In this lesson, we’ll follow how ambition shapes the events of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, ‘Macbeth’. We’ll explore the plot, characters and supernatural elements that are characteristic of this play.
Macbeth: Intro ; Characters
We’re going to talk about Macbeth.
It was written in about 1607, though there’s kind of debate about that. It’s counted among one of Shakespeare’s Four Great Tragedies, and in my humble opinion, Macbeth is really the most awesome Shakespeare play. It’s got everything – murder, mayhem, ghosts, blood, witches, kilts – emphasis on the kilts (unless you watch the 2006 movie adaptation, which is set in modern-day Australia, which is very disappointing).If you want to keep something in mind as we go through the plot, Macbeth is ultimately a fable about the perils of ambition – a really key word in Macbeth.
And it’s creepy, so much that there’s a superstition about saying ‘Macbeth’ out loud in a theater. It’s considered bad luck. There are all sorts of legends about really ill-fated performances, actors dying, sets falling apart and theaters closing, all because someone said ‘Macbeth.’ So, even though the curse is definitely not real, some actors prefer to call it ‘The Scottish Play’ instead of Macbeth.So, what happens in this creepy, cursed play? Lots of awesome stuff! First, we’re going to go over who’s who:You’ve got the character Macbeth, who is, as the play opens, the Thane of Glamis. Thane is just Scottish kilt-talk for nobleman/military guy. You’ve got Lady Macbeth, who’s Macbeth’s wife.
She’s kind of mean! We’ll see that soon enough. You’ve got Banquo, who’s a friend of Macbeth and also another army guy; Duncan, who’s the King of Scotland and Macduff, who is the Thane of Fife; so, another guy who’s about equivalent to Macbeth in terms of rank. You’ve also got the Witches, who are pretty self-explanatory. They’re usually portrayed as kind of old and grizzled.
Act I: Prophecy
So, what happens? In Act I, we start out right off the bat with the witches.
We’re going to take that to the stage:First Witch:When shall we three meet againIn thunder, lightning, or in rain?Second Witch:When the hurlyburly’s done,When the battle’s lost and won.Third Witch:That will be ere the set of sun.First Witch:Where the place?Second Witch:Upon the heath.
Third Witch:There to meet with Macbeth.First Witch:I come, Graymalkin!Second Witch:Paddock calls.Third Witch:Anon.ALL:Fair is foul, and foul is fair:Hover through the fog and filthy air.So, they’re being creepy and casting a spell that has something to do with Macbeth, and that’s how the play opens. It sets the tone really well; it’s kind of dark and stormy – witchcraft-y. It’s awesome.
Macbeth and Banquo are feeling really great about themselves because they’ve just won a big battle against the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, another thane. They’re wandering around the heath, heading home, probably to drink mead and listen to bagpipes, and they run into the witches:First Witch:All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!Second Witch:All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!Third Witch:All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!Hmm… that’s curious. They hail him as Thane of Glamis, which we know he is. We can check on that. But he’s not the Thane of Cawdor; he just beat the Thane of Cawdor in battle. That’s what he and Banquo were just doing. And he’s certainly not king.
Sounds like that might be a little bit of a prophecy, maybe. And they don’t leave Banquo out of this:Third Witch:Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!So, Banquo is going to father a bunch of kings. That’s what they’re saying, basically. Macbeth is going to be all these cool things, and Banquo is going to father a line of kings. They can’t really get any more detail out of the witches.
You usually can’t when people make prophecies; they like to be a little obtuse. And Banquo thinks it’s maybe not the best idea to pay that much attention to it and take it too literally.But then, Macbeth actually finds out that he is going to be Thane of Cawdor because the old Thane – the one they beat in battle – is going to be executed for being a traitor, and Macbeth is going to get his title. So, already one part of their prophecy is coming true, and so the gears start turning about how he’s going to get to be the king hereafter.Macbeth and Banquo go to see the current king, Duncan, to get congratulated for their success in person. Macbeth invites Duncan to come down to his castle for a little bit of feasting, probably haggis or maybe MacDonalds (haha).Meanwhile, back at the castle, Lady Macbeth is reading a note from Macbeth describing what happened with the witch encounter.
She’s worried that he might not have the balls to make the whole ‘king hereafter’ part happen. She says, ‘Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way:‘ She thinks he’s ambitious but he’s not mean enough to really get it done. A messenger comes to tell her that Duncan is on his way, and she’s excited because this will give them the opportunity they need to make the whole ‘king’ thing happen. We’ll take that to the stage:Lady Macbeth:The raven himself is hoarseThat croaks the fatal entrance of DuncanUnder my battlements. Come, you spiritsThat tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,And fill me from the crown to the toe top-fullOf direst cruelty!So, she’s basically saying ‘make me not a woman; make me mean!’ That’s what ‘unsex’ means in this case.
I don’t know what you could think it means… anti-sex? I don’t know. ‘Make me really nasty and full of cruelty’ is basically what she’s saying, so she can make Duncan’s entrance fatal and make Macbeth king.
They welcome Duncan. They discuss the plan. Macbeth’s not totally on board, but Lady Macbeth convinces him to do it by, basically, calling him ‘not a man.’ They’re going to kill Duncan in his sleep and blame it on the guards; that is the plan.
Act II: Macbeth Kills Duncan ; Rises to King
So, Act II; it’s almost time to do it. Macbeth has a vision of a dagger floating in the air covered in blood, and then it’s time to do the deed.
Lady Macbeth is worried that he’s going to bungle it in some way because she hears noises, and it’s supposed to be a quiet operation.He comes back and it’s done. He’s killed Duncan, but he’s forgotten to leave the daggers by the guards. That was the whole point, right? They did it. So, Lady Macbeth is like ‘if you need something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.’ She goes and deals with it.
Macbeth freaks out while she’s gone. He’s freaking out because there’s so much blood. So he says:Macbeth:Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this bloodClean from my hand? No, this my hand will ratherThe multitudinous seas in incarnadine,Making the green one red.
The presence of blood signifying guilt that can’t be ‘washed away’ will actually come back importantly later. Keep that in mind.So, Lady Macbeth deals with it.
Macbeth is freaking out. Macduff (again, one of the other thanes who’s hanging out at the house) ends up being the one to find the king dead. He’s a little suspicious. But now, all hail Macbeth! Macbeth is king! But Duncan’s kids are not happy about this, so they’re plotting revenge.
Act III: Macbeth Kills Banquo
Now it’s Act III, and Banquo is kind of sniffing around, thinking that if Macbeth’s prophecy came true – he got to be Thane of Cawdor and king hereafter – why won’t his prophecy come true? Good thinking. Funnily enough, Macbeth is thinking the same thing and is actually plotting to kill Banquo and his son so that Banquo can’t father a line of kings like the witches prophesized. He is just a fantastic friend; he’s kind of on a roll with killing people.
He gets some dudes to kill Banquo and his son when they come to the palace for a feast. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come into the feasting hall. They find out that Banquo has been successfully killed but that his son actually escaped. The whole point was to get both of them because now the son can still father kings.
And if that weren’t bad enough, when Macbeth goes to sit down at the dinner table, he finds that his seat is occupied by Banquo’s ghost. He freaks out. Lady Macbeth sends everyone away.
She’s kind of embarrassed by her husband because she thinks he’s not the manliest man, and this is further evidence of it. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk about it, and Macbeth says that now that he’s killed the king and he’s killed Banquo, he’s gone so far toward being a really bad dude that he might as well keep going. It’s going to be just as easy to go forward as to go back. So, he’s going to talk to the witches to figure out who else he should kill to ensure that he’s going to be able to stay on the throne.
Act IV: Macbeth Visits the Witches
In Act IV, we’re back to the witches, who are awesome. If you remember that Mary Kate and Ashley movie Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, which I do, fondly, or anything else that uses that phrase, that comes from Macbeth right here in Act IV. It’s right here:All Witches:Double, double toil and trouble;Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Second Witch:By the pricking of my thumbs,Something wicked this way comes.And then Macbeth turns up, and he asks what he should do. A bunch of weird ghost-y things climb out of the pot and tell him stuff.
One of them says to beware the Thane of Fife, who you might remember is Macduff (if you don’t, that’s fine; there are a lot of thanes). The second one says that ‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,‘ which would seem to rule out most people; most people are born of woman because that’s kind of how that works. The third one says that Macbeth will be fine unless Birnam Wood (a forest) moves to Dunsinane, which is Macbeth’s palace.So, Macbeth’s thinking, no one born of woman… nothing bad is going to happen until the forest moves to Dunsinane; this all seems kind of absurd, and it kind of seems like he’s going to be fine.
Macbeth’s starting to think that he’s got nothing to worry about because none of these things are going to come true. But these kind of restrictions are just begging to find exceptions in some way. So, you might not want to think you’re so safe.But the pot’s not done; it starts to make some more gurgling noises, and all these ghostly figures of all of Banquo’s kingly sons emerge in a procession to taunt him. ‘Nanananana, we’re Banquo’s sons; you didn’t get his kid,’ is basically what they’re saying. So, that’s kind of unnerving.Even though he thinks he’s probably going to be fine, Macbeth decides that he really ought to take care of Macduff because he was warned about him, and why not? He’s already killed a lot of people.
So, he sends some cronies to go take care of that.Macduff actually isn’t at his house, so the cronies kill his wife and son instead. We’ve got quite the body count so far – might as well call him ‘Macdeath.’ Macduff was actually down in England talking with one of Duncan’s sons, Malcolm. They were going to team up to oust Macbeth because they were done with Macbeth’s reign of terror.
Act V: Lady Macbeth and Macbeth Die
Now we’re in Act V. We’re on the home stretch! This act is action-packed.
Lady Macbeth is not doing well. She is driven mad by guilt. She’s convinced that she’s still got blood on her hands (remember how Macbeth was worried about that in Act I?). This comes back for her in a really significant way. She says: ‘Out, damned spot! out, I say! — One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. — Hell is murky!‘ She’s freaking out, and people are watching her, and she’s totally oblivious.Military forces of Malcolm and Macduff are gathering outside the castle; they’re getting ready to trounce Macbeth.
They decide that they’re going to hold tree branches in front of themselves in order to disguise their numbers. So, huh… tree branches..
. forest… Birnam Wood..
. people moving with tree branches..
. this is starting to sound familiar.Then Macbeth gets some unsettling news.
Lady Macbeth has killed herself. And then he gives the best speech ever, this haunting meditation on mortality, time and the relentlessness of existence. It’s just gorgeous. Here it is:Macbeth:She should have died hereafter;There would have been time for such a word.To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.So, basically, life is meaningless, and it keeps coming at you: ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.’ There’s nothing more or less; it’s just a poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, and then the play is over – kind of a nice play metaphor within the play.So then, right on time, someone comes to tell him that Birnam Wood seems to be marching to Dunsinane because there are those warriors with the branches in front of them. And the battle begins! Eventually, Macbeth runs into Macduff, who tells him that he was ‘from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d.
‘ So, he wasn’t really ‘born,’ he was yanked out via some early Scottish C-section! So, now Macbeth is really starting to think ‘okay, I guess these things are coming true, and I really might die.’ He still fights. He’s eventually killed, and then Malcolm, who was one of Duncan’s sons, gets to be king.
And that’s the end!
That’s my favorite. I think it’s awesome. You can see how it’s all about ambition but also magic and Scottish-ness, which is also what makes it great. There are so many murders, and there’s such an interesting dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth because she starts out the one who’s got all the ambition and is really into getting him to be king. She’s kind of bloodthirsty; remember all that stuff about ‘unsexing’ her and complaining that Macbeth was too full of the ‘milk of human kindness‘? As it progresses, Macbeth gets more into it, and he kind of crosses the line from being spurred into to doing it himself. He takes it to its natural conclusion, and she can’t take the heat. With the ‘Out, out damn spot!‘ speech, she gets overwhelmed by the guilt of doing it all.
And then, there are the witches, who are awesome with all of those awesome spells they cast, which people thought were maybe real spells; that’s kind of why they were superstitious about performing it.Double, double toil and trouble!Something wicked this way comes.And the way that they convince him he’s going to be fine, but we know the forest is going to come to Dunsinane, and there is going to be someone that’s not born of woman.
All of that mystical, supernatural stuff is very cool, and it accentuates an already compelling story. So, it’s a Great Tragedy, but it’s also just a great tragedy and a great play. And that’s Macbeth.