The tragedy Macbeth is set in medieval Scotland. Three witches in a storm plan to meet Macbeth, a warrior and Thane, after the current battle, an uprising against King Duncan. As the victorious Macbeth and Banquo cross a heath, the witches appear to them. They address Macbeth first as Thane of Glamis (his current title), then as Thane of Cawdor (the title of one of the rebels) and finally as King. They also tell Banquo that his descendants shall be kings. The witches vanish and noblemen approach Macbeth to tell him that Duncan has named him the new Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth now understands the witches’ pronouncement as a prophecy. He writes to tell his wife what has happened. Lady Macbeth muses on ambition and invokes dark spirits to fill her with cruelty in preparation for helping Macbeth take the throne.
Duncan and his retinue come to Macbeth’s castle. The Macbeths plot to kill him. Macbeth has second thoughts, but is spurred on by his wife and commits the murder. He also kills Duncan’s guards and Lady Macbeth plants the bloody daggers on them. A knocking at the gate rouses the household and Duncan’s corpse is discovered. Macbeth claims to have killed the guards in righteous fury. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee in fear of their lives. Macbeth takes the crown.
Macbeth remembers that Banquo witnessed the witches’ prophecy and hires murderers to kill him and his son, Fleance; Fleance escapes. Macbeth is haunted by Banquo’s ghost at a feast. Lennox recognises Macbeth’s guilt, and Macduff goes to England to summon military aid. Macbeth seeks further counsel from the witches, who produce visions that tell Macbeth to be wary of Macduff, but that he cannot be harmed by any man born of woman, nor will he be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. A fourth vision shows that Banquo’s descendants will be kings.
The play descends further into darkness as Macbeth has Macduff’s family slaughtered and learns that Lady Macbeth has gone mad with guilt. She dies, probably by suicide. Malcolm, Macduff and the other nobles take arms against Macbeth. The advancing army camouflage themselves by cutting boughs from Birnam Wood, creating the impression that the wood is coming to the hill. Macduff and Macbeth fight; Macduff reveals that he was not ‘born’ but rather cut from his mother’s womb. He kills Macbeth and Malcolm is crowned King.
- Article by:
- Sandra M. Gilbert
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies
Sandra M. Gilbert considers how Lady Macbeth in her murderous ambition goes beyond prescribed gender roles, but in doing so only succeeds in monstering herself and becoming a parody of womanhood, until madness again confines her to feminine helplessness.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language, word play and text, Tragedies
In Macbeth, Shakespeare coins an extraordinary number of words and phrases, including 'assassination', 'unsex' and 'stealthy'. David Crystal shows how these linguistic innovations help express the action and atmosphere of the play and the troubled psychology of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Carole Levin
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Tragedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Did Shakespeare’s contemporaries believe in witches? Carole Levin looks at witchcraft trials in the 16th century and considers their relation to the ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth.
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