“Macbeth” is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare in 1605 or 1606 and published in 1628. The story of the play is no figment of the author’s imagination. Macbeth was a real king – a king of Scotland, nephew of Molom II, and ruler of Moray. He married Grunch, granddaughter of the King of Alban, and became King Duncan’s commander-in-chief. He slew Duncan in 1040 and succeeded him on the throne, was defeated by Siward, Earl of Northumbria in 1054. He was slain by Duncan’s son, Malcolm III” (Grolier Encyclopedia, 1961, p. 132).
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The story of the play goes thus:
Macbeth and Banquo, two leading generals of King Duncan of Scotland return victorious from battle. On the way, they are met by three witches who greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and future king of Scotland. They promise Banquo that his sons shall sit on the throne. The verification of the first two titles of Macbeth leads him to hope for the third –that of King of Scotland. He reveals this to his wife, a cruel, unscrupulous woman and their joint ambition develops into a plot against the king. The monarch does not suspect anything and seeks to honor Macbeth further by visiting him in his castle at Inverness.
The character of Duncan, the king, is revealed in the dialogue between him and his men. For example, in Act I, Scene II, he meets his men in a camp near Forbes and asks about a bleeding sergeant. He asks about how the battle transpired but also about the soldiers who fought. This shows that he cares about his men. His son, Malcolm informs him: “This is the sergeant who like a good and hardy soldier fought ‘gainst my captivity. Hail brave friend.”
Most probably Malcolm inherited his generous nature from his father the King, who gave credit where credit was due. Even before Macbeth arrives home from battle, he has already conferred the titles of Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. The king also shows himself to be a trusting person by deigning to visit Macbeth, little knowing that it would result in his own end.
The character of Macbeth can be gleaned from reports of his men. For instance, the bleeding sergeant, telling of their exploits says of him: “For brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name –disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution. Like valor’s minion carved out his passage, till he faced the slave…” (Shakespeare in Wright, 1930).
During the King’s visit to Macbeth’s castle, the king is murdered by Macbeth aided by his wife. The king’s sons Malcolm and Donelbain escape. Macbeth diverts suspicion from himself by pointing to them as the guilty ones. As the sons have fled, Macbeth automatically is crowned King of Scotland. The third prediction of the witches comes true but at the cost of blood. From the start, Macbeth has revealed himself to be overly ambitious, aside from being a treacherous criminal, repaying kindness from the King with a dastardly deed.
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After the king’s death, Macbeth is still unsatisfied. He remembers that Banquo was also promised something by the witches, namely that Banquo’s children would someday be kings.The envious nature of Macbeth wishes for his progeny to receive the promise instead of Banquo’s.
He hatches a plan to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. On their way, Banquo is slain, but his son manages to flee the killers in Macbeth’s employ. Macbeth throws a feast, but one thing is lacking – the presence of Banquo. Macbeth tells the crowd that he already knows that Banquo has been killed, whereupon the ghost of Banquo appears to them and pandemonium breaks out.
Doubts and fears beleaguer Macbeth as he resolves another meeting with the witches. They warn him to beware Macduff, one of the noblemen. The weird sisters assure Macbeth that no one shall harm him, and for him not to fear until Birnam’s wood shall come to him. Then the news arrives that Macduff has joined forces with Malcolm, the king’s son, in England. Enraged, Macbeth storms the castle of Macduff and puts an end to Macduff’s family. Not just words but acts prove to the reader/ audience what kind of a man Macbeth really is – greedy and merciless.
Macbeth’s queen becomes almost mad with the guild over her own share in her husband’s crimes. She walks in her sleep and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands until she finally dies.
One is given further insight into the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act I, Scene V. She speaks to an imaginary Macbeth whom she addressees as my dearest partner of greatness.”
Her words enforce her being just as ambitious as her husband but crueler imposing..
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shall be
What thou art promised;
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness.”
Macbeth himself is tired of life. He almost gives up when the word is brought to him that Birnam wood is moving against him for this was one of the witches’ warnings.
The invading troops of Macduff and Malcolm were advancing and Macbeth rushes into battle. Then he meets Macduff. In their ensuing duel, both Macbeth and Macduff were slain and Malcolm becomes the next King of Scotland.
This essay attempts to delineate the respective natures of King Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth by means of their respective actions, speeches and what the other characters in the play say about them. One cannot empathize with Macbeth; Shakespeare’s tragic hero as can be done with Romeo and Juliet. When he is first presented to his audience, he is already invaded by dark fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable. He kills the king who has given him honor in order to fulfill his ambition; he kills Banquo, his friend and fellow general and he puts Macduff and his entire family to the sword.
All decent God-fearing persons can say about him at the end is: “At least, he got his just desserts” when he himself was slain by Macduff to whom he had done a grave injustice. Macbeth is still a hero- a tragic one since all his life he was beset by fears. Mar Van Doren says of Macbeth: “Macbeth is incomparably brilliant as it stands and within its limits, perfect. It hurls a universe against a man, and if the universe that strikes is more impressive than the man who is stricken, this is what Shakespeare intended.”
Van Doren states further that “It is a dark world inhabited from the beginning by witches who meet in thunder and lightning.” Darkness prevails because the witches whom Banquo calls its instruments have willed to produce it. But Macbeth is its instrument, too, as well as its victim.
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In a well-worked out plot, the beginning is a cause of the middle; the middle is an effect of the beginning and cause of the end; and the end is an effect of the middle. The main plot of Macbeth is the story of his life starting from his victory in battle with Banquo until his death at the hands of Macduff. A sub-plot would probably be incorporated into the story – from the time the witches warn Macbeth of Macduff until both die at each other’s hands at the end of the tale.
Shakespeare does not hesitate to use imagery and another figurative language in this fastest-running play of his. None stands out more vividly than the “dark hour” that Banquo borrows from the night is his last hour on earth which has lost the distinction between sun and gloom.
“Darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it” (Act II, Scene IV).
This is aside from the scenes when the witches make their appearance and the world without and within Maccbeth can be most easily described as “strange”.
The play is replete with hyperbole. The imagined act of murder swells in Macbeth’s mind until it is too big for its place and his heartbeats as if it were choking in its chamber.
“Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my sated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? (Act I, Scene III).
Then there is personification in the words of the bleeding sergeant:
“But I am faint; my gashes cry for help”.
There are many other instances of metaphor.
Perhaps the real tragic hero any audience could easily empathize with is King Duncan. He was everything Macbeth was not. The brilliance of his contrast with the thane he trusted has kept his memory beautiful throughout the play. He was meek and clear and his mind was incapable of suspicion. The thane of Cawdor bewildered him. Duncan was a free spirit and could weep, a thing impossible to his murderer’s stopped heart.
“Summer, heaven, wooing and procreation in the delicate air”- such words suited the presence of a king who was later on found stabbed in his bed would actually offer a fair sight to guilty eyes. His blood was not like the other blood in the play, thick and fearfully discolored. It was bright and beautiful, as no one better than Macbeth could appreciate.
Grolier Society of Canada (1961) Grolier Encyclopedia, Vol. III, Grolier Inc.
Wright, W.A. (ed.) (1930) Four Great Tragedies by William Shakespeare. J. Walker Mc. Spadden.