Macbeth is a play written by William Shakespeare. It is considered one of his darkest and most powerful tragedies. Set in Scotland, the play dramatizes the corroding psychological and political effects produced when its protagonist, the Scottish lord Macbeth, chooses evil as the way to fulfill his ambition for power. He commits regicide to become king and then furthers his moral descent with a reign of murderous terror to stay in power, eventually plunging the country into civil war. In the end, he loses everything that gives meaning and purpose to his life before losing his life itself.
The play is believed to have been written between 1603 and 1607, and is most commonly dated 1606. The earliest account of a performance of what was probably Shakespeare's play is April 1611, when Simon Forman recorded seeing such a play at the Globe Theatre. It was first published in the Folio of 1623, possibly from a prompt book. It was most likely written during the reign of James I, who had been James VI of Scotland before he succeeded to the English throne in 1603. James was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, and of all the plays Shakespeare wrote during James’s reign, Macbeth most clearly reflects the playwright’s relationship with the sovereign.
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and tells the story of a brave Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. His reign is racked with guilt and paranoia, and he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler as he is forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath swiftly takes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into realms of arrogance, madness, and death.
Shakespeare's source for the tragedy is the account of King Macbeth of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland and Ireland familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
In the backstage world of theatre, some believe that the play is cursed, and will not mention its title aloud, referring to it instead as "the Scottish play". Over the course of many centuries, the play has attracted some of the most renowned actors to the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It has been adapted to film, television, opera, novels, comic books, and other media.
The play opens amidst thunder and lightning, and the Three Witches decide that their next meeting shall be with Macbeth. In the following scene, a wounded sergeant reports to King Duncan of Scotland that his generals—Macbeth, who is the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo—have just defeated the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, who were led by the traitorous Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, the King's kinsman, is praised for his bravery and fighting prowess.
In the following scene, Macbeth and Banquo discuss the weather and their victory. Macbeth's first line is "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38).[nb 1] As they wander onto a heath, the Three Witches enter and have been waiting to greet them with prophecies. Though Banquo challenges them first, they address Macbeth, hailing him as "Thane of Glamis," "Thane of Cawdor," and that he shall "be King hereafter." Macbeth appears to be stunned to silence. When Banquo asks of his own fortunes, the witches inform him that he will father a line of kings, though he himself will not be one. While the two men wonder at these pronouncements, the witches vanish, and another thane, Ross, arrives and informs Macbeth of his newly bestowed title: Thane of Cawdor, as the previous Thane of Cawdor shall be put to death for his traitorous activities. The first prophecy is thus fulfilled, and Macbeth immediately begins to harbour ambitions of becoming king.
King Duncan welcomes and praises Macbeth and Banquo, and declares that he will spend the night at Macbeth's castle at Inverness; he also names his son Malcolm as his heir. Macbeth sends a message ahead to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her about the witches' prophecies. Lady Macbeth suffers none of her husband’s uncertainty, and wishes him to murder Duncan in order to obtain kingship. When Macbeth arrives at Inverness, she overrides all of her husband’s objections by challenging his manhood, and successfully persuades him to kill the king that very night. He and Lady Macbeth plan to get Duncan’s two chamberlains drunk so that they will black out; the next morning they will frame the chamberlains for the murder. They will be defenseless, as they will remember nothing.
While Duncan is asleep, Macbeth stabs him, despite his doubts and a number of supernatural portents, including a hallucination of a bloody dagger. He is so shaken that Lady Macbeth has to take charge. In accordance with her plan, she frames Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by placing bloody daggers on them. Early the next morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. A porter opens the gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's body. In a supposed fit of anger, Macbeth murders the guards (in truth, he kills them to prevent them from claiming their innocence). Macduff is immediately suspicious of Macbeth, but does not reveal his suspicions publicly. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland, respectively, fearing that whoever killed Duncan desires their demise as well. The rightful heirs' flight makes them suspects and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman of the dead king. Banquo reveals this to the audience, and while skeptical of the new King Macbeth, remembers the witches' prophecy about how his own descendants would inherit the throne.
Despite his success, Macbeth, also aware of this part of the prophecy, remains uneasy. Macbeth invites Banquo to a royal banquet, where he discovers that Banquo and his young son, Fleance, will be riding out that night. Macbeth hires two men to kill them; a third murderer appears in the park before the murder. The assassins succeed in killing Banquo, but Fleance escapes. Macbeth becomes furious: as long as Fleance is alive, he fears that his power remains insecure. At the banquet, Macbeth invites his lords and Lady Macbeth to a night of drinking and merriment. Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Macbeth raves fearfully, startling his guests, as the ghost is only visible to himself. The others panic at the sight of Macbeth raging at an empty chair, until a desperate Lady Macbeth tells them that her husband is merely afflicted with a familiar and harmless malady. The ghost departs and returns once more, causing the same riotous anger in Macbeth. This time, Lady Macbeth tells the lords to leave, and they do so.
Macbeth, disturbed, visits the three witches once more and asks them to reveal the truth of their prophecies to him. To answer his questions, they summon horrible apparitions, each of which offers predictions and further prophecies to allay Macbeth’s fears. First, they conjure an armed head, which tells him to beware of Macduff (4.1.72). Second, a bloody child tells him that no one born of a woman shall be able to harm him. Thirdly, a crowned child holding a tree states that Macbeth will be safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth is relieved and feels secure, because he knows that all men are born of women and forests cannot move. Macbeth also asks if Banquo's sons will ever reign in Scotland: the witches conjure a procession of eight crowned kings, all similar in appearance to Banquo, and the last carrying a mirror that reflects even more kings. Macbeth realizes that these are all Banquo's descendants having acquired kingship in numerous countries. After the witches perform a mad dance and leave, Lennox enters and tells Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth orders Macduff's castle be seized, and, most cruelly, sends murderers to slaughter Macduff’s wife and children. Everyone in Macduff's castle is put to death, including Lady Macduff and their young son.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth becomes racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed. At night, in the king’s palace at Dunsinane, a doctor and a gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth’s strange habit of sleepwalking. Suddenly, Lady Macbeth enters in a trance with a candle in her hand. Bemoaning the murders of Duncan, Lady Macduff, and Banquo, she tries to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands, all the while speaking of the terrible things she knows she pressed her husband to do. She leaves, and the doctor and gentlewoman marvel at her descent into madness. Her belief that nothing can wash away the blood on her hands is an ironic reversal of her earlier claim to Macbeth that “[a] little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.66).
In England, Macduff is informed by Ross that his "castle is surprised; [his] wife and babes / Savagely slaughter'd" (4.3.204-5). When this news of his family’s execution reaches him, Macduff is stricken with grief and vows revenge. Prince Malcolm, Duncan’s son, has succeeded in raising an army in England, and Macduff joins him as he rides to Scotland to challenge Macbeth’s forces. The invasion has the support of the Scottish nobles, who are appalled and frightened by Macbeth’s tyrannical and murderous behavior. Malcolm leads an army, along with Macduff and Englishmen Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumberland, against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers.
Before Macbeth’s opponents arrive, he receives news that Lady Macbeth has killed herself, causing him to sink into a deep and pessimistic despair and deliver his "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy (5.5.17–28). Though he reflects on the brevity and meaninglessness of life, he nevertheless awaits the English and fortifies Dunsinane. He is certain that the witches’ prophecies guarantee his invincibility, but is struck numb with fear when he learns that the English army is advancing on Dunsinane shielded with boughs cut from Birnam Wood. Birnam Wood is indeed coming to Dunsinane, fulfilling half of the witches’ prophecy.
A battle culminates in the slaying of the young Siward and Macduff's confrontation with Macbeth, and the English forces overwhelm his army and castle. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, for he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (5.8.15–16), (i.e., born by Caesarean section) and was not "of woman born" (an example of a literary quibble), fulfilling the second prophecy. Macbeth realizes too late that he has misinterpreted the witches' words. Though he realizes that he is doomed, he continues to fight. Macduff kills and beheads him, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.
Macduff carries Macbeth's head onstage and Malcolm discusses how order has been restored. His last reference to Lady Macbeth, however, reveals "'tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life" (5.9.71–72), leading most to assume that she committed suicide, but the method is undisclosed. Malcolm, now the King of Scotland, declares his benevolent intentions for the country and invites all to see him crowned at Scone.
Although Malcolm, and not Fleance, is placed on the throne, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo ("Thou shalt get kings") was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true: James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.
A main theme within Macbeth is the destruction that follows when ambition goes beyond moral constraints. Macbeth is a brave general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil, yet he is deeply ambitious and desires power. He murders King Duncan against his better judgement and then wallows in guilt and paranoia. Toward the play's end, he is in a kind of boastful madness. Lady Macbeth pursues her goals with greater determination, yet is less capable of dealing with the guilt from her immorality. One of Shakespeare's most forceful female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong afterward, yet is herself eventually driven to death by the effect of Macbeth's murders on her conscience. In each case, ambition, spurred by the prophecies of the witches, is what drives the couple to commit their atrocities. An issue that the play raises is that once one decides to use violence to further one's quest for power, it is difficult to stop. Macbeth finds that there are always potential threats to the throne — such as Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff — and he is tempted to use violent means to dispose of them.
Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishing herself to be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the assassins he hires to murder Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression; whenever they discuss manhood, violence follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos.
However, in "Macbeth", women are prone to contain violence and evil intentions. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior, while Lady Macbeth provides the drive and the will behind her husband’s plotting. After reading the letter her husband has sent telling of the witches' prophecies about him, Lady Macbeth believes:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it
—Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act I, Scene IV
Furthermore, the only divine being to appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Because "Macbeth" traces the root of chaos and evil to women, some critics argue that it is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. The male characters are similarly brutal and prone to evil as the women, but the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it contradicts expectations of how women ought to behave. Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be just as ambitious and ruthless as men. Whether it is the gender constraints of her society or because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on manipulation of her husband rather than violence to achieve her ends.
The play does put forth less destructive definition of manhood towards the end. When Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles him unsympathetically with encouragement to take the news in “manly” fashion and use it to fuel his hatred of Macbeth. Macduff tells the young heir apparent that he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolm’s suggestion, “Dispute it like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.221–223). After hearing the news of his son's death at the hands of Macbeth, Siward receives this fact somewhat complacently. Malcolm responds: “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him” (5.11.16–17). Malcolm’s comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the feeling nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolm’s coronation, order will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Macbeths’ marriage, like the couple themselves, is atypical, particularly by the standards of its time. Yet despite their odd power dynamic, the two of them seem surprisingly attached to one another, particularly compared to other married couples in Shakespeare’s plays, in which romantic felicity appears primarily during courtship and marriages tend to be troubled. Macbeth offers an exception to this rule, as Macbeth and his wife are partners in the truest sense of the word. Of course, the irony of their “happy” marriage is clear—they are united by their crimes, their mutual madness, and their mounting alienation from the rest of humanity.
Though Macbeth is a brave general and a powerful lord, his wife is far from subordinate to his will. Indeed, she often seems to control him, either by crafty manipulation or by direct order. And it is Lady Macbeth’s deep-seated ambition, rather than her husband’s, that ultimately propels the plot of the play by goading Macbeth to murder Duncan. Macbeth does not need any help coming up with the idea of murdering Duncan, but it seems unlikely that he would have committed the murder without his wife’s powerful taunts and persuasions.