different acts show the use of alliteration, which means the use of consonant sounds in quick succession in a line. For example, /th/, /s/ and /s/ sounds are repeated in quick successions in the above lines.

2. Allegory: Macbeth is an allegory that shows how good and evil resides within men. It shows that when people believe in witchcraft or similar evil practices, they do not think about consequences. Here Macbeth shows that evil resides in man, and all he needed was a curse and a prophecy. Macbeth’s ambition turns to greed, and he kills King Duncan. However, goodness prevails by the end when Malcolm and Macduff kill Macbeth together with the assistance from England.

3. Assonance: The play, Macbeth, shows good use of assonance. For example,

  • Who like a good and hardy soldier fought (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 4)
  • So well thy words become thee as thy wounds. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 44)
  • I’ll drain him as dry as hay (Act-I Scene-III, Lines, 19)

In the above examples, vowel sounds appear after some pauses in such a way that they create a sort of melodious impacts in the verses. The sounds of /oo/, /ee/ and /a/ are used in the above lines showing good use of assonance.

4. Antagonist: If Macbeth is taken as the protagonist, the play seems to revolve around him. Then every other character like Banquo and even Macduff are antagonists, stopping his progress. However, we see that Macbeth becomes an antagonist, the main villain of the play, after he is cursed by the witches.

5. Allusion: These lines show good use of allusions.

  • Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? . (Act-II, Scene-II, Lines, 78, 79)
  • Approach the chamber and destroy your sight
    With a new Gorgon. (Act-II, Scene-III, Lines, 82-83)

These lines show a reference to the earliest mythical figures. The first is a reference to Neptune, the Roman God of the seas, while the second refers to Medusa.

6. Conflict: There are two types of conflicts in Macbeth. The first one is the external conflict that goes on between Macbeth and his enemies, such as Fleance, Malcolm, and Macduff, after he murders King Duncan. The second is the internal conflict that goes on in the mind of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

7. Consonance: The play shows the use of consonance at various places such as;

  • Outran the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan, his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood; and his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature for ruin’s wasteful entrance. (Act-II, Scene-III, Lines, 114-116)
  • Fair is foul and foul is fair. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 12)

In both examples, consonant sounds /s/ in the first and then /g/, /l/ and /f/ in the second reference has been repeated in the above lines.

8. Dramatic Irony: Dramatic irony occurs at several places in Macbeth. For example, when Macbeth receives prophetic predictions from the witches, and King Duncan is unaware of this fact. Similarly, Macbeth is unaware that witches had cursed him and poured fuel to his greed.

9. Deus Ex Machina: Deus ex machina means the appearance of some supernatural elements. It happens at the beginning of the play that three witches appear to predict the future course of action for Macbeth. Later they prophesy about his death and defeat with strings of tricky conditions making Macbeth overconfident and a monster.

10. Foreshadowing: The first example of foreshadowing occurs in the very first action where the bloody battle continues. It shows that another somber murder is going to take place. Another example is when Macbeth hears some voices about losing his sleep when stabbing Duncan. It shows that he and his wife are going to face psychological issues.

11. Imagery: Imagery means to use vivid and descriptive language so that the reader can visualize the depth of the text. For example,

  • For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
    Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
    Which smoked with bloody execution.. (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines 16-19)
  • Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (Act-IV, Scene -I, Line -I)
  • And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
    Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
    That darkness does the face of Earth entomb
    When living light should kiss it? (Act-II, Scene-IV, Lines 8-11)

These three examples show sensory images, showing the use of the sense of sight and sense of hearing.

12. Metaphor: Macbeth shows the regular use of various metaphors. For example,

  • “There’s nothing serious in mortality. All is but toys. (Act-II, Scene-III, Lines, 92-93)
  • The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of. (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 192-5).

These are two beautiful metaphors among various other metaphors. The first one shows life compared with toys and second with wine.

13. Mood: The entire play of Macbeth shows different moods according to the situation. When the play opens, the appearance of supernatural elements and witches herald bloodshed and foul play. When it moves forward, it transforms into bloody fights and assassinations followed by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s psychological conflict that leads to suicide and death.

14. Protagonist: Macbeth is the main protagonist of the play as he causes not only envy for his position but also arouses pity and fear for his fall, though, he uses devious ways to achieve his goal.

15. Pun: Macbeth shows the use of the pun. For example,

  • We should have else desired your good advice,
    Which still18 hath been both grave and prosperous
    In this day’s council. (Act-III, Scene-I, Lines, 20-22)
  • Who did strike out the light? (Act-III, Scene-III, Line, 18)

In the first example, the king plays upon the word “grave” while in the second, the murderer plays upon “strike.”

16. Paradox: The play, Macbeth, also shows the use of paradoxes. For example,

  • When shall we three meet again?
    In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 1-2)
  • When the battle’s lost and won. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 4)

Paradox means to use contradictory ideas in the same statement. For example, the first statement shows it in the second line as lightning and rain, and the second statement shows in using lost and won simultaneously.

17. Rhetorical Questions: The play, Macbeth, has several rhetorical questions. For example,

  • What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (Act-V, Scene-I, Line, 46)
  • as the hope drunk
    Wherein you dressed yourself ? Hath it slept since?
    And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
    At what it did so freely?” (Act-III, Scene-IV, Line, 106)

These examples show the use of rhetorical questions mostly posed by the character of Lady Macbeth. They also show Shakespeare’s expertise in using rhetorical devices and couple them with other literary devices.

18. Simile: The play, Macbeth, shows the excellent use of various similes such as;

  • For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name– disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution, like valor’s minion carved out his passage. (Act 1, Scene 2)

Here Macbeth’s ambitious character is compared to a puppet as he was cursed by the witches and did what they had been plotting before they curse him.

19. Soliloquy: The play shows some memorable soliloquies such as;

  • Two truths are told,
    As happy prologues to the swelling act
    Of the imperial theme.
    This supernatural soliciting
    Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
    Why hath it given me earnest of success,
    Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor: (Act-I, Scene-III, Lines, 240-247)
  • If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
    It were done quickly: if the assassination
    Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
    With his surcease success; that but this blow
    Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
    But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
    We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
    We still have judgment here; that we but teach
    Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
    To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
    Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
    To our own lips.” (Act-I, Scene-VII, Lines, 474-485)
  • Is this a dagger which I see before me,
    The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
    To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
    A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
    Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
    I see thee yet, in form as palpable
    As this which now I draw. (Act-II, Scene-I, Lines, 612-621)

These are some of the memorable soliloquies of Macbeth. The first two were delivered by Macbeth on different occasions to show how he is ready to act upon the prophecies. However, the third one sheds light on the Macbeth’s after he commits the crime of killing the king.

20. Verbal Irony: The play, Macbeth, shows verbal irony. For example,

  • There is no art
    To find the mind’s construction in the face.
    He was a gentleman on whom I built
    An absolute trust. (Act-I, Scene-IV, Lines, 10-14)
  • Sirrah, your father’s dead.
    And what will you don now? How will you live?” (Act-IV, Scene-II, Lines, 30-31).

This use of verbal irony is apparent as the King says that he has absolute trust in Macbeth, and yet he has rebelled against him. In the second, Lady Macduff tells her son that her father is killed without showing that she has sensed the danger.

 

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