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Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare based loosely on the historical king Macbeth I of Scotland, in which the king is unflatteringly depicted.

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 murder and dies off stage in the final act.

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.

Table of contents

The story of Shakespeare's play

Macbeth, a general of the army of Duncan, King of Scotland, quickly rises through the ranks after a great victory over the rebel Macdonwald. In his lust for power, partly inspired by the witches' prediction that he would become king, he and his wife murder the king, and he becomes King of Scotland himself. He becomes more evil every day (ordering the murder of Banquo and Macduff's family).

Urged on by Macbeth, the witches conjure spirits which tell him that he wouldn't be "vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come" and that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," but also to "fear Macduff." Macduff leads an army camouflaged by boughs from Birnam wood to Dunsinane, where in a battle with Macbeth he reveals that he was ripped from his mother's body (ie, by Caesarian section) and therefore is not "of woman born."

Macduff vanquishes Macbeth and takes the throne.

Concept of Evil

Macbeth explores the nature of evil through the gradual change in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the play progresses. Shakespeare's use of literary tricks and pathetic fallacy illustrates this. Macbeth explores the difference between born evil and evil influenced by others. Also, we can see the contrast between different opinions of evil, and the contrast of the evil within and the evil without in characters like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

There are many definitions of evil in Macbeth, such as the born, clearly defined evil of the Three Witches and the heavily influenced evil of Macbeth himself. We must address the question of the evil of murdering the family of your greatest friend and the retribution of Malcolm at the end of the play. The description of the evil of Macbeth by Shakespeare's characters changes throughout the play. Initially, Macbeth is far from evil within: "Chance may crown me, without my stir" preferring to let fate lead his future. Later, he takes actions to remove those in his way, like Banquo, and "the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand", not caring who he harms and how he harms them. This phrase is brutal in its simplicity; an earlier Macbeth would never have said this.

Perhaps the most obvious evil in the play is the hideous evil of the Three Witches. From the very first words, we get an impression of born evil. In Scene 1, pathetic fallacy is used to great effect: "in thunder, lightning or rain", and their half-truths and lies are seen: "Foul is fair, and fair is foul". Their corrupting influence is clear on Macbeth, as they are the ones that prophesise his forthcoming kingship. Their gruesome magic making only increases the feeling of evil. The witches appear as born, pure evil with wretched souls in wretched bodies. There is no doubt in the reader's mind that they mean no good to Macbeth. They corrupt him and their evil causes the seeds of treachery and murder to be sown in his mind. Above all others in the play, they seem the epitome of evil.

At the beginning of the play we see Lady Macbeth as a ruthless, merciless woman, willing to murder the King of Scotland under their own protection within their house. In Act 1 Scene 7, she mocks Macbeth for being uncertain at the prospect of murdering their king for the pursuit of power. She says that she would (of her child) "dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this." This is an impression of utter evil, a destruction of her tenderness, of her femininity through the murder of a child. Having made the decision, she calls upon the gods to crush her frailty and humanity: "Unsex me here. And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top full of the direst cruelty" further highlighting her willingness to destroy her sexuality and emotions.

Furthermore, she often mocks Macbeth for being unsure: "Infirm of purpose!" and questions his right of being a man and a warrior. This is a great insult to him, showing her strength of purpose and character. She has an influence on Macbeth, and this is seen in the hardening of his heart. However, she slowly goes mad later in the play, unable to cope with a tortured soul and a guilty mind. We see her as she really is: a woman of purpose but one who can no longer cope with her conscience. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of the play. Just after the murder of the king, Macbeth states: "this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red." Lady Macbeth replies: "...a little water clears us of this deed." However, later, in her madness, she says: "Will these hands ne'er be clean" and "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" showing the change in her character. Lady Macbeth is a woman who was driven by greed for power and a desire for glory for her and her husband, unwilling to let anything get in her way. However, the strain of this tortures her mind until she dies, mad.

The most difficult character to judge in the play is Macbeth, because he is so complex. This is the way Shakespeare wants us to feel, and our perspective of him changes throughout. At the beginning, he is true, loyal and honourable to his king. However, during battle we see what he may become, killing men in cold blood and revelling in the glory. Shakespeare intends us to ask questions: What is the difference between killing men in cold blood in battle, and murdering your best friend's family when he is away? There is a startling difference, and this is illustrated by the actions of Macbeth as the play progresses.

Initially, he is almost innocent and fails to see the evil of the witches and their lies, unlike Banquo who instantly sees the ill they promise for Macbeth. A distinct change in his actions is seen. From being an open man, Macbeth turns into a shady character unable to trust even the cheap murderers of Banquo, hiding in the shadows like a criminal as he watches paid men butcher his best friend. This is in contrast with Banquo's heroic last words, telling his son to flee. Macbeth is undoubtedly influenced by the Three Witches, and especially by his wife. The challenge to his worthiness of being a man is particularly powerful. However, all of his evil cannot be placed on the shoulders of others; Macbeth was driven by the promise of power and fame. At the beginning, Macbeth fears his own temptations and the retribution of his own soul: "So foul a fair a day I have not seen", "Stars, hide your fires!" and "Glamis hath murdered sleep" illustrate this particularly strongly. These phrases show that Macbeth is human and that there is uncertainty in his heart. His 'murder' of sleep tells us that he has a conscience at the beginning of the play, unlike Lady Macbeth. At the end of the play, Macbeth is described as a cruel, mirthless tyrant who has ruined the noble country Scotland. His actions of murdering families and their children seem to reinforce this. However, before and during the final battle he shows nobility and weariness at the world and the deed that he has performed. His mind varies from melancholy and sadness: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" to bloodthirsty barbarianism: "I'll fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked" and "cursed be the man that says 'Hold, enough!'"

However, at the last Macbeth seems to us as a honourable man, who will fight to the last, and Shakespeare makes us feel sadness for his fate. It is unfortunate that he would be remembered by most as a "dead butcher" with his "fiend-like wife".

In conclusion, Macbeth explores evil in many ways, in which all characters play a part. Shakespeare makes us think about how evil is manifested in greed, temptation and corruption, and how it is compared with other acts of revenge and justice. Evil is created and influenced by others; no one man can be Evil.

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 link

Macbeth is also a Scottish clan.

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