By Dr Oliver Tearle
Macbeth is, along with the character of Iago in Othello and his earlier portrayal of Richard III, William Shakespeare’s most powerful exploration and analysis of evil. Although we can find precursors to Macbeth in the murderer-turned-conscience-stricken-men of Shakespeare’s earlier plays – notably the conspirator Brutus in Julius Caesar and Claudius in Hamlet – Macbeth provides us with a closer and more complex examination of how a brave man with everything going for him might be corrupted by ambition and goading into committing an act of murder.
It’s worth examining how Shakespeare creates such a powerful depiction of one man persuaded to do evil and then wracked by his conscience for doing so. What follows is a short analysis, but one which attempts to address some of the key – not to mention the most interesting – aspects of Macbeth. You can read our summary of Macbeth here.
The sources for Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Macbeth was a real Scottish king, although he was somewhat different from the ambitious, murderous creation of William Shakespeare. His wife was real too, but Lady Macbeth’s real name was Gruoch and Macbeth’s real name was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. The real Macbeth killed Duncan in battle in 1040 and Macbeth (or Mac Bethad) actually went on to rule for 17 years, until he was killed and Macbeth’s stepson, known as Lulach the Idiot, became king (though he only ruled for less than a year – then Malcolm, as Malcolm III, took the crown). Where did Shakespeare get the story from, then, and what did he change?
The plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a combination of two stories: the story of Macbeth and the story of the murder of King Duffe by Donwald and his wife, which Shakespeare read about in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The Three Witches appear in Holinshed, but as ‘nymphs or fairies’, suggesting beautiful young women rather than old, ugly hags. Holinshed’s King Duncan is a weak and feeble ruler, who has unfairly named his own son Prince of Cumberland (and thus heir to the throne), thwarting Macbeth’s own (just) claim to the throne, through his wife’s previous marriage and her son by her first husband.
In Holinshed, then, Macbeth has every reason to have a grievance against Duncan, rather than being motivated solely by ‘vaulting ambition’. When Duncan proclaims Malcolm his heir and Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth does not see it as a slight on him and his claim to the throne – for he appears to have no genuine claim. Instead, he sees it as the turning point: if he is to become King then he must take the crown by force.
What’s more, in Holinshed’s chronicle, Banquo actually helps Macbeth to murder Duncan. Shakespeare altered the character of Banquo because his King, James I of England (James VI of Scotland, of course) claimed descent from Banquo. This explains the scene in Macbeth with the mirrors displaying Banquo’s descendants – eventually culminating in King James himself. Banquo will certainly ‘get’ (i.e. beget) kings, all right.’
This is what led the critic William Empson to regard Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth as a ‘Just-So Story’, like ‘How the Elephant Got Its Trunk’: it explains how James came to be King, over half a millennium after the events of Macbeth.
The other story from Holinshed, detailing the murder of King Duffe, is much closer to the plot of Shakespeare’s play. In the tenth century, a century before the real Macbeth lived, Donwald, egged on by his wife, murders King Duffe (although in this version Donwald gets the servants to commit the murder rather than bearing the knife himself). Donwald and his wife get Duffe’s personal attendants drunk, and then to divert suspicion Donwalde blames them for their master’s murder, killing them in pretend rage.
Themes of Macbeth
Perhaps more than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, Macbeth is a play about the future, about the future being anticipated and irrupting into the present. As Frank Kermode understood so well, and brilliantly analysed in his discussion of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Language, for Macbeth ‘the present is no longer present, the unacted future has occupied its place.’
Macbeth is a play that begins with the Weird Sisters discussing their future meeting, and ends with Macduff and the other survivors preparing to go and see Malcolm crowned King. Even the soliloquies in Macbeth seem unusually focused on not just the contemplation of a future course of action (for that’s a common feature of many soliloquies in many other plays) but on the displacement of time that the play is preoccupied with: ‘If it were done, when ’tis done’, begins one of Macbeth’s most famous speeches, while he greets the news of Lady Macbeth with his celebrated meditation on ‘tomorrow’:
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.
The first words Lady Macbeth speaks to her husband in the play show how her ambitions for her and her husband are already making her mind leap from the present into the future:
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.
But the glue that keeps all of these future meditations in place, and acts as the main device in Macbeth linking present to future, is the role of prophecy.
It’s worth stopping to consider and analyse the role of prophecy in Macbeth. It’s true that the Witches are clearly meant to be supernatural, and their prophecies are supposedly founded on – well, on their witchcraft. One of the reasons Shakespeare may have been drawn to the story of Macbeth is that, as well as speaking to King James I’s Scottish blood, it also played to his interest in witchcraft, black magic, and the supernatural.
Indeed, the King even wrote a book about it, Daemonologie, which had been published in 1597, six years before he came to the English throne. But the clever thing about the prophecies is that we are left to decide how much what happens in the play was foretold in the Witches’ prophecy and how much was a result of the course of action Macbeth decided on, once he had knowledge of the prophecy. We talk of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’, and Macbeth as a piece of drama leaves us in some doubt as to the relationship between Fate and free agency. If Macbeth had never been told by the Witches that he would be Thane of Cawdor, he would still have been made Thane of Cawdor. But would he still have become King?
For Macbeth to become King, he needed to know that it was ordained that he would one day sit on the throne, so he could then murderously take it from the current incumbent. If Macbeth had not acted upon the prophecy, it may not have come true. (A similar ambiguity surrounding the role of fate and the role of individual agency governs the plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; although Shakespeare’s tragic model was more Senecan than ancient Greek, Macbeth is perhaps the play in his oeuvre which comes the closest to following the model for a good tragedy set out in Aristotle’s Poetics.)
Similarly, Banquo starts to take his prophecy seriously once he sees Macbeth’s coming true. Nevertheless, the idea that no man of woman born being able to harm Macbeth isn’t ever tested to the full: Macbeth may simply be unusually lucky in combat, and Macduff, regardless of his caesarean section, may just have proved lucky; at the same time, believing that having been ‘from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped’ made him invincible against the tyrannical Macbeth may have given him the self-belief that he could bring the usurper down. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, and our destinies, shape what we do.
Ambition – or ‘vaulting ambition’ as Macbeth himself puts it – is another central theme of the play. Hearing the prophecy from the Witches convinces Macbeth that he could be King. Indeed, more than that, the prophecy suggests that he is meant to be King. Although Duncan has ‘honour’d [him] of late’, and Macbeth knows that to kill the king who had raised him to the title of Thane of Cawdor would be, among other things, an act of supreme ingratitude, Macbeth is driven to commit murder so he can seize the crown.
Everything that happens afterwards – his dispatching of the hired killers to murder Banquo, the attempted murder of Fleance, the killing of Macduff’s wife and children, and the final battle at Dunsinane – is a result of this one act, an act that was inspired by both Macbeth’s private ambition and his wife’s lust for power. It’s worth remembering that Macbeth was almost certainly written shortly after the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605. (There are a number of local allusions to this recent attempt at politically and religiously motivated terrorism: the numerous instances of the word ‘equivocation’ in the play refer to the Jesuit Father Garnet, who knew of the Plot and consorted with the conspirators.)
The ‘moral’ of Macbeth, if we can run the risk of reducing the play to an ethical message in this way, is that to usurp the ruler of a kingdom is usually a Bad Idea, at least if the ruler is generally thought to be a good one and your motivation for wanting to kill and replace them is your own grasping ambition to be monarch yourself. Which brings us to the last major theme of Macbeth worth mentioning in this short analysis (before the analysis becomes somewhat less than short)…
It would be inaccurate to say Macbeth feels remorse for the murder of Duncan. Even Claudius, the ‘smiling villain’ of Hamlet who killed a king so he could take the throne for himself, expresses something approaching a pricking of conscience for murdering his own brother, acknowledging that he cannot very well appear penitent before God if he doesn’t relinquish everything he’s gained by his murderous deed.
But Macbeth’s guilt over the murders of Banquo and Duncan is less remorse than it is fear of being discovered, and one bad deed gives birth to another, each of which has to be carried out to make Macbeth and his wife ‘safe’, to use the word that recurs throughout the play (a dozen times, including ‘safely’, ‘safety’, and other variants).
Even when Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth at the banquet, and appears to him alone, suggesting it is a manifestation of his own guilty conscience, he is terrified that the ghost’s presence will betray his secret, rather than wracked with remorse for killing his friend. Angus’ wonderfully vivid image of Macbeth’s guilt (‘Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands’) reminds us that ‘hands’ and ‘eyes’ and other body parts are often somewhat disembodied in this play, as numerous critics have acknowledged. From Macbeth’s bloody hand (‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?’) to Lady Macbeth’s feverish somnambulistic hand-washing, to Macbeth’s early words in an aside, signalling his deadly ambition (‘The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see’), eyes and hands are at odds in this play, as if the eye countenances the evil carried out by the hand, with the wielder of the dagger turning a blind eye.
But as Angus’ words and Lady Macbeth’s night-time mimed ablutions demonstrate, one cannot so easily remove one’s mind from the hand that does a terrible deed.
One final piece of Macbeth trivia…
Macbeth is supposed to be cursed. The idea of the ‘curse’ of Macbeth has a complicated origin, though it was certainly given a leg up in 1898 when the novelist and wit Max Beerbohm put about the idea that the play was unlucky. That said, it has had its fair share of tragedies and disasters: in a 1942 production starring John Gielgud, four people involved in the production died, including two of the Witches and the man playing Duncan. If you say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre, you are meant to walk three times in a circle anti-clockwise, then either spit or say a rude word.
In 1849, Macbeth even caused a riot in New York. The Astor Place Riot was caused by two rival actors arguing about whose portrayal of Macbeth was better. American actor Edwin Forrest and English thespian William Charles Macready were both playing the role of Macbeth in different productions at different theatres on the same night, and a longstanding rivalry erupted.
Another notable nineteenth-century production of the play (featuring acting rivalry) involves the so-called ‘worst poet in the English language’, who once played Macbeth on stage – and refused to die at the end. As we revealed in our selection of interesting facts about Scottish poet William McGonagall, when McGonagall – who has a reputation for being the worst poet in English – played the role of Macbeth in a stage production, he was so annoyed at being upstaged by his co-star, who was playing Macduff, that when Macduff went to kill Macbeth at the end of the play, he found his foe mysteriously unvanquishable.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.