1. The Author and His Times
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in Stratford, England.
His father worked selling leather and grains, and was a town official.
He was the third child out of eight children. His mother, Mary, came
from a family of prosperous farmers and landowners. On November 28,
1582, he married Anne Hathaway. She was the daughter of a farmer
near Stratford. He had three children with her, two of them being
In the 1590’s, Shakespeare went to London and joined a touring theater company. He worked as a lead actor of this company called “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” By the late 1590’s Shakespeare had established himself as a writer. In 1599, he founded the Globe Theater with 6 other associates. The new theater was an open playhouse in London. Shakespeare and the other 6 called themselves “The King’s Men” starting 1603 with King James I permission. Shakespeare was able to establish himself both as a playwright and a poet during this time. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616.
During Shakespeare's time, most people were very superstitious believing in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings. This is reflected in much of the literature from that time, and especially in Macbeth.
2. Point of View
Macbeth is written in the third person objective. The characters do not speak directly to the audience but often give soliloquies. Through the dialogues of the characters, Shakespeare’s ideas of fate and free will can be seen. Focus generally follows Macbeth and sometimes other characters that affect Macbeth. The witches occasionally enter the play as a means of foreshadow.
3. Form, Structure, and Plot
Macbeth is organized into 5 acts. Each act contains several scenes. The play starts with a prologue scene given by the three witches who occasionally appear between major scenes to foreshadow or comment on events. Shakespeare has some offstage action in several points in the story. He uses offstage action for Duncan’s murder and Lady Macbeth’s death. The single plot is chronological and easy to follow. There are no flashbacks but there are some dream scenes, for example Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. The attention is generally paid to Macbeth as the focus follows him through the play.
Exposition - The exposition is very vague since the characters are introduced throughout the first part of the play. It can be considered that the entire first act is the exposition.
Initial incident - The three witches start the play off with a prophecy that Macbeth will become king and that Banquo’s children will become kings after Macbeth.
Rising action - The rising action is when some of the prophecies are coming true and Lady Macbeth is trying to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan.
Crisis / Climax - The climax is the actual murder of Duncan.
Falling action - The falling action is all the events occurring after the murder where Macbeth tries to hide his crime and cement his position as king by killing other would-be kings. Lady Macbeth goes insane.
Denouement - Lady Macbeth dies and Macbeth is executed. Malcolm becomes the King.
The two main characters in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are well-rounded and well-developed. Shakespeare stresses the emotional sides of these two people which gives them dimension. The audience sees them and human beings and not simple murderers. While the other characters are not as fully developed, they are not cardboard and they are still believable. The personalities of the characters are revealed through their dialogues, and for the main characters, especially through their soliloquies.
Macbeth - Macbeth is the tragic hero of this play. At the beginning of the play, he has the title of Thane of Glamis, and later becomes the Thane of Cawdor. The audience must assume that he starts out perhaps in his 30’s at the beginning of the play since he is a man of war. As the play progresses, he seems to age a great deal, more than the time that has actually passed. Also his appearance is not much discussed, he might be a stocky handsome warrior. As Duncan’s cousin, he has a link to the royal throne, and is pushed to grab it by the witches and his wife. He is greedy, ambitious, and rash. His personality changes and develops through the play. In the beginning he is a warrior to serve the king and can not consider the idea of killing Duncan to get the throne. As the play progresses, he grows cold, hard and more ambitious. After the murder, his personality further develops to guilt and near madness. This anxiety causes him to commit more murders and further dig himself into his grave. He says to Banquo, “Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir, and I’ll request your presence.” He said this in order to kill Banquo that night showing his cold and callous heart.
Lady Macbeth - Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife. Although loving Macbeth greatly, she has no children. Like, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is fully developed through the course of the play. Just like Macbeth, her personality and emotional quality is emphasized and is changed through the course of the book. She is a little younger than Macbeth, but her appearance is not much discussed. Lady Macbeth is strong, faithful, and ambitious. In the early parts of the play, she had to convince Macbeth that he should kill Duncan and get the throne showing her ambition. However, after the murder, her personality changes and she grows greatly frightened and regretful of her act. She becomes worried that people will find out her crime and drives herself to insanity. During the murder, when Macbeth could not kill Duncan, she says, “Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead are but pictures.” She shows no respect for human life in this line and murders to satisfy her ambitions.
Banquo - Banquo is Macbeth’s good friend. He has a family with a son named Fleance. His personality and character are well developed during the play but do not change. His age is not known and neither is his appearance. At the beginning of the play, he listen to the witches and hears a good prophecy that his sons would become the future kings. However, this good prophecy leads to his death. His function in the play is to be an example of the power of fate. Banquo is kind, friendly, and loyal. Unlike Macbeth, he is not ambitious and does not try to hurry up the crowning of his sons. Even after the prophecy, he remains loyal to Duncan, and friendly to Macbeth. He says, “This guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet, disapprove by his loved mansionry that the heaven’s breath smells wooingly here.”
Duncan - Duncan is the king of Scotland at the beginning of the play. He is an old noble king who is supported by his people. He has two sons named Malcolm and Donalbain. Although he is one of the major characters, he does not have a well developed character and is rather flat. He is kind, honest, and naive. He shows kindness and mercy to those that wrong him, including the Thane of Cawdor. He is a just and honest king, but he is a poor judge of character. He completely trusts Macbeth and does not see that he has ambitions for the throne. I believe his purpose in the play was not to become a complete character, but to simply be murdered. He said to Banquo, “Noble Banquo, that hast no less deserved, nor must be known no less to have done so, let me enfold thee and hold thee to my heart.”
The story takes place in Scotland during about Shakespeare’s time. Since the play was performed long ago in a simple open theater, backdrops were not used and there were only a few props. Most of the scenery had to be imagined by the audience. Since backdrops could not be used to create mood and atmosphere, the atmosphere had to be created by the few props they used and by the acting of the actors. For example, a cauldron would have been used in the first scene with the witches, and it would have served to create a mood of evil foreboding. There were other props such as a bloody knife which was used for a similar effect.
There is no way to go around fate. At the beginning of the
book, the witches made several prophecies about Macbeth and Banquo.
While Macbeth tried to stop some of those prophecies such as the one about
Banquo’s sons becoming kings, it happened anyway.
Extreme ambition leads to downfall. Macbeth was made extremely ambitious and jealous by the prophecy and his wife. He followed up that ambition with action and through it brought about his death.
Bad things can happen to good people with one fatal flaw. This is a theme often used in this sort of tragedy. Macbeth was a good person in the beginning of the play. He loyally served the king. However, because of his ambition, his entire world fell apart.
Shakespeare is often considered one of the world’s greatest playwrights, and has a style to back it up. He writes with poetic diction using eloquent words and phrases. He uses irony and drama to create and sustain suspense through the play. Shakespeare uses much figurative language and imagery.
Shakespeare write in a formal manner. While the play was meant to be performed and spoken, Shakespeare write the dialogue in a poetic manner. He often includes metaphors and imagery in his dialogues. However, the poetic speech often seems forced and difficult to understand. While not being as flowery as poems, it is much too flowery for everyday speech and often difficult to understand. His words and subject matter are sometimes lewd and intended for an audience of commoners. The vocabulary and writing style suggests and Shakespeare was highly educated in the English language. The words are carefully placed to fit an iambic pentameter rhythm.
1st Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2nd Witch: Thrice and once the hedge-pic whined.
3rd Witch: Harpier cries; ‘tis time, ‘tis time.
1st Witch: Round about the cauldron go;
In the poinson’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
All: Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caultron bubble.
Act IV, scene I, lines 1 to 11
These famous lines from Macbeth display a lot about Macbeth’s poetic diction. During certain scenes where Macbeth wants to get a certain effect, he writes the lines as if in poetry with a certain rhyme scheme and rhythm. In this passage, Shakespeare breaks from the iambic pentameter and begins to rhyme the lines. This give it the effect of making the passage sound like some magic words to cast a spell. The tone is dreary and frightening.
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.
Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dugeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now e’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
This soliloquy by Macbeth clearly shows some of the best examples of Shakespeare’s diction. He writes this passage in iambic pentameter. There is a certain poetic aspect to this passage. Shakespeare uses much imagery such as “dugeon gouts of blood.” Although the sentence structure is not simple, but inverted and changed in such a way to fit the rhythm scheme, the meaning is not hard to contrive being somewhat simple compared to other passages. This passage shows Macbeth’s mental state during this time. He feels guilty and worried and is having second thought about committing the murder.
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour named. What’s more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fied-like queen,
Who, as ‘tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure and in place.
This passage is spoken by Malcolm in Shakespeare’s typical iambic pentameter. This passage gives the conclusion of the play and gives the audience a good ending feeling by tying up the loose ends by discussing the various people who fleed and the end of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Malcolm is shown here to be confident of the future of the kingdom.
Shakespeare carefully writes the syntax in Macbeth. The sentences are carefully formed and very formal. Most characters with few exceptions do not ramble on and are concise in their words. Everything they say has a purpose and an intended meaning. Most sentences are long, compound, and complex. This sometimes makes the play difficult to understand.
Passage 1 - The syntax in this passage differs from the rest of the play since it breaks from the iambic pentameter and rhymes. This is rarely done by Shakespeare and only done for certain purposes. It is seen that Shakespeare through this wants to emphasize what the witches are saying.
Passage 2 - This passage clearly shows the mind set of Macbeth. His words sound somewhat delirious and at the same time is carefully thought out with the meaning and purpose of conveying his mind set. The sentences in this passage are more simple compared with other sections of the play, however, do not become so simple so that it becomes unpoetic.
Passage 3 - This passage is a typical passage in terms of diction. This passage uses Shakespeare’s famous unrhymed, iambic pentameter style. This style works well in the situation to slow down the momentum and carefully set the play down to a close. This passage also show’s Malcolm’s character as clear, and confident.
Shakespeare uses a lot of imagery in this play to develop atmosphere, mood, and characters. The images are clearly thought out and give and make a certain impression on the mind of the audience. Often, the images foreshadow something in the future. For example, the image of the bloody knife before Macbeth in the second passage foreshadow the brutal cold hearted murder that immediately follows. Blood is a recurring image in this play to denote guilt. Lady Macbeth frets in her sleep of not being able to wash the blood off of her hands since she feels so guilty about the murder. The images of the bleak sky continues through the play displaying the lack of order and peace within the kingdom.
Shakespeare uses a lot of symbolism in this play. The most often used is that of blood symbolizing guilt. Blood is stained on Macbeth’s imaginary knife before the murder. Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth suffer from visions of blood after the murder, especially Lady Macbeth who is driven insane by it. The blood is seen as their guilt and they cannot get rid of it until the crime is punished by their own deaths. Another symbol used in the play is the raven symbolizing ill omen. The raven is often referred to as a storm crow since it tells of an upcoming storm. It served the same purpose in the play being seen before tense parts. Another symbol in the play is sleep. Sleep represents innocence, and those who cannot have sleep, are so because they have lost their innocence and are overcome with guilt.
12. Figurative language
Shakespeare is known for his great use of figurative language,
and this play is no exception.
Metaphor - Shakespeare continually uses metaphors throughout the play comparing something to other things. Examples occur when lady refers to “the milk of human kindness,” and Macbeth refers to life as “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
Simile - Although Shakespeare does not use similes as often as metaphors, they are a regular feature in the play. An example of a simile is when Macbeth refers to pity “like a naked newborn babe.”
Personification - Shakespeare occasionally uses personification in this play. It is most often used to emphasize an inanimate symbol. An example of this point is when Macbeth says that “sleep ... knits up the raveled sleeve of care... chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
Allusion - Shakespeare makes several allusions to the kings of his time saying that they are of a good breed. He also alludes to the theater in his statement that life is “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
13. Ironic devices
Shakespeare uses several instances of irony in this play to give
the play some humor and some depth.
Situational irony is used during the play many times due to the predictions of the witches. The witches predict one thing, which happens to come true. However, Macbeth often misinterprets their fortunes and are put in situations of irony.
Dramatic irony is used often during the play. A good example of dramatic irony is when Macbeth plans Duncan’s murder while feigning loyalty to the king. This is dramatic irony since while Duncan does not know of Macbeth’s plans, the audience does.
Paradoxes are often given by the witches in their fortunes and speeches. The witches say that, “fair is foul and foul is fair.” This is obviously a paradox but proves to be true by the end of the play as many of the fair predictions of the witches turn foul for Macbeth.
Shakespeare tone throughout the play is usually serious. However, at certain points, Shakespeare seems to laugh at the mistakes and misfortunes of the characters through the witches. Besides these occasions, there is a constant mood of dreariness and bleakness throughout the play. This feeling is brought about especially because of the witches which start the play off with some equivocal, yet ominous predictions.
15. Memorable Quotes
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One:
Two: why, then ‘tis time to do it. Hell is murky.
Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and a feard? What need
We fear who knows it, when none can call our
Pow’r to accompt? Yet who would have thought
The old man to have ahd so much blood in him?
Lady Macbeth speaks this while sleep walking. This has a morbid
tone. It expresses the deep anxieties that Lady Macbeth could not
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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.
Macbeth says this after Lady Macbeth kills herself. This shows
how Macbeth’s greed does not even give him time to mourn over the death
of his wife.
Methought I heard a voice cry “sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep” - the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
Macbeth speaks this about a feeling that he has. Because of guilt,
he has lost sleep and suffers from insomnia from this point on. The
term “innocent sleep” shows sleep as the symbol for innocence.
I go, and it is done: the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.
Macbeth says this to himself after he hears his wife ring the bell to kill Duncan. At this point, he it seems earnest about the murder, and does not yet feel the fear tied with the crime. He does not understand the fullness of the act.
16. Additional Comments
I enjoyed this play. It’s message about greed was powerful.
The characterizations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were deep and I enjoyed
the way they seemed to switch places and personalities after the murder.
The psychological aspects of the murder were nicely emphasized and brought
out giving the story a certain depth. However, this play still leaves
some questions on fate and free will. Do we have any free will at
all? or is everything controlled by fate? Would Macbeth have
killed Duncan if the witches did not tell him his fortune?
Update: The setting of Macbeth is the 11th Century.