OK, friends, I know this post is a week late. Life has been furiously demanding recently and I just couldn’t get this post together with any speed. I apologize but have a special treat in store for King Lear, which should be posted in the next day or so. Well, it’s special for me, and I assume you’ll enjoy it as well. Stay tuned.
I think part of my issue with getting these posts together recently is that these later plays are more complex. I first noticed with Othello that it’s hard to distill the action down in a coherent fashion. I’ll have to analyze the word count for just the summary sections of the last few plays to really see if this is true, though. So perhaps it says more for Shakespeare’s maturing style rather than my inability to adult.
OK, that’s enough rambling; onto the play!
The play opens with a thunderstorm and three witches making plans to meet together and speak with Macbeth. It’s one of the famous scenes from this play and sets the eerie tone for the rest of the action. Next we see Duncan, the King of Scotland, getting information about the battle between his forces and those of the rebel Macdonwald. Duncan is informed that Macbeth and Banquo, two of his generals, helped to win the day and that Macbeth killed Macdonwald. In addition, the thane of Cawdor (a traitor to the Scottish side) was defeated as well and the Norwegian invaders were sent running. Duncan orders the thane of Cawdor executed and confers the man’s title to Macbeth.
Meanwhile near the battle, Macbeth and Banquo meet up with the three witches. The two men are dumbfounded by the women and Banquo asks if they’re mortal or even women (apparently they have beards?). The witches don’t answer Banquo and instead greet Macbeth as the thane of Glamis (he is), the thane of Cawdor (he is, but doesn’t know that yet), and the future king. Macbeth asks the witches for further information but they turn to Banquo instead and answer his surly complaints that he’s not getting any love. They tell Banquo that he’s both less and greater than Macbeth, less happy yet more happy than Macbeth, and that his children will be kings one day. The witches then vanish without further explanation to their cryptic words.
The two men are a little shocked by the encounter but their conversation discussing the prophesies is interrupted by Ross and Angus, who’ve come from Duncan to tell Macbeth that he’s now the thane of Cawdor, which makes Macbeth and Banquo a bit incredulous. Macbeth asks Banquo if he wants his heirs to be kings but Banquo cautions a bit of cynicism, stating that devils will mix truths with lies to tempt men. Macbeth seems taken with the idea of being king, though, and begins to wonder how he can make the prophecy come true. They go to meet with Duncan.
Duncan, meanwhile, is listening to his son Malcolm’s report of the execution of the thane of Cawdor, who apparently confessed and repented his crimes. Macbeth and Banquo then arrive with Ross and Angus. Duncan lavishes them with praise and they in turn pledge allegiance to Duncan. Duncan then announces that Malcolm is to be his heir, throwing a kink in Macbeth’s plans of succession. Duncan then tells Macbeth that he’ll dine at Macbeth’s castle that night and Macbeth heads out to prepare everything and inform his wife.
At Macbeth’s home in Inverness, Lacy Macbeth reads a letter from her husband informing her of his new title and the witches’ prophecy. Lady Macbeth thinks her husband might be too kind to do what needs to be done and she decides to do whatever she can to make Macbeth’s ambitions and the witches’ prophecy come true. A messenger then arrives and tells Lady Macbeth that Duncan and Macbeth are making their way to the castle. As she waits for Macbeth to arrive, Lady Macbeth makes a plea to any listening spirits to help her rise above her weak feminine nature so she can perform whatever act needs to be done. Macbeth then arrives and they discuss Duncan’s visit; they decide to kill the king that night.
Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle, complementing the household and thanking Lady Macbeth for her hospitality. Lady Macbeth is the form of gracious hostess and welcomes him. Meanwhile, Macbeth ruminates over his plan to kill Duncan. He says the task would be easy if he was assured that there wouldn’t be any horrible consequences, though he’s completely willing to damn his soul in the act. He starts to think about reasons he shouldn’t kill Duncan: he’s his kinsman and his liege, he’s a good person and a good ruler, etc. Macbeth realizes that the only reason to kill Duncan would be to further his own ambitions. Lady Macbeth then enters to inform him that Duncan has eaten and is requesting his presence. Macbeth tells her that he doesn’t want to kill the man and Lady Macbeth goes off on him, telling him he’s not a man for being so cowardly. He tells her that he’s worried about consequences should they fail and she replies that if they act boldly they won’t fail. She then imparts her plan: they’ll get Duncan’s guards drunk on wine and, when they’re passed out, they can murder Duncan while he sleeps. They’ll then cover the guards in blood and frame them for the murders. Macbeth is amazed at the cunning plan, convinced that such a wife can give him only sons, and agrees to the murder.
Around midnight Banquo is still awake and walking with his teenage son Fleance. Banquo is tired but has been having issues sleeping due to “cursed thoughts” (unlike Macbeth, Banquo is unsettled by his ambitions). Macbeth then enters, and Banquo is surprised he’s still awake. He begins a conversation with Macbeth about the witches and how there’s obviously some truth in their prophecies. Macbeth brushes it off and says he hasn’t thought about the witches since they spoke with them. Banquo and Macbeth agree to speak about the prophecies another time.
Banquo and Fleance exit and Macbeth suddenly sees a dagger floating in the air, its handle toward his hand and the tip pointed to where Duncan sleeps. Macbeth tries to grab the dagger but it’s incorporeal, which unsettles him. He also thinks he can see blood on the blade. Macbeth decides it’s just a figment of his imagination brought on by his reluctance to murder Duncan. Even though it’s eerie out Macbeth resolves to carry out the plan. Lady Macbeth then rings a bell in the distance, alerting Macbeth that the guards have passed out, and Macbeth leaves to kill the king.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth is antsy for her husband to do the deed and very proud of her own audaciousness. She hears Macbeth cry out and worries that the guards woke up early. She doesn’t think Macbeth can fail since she set everything up for him so nicely. She’s sure she could have killed Duncan herself except he looked like her father while he slept.
Macbeth then enters with bloody hands, telling her the murder is done. Apparently the guards had woken up, but they only said their prayers before passing out once more. Macbeth is shaken by the fact that he couldn’t say “amen” along with them, convinced that his soul is already damned. He’s also convinced that he heard a voice somewhere say “Sleep no more, / Macbeth does murder sleep”.
Lady Macbeth tries to calm him but suddenly realizes that he’s brought the daggers with him rather than leaving them with the sleeping guards. She’s angry and he refuses to go back to the scene so Lady Macbeth does it herself. Macbeth hears a knocking and frights. He hears the knocking again when Lady Macbeth returns, then again. Lady Macbeth leads her husband to their rooms so they can clean their hands and change into their bedclothes so as not to raise any suspicions.
A porter answers the knocking and Lennox and Macduff enter, complaining about how long they had to knock for. Macbeth then enters and Macduff inquires after Duncan. Macbeth says that Duncan has yet to rise and takes Macduff to Duncan’s rooms. Macduff enters and Lennox remarks upon the foul weather the night before. Suddenly Macduff cries out, exits Duncan’s chamber, and begins to shout that the king’s been murdered. Macbeth and Lennox rush into the rooms and Lady Macbeth arrives, “shocked” that something so horrible could happen in her own home. Chaos ensues and Macbeth and Lennox exit the chambers just as Malcolm and Donalbain (Duncan’s sons) arrive. They’re told of their father’s fate and that that guards were most likely the killers, since they were covered in blood and had the daggers on them and that Macbeth, in a rage, killed them.
Macduff is suspicious that Macbeth killed the guards, but Macbeth explains that he was so moved by Duncan’s murder that he lost control. Lady Macbeth “faints” and Macduff and Banquo call for aid. Malcolm and Donalbain, being smart cookies, decide that whoever killed their father probably wants them dead as well. They both decide to flee, Malcolm to England and Donalbain to Ireland, while Lady Macbeth is helped away and Macbeth and Banquo summon the other lords to figure out what to do.
Later that day Ross and an old man walk outside discussing ill omens: it was dark during the day, an owl killed a falcon, Duncan’s horses lost control and ate one another. Macduff then enters and tells the men that Macbeth has been named king by the other lords and that they’re all riding to Scone to crown him. Macduff continues that the chamberlains Macbeth killed were the most likely culprits and may have been hired by someone else, most likely one of the two fled princes (Malcolm and Donalbain). Macduff then leaves for his home in Fife while Ross leaves for Scone to see Macbeth crowned.
At the King’s palace Banquo ruminates on Macbeth’s crowning and the witches’ prophecies. While they said that Macbeth would be king they also said that Banquo’s heirs would somehow gain the kingship; Banquo begins to get a bit ambitious himself. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth then enter, now King and Queen, followed by their court. They ask Banquo to attend the feast they’re having that night and Banquo accepts but says that he’s going riding first. Macbeth suggests they should meet the following day to discuss the issue of Malcolm and Donalbain, whom Macbeth fears may be plotting to take the crown.
Macbeth is then left alone but for one servant, whom he asks to admit some men who’ve come to see him. When the servant leaves Macbeth begins to soliloquize about Banquo and how he’s the only man in Scotland that he’s afraid of (because of the witches’ prophecy). Macbeth fears that somehow Banquo’s heirs will wrestle the crown away from him and his childless marriage and that the guilt and stain of Duncan’s death would have been for their benefit instead of for his own. The servant then returns with two men. Macbeth speaks to them about killing Banquo. He reminds them of the wrongs Banquo has done to them and asks them if they’re willing to kill him; the two men reply that they are. Macbeth then tells them that Banquo will be riding with his son Fleance and that both need to be killed. They’re to wait in the castle for his signal.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth is feeling guilty and asks for her husband. When he enters he tells his wife that his mind is unsettled and he feels as if killing Duncan was only the first step, that they must now get rid of any other threats to their rule. He then hints at the hit he’s put out on Banquo and Fleance but tells her to be happy and friendly tonight without thought to the matter so no one will suspect anything.
At dusk the two murderers are joined by a third and lie in wait in a wooded area. Banquo and Fleance enter with their horses and light a torch. The murderers then strike, killing Banquo but missing Fleance. With his dying breath Banquo tells his son to run away and get revenge for his death. One of the murderers then puts out the torch, accidentally allowing Fleance to escape. The murderers then leave to hide Banquo’s body and tell Macbeth what’s transpired.
At the feast, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enter with their court, whom they welcome. As Macbeth socializes he notices one of the murderers enter the room. Macbeth speaks with him and finds out that Banquo has been killed and Fleance fled. Macbeth is angry that Fleance escaped, assuming his throne would be safe if only the young man had died. He dismisses the murderer and returns to his guests. It’s then that he notices Banquo’s ghost seated amongst the company. Macbeth is terrified and speaks to the ghost, whom no one else can see (so Macbeth looks insane). Lady Macbeth tries to cover for him and tells the guests that he sometimes has similar incidents and that everyone should just ignore it.
Lady Macbeth then speaks to her husband in an aside, asking him what the hell he’s doing and to stop acting so strangely. Banquo’s ghost then exits and Macbeth starts to feel better. He tries to explain the episode away as no big thing, but as he’s making a toast to those gathered Banquo’s ghost appears once more and Macbeth begins to talk to the ghost again. Lady Macbeth tries to salvage the situation and suggests everyone leave the banquet hall. The ghost exits once more.
Macbeth takes this as an omen that there will be consequences for his actions. He then informs his wife that he’s learned through a spy that Macduff plans to stay away from court, which is rather suspicious. He also tells her of his intention to seek out the witches again the next day to learn more about his fate; he’s determined to keep the throne. Lady Macbeth tells him he needs sleep and they exit to retire.
Elsewhere the witches meet up with Hecate, their goddess. Hecate’s a bit upset that they started interfering with Macbeth’s life without her (FOMO) so she’ll take over from this point on. She informs them that Macbeth will arrive the next day to ask questions (they already knew this) and Hecate plans to tell him things that will lead him into a false sense of security. She then vanishes and the witches begin to prepare.
Back at the castle, Lennox and another lord are walking together and talking. Apparently Banquo’s murder has been discovered and the fled Fleance is blamed for the act, but both men suspect Macbeth. They apparently consider him a tyrant and also suspect him of Duncan’s murder. The lord informs Lennox that Macduff has fled to England to join Malcolm to ask King Edward of England for help in the matter. Apparently Macbeth has also heard these rumors and is preparing for war. Lennox and the lord would far rather Malcolm and Macduff win the fight than Macbeth.
We then see the witches once more while they work over their cauldron. Hecate appears and tells the them they’ve done good work. Just then Macbeth approaches (as the witches and Hecate knew he would) and demands to know more about the prophecies the witches gave him about his kingship. Rather than answering themselves they summon three entities. The first, a floating head, tells Macbeth that Macduff is a danger to him. The second, a bloody child, tells him that no man born of a woman can harm him. The third, a crowned child holding a tree, tells him that no harm shall come to him until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth notes the disparity between being warned about Macduff and being assured that no man of woman born can harm him, but he decides to be optimistic and assumes that Macduff will be no real threat to him. Lastly, a procession of eight kings parades past, all wearing crowns and the last with a mirror, with Banquo’s ghost following at the end. Macbeth orders the witches to explain this vision, but they laugh at him, dance, and disappear. When Macbeth leaves he meets up with Lennox, who informs him that Macduff has run away to England. In revenge Macbeth decides to send forces to forcibly take Macduff’s castle and to murder his wife and children.
In Fife, Lady Macduff asks Ross why her husband ran away. Ross can’t give her a good reason, other than counseling her to trust her husband, and leaves. Lady Macduff is obviously upset that her husband left her and their children and tells one of her sons that his father is dead but the boy knows that he’s not. Then, a group of men enter. They insult Macduff and Macduff’s son insists the man is lying. The men then kill Macduff’s son and chase Lady Macduff as she flees crying murder.
Meanwhile in England, Malcolm and Macduff are speaking. Malcolm is worried that Macduff might be a spy for Macbeth so he goes into a tirade about his own (Malcolm’s) vices, worrying that he’s not fit to be a king. Macduff begins politely insisting that Malcolm isn’t all that bad but, eventually, laments for Scotland and states that Malcolm may not be fit to live, let alone rule the country he loves. Apparently that made Macduff pass Malcolm’s test and he (Malcolm) takes back everything he said and calls Macduff his ally. A doctor then arrives and we find out that King Edward of England can apparently cure diseases with some mystical power (because ENGLAND). Ross then enters, having arrived from Scotland, and first informs Macduff that his wife and children are fine. Ross tries to convince Malcolm to return to Scotland to seize his throne from Macbeth and Malcolm replies that he will, and that he’ll bring ten thousand English soldiers as well. Ross then confesses that Macbeth murdered Macduff’s family. Macduff is devastated and Malcolm tries to hearten him, telling him that they’ll avenge the deaths.
Back in Scotland, a gentlewoman speaks to a doctor at the castle. Apparently Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and talks while she’s doing so. The gentlewoman has overheard some of what she’s said and is loath to even repeat what she’s heard. Just then, Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking. She thinks there’s still blood on her hands from Duncan’s murder and tries to wash them (a motion she apparently does quite often while sleepwalking). She goes on to fret over Banquo and Lady Macduff’s murders. She then exits and the doctor, who’s rather awestruck by the event, asks the gentlewoman to keep an eye on Lady Macbeth and listen to her sleep ramblings.
Meanwhile, a group of lords meets outside the castle. They plan to join the English forces led by Malcolm and will meet with them at Birnam Wood. Apparently Macbeth (whom they refer to as the “tyrant”) has fortified the castle and is getting ready for war with a mad fervor. We then see Macbeth inside the castle, madly telling people that the castle will remain secure until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and that no man of woman born can harm him. He calls in his servant Seyton who tells him Malcolm has amassed a force of ten thousand strong and that they’re approaching the castle. Macbeth orders Seyton to help him put on his armor, even though any battle is far off yet. The doctor then enters and informs Macbeth that Lady Macbeth is sleep deprived from hallucinations; Macbeth orders the doctor to cure his wife and will brook no argument.
In order to cover up their numbers, Malcolm orders his men to cut down boughs from the trees so they may advance upon the castle under some cover (thus making Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane). Inside the Castle, Macbeth is haughty and insists that the castle won’t fall, because there’s no way Birnam Wood could come to Dunsinane. He then hears a woman scream just before Seyton appears, telling him that Lady Macbeth is dead. Macbeth is shocked, and then shocked anew when a messenger comes to tell him that Birnam Wood is approaching Dunsinane. Macbeth realizes that things are getting a bit sticky and decides to go down fighting.
When Malcolm and his forces are just outside the castle he orders them to throw down their disguise and attack. In the battle, Macbeth fights recklessly because no man of woman born may hurt him. He meets with Siward’s son and kills him in a fight. We then see Malcolm and Siward enter the castle just before Macduff finally encounters Macbeth. The two fight but Macbeth insists that no harm can come to him because Macduff was born from a woman. Then Macduff drops the mic on Macbeth: he wasn’t “born” from a woman, he was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped”. Macbeth realizes that the witches’ prophecy is coming true: the whole “beware Macduff” and “not of woman born” thing has come to fruition. Still, Macbeth chooses death over surrender or capture. The two men fight once more and Macduff kills Macbeth.
Malcolm and Siward, for their part, successfully captured the castle. Ross informs Siward that his son died in battle, and while Siward is saddened that his son is dead he’s happy that he died an honorable death. Macduff then enters with Macbeth’s head, proclaiming Malcolm King of Scotland. Malcolm proceeds to make all of his thanes earls (thus making Scotland more English) and invites everyone to see him crowned at Scone.
If you get nothing else out of Macbeth it should be this: ambition, if left to run rampant, is corrupting and destructive. Banquo, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth all become ambitious, although Banquo never gets to further his ambitions. Lady Macbeth’s ambitions have her spur her husband’s actions on in ways that go against his conscience and this later takes its toll on both characters. Once the characters start using violence to further their aims it’s extremely hard for them to stop.
Of course, one can’t talk about Lady Macbeth without talking about gender roles in the play. Manhood gets questioned a lot. when Macbeth seems to be getting cold feet Lady Macbeth tells him he won’t be a man unless he does the deed. Similarly, Macbeth spurs Banquo’s murderers on by questioning their manliness. Somehow being a man = being aggressive and violent. Seriously, whenever “manhood” is mentioned in the play some violent act soon follows. (You menfolk with your delicate egos.)
Lady Macbeth asks any listening spirits to “unsex” her; that is, make her less female. When she comes up with a cunning plan to kill Duncan Macbeth announces that a woman such as she can give birth only to sons. Women were considered weak and unfit for such violence and ambitions. Lady Macbeth proves them wrong, however; she’s better able to handle her ambitions and violent actions than Macbeth is. Both descend into madness caused by guilt, but Macbeth seems to go first. There’s also further instances of women being the source of all violence and destruction in the play with the witches, who are the ones who provoke all the action in the play. In a way, the women in the play incite all the violence and the men in the play enact it.
So, is the play empowering to women or misogynistic? Eh, depends on how you look at it. If you view it through the lens of our current society I’d say the play is rather liberating. No, the women aren’t doing much good in the play, but neither are the men. The women rise above societal expectations and opinions about their “place”, which is rather awesome and an interesting discourse.
However, if viewed through the lens of Elizabethan London (which is how we arguably should be viewing the play), this is not an attractive play for females. The aggression of women here is an unnatural thing, much like the weather. (Similar to the unnatural storm in Julius Caesar, there’s an unnatural storm the night Macbeth kills Duncan; this represents the perversion of the natural order of things.) The character of Hecate also seems to suggest that all evil and chaos begins with women.
And then there’s Macduff, who perhaps represents true masculinity. When he learns of his wife and children’s murders Malcolm encourages him to seek revenge. Instead, Macduff states that he’ll take care of the situation as a man “but I must also feel it as a man”. Men have feelings other than ambition and violent rage! What a novel idea.
And speaking of violent rage, Macbeth is a very bloody play, and blood plays an important role. There’s a bloody battle when the play opens, the blood of Duncan and Banquo’s murders, and visions of blood. Blood here can symbolize guilt, which we see with Lady Macbeth and her guilt-induced sleepwalking; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s hands have been stained and can’t be cleaned. Along the bloody lines, Macbeth is a very violent play. Most of the violence takes place offstage but is later recounted in some detail. The beginning battle sets the tone for this, with descriptions of Macbeth and Banquo wading through blood on the field. The ending and Macbeth’s demise are also violent, and then there’s the long list of murders in between those two points.
There’s a recent film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It’s slow moving (in a good way) and really interesting. Most importantly, though, is its portrayal of Macbeth as a soldier with PTSD. It makes so much sense! The hallucinations, the increasingly erratic behavior, and Macbeth most certainly could have had PTSD with all the battles he fought on Duncan’s behalf; war isn’t easy. The film also adds new dimension to Lady Macbeth’s character. Go, rent it, watch it, and then watch the bonus feature that has an interview with Fassbender about the films approach to the play.