Macbeth: The Play at a Glance
Author. William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Date of composition. 1606
Approximate number of pages. 100 in a paperback edition
Available editions. Numerous, including Pelican, Arden, Ignatius, Dover Thrift, Signet, Norton, Oxford University Press
Genres. Drama; tragedy; murder story
Setting for the story. Scotland in the eleventh century
Main characters. Macbeth, who aspires to be king of Scotland and commits a murder to obtain the throne; Lady Macbeth, who shares her husband’s political ambitions; King Duncan, murdered by Macbeth; Banquo, Macbeth’s military companion whom Macbeth murders in his ascent to the throne; Macduff, who brings Macbeth to justice
Plot summary. As the story begins, Macbeth is a loyal servant of King Duncan of Scotland, fighting in support of the king to put down a rebellion. As Macbeth is returning to Duncan’s castle, he has his ambitions for the kingship fueled by prophecies from three witches. When King Duncan later visits Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth murder him and thereby secure the throne. But the Macbeths are guilt-haunted by their evil actions and begin to unravel psychologically. Lady Macbeth becomes dysfunctional, and Macbeth becomes more and more violent in his paranoia over imagined rivals to the throne. A resistance to Macbeth gains momentum under the leadership of Macduff, whose forces defeat Macbeth in open battle. At the end of the play, Duncan’s son Malcolm, rightful heir to the throne, is established as king. The main plotline is a story of crime and punishment.
Structure. (1) The usual three-phase pattern of a story of crime and punishment: the antecedents of the crime (what led up to it), the occurrence of the crime, the consequences of the crime. (2) The six-phase pattern that tragedies follow (see page 13 for details). (3) A prolonged conflict between good and evil, with evil seemingly unconquerable in the first half of the play but then gradually being defeated by forces of good. (4) A design known as the well-made plot: exposition (background information, showing Macbeth’s noble character and position in relation to the king); inciting moment (Macbeth’s meeting with the witches); rising action (Macbeth’s resolving the conflict between his moral conscience and his political ambition in the wrong direction); turning point (our hearing about an army being mustered to defeat Macbeth); further complication (Macbeth fights a losing battle against guilt and the opposing army); climax (Macbeth’s defeat on the battlefield); denouement (tying up of loose ends, with Malcolm being installed as king of England).
Cultural context. Shakespeare is a Renaissance writer, and as such he is indebted to two great intellectual and cultural movements from the past. One is the classical tradition, to which it is common to attach the term humanism. Two principles of classical humanism are especially important in Macbeth: (1) the key to virtuous behavior is to have one’s reason control the appetites and emotions; (2) the entire universe constitutes a great chain of being ruled by God; the well-being of all people and kingdoms consists of maintaining this divinely ordained order (e.g., citizens need to submit to their rulers, wives to their husbands, emotions and appetites to reason). The Reformation went hand in hand with the Renaissance. We can see its presence in Macbeth in an abundance of biblical references, in the assumption of a Christian worldview, in its ethical system (its system of virtues and vices), and in its doctrinal viewpoints (e.g., Christian ideas about sin, damnation, heaven, hell, good, and evil are embodied in the action).
Place in Shakespeare’s canon. Macbeth is the last of Shakespeare’s “great tragedies”; its predecessors were Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. One-time poet laureate of England John Masefield called Macbeth “the most glorious” of Shakespeare’s plays, and literary critic Oscar Campbell said that it is “the greatest treasure of our dramatic literature.”
Shakespeare’s language. Shakespeare possessed the largest vocabulary of any English writer—over 21,000 words (compared with 13,000 for John Milton and 6,000 for the King James Bible). Much of Shakespeare’s language is archaic for modern readers. Additionally, Shakespeare’s plays are highly poetic. All of this makes Shakespeare’s plays difficult to read or hear in performance. Three good rules to follow are these: (1) read slowly; (2) make use of the notes in your chosen edition of the play; (3) operate on the premise that no one understands all of Shakespeare’s words and lines, and that you can enjoy and understand Macbeth even though many of the words and metaphors are beyond your grasp.
Tips for reading or viewing. (1) Macbeth requires a balancing act between paying attention to the poetry and to the story. We cannot have an in-depth experience of the play without doing justice to both the poetic and narrative qualities. (2) Image patterns are so important in Shakespeare’s plays that they become “actors” in the plays. Image patterns in Macbeth include light and darkness, hand imagery (with multiple meanings), disease imagery, blood, and sleeplessness. (3) The play is rich in atmosphere, and virtually all of it is spooky and foreboding. (4) This play is the most famous literary portrayal of the psychology of guilt; Shakespeare shows the spiritual as well as the mental and emotional effects of guilt.
The Author and His Faith
The myth of the secular Shakespeare is a fallacy foisted on us by an unbelieving age. Before we look at the plays, we need to consider the cultural milieu in which Shakespeare lived. Shakespeare’s England was a thoroughly Christian and Protestant society. The Bible was the best-selling book. Regular church attendance was mandatory (and there are no parish or civil records that suggest that Shakespeare was found guilty of nonattendance). Shakespeare was baptized in the local Anglican church. Upon his retirement he became a lay rector (also called lay reader) in that same church. When he died he was buried inside the church (not in the surrounding cemetery). All of this should predispose us to expect Christian elements in Shakespeare’s plays.
One evidence of this pervasive Christianity in Shakespeare’s plays is the abundance of biblical allusions and echoes. At least two thousand biblical references exist, and additional biblical parallels and subtexts keep surfacing. Additionally, the plays assume the same kind of reality that the Bible does: the existence of God and Satan, heaven and hell, good and evil. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s plays that shows skepticism about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Storytellers show their intellectual allegiances in the world that they create within their stories; the world of Shakespeare’s plays is a thoroughly Christian world (as well as classical).
The particular form that Christianity takes in Shakespeare’s plays is specific to the genres (with comedy and tragedy giving voice to quite different aspects of the Christian faith) and to the individual plays. Here is a list of leading ideas in Macbeth, and the list is entirely congruent with Christianity: (1) the power of evil in the individual soul; (2) the destructive effects of evil on those who do it and on society; (3) the importance of obeying hierarchy at every level where it exists (including the individual, family, and state); (4) the necessity for people to choose between good and evil, and the moral responsibility that attaches to the choices that people make; (5) the reality of guilt; (6) the sanctity of human life and the horror of murder; (7) the reality of moral temptation; (8) the certainty of justice, with evil ultimately punished and good rewarded; (9) a view of the person as having the dual potential for good and evil.
It is easy to find biblical stories, poems, proverbs, and didactic (teaching) passages in the Bible that assert these same things. The fact that some of the ideas also belong to other religious systems does not make them any less Christian. Christianity was the only active belief system in England in Shakespeare’s day, and the version of these ideas that Shakespeare embraced was the Christian version.
The Two Main Genres of Macbeth
Drama belongs to the broader category of narrative or story, so everything that is said earlier in this guide about how to read a story applies to “Macbeth”. But drama has its own way of telling a story:
- The action is not stated directly by a storyteller or narrator; instead we need to piece together the action by listening to the dialogue of characters. The portrayal is objective in the sense that our only basis for interpreting action, scene, and character is what we hear characters in the play say. We have to come to the right interpretations without the help of a narrator who directs our responses.
- Instead of being divided into chapters the way a novel is, plays are divided into acts and scenes. The movement from one scene or episode to the next is much more abrupt than the smooth flow found in a novel or short story.
- The strong point of drama is not plot but the presentation of characters and clashes between them.
- Because Macbeth falls into the further category of poetic drama, we need to pay even more attention to the words that we read or hear than we usually do when reading a story.
Tragedy holds an esteemed place in literature. A good definition of tragedy is that it tells the story of a hero who begins in an exalted position, makes a tragic choice in which he or she displays a tragic flaw of character, and as a result of this tragic choice is plunged into catastrophe and suffering. The plotline of a tragedy is a fall from prosperity to catastrophe, with particular emphasis on the tragic choice of the protagonist. The main attention of a literary tragedy falls on the characterization of the tragic hero, including a tragic flaw of character. Tragedies follow a six-phase sequence, as follows:
- An opening dilemma in which the protagonist is drawn in two directions, one good and the other bad.
- The hero’s tragic choice between the forces competing for his or her soul.
- The catastrophe that engulfs the tragic hero, stemming directly from the tragic choice.
- The suffering that accompanies the catastrophe.
- A moment of tragic perception near the end where the hero expresses insight into what he or she did wrong.
- The death of the tragic hero.
Tragedy presupposes a high view of the person. Part of this high view is the premise that people are endowed with a power of choice. Additionally, we are expected to see the ways in which the tragic hero is representative of people generally, including ourselves.