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Macbeth is also a Scottish clan.

Scene from Macbeth by William Rimmer , depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I
Scene from Macbeth by William Rimmer , depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I

Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, based loosely on the historical King Macbeth of Scotland. Scholars think it an archetypal Jacobean play with plenty of references to the reign of James I, and place its composition around 1608.

There is considerable evidence that the text of the play as we have it incorporates later revisions by Thomas Middleton, which insert popular passages (notably extra scenes involving the witches, for such scenes proved highly popular with audiences) from his own play The Witch (1615).

Actors often consider this play to be 'unlucky', and usually refer to it as 'the Scottish play' rather than by name. To say the name of the play inside a theatre is considered to doom the production to failure.

On the stage Lady Macbeth is seen by many as one of the most challenging roles in Western theater for women. She is driven mad for her part in the king's crimes and dies off stage in the final act.

The play is one of Shakespeare's most popular works - as well as his shortest - and is frequently preformed at professional and community theatres around the world. It is seen as an archetypal tale of dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.



Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and a general of the army of Duncan, King of Scotland, quickly rises through the ranks after a great victory over the rebel Macdonwald. Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor for his valor, initiating his rise to power. Inspired by the witches' prediction that he would become king and by both his and his wife's lust for power, the couple murder the king, and Macbeth becomes King of Scotland himself. After the murder, Macbeth hears a voice inside his head, proclaiming "Sleep no more... Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more." The rightful heir, Malcolm, along with his brother Donalbain, flee to England, where they are joined by Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife.

Macbeth's friend Banquo, who, the witches have predicted, will "get kings, though [he] be none," (that is, be progenitor of the kings of Scotland, thereby jeopardizing Macbeth's rule) begins to suspect Macbeth. Macbeth, becoming more paranoid, evil, and suffering from insomnia, orders Banquo's murder in order to prevent the prediction from coming true. However, Banquo's son, Fleance, escapes the assassins. Macbeth is haunted by Banquo's ghost, whilst Lady Macbeth also suffers pangs of remorse, and constantly sleep-walks.

Urged on by Macbeth, the witches conjure spirits which tell him that he will not "vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him" and that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," but also to "fear Macduff". Since Macduff is in exile, Macbeth orders the murder of his wife and children. Macduff, spurred into seeking revenge, leads an army with Malcom and the English Earl of Siward against Dunsinane castle. They camouflage themselves with boughs from Birnam Wood and move toward Dunsinane. Macbeth delivers a nihilistic soliloquy upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (some productions suggest that she took her own life, others are less specific) but is interrupted by a messenger declaring that he "look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought / The wood began to move." The army is advancing on the castle.

A battle ensues, culminating in Macduff's confrontation of Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he "was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" - that is, born by Caesarean section - and was therefore was not "of woman born." The two fight, ending with Macduff beheading Macbeth, thereby fulfilling the last of the witches' prophecies.

In the final scene of the play, Malcolm is crowned as rightful king of Scotland, and peace is restored to the kingdom.

Shakespeare's sources

  • Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, based on Hector Boece's 1527 Scotorum Historiae.
  • Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft
  • King James I of England's 1599 Daemonologie
  • Macbeth's words on dogs and men in Act 3, scene 1, (91-100), likely came from Erasmus' Colloquia

Film versions

Opera versions


External links

Wikisource has original text from:
The Tragedy of Macbeth

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45