The Tragedy of Macbeth is among the most popular of William Shakespeare's plays, as well as his shortest tragedy. It is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world.

The play is seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends. It is loosely based upon the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland by the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece. Boece's account flattered the antecedents of his patron, King James VI of Scotland (also known as King James I of England), and greatly maligned the real-life Macbeth, the King of Scots.

Macbeth incorporates the characteristic features of a morality play. Scholars think it is an archetypal Jacobean play with plenty of endorsements of James I's reign and place its composition around 1606. There is considerable evidence that the text of the play incorporates later revisions by Thomas Middleton, who inserted popular passages from his own play The Witch (1615), most notably an extra scene involving the witches and Hecate, because these scenes proved highly popular with audiences. These revisions, which include all of Act III, Scene v, and a portion of Act IV, Scene i, are generally indicated as such in modern texts.

On the stage, Lady Macbeth is considered one of the more difficult female roles because of her intensity and varied emotions.

Actors and other theatre people often consider the play to be 'unlucky', and usually refer to it superstitiously as The Scottish Play rather than by name. The characters are sometimes referred to as Mackers and Lady Mackers. To say the name of the play inside a theatre is believed to doom the production to failure, and perhaps cause physical injury or worse to cast members.

The play opens with the three Witches, the Weird Sisters, discussing their upcoming meeting with Macbeth. Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, and Banquo, both generals for King Duncan of Scotland, have just defeated an invasion of Scotland by the allied forces of Norway and Ireland led by the rebel Macdonwald.

As Macbeth and Banquo wander into a heath the three Witches greet them with prophecies. The first witch hails Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis", the second as "Thane of Cawdor", and the third that he shall "be King hereafter". The Witches also inform Banquo he shall be father of a line of kings. While they wonder at these prophecies, the witches disappear, and the Thane of Ross -- a messenger from the King -- arrives and informs Macbeth of his new title, Thane of Cawdor. The first prophecy is thus fulfilled (as Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis). Immediately Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming king.

Macbeth writes to his wife about the witches' prophecies. Duncan decides to stay at Macbeth's castle at Inverness and Lady Macbeth hatches up a plan to murder him and secure the throne for her husband. While Macbeth raises concerns about the regicide, Lady Macbeth eventually manages to persuade him.

In the night, Macbeth kills Duncan and Lady Macbeth arranges bloody daggers to frame Duncan's servants for the murder. Early the next morning Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. The porter opens the gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's corpse. In a sham fit of fury Macbeth murders the servants before they can protest their innocence. Macduff is immediately suspicious of Macbeth, but fearing for their lives, Duncan's son Malcolm flees to England, and his brother Donalbain to Ireland. With the rightful heirs gone, Macbeth assumes the throne as new King of Scotland because of his relation to the dead King.

Despite his success, Macbeth remains uneasy regarding the prophecy that Banquo would be progenitor of kings. Macbeth therefore sees Banquo as an element jeopardising his rule. Macbeth invites Banquo to a royal banquet that he is holding that night and asks when Banquo and his son, Fleance, will return to his castle. In secret he then incites murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance. While they succeed in cutting Banquo's throat, Fleance is able to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Macbeth is the only person who can see it, and his display of terror and his monologue cast doubt on his guiltlessness.

Disturbed, Macbeth goes to the Witches to receive more prophecies. They conjure up three spirits which tell him to "beware Macduff", but also that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and he will not "vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high (Dunsinane Hill) shall come against him". Since Macduff is in exile, Macbeth massacres everyone in Macduff's castle, including Macduff's wife and children.

Lady Macbeth eventually becomes racked mentally with guilt from the crimes she has committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff plan for an invasion of Scotland. Macduff leads a camouflaged army with Malcolm and Englishman Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth delivers a famous nihilistic soliloquy ("Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" etc.) upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the cause of it is unexplained although it is generally assumed that she committed suicide). Meanwhile, Malcolm's army advances as though in a moving wood, as they have cut off the trunks of the forest while moving as camouflage.

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 born by Caesarean section (before his mother's actual delivery) -- and was therefore not "of woman born". Too late Macbeth realises the Witches have been equivocating. A fight ensues, which ends with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the witches' prophecies.

In the final scene of the play, Malcolm is crowned as rightful King of Scotland, suggesting that peace is restored to the kingdom. However, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo, "Thou shalt [be]get kings", was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true, as James I of England was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.

Recurring motifs and themes

  • Ambition and Betrayal. Thematically, Macbeth is seen as warning of the dangers of ambition, showing that ambition can be a morally corrupting agent. Ambition can be seen as Macbeth's tragic flaw: it consumes him -- ironically, by the end of the play, it consumes him in the other sense of the word. Betrayal goes hand-in-hand with ambition, and it is another theme: Macbeth betrays both his own king and his friend by killing Duncan and then Banquo, respectively. Interestingly, Macbeth's murder of Duncan early in the play, an act of treason, (Act 2, Scene 2) then later, in the middle of the play (Act 3) the murder of Banquo emphasizes the thematic importance of the murder of Duncan. Betrayal is also shown when, after the prophecy, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor after the previous Thane is executed for betrayal against the king, and as Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth betrays the King by murdering him.
  • Visions. Macbeth hallucinates that he sees a bloody dagger floating in the air, pointing to King Duncan's resting chamber "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand" (Act 2, Scene 1). 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. Though it is not clear whether it is a mere vision or not, some believe that the ghost of Banquo, which Macbeth sees at the Royal Banquet, is a figment of his guilty conscience. Of course, one could also argue that a real ghost would not be unusual in a play that includes supernatural witches and apparitions.
  • 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 1, Scene 2). Blood thus symbolizes the advent of a messenger, the admonitions of God or nature displaying man his future in red letters. The cauldron of the witches, that whispering-post of the Fates, is filled with blood. 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. Though the tyrant's mouth no longer speaks, his bloody droplets proclaim the message of his life, and in death he becomes a kind of prophet. 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, in her midnight ramble, believes that she sees blood on her hands.
  • Clothing. Clothing is a frequently used metaphor within Macbeth, a direct symbolism of morals, stature, violence, ambition and admiration. One should consider the various references within the play to blood-stained clothes. As the skin of the body is made to yield its precious scarlet freight, the product of the loom yet holds it. Bloody clothes are converted to crimson banners, tattling the death of kings. "Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!" (Act II, Scene 4) "-And I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people/Which would be worn now in their newest gloss/Not cast aside so soon." (Act I, Scene 7) The metaphor of clothing is also used as a representation of the responsibility of a title - Macbeth says "Why do you dress me/In borrowed robes?" (Act I, Scene 3) when greeted by the Thanes Ross and Angus with his new title Thane of Cawdor. In the times of Macbeth, clothing was often used as a symbol of office.
  • The baby and child. The unborn and born youth are frequently made reference to. Children and babies represent innocence, purity and vulnerability. The foolish babbling of the baby contrasts starkly with the dark meditations of Macbeth. They are used to accentuate the cruel nature of various dramatis personae such as Macbeth and Lady, i.e. the killing of Macduff's son, Lady Macbeth's graphic retort to Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 7), "I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this." (Quote represents lack of compassion)
  • Hands. Hands are the instruments of evil, the physical manifestation that shall carry out the desires of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. One often refers to pure and untainted hands of saints. In this context, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are constantly plagued by illusions of their blood stained hands, signifies sullied and tainted souls that cannot redeem their actions. Yet Macbeth's hand is also the mighty instrument that swings his sword, and drives his murdering knife. Guilt is implicit in the act.
  • Natural Order. The 'unnatural' replacement of Duncan by Macbeth disturbs the natural order of the royal lineage. Shakespearean context valued the divinity of the king, i.e. the king is selected by a greater being- i.e. of a preordained nature. Thus, by unnatural replacement of the king, Macbeth has invoked the wrath of greater beings- nature has been disturbed and thrown into turmoil (i.e. horses cannibalise each other, a small owl kills a regal hawk). Through these examples, viewers see that the Great Chain of Being has been disrupted.
  • Insomnia. The commonly acknowledged 'cleansing sleep', ("Balm of hurt minds" - Act 2, Scene 2) is made a common reference in this play. "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep- the innocent sleep" (Act 2, Scene 2). Insomnia and sleep walking are rendered upon the two main characters. Insomnia represents the constant disease of guilt and conscience. It represents the fear of death, brought on by Macbeth's interminable slaughter. When a sailor's wife denies the First Witch the chestnuts that she is eating, the First Witch curses the sailor and denies him sleep: "Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid" (I.iii.19-20).
  • Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Ambiguity. Shakespeare shows in the play a connection between masculinity, and violence and ambition. In the beginning where Lady Macbeth says, "when you durst do it, then you are a man," (1.7.48) she is saying that if Macbeth were masculine, he could kill Duncan, and become King of Scotland. An even more blatant reference is in Lady Macbeth's early speech including the line "Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!" The "here" clearly refers to her genitals (although not all modern actresses can bring themselves to make that obvious). Later the "dagger of the mind" (2.1.39) that Macbeth sees, and cannot grasp, represents his masculinity. If he can grasp it, then he can kill Duncan and become king. When it comes time to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth cannot do it, saying, "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." (Act 2, Scene 2) Shakespeare is saying that a woman, being not as masculine as a man, cannot kill directly. In the play, women play another role: that of manipulation. The women of the play manipulate Macbeth into doing their bidding. The witches awaken Macbeth's ambitions, and then Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to kill King Duncan.
  • Marriage. The women in the play are only known by their husband's name, such as "Lady Macbeth" and "Lady Macduff". Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan together, for their ascension to King and Queen of Scotland. Shakespeare is a proponent of having husband and wife be one unit, and responsible for each other's actions. In Act 4 scene 2 after Macduff goes to England with Malcolm Lady Macduff says, "From Whence himself [Macduff] does fly? / He loves us not He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren, / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, / Her young ones in her nest, against the owl. / all is the fear and nothing is the love." She is saying that Macduff should be at his castle with his wife and family, protecting them. When Macbeth's murderers kill Macduff's family (according to Shakespeare) it is his fault, because he wasn't there to protect them.
  • Appearance vs reality. Other themes include illusion vs. reality, as evinced in Macbeth's visions and the optical illusion of the moving forest and kingship, which deals with questions of who should be the rightful monarch (which is why the regicide of Duncan leads to aberrations in the natural world). Destiny vs. free will comes into play as a theme, with destiny ultimately winning out (no matter how hard Macbeth tries, he is not destined to beget kings).
  • Moral Ambiguity. The witches, servants of the devil, and their dark prophecy steer Macbeth through the play. Early on in the play, the witches set an overall tone of moral uncertainty with their chanting. The evil in Macbeth grows throughout the play. In the beginning he is reluctant to commit murder, but slowly murder becomes easier, at the turning point of the play Macbeth says, "Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." (3.4.138-139) He has decided it would be just as easy to keep killing and murdering as it would to repent and turn back. It is also noteworthy that the more evil Macbeth gets, the more lines the witches have in each Act.
  • Conflict and Opposition. The play is full of contradictory statements such as, "When the battle's lost and won," (1.1.4)-- though the battle was lost for one side and won for the other-- and "Fair is foul, and foul is fair", (1.1.12) from the witches in Act I. Macbeth's first line in the play is: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." (1.3.38) Shakespeare's portrayal of Macbeth's world as a confusing and chaotic one. This mirrors the moral dilemma involved in the plot to kill the King, and Macbeth's indecision. More often than not, however, the sentence is seen as suggesting that "nothing will be what it seems." Other themes include illusion vs. reality, as evinced in Macbeth's visions and the optical illusion of the moving forest and kingship, which deals with questions of who should be the rightful monarch (which is why the regicide of Duncan leads to aberrations in the natural world). Destiny vs. free will comes into play as a theme, with destiny ultimately winning out (no matter how hard Macbeth tries, he is not destined to beget kings).
  • War. The two opposing sides of the battle that takes place in Fife, is disapprovingly compared to "...two spent swimmers, that do cling together / and choke their art" (I.ii.9). Before Macbeth enters the stage, Macbeth is ironically praised for inhumanely eviscerating the traitorous Macdonwald: "...he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops" (I.ii.22). In this same scene, Macbeth is honored by the Thane of Ross when Ross calls Macbeth "Bellona's bridegroom" (I.ii.54).
  • Corrupting Power of Pure Emotion. In the beginning of the play, Macbeth respects societal expectations of him and thus falters in his ambitions to commit regicide; only through the influence of the witches and Lady Macbeth does he gather the will to murder Duncan. From this point, however, Macbeth begins to act more and more compulsively, such as when he orders the murders of Banquo and Fleance; in Act IV, he commits himself completely to living based on his bare impulses: "From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand" (IV.i.168-170). After making this pledge, Macbeth becomes a highly erratic mess of fitful remarks and emotional outbursts, and eventually tosses himself into inevitable defeat at the hands of Macduff after spending the entire play jealously guarding his life and crown.
  • Internal Struggle. In the first two acts of the play, Macbeth struggles with morality and ambition, trying desperately to reconcile the two. After act two, he struggles instead to reconcile with his regicidal 'new self,' finally failing the task and falling into utter moral darkness and completely abandoning all optimistic perspective, his old "greatness" decaying until his "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" speech, when he has given up on all hope of self-reconciliation.

Text of the play

Macbeth was first printed in the First Folio of 1623. The Folio is the only authoritative source for the text. This is regrettable, as the text has been plainly altered by later hands. Most notable is the inclusion of two songs from Thomas Middleton's later play The Witch, on the basis of which many scholars reject all three of the interludes with the goddess Hecate as inauthentic and added by a later editor, possibly Middleton himself. Even with the Hecate material, the play is conspicuously short, indicating that the Folio text may derive from a promptbook that had been substantially cut for performance.

King James VI of Scotland (King James I of England)

The parade of eight kings which the witches show Macbeth in a vision in Act IV is generally taken to represent the Stuart line, and be intended as a compliment to King James VI of Scotland, who had recently been crowned James I of England when the play was written.

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In a thunderstorm, three witches decide to meet again on the heath "after the deed is done." Next, a captain reports to King Duncan that Macbeth beat Macdonwald in battle. Ross adds that the Thane of Cawdor was traitorous to Scotland during the battle. The three witches confront Macbeth and Banquo on their way home from the battle. They predict that Macbeth will be King of Scotland, and Banquo, though never king himself, will beget rulers. The witches leave and Ross informs Macbeth that he has inherited the title Thane of Cawdor (as also predicted by the witches). Macbeth contemplates the prediction of him being king, and wonders if he should help make it happen. Malcolm reports to King Duncan that Cawdor admitted his traitorous deeds at his execution. The king then warmly greets Macbeth and Banquo. To Macbeth's dismay, King Duncan declares his eldest son, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland (i.e. the next king). At Inverness Castle, Macbeth's wife learns of his encounter with the witches and decides that she'll persuade Macbeth to fulfill his destiny through foul play. She then learns that King Duncan is coming to her castle to stay the night, strengthening her decision to murder Duncan. Macbeth appears and his wife tells him she'll do the foul deed herself. Duncan arrives and Macbeth tells his wife he doesn't want to murder Duncan. She talks him into it, adding that they'll frame Duncan's own guards with the murder.

Past midnight, Macbeth converses with Banquo, then alone, hallucinates that a bloody dagger is in front of him. Macbeth meets his wife and tells her he murdered Duncan. He also begins hearing voices. Macbeth forgets to return the daggers to the king's guards, so his wife does it for him, bloodying herself too, as Macbeth loses himself in insanity. They return to their chambers as Macduff and Lennox appear at the castle gates. Macbeth greets them and they ask to see Duncan. Macduff and Macbeth "discover" the body. Macbeth accidentally admits of the murder, then recants. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee to England and Ireland, fearing for their own lives. Subsequently, Macduff and Ross discuss that all have decided that Malcolm and Donalbain bribed the guards to kill Duncan. Consequently, Macbeth is declared king.

At Scotland's castle (Forres), Macbeth contemplates how he fears Banquo may give breed to children who may overthrow Macbeth. Macbeth convinces (hires) to men to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. Macbeth scares his wife by informing her of Banquo and Fleance's impending death. The murderers successfully murder Banquo, but Fleance escapes. At dinner, Macbeth imagines he sees Banquo's ghost causing his wife to excuse the dinner guests.

On the heath, The three witches make a brew chanting "double, double, toil and trouble." Macbeth approaches and asks three questions. The witches answer: 1. Beware Macduff, 2. None of woman borne will harm Macbeth, and 3. Macbeth will until Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane Hill. Finally, the ghost of Banquo appears, showing his eight future royal offspring. Lennox and another Lord discuss that Macduff has gone to England to convince the innocent Malcolm to join arms with Northumberland and Siward against Macbeth. They inform Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth vows to fight them at Fife. Lady Macduff laments that her husband, a traitor, is virtually dead. Villains come and kill her son since he supports his father. In England, Macduff and Malcolm agree to fight together against Macbeth. Ross delivers the devastating news to Macduff that his son and wife are dead.

A doctor and servant observe Macbeth's wife's sleepwalking and sleep-talking about Duncan's death. Menteith, Angus, Caithness, and Lennox discuss the impending battle with Macbeth and Birnam wood. An Dunsinane Castle, Macbeth is informed that an army of 10,000 is near. At Birnam wood, Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut the trees and use them as disguises. In the castle, Macbeth learns that his wife has died by her own hand, then learns, to his dismay, that Birnam wood is "moving" toward the castle. The army arrives and Macbeth fights and kills young Siward. Next, Macduff and Macbeth fight. Macduff informs Macbeth that he (Macduff) was ripped from his mother's womb, and thus not born of woman. Soon after, Macduff kills Macbeth. Macduff then crowns Malcolm the new King of Scotland.