Macbeth . . . is done upon a stronger and more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. It moves upon the verge of an abyss, and is a constant struggle between life and death. The action is desperate and the reaction is dreadful. It is a huddling together of fierce extremes, a war of opposite natures which of them shall destroy the other. There is nothing but what has a violent end or violent beginnings. The lights and shades are laid on with a determined hand; the transitions from triumph to despair, from the height of terror to the repose of death, are sudden and startling; every passion brings in its fellow-contrary, and the thoughts pitch and jostle against each other as in the dark. The whole play is an unruly chaos of strange and forbidden things, where the ground rocks under our feet. Shakespear’s genius here took its full swing, and trod upon the farthest bounds of nature and passion.
—William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays
Macbeth completes William Shakespeare’s great tragic quartet while expanding, echoing, and altering key elements of Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear into one of the most terrifying stage experiences. Like Hamlet, Macbeth treats the consequences of regicide, but from the perspective of the usurpers, not the dispossessed. Like Othello, Macbeth centers its intrigue on the intimate relations of husband and wife. Like Lear, Macbeth explores female villainy, creating in Lady Macbeth one of Shakespeare’s most complex, powerful, and frightening woman characters. Different from Hamlet and Othello, in which the tragic action is reserved for their climaxes and an emphasis on cause over effect, Macbeth, like Lear, locates the tragic tipping point at the play’s outset to concentrate on inexorable consequences. Like Othello, Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, achieves an almost unbearable intensity by eliminating subplots, inessential characters, and tonal shifts to focus almost exclusively on the crime’s devastating impact on husband and wife.
What is singular about Macbeth, compared to the other three great Shakespearean tragedies, is its villain-hero. If Hamlet mainly executes rather than murders, if Othello is “more sinned against than sinning,” and if Lear is “a very foolish fond old man” buffeted by surrounding evil, Macbeth knowingly chooses evil and becomes the bloodiest and most dehumanized of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. Macbeth treats coldblooded, premeditated murder from the killer’s perspective, anticipating the psychological dissection and guilt-ridden expressionism that Feodor Dostoevsky will employ in Crime and Punishment. Critic Harold Bloom groups the protagonist as “the culminating figure in the sequence of what might be called Shakespeare’s Grand Negations: Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth.” With Macbeth, however, Shakespeare takes us further inside a villain’s mind and imagination, while daringly engaging our sympathy and identification with a murderer. “The problem Shakespeare gave himself in Macbeth was a tremendous one,” Critic Wayne C. Booth has stated.
Take a good man, a noble man, a man admired by all who know him—and destroy him, not only physically and emotionally, as the Greeks destroyed their heroes, but also morally and intellectually. As if this were not difficult enough as a dramatic hurdle, while transforming him into one of the most despicable mortals conceivable, maintain him as a tragic hero—that is, keep him so sympathetic that, when he comes to his death, the audience will pity rather than detest him and will be relieved to see him out of his misery rather than pleased to see him destroyed.
Unlike Richard III, Iago, or Edmund, Macbeth is less a virtuoso of villainy or an amoral nihilist than a man with a conscience who succumbs to evil and obliterates the humanity that he is compelled to suppress. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s greatest psychological portrait of self-destruction and the human capacity for evil seen from inside with an intimacy that horrifies because of our forced identification with Macbeth.
Although there is no certainty in dating the composition or the first performance of Macbeth, allusions in the play to contemporary events fix the likely date of both as 1606, shortly after the completion and debut of King Lear. Scholars have suggested that Macbeth was acted before James I at Hampton Court on August 7, 1606, during the royal visit of King Christian IV of Denmark and that it may have been especially written for a royal performance. Its subject, as well as its version of Scottish history, suggest an effort both to flatter and to avoid offending the Scottish king James. Macbeth is a chronicle play in which Shakespeare took his major plot elements from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), but with significant modifications. The usurping Macbeth’s decade-long (and largely successful) reign is abbreviated with an emphasis on the internal and external destruction caused by Macbeth’s seizing the throne and trying to hold onto it. For the details of King Duncan’s death, Shakespeare used Holinshed’s account of the murder of an earlier king Duff by Donwald, who cast suspicion on drunken servants and whose ambitious wife played a significant role in the crime. Shakespeare also eliminated Banquo as the historical Macbeth’s co-conspirator in the murder to promote Banquo’s innocence and nobility in originating a kingly line from which James traced his legitimacy. Additional prominence is also given to the Weird Sisters, whom Holinshed only mentions in their initial meeting of Macbeth on the heath. The prophetic warning “beware Macduff” is attributed to “certain wizards in whose words Macbeth put great confidence.” The importance of the witches and the occult in Macbeth must have been meant to appeal to a king who produced a treatise, Daemonologie (1597), on witch-craft.
The uncanny sets the tone of moral ambiguity from the play’s outset as the three witches gather to encounter Macbeth “When the battle’s lost and won” in an inverted world in which “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Nothing in the play will be what it seems, and the tragedy results from the confusion and conflict between the fair—honor, nobility, duty—and the foul—rank ambition and bloody murder. Throughout the play nature reflects the disorder and violence of the action. Opening with thunder and lightning, the drama is set in a Scotland contending with the rebellion of the thane (feudal lord) of Cawdor, whom the fearless and courageous Macbeth has vanquished on the battlefield. The play, therefore, initially establishes Macbeth as a dutiful and trusted vassal of the king, Duncan of Scotland, deserving to be rewarded with the rebel’s title for restoring peace and order in the realm. “What he hath lost,” Duncan declares, “noble Macbeth hath won.” News of this honor reaches Macbeth through the witches, who greet him both as the thane of Cawdor and “king hereafter” and his comrade-in-arms Banquo as one who “shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Like the ghost in Hamlet, the Weird Sisters are left purposefully ambiguous and problematic. Are they agents of fate that determine Macbeth’s doom, predicting and even dictating the inevitable, or do they merely signal a latency in Macbeth’s ambitious character?
When he is greeted by the king’s emissaries as thane of Cawdor, Macbeth begins to wonder if the first predictions of the witches came true and what will come of the second of “king hereafter”:
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
Macbeth will be defined by his “horrible imaginings,” by his considerable intellectual and imaginative capacity both to understand what he knows to be true and right and his opposed desires and their frightful consequences. Only Hamlet has as fully a developed interior life and dramatized mental processes as Macbeth in Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth’s ambition is initially checked by his conscience and by his fear of the unforeseen consequence of violating moral laws. Shakespeare brilliantly dramatizes Macbeth’s mental conflict in near stream of consciousness, associational fashion:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be all and the end all, here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
Macbeth’s “spur” comes in the form of Lady Macbeth, who plays on her husband’s selfimage of courage and virility to commit to the murder. She also reveals her own shocking cancellation of gender imperatives in shaming her husband into action, in one of the most shocking passages of the play:
. . . I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Horrified at his wife’s resolve and cold-blooded calculation in devising the plot, Macbeth urges his wife to “Bring forth menchildren only, / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males,” but commits “Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.”
With the decision to kill the king taken, the play accelerates unrelentingly through a succession of powerful scenes: Duncan’s and Banquo’s murders, the banquet scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, and Macbeth’s final battle with Macduff, Thane of Fife. Duncan’s offstage murder contrasts Macbeth’s “horrible imaginings” concerning the implications and Lady Macbeth’s chilling practicality. Macbeth’s question, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” is answered by his wife: “A little water clears us of this deed; / How easy is it then!” The knocking at the door of the castle, ominously signaling the revelation of the crime, prompts the play’s one comic respite in the Porter’s drunken foolery that he is at the door of “Hell’s Gate” controlling the entrance of the damned. With the fl ight of Duncan’s sons, who fear for their lives, causing them to be suspected as murderers, Macbeth is named king, and the play’s focus shifts to Macbeth’s keeping and consolidating the power he has seized. Having gained what the witches prophesied, Macbeth next tries to prevent their prediction that Banquo’s descendants will reign by setting assassins to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. The plan goes awry, and Fleance escapes, leaving Macbeth again at the mercy of the witches’ prophecy. His psychic breakdown is dramatized by his seeing Banquo’s ghost occupying Macbeth’s place at the banquet. Pushed to the edge of mental collapse, Macbeth steels himself to meet the witches again to learn what is in store for him: “Iam in blood,” he declares, “Stepp’d in so far that, should Iwade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
The witches reassure him that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” and that he will never be vanquished until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” Confident that he is invulnerable, Macbeth responds to the rebellion mounted by Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff, who has joined him in England, by ordering the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children. Macbeth has progressed from a murderer in fulfillment of the witches predictions to a murderer (of Banquo) in order to subvert their predictions and then to pointless butchery that serves no other purpose than as an exercise in willful destruction. Ironically, Macbeth, whom his wife feared was “too full o’ the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” to serve his ambition, displays the same cold calculation that frightened him about his wife, while Lady Macbeth succumbs psychically to her own “horrible imaginings.” Lady Macbeth relives the murder as she sleepwalks, Shakespeare’s version of the workings of the unconscious. The blood in her tormented conscience that formerly could be removed with a little water is now a permanent noxious stain in which “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten.” Women’s cries announcing her offstage death are greeted by Macbeth with detached indifference:
I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a nightshriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t. Ihave supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.
Macbeth reveals himself here as an emotional and moral void. Confirmation that “The Queen, my lord, is dead” prompts only the bitter comment, “She should have died hereafter.” For Macbeth, life has lost all meaning, refl ected in the bleakest lines Shakespeare ever composed:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Time and the world that Macbeth had sought to rule are revealed to him as empty and futile, embodied in a metaphor from the theater with life as a histrionic, talentless actor in a tedious, pointless play.
Macbeth’s final testing comes when Malcolm orders his troops to camoufl age their movement by carrying boughs from Birnam Woods in their march toward Dunsinane and from Macduff, whom he faces in combat and reveals that he was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d,” that is, born by cesarean section and therefore not “of woman born.” This revelation, the final fulfillment of the witches’ prophecies, causes Macbeth to fl ee, but he is prompted by Macduff’s taunt of cowardice and order to surrender to meet Macduff’s challenge, despite knowing the deadly outcome:
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”
Macbeth returns to the world of combat where his initial distinctions were honorably earned and tragically lost.
The play concludes with order restored to Scotland, as Macduff presents Macbeth’s severed head to Malcolm, who is hailed as king. Malcolm may assert his control and diminish Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as “this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen,” but the audience knows more than that. We know what Malcolm does not, that it will not be his royal line but Banquo’s that will eventually rule Scotland, and inevitably another round of rebellion and murder is to come. We also know in horrifying human terms the making of a butcher and a fiend who refuse to be so easily dismissed as aberrations.