The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Macbeth is also a Scottish clan and an opera.
Scene from Macbeth by , 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 tuoteo the reign of James I, and place its composition around 1606.

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 tragedy—and is frequently performed 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.



The play opens with three bearded witches discussing when they will again meet. They say: "Where the place? / upon the heath./ There to meet with Macbeth" They decide to meet Macbeth and this meeting is what sends him down a path of destruction.

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and a general of the army of Duncan, King of Scotland, has gained great renown after defeating an invasion by the forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald. Duncan grants Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor and the honor of an official visit to Macbeth's home at Inverness.

At this time, Macbeth and his friend Banquo are wandering along a heath, where they meet three Witches. The first witch greets Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis," the second as "Thane of Cawdor ," and the third tells him that he shall "be King hereafter." The Witches also inform Banquo: "Thou shalt get [beget] kings, though thou be none." Macbeth is confused at being called "Thane of Cawdor," until the messenger arrives and tells Macbeth of his new title. Immediately, Macbeth wonders whether the Witches were also correct in predicting that he would become king.

Macbeth writes about the witches' prophecies in a letter to his wife (referred to only as "Lady Macbeth"). She immediately resolves that her husband will be king, and, moreover, will do it by killing Duncan. As luck would have it, Duncan is coming to stay in the Macbeths' castle that very night.

In the dead of night, Macbeth and his Lady kill Duncan and arrange the bloody daggers to make it look like two servants committed the murder. 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."

Duncan's body is discovered by Macduff, another lord, who is immediately suspicious of Macbeth. However, Macbeth kills the two servants who ostensibly committed the crime (so they won't talk), and ytryalso insinuates that Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, committed the murder. The rightful heir, Malcolm, along with his brother Donalbain, flee to England, where they are joined by Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife. Macbeth is proclaimed king.

Macbeth is still uneasy, though. He is apparently childless (although Lady Macbeth claims to have nursed a baby: "I have given suck") and worries about the Witches' prophecy that Banquo would be the father of kings. 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. That night, at the royal banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Macbeth is the only person who can see the ghost, and frightens his guests with his display of terror and guilt.

Macbeth goes to the Witches again and receives three more prophecies. 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. The stabbing of Macduff's childish son by the nameless "first murderer" is graphically depicted onstage.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff lament Macbeth's seizing of power, and lay plans for an invasion of Scotland.

Lady Macbeth eventually goes mad with guilt for the crimes she has committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands. She eventually dies, which causes Macbeth to ruminate on the futility of life.

Macduff, spurred into seeking revenge, cries "Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself / Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape / Heaven forgive him..." and leads a camouflaged army with Malcolm and the English Earl of Siward (the Elder) against Dunsinane castle. Macbeth delivers a nihilistic soliloquy upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the text does not explain how she died) but is interrupted by a messenger declaring that he "look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought / The wood began to move....Within this three mile may you see it coming;/ I say, a moving grove." A furious Macbeth responds in typical form: "At least we'll die with harness on our back." Meanwhile, the army is advancing on the castle. Malcolm appoints Siward and Macduff to lead the assault.

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 or its medieval equivalent —and was therefore was not "of woman born." The two fight, ending with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the witches' prophecies.

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

Recurring motifs

Macbeth's visions. Macbeth sees an imaginary bloody knife in the air pointing to King Duncan’s resting chamber “Is this not a dagger which I see before me, the hand toward my hand” (Act II Scene I). Macbeth knows what he is doing will change his life. Committing regicide is a sin that can’t be forgiven. Macbeth may see this through the supernatural powers of the three witches, or it may be another hallucination. Lady Macbeth believes there is blood on her hands that won’t come off “Out damned spot! Out I say!” (Act 5 Scene 1). Lady Macbeth here is sleepwalking and spot is being referred to as blood stained hands. Lady Macbeth can’t cleanse herself of the guilt of plotting King Duncan’s murder.

Blood and bloodshed. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth’s army has just defeated Norwegian invaders in a gruesome battle. A captain is mortally wounded and the king remarks on it, “What bloody man is that? He can report, as seemeth by his plight” (Act I Scene II). The shedding of blood continues throughout the play until the very end when Macbeth is slain by Macduff “Hail King! For so thou art: behold, where stands Th’ usurpers cursed head”. Macduff then shows Malcolm, the new king, Macbeth’s head dripping with blood. Blood can also be shown as representing guilt. When Macbeth kills King Duncan blood on his hand symbolizes guilt. Later in the play, Lady Macbeth believes that she sees blood on her hands.

Macbeth is seen as warning of the dangers of ambition, showing that ambition can be a morally corrupting agent.

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


  • Machbeth — 1847 opera by Giuseppe Verdi
  • Joe Macbeth — 1955 film noir resetting the story as a gangwar in Chicago
  • Throne of Blood — directed by Akira Kurosawa
  • MacBird — 1966 counterculture drama by Barbara Garson
  • Macbeth — 1998 TV movie on UK Channel 4, starring Sean Pertwee and set in an alternate present day Scotland
  • Maqbool — 2004 Hindi adaptation set in the Mumbai underworld.
  • Men of Respect — 1991 film, set as a Mafia power struggle in New York but otherwise very closely tracking the original
  • Scotland, PA — 2001 independent film retelling the story in the form of a black comedy set against the backdrop of a 1975 hamburger stand
  • Macbeth is a recurring character in the television series, Gargoyles; its backstory is a very loose version of the play. Macbeth is an immortal who has a long link and grudge with a renegade Gargoyle, Demona, and originally harassed the Manhattan clan in hopes of drawing her to him.

External links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy