William Shakespeare remains, hands down, one of the most well-known and influential writers in recent history. Throughout his career, he published a truly impressive library of sonnets, poems, verses, plays, and tales. Among these works, Shakespeare is credited with the writing of four major tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and, of course, Macbeth.
Macbeth is, in addition to being a fabulous drama, an incredibly dark, dramatic story. To very briefly summarize, the story goes (spoilers!): one day a man gets very cocky. A magic lady tells this cocky man that he’ll be king. He gets cockier still and commits some murders. People get very angry, and this leads these angry people to kill the cocky man. Now, tell me that isn’t a heavy storyline. (Here’s a full summary of the play and, if you haven’t read the story, here’s a free digital etext—because you really should read this story in full).
No matter how wonderful the story may be, we understand it can sometimes be difficult to get through Shakespearian literature. Slogging through the storm of “verily” and “doth” often gets confusing, and it can be invaluable to have someone explain the story in plain English and, better yet, tell you what the most important take-aways are. Well, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve gathered together some of the most important bits and pieces of Macbeth and put them together right here in this post. Read on and follow links to anything that interests and/or confuses you!
As a character, this guy is actually pretty difficult to get a read on. At the beginning of the story, he seems like a decent guy, fighting for his country and whatnot, but before you know it he’s turned around and killed half of Scotland* (and that is what we call a hyperbole). So what happened?
Macbeth’s downward spiral as a character isn’t as fast of a decline as I may have said before, but the man certainly undergoes a devolution as a moral being. Clearly spurred by his own ambition and the urging of his wife, Macbeth steps into the shoes of a murderous tyrant-to-be and descends into psychopathy.
With the modifications to Macbeth’s personality, we see corresponding changes in the role and personality of Lady Macbeth. At the play’s outset, Lady Macbeth is the aggressor, encouraging her unwilling husband to follow his ambitious inclinations and kill the king for the advancement of their status. As the story continues, however, we see Lady Macbeth beginning to take more of a backseat role, watching her husband commit these horrible murders and taking no part in them herself. Instead, Lady Macbeth appears to go mad with guilt—constantly washing her hands to wash away blood that isn’t there. So what happened between Macbeth and his wife? Here’s a comprehensive look at their intertwined character development.
We’ve already talked a little bit about how Lady Macbeth evolves as a character, but it remains valuable to look at her character in isolation from Macbeth as much as it is important to look at the two together. First, from a historical perspective, we have to acknowledge the fact that Lady Macbeth is a woman—and women in this time period really had nothing going for them but what their husbands were able to boast. Lady Macbeth’s station in life is entirely dependent on that of her husband. That isn’t to say she isn’t a terrible person—murder is murder, but she only encourages him so that she can move up in the world. Okay, that sounds even worse. Regardless, Macbeth’s willingness to listen to his wife’s advice says something about the relationship between the two.
As the story progresses, we begin to see more guilt wracking the Lady’s conscience. It seems she reaches a moral breakthrough so powerful that it leads to her suicide.
Let’s face it: Shakespeare is a quotable guy. So many little idioms that we have floating around, even today, have origins in Shakespeare’s work (that’s one reason it’s worth it to get through his writing—it’s likely you’ll find a little hidden gem, which is quite exciting!).
Macbeth undoubtedly includes some of those sayings we use in everyday conversation, but there are also a whole bunch of deeper, beautiful, and somewhat mystifying quotes in the play that are actually pretty important to the overall story.
Here are some quotes and links to thorough explanations:
“Fair is foul and foul is fair.“ Act 1, Scene 1
“Life’s but a walking shadow.“ Act 5, Scene 5
“Out, brief candle…“ Act 5, Scene 5
“There’s daggers in men’s smiles.“ Act 2, Scene 2
First, we should discuss what makes a play a “tragedy,” because it’s too easy to say that a tragic play is a play in which something sad happens. Sad things do happen in tragedies, but there’s more to the definition than that. Tragedy is defined as a branch of drama that treats sorrowful or terrible events in a serious and dignified manner. Further, these unfortunate events are encountered or caused by the tragic hero. Now, the tragic hero is another figure that seems fairly self-explanatory, but we’ll highlight it anyway: a tragic hero is a character who makes an error in judgment which ultimately leads to his or her destruction. (*link to HH question about what is a tragic hero).
We can easily surmise that Macbeth is a tragedy due to its dramatic depictions of murder and an eventual suicide. Again, that is a greatly summarized and simplified explanation of a complicated description, so here’s further reading about what makes Macbeth a tragic play.
Now that we have come to the conclusion that Macbeth is a tragedy, it follows that the main character, Macbeth, is a tragic hero. It is true that Macbeth really does cause his own problems from the get-go. If he hadn’t been inspired to murder his kindly King, he wouldn’t have ended up dead by the hand of a former ally. I hope that doesn’t give away the whole play, but just in case, I will leave the rest of the analysis of Macbeth as a tragic hero to eNotes.
Identifying a concrete theme of any work is a difficult task; identifying the theme of a work more than four hundred years old is even more difficult. That being said, there are many assertions to be made as to the overarching theme of Macbeth. In determining a theme, you have to look for recurring aspects with analyzable elements. When talking about Macbeth, a few words may jump out at you, such as greed or ambition or, I don’t know, murder. All of these concepts work together to form a cohesive and grizzly theme in the play, along with smaller pieces of the puzzle like insanity, fear, and matters of the supernatural.
*Bonus Fun Fact: Macbeth was written in an attempt to please the new King of England, King James I. This new king originally hailed from Scotland before ascending the English throne and had a distinct interest in supernatural happenings—thus the play’s setting and inclusion of witches. Further, it is a fact that the throne of England was one that saw a lot of bloody turnover, so it was likely an interest of both James and Shakespeare to comment on James’s rise to power, like Malcolm in Macbeth, as a wise and just monarch.