KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
Mainly set in Scotland in the 11th century, mostly in Macbeth's castle and the king's palace at Forres.
Also in military camps and open fields near the battleground, and at King Edward's palace in England. Table of Contents
Macbeth - the evil King of Scotland who stole the throne from
Duncan by murdering him and who sinks into a state of chaos
because of his greed and guilt; his evil acts lead to his ruin, and
rebel forces lead an attack against him, and Macduff, in a personal
battle, beheads him.
Lady Macbeth - the wife of Macbeth, who is even more driven by
greed and power than her husband and who is the manipulative
force behind the murder Duncan. Like her husband, fear and
remorse cause her ruin; she goes mad and kills herself.
Malcolm - King Duncan's oldest son, rightful heir to the throne of
Scotland, who flees to England after his father's murder and later
returns to lead a successful attack against Macbeth.
Banquo - a general in Duncan's army and a close friend of
Macbeth prior to Macbeth's seizing the throne. Macbeth begins to
fear the good Banquo and has him murdered.
Macduff - a general in Duncan's army who becomes suspicious of
Macbeth's part in the king's murder. Macduff flees to England to
encourage Malcolm to fight against Macbeth and seize his rightful
crown. When Macbeth murders Macduff's entire family, Macduff
swears personal revenge against the tyrant and succeeds in
beheading him during battle.
The Three Witches - the personification of evil who prophesy that
Macbeth will become the King of Scotland, planting the seed of
greed in his mind. They later predict his downfall.
Donaldbain - Duncan's youngest son who flees to Ireland after his
father's murder and does not return.
Lennox - one of Duncan's nobles who accompanies Macbeth to
Duncan's chambers after his murder. Lennox is suspicious of
Macbeth and fearful for Scotland.
Ross - a Scottish noble and cousin to Macduff. He brings the good
news of Macbeth's military victory and the bad news about
Macduff's murdered family.
Siward - Earl of Northumberland and veteran military officer; he
becomes an ally of Malcolm and Macduff and leads the first attack
against Macbeth's forces.
Young Siward - the son of Siward who follows his father to fight
against Macbeth in Scotland; he is killed in battle.
Seton - the only remaining officer in Macbeth's army that remains
loyal to him.
Hecate - the queen of the witches.
The Protagonist, Macbeth
Macbeth is a classic tragic figure brought to ruin by his own greed,
guilt, and fear. Shakespeare intensifies Macbeth's tragic nature by
showing him to be a valiant hero in the beginning of the play. He is
a courageous warrior and one of King Duncan's best generals. In
the second scene of the play, Macbeth has just won his most
important battle and saved Scotland from the Norwegian King. To
honor his bravery, King Duncan gives Macbeth the title of Thane
of Cawdor. This is one of the first steps to Macbeth's undoing, for
he longs to be more than just a thane. His innate greed is first
inflamed by three wicked witches who prophesy to Macbeth that
he will become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. When
the first prophecy comes to pass, Macbeth immediately begins to
long for greater power. He realizes that in order to seize the throne
from the king, he will have to murder him. Being a basically kind
man, he is horrified at his own thoughts and decides murder is
beyond his capability. He decides to let fate take its course, and if
he is meant to be king, it will happen. But the seed of greed has
been planted, and Macbeth is a rash man.
In the fifth scene of the play, another side of the early Macbeth is
developed. He is shown to be a loving husband who values his
wife and calls her " his dearest partner in greatness," sharing what
he is with her. They are obviously close, for he immediately writes
a letter to Lady Macbeth and tells her about the prophecies of the
three witches, for he wants to please her and give information
about "what greatness is promised thee." It is Lady Macbeth who
further inflames Macbeth's greed that was planted by the three evil
witches. As soon as she reads Macbeth's letter, she decides King
Duncan must be killed so her husband can become king and she
can become queen. There is no hesitation or indecision about her
lust for power. Her only fear is that Macbeth is "too full of the milk
of human kindness" to plan a murder. Therefore, she will take
matters into her own hands and manipulate her husband into
acquiescence. She tells Macbeth that immediate action should be
taken, for "the future is in the instant." She carefully lays the plans
for her husband to murder Duncan on the very same night, as the
king sleeps in their castle. Trusting the ability and judgment of his
wife, Macbeth consents with some reluctance.
Macbeth struggles with his agreement to murder Duncan, for
Macbeth sees the good in people, and Duncan is a worthy and
humble king; Duncan is also a kinsman and a guest in his castle.
Macbeth, who can be truthful with himself early in the play,
acknowledges that it is only "vaulting ambition" that makes him
consider the vile deed. As his wife suspected, he is really too kind
by nature to carry through with murderous plans. He tells Lady
Macbeth, "We will proceed no further in this business." She will
not listen to her husband, but strikes out at his strong sense of
vanity and pride in his manliness and calls him a fearful coward, in
sharp contrast to the brave warrior he believes himself to be. Then
a new trait of Macbeth, that haunts him through the rest of the
play, is depicted. He is truly a fearful man: not afraid of murdering
(he has murdered many on the battlefield), but afraid of being
caught. The manipulative Lady Macbeth, who is more self-
confident than her husband, believes they will not fail and
convinces Macbeth that the plan must be completed. Macbeth is
obviously not as strong-willed as his wife.
Before the murder ever takes place, Shakespeare further develops
the depth of Macbeth's fear, which is the man trait that leads to his
self-inflicted downfall. As the time of the execution draws near,
Macbeth's fears give way to imaginative hallucination. He believes
he sees a dagger hanging in front of his face; but when he reaches
for it, he cannot grab it, and it taunts him further by dripping blood.
It is the first of many incidents when Macbeth's fears fan the
flames of his imagination. It will happen again when he hears
voices calling to him to "Sleep no more" and when he sees
Banquo's ghost sitting in his chair at the royal banquet.
After the murder is committed, Macbeth's fear grows greatly and is
compounded by deep feelings of guilt. When Lady Macbeth tells
him to return the bloody daggers to the king's chambers, the
troubled Macbeth says, "I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on it again, I dare not." The irony is that Macbeth's
conscience will make him look at the murder over and over again
with no escape. Macbeth senses the depth of guilt immediately.
When he looks at his bloody hands, he realizes that all of the water
in the ocean will not be able to cleanse the blood from them or
from his heart. His wife, who believes that "A little water clears us
of the deed," mocks his fear and tells him she would be ashamed to
have a heart as white as his. Lady Macbeth, who knows her
husband better than anyone else in the play does, realizes that her
husband, basically kind in heart, will struggle with his conscience
to the point of his undoing. She warns him not to be "lost so poorly
in your thoughts." Macbeth can only reply, "Twere best to not
know myself." His self-hatred has begun. Lady Macbeth also
reveals another of Macbeth's traits; he is often not good at
appearances or putting on a "false face." She warns him, as they
make their plans to murder Duncan, that he must "look like the
innocent flower," She also warns him to appear bright and jovial to
the guests at the royal banquet. She is fearful that his face cannot
lie. And her fears are well founded, for at the banquet, Macbeth's
true soul cries out and incriminates him clearly.
Ironically, Macbeth cannot enjoy wearing the crown that he has
stolen because of mounting fear of discovery, and he fears his
friend Banquo the most. Because Banquo is a good, honorable
person who has vowed to "fight treasonous malice" and because he
knows Macbeth so well, the king is certain that Banquo suspects
the truth about him and will seek to right the wrong. Macbeth is
also jealous of his friend because the witches have prophesied that
Banquo's heirs will become kings of Scotland. Macbeth, therefore,
feels he has no choice but to murder Banquo and his son Fleance in
order to protect himself and his stolen crown. He alone plans the
second murder without consulting or telling his wife, and he has no
indecision about this murder, as he did with the first. Macbeth only
knows he must act quickly in order to control his power, his future,
and his posterity. His has become a true tyrant!
By the time of the royal banquet scene, found at mid-point in the
play, Macbeth's fear and guilt have driven him to irrationality,
chaos, and loss of self-control. During the meal, he sees the ghost
of Banquo sitting in his chair and openly incriminates himself to
all his guests by denying his guilt and saying, "Thou canst say I did
it." His wife, who was always fearful about his being able to wear
the false face, calls the ghost a "painting of you fear" and accuses
her husband of being "quite unmanned in folly." This time the
attacks against his manhood do nothing to calm him down or
change his mind. Instead, he challenges the ghost to battle, as if he
were still a noble warrior. But there is none of the old Macbeth in
him. He is now so bathed in blood that he fears everyone around
him and places paid spies in the houses of all his nobles. True
paranoia has set in. He also transfers his old fear of Banquo to
Macduff and acknowledges he must spill more blood to wash away
his fright. In rashness and without thought of consequence, he has
the family of Macduff murdered in revenge for the husband's flight
fled to England and refusal to return at the king's summons. It is
also rashness that leads him again to the three witches in order
know his future, no matter what it holds.
Macbeth pathetically holds on to the false hope offered in the
witches' prophecies until the very end. Since these is nothing left
inside to encourage him, he seeks false encouragement and tries to
believe he will not be murdered by a man or vanquished by an
army. With false bravado, he dons his armor, prepared for battle
and certain that his castle will hold until victory is won. But the
armor does not seem to fit him correctly anymore; he appears to be
a dwarf in giant's clothing and only a "dark shadow" of the brave
general once honored by the king. He realizes that his chaotic
existence has brought about his undoing and that his life has no
meaning, "a tale told by an idiot, fully of sound and fury,
signifying nothing." Still attempting to appear manly, he goes out
to meet his end, brought on by the vengeful Macduff, who carries
the tyrant's head on a pole for all to see.
Macbeth was truly a tragic character. He had much to look forward
to as Thane of Cawdor, but he wanted more. His greed led him to
murder and theft, which causes guilt and fear. The fear leads to
chaos, which causes his downfall.
In writing Macbeth, Shakespeare created an almost perfect plot
line with a short introduction, rapid rising action, a climax that
occurs half way through the play, followed by rapid and intense
falling action and a brief conclusion. The first two scenes of the
play serve as an introduction. The opening witch scene sets the
dark, somber mood of the entire play and foreshadows the
"foulness" that is to come. The second scene introduces the
character of Macbeth through conversation. He is depicted as a
brave, intelligent, and noble warrior, who has just been honored by
good King Duncan with a new title. In scene 3, the action of the
play actually begins and moves forward at breath-taking speed
throughout the balance of the play
Macbeth comes into Scene 3 and meets with the evil witches, who
plant the seed of greed in his not so noble mind. When they
prophesy that Macbeth will become the King of Scotland, he
immediately thinks of murdering the king. The audience is then
kept on edge during the next few scenes and wonder if Macbeth is
evil enough to carry through with seizing the crown through
murder. By the opening of Act II, Macbeth is already wrestling
with his conscience even though the evil deed is not done. He sees
bloody daggers in front of this face and has to steel himself to
commit the murder. The second scene in Act II reveals the a
aftermath of the execution and Macbeth bemoaning the blood on
his hands which can never be cleansed. The rest of Act II show the
effects of Duncan's murder on his kin and nobles and, more
importantly, on Macbeth.
Act II opens with a scene of comic relief, the only one in the play.
Its purpose is to slow the frantic, chaotic pace of the play for a
brief interlude, to relax the audience after the tension of the murder
and its aftermath, and to allow the audience to catch its breath
before the next rush of action. Early in the act, Macbeth's
deteriorating mind is clearly developed. He plans the murder of
Banquo in Scene 2 and has it accomplished in Scene 3. By Scene
4, Macbeth has become irrational in response to his fear of
discovery and guilt. At the royal banquet, he sees the ghost of
Banquo sitting in his chair, and it is his undoing. He clearly
incriminates himself by saying, "Thou canst say I did it." These
words mare the moment of climax or turning point in the play.
Macbeth has offered his guilt for all the lords and ladies to see.
Now it is simply a question of when and how he will meet his
Macbeth spends the rest of the play pathetically fighting his fear
and guilt and trying to protect his stolen crown. The falling action
that follows the banquet scene continues at the same breath-taking
speed of the rising action. Macbeth consults the evil witches again
to learn his future and is warned against Macduff. Macduff,
however, flees to England in Act IV and joins Malcolm in
preparing an attack on the "mad tyrant." In retaliation for this light
and refusal to return, Macbeth murders the family of Macduff.
Macduff also loses his only family when Lady Macbeth kills
herself in Act V.
In response to his wife's death, Macbeth cries out about the
emptiness of life, but promises to fight until the end, which is near
at hand. Malcolm and Macduff attack and easily overtake the
king's castle. Then in the final scene of the play, Macduff fights
Macbeth. The short conclusion of the play occurs when Macduff
carries Macbeth's head in on a pole and hails Malcolm as the new
King of Scotland. The well constructed play ends with the promise
that order will return to Scotland under the rule of the new king.