‘Macbeth’ Study Guide
King Duncan hears of Macbeth’s heroics at war and bestows the title Thane of Cawdor on him. The current Thane of Cawdor has been deemed a traitor and the king orders that he be killed.
The Three Witches
Unaware of this, Macbeth and Banquo meet three witches on a heath who predict that Macbeth will inherit the title and eventually become king. They tell Banquo that he will be happy and that his sons will inherit the throne.
Macbeth is then informed that he has been named Thane of Cawdor and his belief in the witches’ prophecy is confirmed.
King Duncan’s Murder
Macbeth contemplates his fate and Lady Macbeth encourages him to act to ensure the prophecy is realized.
A feast is organized to which King Duncan and his sons are invited. Lady Macbeth hatches a plot to kill King Duncan while he sleeps and encourages Macbeth to carry out the plan.
After the murder, Macbeth is full of regret. Lady Macbeth scorns him for his cowardly behavior. When Macbeth realizes that he has forgotten to leave the knife at the scene of the crime, Lady Macbeth takes over and completes the deed.
Macduff finds the dead King and Macbeth accuses the Chamberlains of murder. King Duncan’s sons flee in fear of their lives.
Banquo questions the witches’ predictions and wants to discuss them with Macbeth. Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat and employs murderers to kill him and his son, Fleance. The murderers botch the job and only manage to kill Banquo. Fleance flees the scene and is blamed for his father’s death.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth host a feast to lament the death of the King. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair and his concerned guests soon disperse. Lady Macbeth urges her husband to rest and forget his wrongdoings, but he decides to meet with the witches again to discover his future.
When Macbeth meets the three witches, they concoct a spell and conjure apparitions to answer his questions and predict his fate. A bodiless head appears and warns Macbeth to fear Macduff. Then a bloody child appears and assures him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” A third apparition of a crowned child with a tree in his hand tells Macbeth that he will not be vanquished until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”
Macduff travels to England to help Malcolm (King Duncan’s son) avenge his father’s death and overthrow Macbeth. By this time, Macbeth has already decided that Macduff is his enemy and kills his wife and son.
Lady Macbeth’s Death
The doctor observes Lady Macbeth’s strange behavior. Every night she acts out washing her hands in her sleep as if trying to wash away her guilt. She dies shortly after.
Macbeth’s Final Battle
Malcolm and Macduff have assembled an army at Birnam Wood. Malcolm suggests the soldiers each cut down a tree in order to advance on the castle unseen. Macbeth is warned that the wood seems to be moving. Scoffing, Macbeth feels confident that he will be victorious in battle as his predicted invincibility that “none of woman born shall harm him” will protect him.
Macbeth and Macduff finally confront each other. Macduff reveals that he was ripped from his Mother’s womb in an untimely manner, so the “none of woman born” prophesy does not apply to him. He kills Macbeth and holds his head aloft for all to see before declaring Malcolm’s rightful place as king.
At the beginning of the play Macbeth is celebrated as a brave soldier and is rewarded with a new title from the king. He becomes the Thane of Cawdor as predicted by the three Macbeth witches, whose scheming helps drive Macbeth’s Ambition and transform him into a murderer and tyrant.
Our perception of Macbeth as a brave soldier is eroded when we see how easily he is manipulated by Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth is soon overwhelmed with ambition and self-doubt. Although he constantly questions his own actions, he is also compelled to commit further atrocities in order to cover up his previous wrong-doings.
Is Macbeth Evil?
It is difficult to view Macbeth as an inherently evil character because it is clear that he lacks strength of character. The events of the play also affect his mental stability – his guilt causes him a great deal of mental anguish and leads to hallucinations. In this respect, Macbeth has more in common with Hamlet than with Shakespeare’s other out-and-out villains like Othello’s Iago. However, unlike Hamlet, Macbeth is quick to act in order to fulfill his desires.
Macbeth is never happy with his actions, even when they have earned him his prize, because he is acutely aware of his own tyranny. At the end of the play there is a sense of relief when the soldiers are at his gate. However, he continues to remain foolhardily confident – perhaps due to his unerring belief in the witches’ predictions.
The play ends where it began: with a battle. Although Macbeth is killed as a tyrant, there is a sense that his soldier status is reinstated in the final scenes of the play. Throughout the course of the play Macbeth comes full circle.
Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters because she exerts a great deal of influence over the events of the play and is the main instigator in the plot to kill the king.
In many respects, Lady Macbeth is a classic femme fatal. She is more ambitious and power hungry than Macbeth, her husband, and when he tries to back out of the murder she has plotted, she calls his manhood into question.
A Misogynistic Character?
This presentation of Lady Macbeth has attracted accusations of misogyny from critics because the women in the play (Lady Macbeth and the witches) are manipulative and evil. Lady Macbeth is equally as ambitious as her husband but is unable to take action herself – perhaps because of the social constraints of the time. She therefore cajoles her husband to act on her behalf.
Masculinity is defined in the play by ambition and power – two qualities that Lady Macbeth possesses in abundance. By constructing the character in this way, Shakespeare challenges our preconceived views of masculinity and femininity. But what exactly was Shakespeare suggesting? On one hand it was a radical idea to present a dominant female character, but on the other hand she is presented negatively.
Lady Macbeth’s guilt soon overwhelms her. She has nightmares and tries to wash the blood from her hands. By the end of her life, guilt has replaced her incredible ambition in equal measure. We are lead to believe that her guilt ultimately leads to her suicide.
Lady Macbeth is therefore a victim of her own ambition – and also possibly of her sex. As a woman, she is not resilient enough to deal with such strong emotions, whereas Macbeth fights on to the very end despite his misgivings.
The Macbeth Witches
Shakespeare used a number of devices to create a sense of otherness and malevolence for the Macbeth witches (also referred to as the “weird sisters”). For example:
- The Macbeth witches speak in rhyming couplets which distinguishes them from all other characters in the play
- The Macbeth witches are said to have beards, making them difficult to gender
- They are always accompanied by storms and bad weather
During the play, the Macbeth witches make five key predictions:
- Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor
- Banquo’s children will become kings
- They advise Macbeth to “beware Macduff”
- Macbeth cannot be harmed by anyone “of woman born”
- Macbeth cannot be beaten until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane shall come”
Four of these predictions are realized; one is not. Although Banquo’s children do not become Kings during the course of the play, Banquo’s children do escape murder and could return at some point in the future. At the end of the play it is left for the audience to decide whether or not they believe the Macbeth witches.
But are the witch’s prophesies preordained? Or do they simply encourage Macbeth to become active in constructing his own fate? It is perhaps part of Macbeth’s character to shape his life according to the predictions – whereas Banquo does not. This might explain why the only prophesy not realized by the end of the play relates directly to Banquo and cannot be shaped by Macbeth (although Macbeth would also have little control over the “Great Birnam Wood” prediction).
By writing the Macbeth witches in this manner, Shakespeare is asking an age old question: are our lives already mapped out for us or do we have a hand in what happens to us? Therefore, at the end of the play the audience is forced to consider the extent to which the characters have control over their own lives.
Macbeth’s ambition is driven by a number of factors including:
- Prophesy: The Macbeth witches prophesize that Macbeth will become King. Macbeth believes them and the various prophesies are realized throughout the play. However, it is unclear whether these prophesies are preordained or self fulfilling.
- Lady Macbeth: his wife is the driving force that encourages Macbeth to overcome his strong sense of guilt and take action on the prophesies.
Macbeth’s ambition soon spirals out of control and forces him to murder again and again to cover up his previous wrongdoings. Macbeth’s first victims are the Chamberlains who are blamed and killed by Macbeth for the murder of King Duncan. Banquo’s murder soon follows once Macbeth fears that the truth could be exposed.
Ambition has series consequences in the play: Macbeth is slain as a tyrant and Lady Macbeth commits suicide. Shakespeare does not give either character the opportunity to enjoy what they have achieved – perhaps suggesting that it is more satisfying to achieve your goals fairly than to achieve them through corruption.
Ambition and Morality
In testing Macduff’s loyalty, Malcolm outlines the difference between ambition and morality by pretending to be greedy and power hungry. He wants to see if Macduff believes these are good qualities for a King to posses. Macduff does not and therefore demonstrates that a moral code is more important in positions of power than blind ambition.
At the end of the play, Malcolm is the victorious King and Macbeth’s burning ambition has been extinguished. But is this really the end to over-reaching ambition in the kingdom? The audience is left to wonder if Banquo’s heir will eventually become king as prophesized by the Macbeth witches. Will he act on his own ambition or will fate play a part in realizing the prophesy? Or were the witches’ predictions wrong?
Macbeth’s guilt prevents him from fully enjoying his ill gotten gains. At the start of the play he is described as a hero and this quality is still present even in his darkest moments. Shakespeare suggests this idea by engendering Macbeth with a strong sense of guilt.
For example, Macbeth is visited by the ghost of Banquo, who he murdered to protect his secret. The apparition embodies Macbeth’s guilt and therefore causes Macbeth to nearly reveal the truth about King Duncan’s murder.
However, Macbeth’s guilt is not enough to discourage him from murder. This perhaps indicates a lack of morality – Macbeth’s key character failing.
Lady Macbeth’s Guilt
Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind her husband’s actions. In fact, Macbeth’s strong sense of guilt suggests that he would not have realized his ambitions without Lady Macbeth there to encourage him.
Unlike Macbeth’s conscious guilt, Lady Macbeth’s guilt is subconsciously expressed through her dreams. By presenting her guilt in this way Shakespeare is perhaps suggesting that we are unable to escape guilt for wrongdoing.
By the end of the play Lady Macbeth’s guilt becomes untenable and she eventually kills herself. Evidently, the intensity of her guilt and shame was stronger than anything she consciously conveyed.