- Join over 1.2 million students every month
- Accelerate your learning by 29%
- Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month
AS and A Level: Macbeth
Meet our team of inspirational teachers
The historical context surrounding 'Macbeth'
- 1 Macbeth was written in 1606 when Shakespeare was 42 years old. The acting company who would have performed the play was called the King’s Men and their patron was King James I who had come to the throne in 1603.
- 2 Macbeth was probably written to please the King; the setting of the play with specific scenes at Inverness, Scone, Fife and Dunsinane would have appealed to King James, who also ruled over Scotland.
- 3 King James had brought unity to Scotland and England when he came to the throne and this is referred to in Macbeth when the English, under Edward, and the Scottish, under Malcolm, are united to overthrow Macbeth.
- 4 In Macbeth Shakespeare reinforces the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that the power of the king is something that is granted by God and the murder of a king is a crime against God Himself. This links to King James as he had been threatened by an assassination attempt – the Gunpowder Plot.
- 5 To celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, a special medallion was made with the symbol of treachery on it: an image of a flower with a serpent lurking beneath it. There is a reference to this in the play when Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under it”.
The themes of 'Macbeth'
- 1 Witchcraft and the supernatural – The play opens with the witches who create an atmosphere of evil and disorder which sets the scene for Macbeth’s downfall. The witches’ prophecies control Macbeth’s actions through his own ambition and lead him to his destruction.
- 2 Concealing the truth – Throughout the play many characters put on metaphorical masks to hide their true nature, thoughts or feelings; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hide their true selves, Banquo hides his mistrust of Macbeth, Malcolm pretends he is evil in order to test Macduff.
- 3 Ambition – Macbeth was driven by his own and Lady Macbeth’s ambition. They were not satisfied with being of high status as Lord and Lady but wanted more power and were driven on by the witches’ prophecies.
- 4 Order and disorder – Throughout the play there are references to unnatural things happening; the natural order of things is changed by the unnatural act of Macbeth killing the King. It starts with the thunder and lightning in the opening scene and then follows with the witches speeches of supernatural acts.
- 5 Manhood – Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to unsex her to make her more like a man so that she will have the strength to carry out the murder of Duncan. She also questions Macbeth’s manhood when he is having doubts about killing Duncan.
Macbeth as a tragic figure
- 1 At the beginning of the play Macbeth has a position of great importance and comes from a noble background. He is well respected and admired by everyone, especially King Duncan.
- 2 Macbeth has a flaw in his character so that his virtues are turned to vices and he begins to lose self-control. The witches tell him that he will become King but he cannot wait for it to happen and so determines his own fate by killing Duncan, which then leads to other murders.
- 3 The witches and Lady Macbeth contribute to his downfall, but essentially he brings about his own destruction and ultimate death.
- 4 In the inevitable process of Macbeth’s downfall he causes the suffering of innocent people – Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s family and possibly Lady Macbeth.
- 5 At the end of the play the audience feels pity for Macbeth because he was originally a good man but was tempted by the idea of kingship and power. If he had responded differently then he might have still achieved greatness.
However, it seems Shakespeare intended to present an alternative interpretation to the audience that clearly indicates that his ambition is so great that it does the impossible, winning a race that cannot be won- it outruns ?reason?. Furthermore, Shakespeare associates ?reason? with nature and nature?s order, so to outrun reason is thus to violate nature itself. The gothic unnaturalness of Macbeth?s ambition is shown throughout the play, where for instance, it causes his heart to knock at his ribs ?against the use of nature?, or when he asks nature (stars)
- Word count: 806
In this respect, a modern Gothic reading can be applied to the novel. The supernatural power of the witches is one of the first elements highlighted within the play, as in Scene 3 Banquo states they can ?look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow and which will not.? Therefore, from the outset the witches are highlighted as the fortune-tellers within the story, who hold an otherworldly power to see into the future. This gives them a greater level of power than the surrounding humans, and such power in the wrong hands may have created a sense of unease and unpredictability within the audience.
- Word count: 924
These few lines are used by Shakespeare to give the first idea of how Macbeth is. He is considered a brave man that "disdaining Fortune" killed enemies until he got to "the slave". In this quotation, which ends with a caesura which is latin for "closing", it is important to understand that Macbeth laughed at Fortune which is personified since it is written with an initial capital letter. The fact that the protagonist laughed at Fortune could be the reason why, for Shakespeare, he ended up seeing the three witches: luck wanted to take revenge over him.
- Word count: 3438
The number three has been important to literature ever since the first major Western works, such as the bible. God was represented in three forms: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Three is the number of completeness. The witches can also be compared to the oracles in ancient Greek theatre. The witches are often times referred to as the ?weird sisters?: ?The weird sisters, hand in hand,? (I.iii.32). This term had a very different connotation in the Victorian Age, then it does no. The term was often used to describe events related to fate. The oracles in ancient Greek theatre had the ability to predict the future perfectly.
- Word count: 915
In the beginning of the play, Macbeth is fighting on the battlefield for the honour of his king. Although it is not his personal battle, Macbeth wills to fight against Duncan?s enemies and traitors. Other characters in the play, such as Duncan and a fellow soldier, testify to Macbeth?s honour and bravery. Also, even after hearing the witches? prophecies, his thoughts remain loyal to the king. The very thought of betraying the king ?make[s] [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs?/ [his] present fears are less than horrible imaginings? (1.3.146-148). The concept of murder goes against Macbeth?s underlying nature which has been imprinted in his mind and he is terrified that he is capable of such malicious thoughts.
- Word count: 1168
In act 1 scene 7 when Macbeth has doubts about murdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth persuades him by saying ?from this time such I count thy love.? Which means Lady Macbeth is saying if you don?t kill him you don?t love me. At this point the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth is strong but slowly beginning to deteriorate after their argument over whether to kill Duncan or not. Lady Macbeth decides that Macbeth is going to kill Duncan, by first of all getting the guards drunk, then going in and killing Duncan and finally going out and placing the dagger in one of the guard?s hands.
- Word count: 823
Here she displays a woman incapable of any feelings of love or amity, but it is important to think of her before she makes this request. If it is necessary for her to ask for the remittal of her remorse, then she must have had the ability to feel such feelings beforehand. We are given no background information on this woman and it is therefore difficult to say if she was always like this or whether it was Macbeth?s letter that changed her; this appeal she makes is one of few insights into her possible mind-set as Lady Macbeth before the play.
- Word count: 1428
Banquos principles have been deeply compromised and we justifiably feel that he is not the innocent solider who met the Witches and scorned their prophecies.
In the beginning we see Banquo at his best: the perfect and innocent soldier. The reports of Macbeth and he valiantly defending Scotland are awe inspiring. The soldiers were dismayed ?as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion? when turning to defeat each new enemy. Banquo is revered as much as Macbeth. Their differences appear on their encounter with the witches. Banquo is entirely unperturbed by the prophecy that Macbeth ?shalt be king hereafter?. He scorns their words and recognises that they are a meddling evil force that should be avoided.
- Word count: 1794
As soon as the play began, the plot to murder King Duncan started to form. It was no surprise that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth wanted Duncan to die because if he did, Macbeth (Duncan?s nephew) would have a good chance at becoming king. Macbeth started to have the idea of the murder after his meeting with the prophecies. In Act 1-Scene 3 when Macbeth first got the idea for the murder, he was actually scared about the images that were going on in his head. When Lady Macbeth became aware of Macbeth?s idea in Act 1-Scene 5, she began to persuade him into going through with his plan.
- Word count: 1071
It is shown in this scene that Lady Macbeth has the darker, colder and harder personality of the couple. First she says that her husband is ?too full o? the milk of human kindness? to kill Duncan to become king. This helps the audience justify the feeling that Lady Macbeth is the stronger of the two. Then she goes on to produce the Elizabethan audience?s superstition with a soliloquy calling upon ?spirits? to ?unsex? her to make her man enough and cruel enough to execute her plan for Duncan?s demise and her husband?s coronation.
- Word count: 1062
These witches are the ones that plant the idea of being king, into Macbeth?s mind. The start of events that contribute to Macbeth?s delusions are when he is right outside of King Duncan?s room. Before Macbeth enters, he begins to hallucinate and thinks that he sees a dagger before him with the end pointing toward him, and the tip pointing towards Duncan. Macbeth tries to grasp the weapon and fails. He wonders whether what he sees is real or a ?dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (Macbeth).
- Word count: 949
Power is a theme widely explored throughout the play Macbeth, ?Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor, greater than both, by the all- hail hereafter.? Spoken by Lady Macbeth she uses positive adjectives to praise and acknowledge Macbeth?s statuses, by using short choppy phrases she encourages Macbeth to obtain the title of ?king?, making the temptation to murder Duncan even more irresistible. Reinforcing the idea of power is Macbeth, ?I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, that o?erleaps itself and falls on the other,? through the use of personification, Macbeth?s ambitious need for power is represented as something great enough to overthrow Duncan.
- Word count: 677
Macbeth?s downfall and corruption is first introduced after the battle, upon the heath, with the three witches where they inform of both Macbeth and Banquo?s prophecies. Macbeth expresses his enthusiasm to hear more of this ?strange intelligence? and wishes ?they had stayed?; on the contrary, Banquo is palpably more cautious and wonders if both Macbeth and he have ?eaten on the insane root?. By illustrating how eager and prepared Macbeth is to trust the witches, who, in Shakespearean times were considered to be enemies of society, Shakespeare stresses Macbeth?s ambition which noticeably contrasts with Banquo?s sensible and doubtful reaction.
- Word count: 1491