Study Guide

Macbeth Study Guide

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Macbeth Study Guide Introduction

Stop us if you've heard this one before: a man hears an exciting prophecy about his future and decides to take fate into his own hand by killing his king. Things go rapidly downhill.

Sure, it's possible that you were just tra-la-la-ing through the Internet and randomly stumbled over this guide, but we're guessing that you already know the basic plot of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After all, it is one of the most famous works of English literature, and it's even loosely based on some real-life 11th-century events found in Holinshed's Chronicles.

So let's tell you something you might not know: when it was first performed by Shakespeare's company around 1606, Macbeth was the latest in ripped-from-the-headlines, up-to-the-minute political events. It's basically The Dark Knight trilogy of the (very) early 17th century. Check it out:

(1) It was written in 1605 or 1606, right after King James I, the first Stuart king, took up the crown of England in 1603. James I was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (cousin to Elizabeth I) and this less-than-direct connection meant that James was eager to assert any legitimacy he could over his right to the English throne.

Coincidentally, Macbeth is the only of Shakespeare's plays that takes place in Scotland, and it includes a nice little moment where he ties James I's ancestry to the rightful succession.

(2) Witchcraft was a hot topic at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. James I was particularly excited about witches—excited about hunting them down, that is—publishing his very own book about the subject, Daemonologie, in 1597. So the witches' prophecies are a key aspect of this play.

Coincidentally, Act I of Macbeth begins with the stage directions, "Enter three witches." (Also known as the weird sisters.)

(3) In 1605, James was also the target of the Gunpowder Plot, where a group of rebel Catholics tried to blow up the King and Parliament. (This is where we get Guy Fawkes, that guy in V for Vendetta.)

Coincidentally, Macbeth shows the murder of a king and alludes in Act II, scene iii, to the Catholic priest who encouraged Catholics to be deceptive and treasonous. These allusions would have struck a sensitive chord with the play's audience—a lot like referring to the attacks of September 11th.

In case you haven't picked up on it, we don't actually think these are coincidences. Shakespeare was consciously writing a play that would be topical, touching on the subjects that everyone—from the groundlings to the king himself—would be thinking about.

Presumably, King James was happy enough with the play: Shakespeare's theater company The King’s Men, which was under the patronage of the king himself, survived the performance. But, even though the world is restored to normal at the end of the play, we have to wonder: was Shakespeare's critique of power intended to hit home? And did it?

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth takes a little work to understand. But once you’ve got a handle on the characters and motifs, you’ll understand why it’s still performed around the world hundreds of years later. Shmoop’s Macbeth study guide is designed to help you with that! Get familiar with the mayhem and murder in our Macbeth plot summary, or read on for more context to help you understand.

What is Macbeth About and Why Should I Care?

Macbeth is definitely one of the darkest and most violent of Shakespeare’s plays. Even in a body of work (pun intended) filled with tragedies like Hamlet, this one stands out for the heaping pile of corpses left at the end, including the play’s main character. But, as you’ll see from the wrenching soliloquies, dramatic irony, and scenes where characters make huge moral decisions, Shakespeare is always interested in more than just blood and guts.

Consider this, if you will: Would you convince your frenemy to eat weight-gaining nutrition bars by telling her they'd help her lose weight? Would you plot to kill your daughter's cheerleading rival?

Probably not. But would you cheat on a test? Pretend to be nice to the smart kid so he'll let you copy his calculus homework? Deface a rival's student body campaign flyer? Spread a rumor about a girl who stole your boyfriend?

We bet more than one of you is feeling a little uncomfortable now. Because as you watch Macbeth stab his way to becoming the new King of Scotland, you might start to wonder just how much separates the average person from the guy who betrays his friends King Duncan and Banquo in the worst way possible.

Now, maybe you’re a little more optimistic about human nature than that. After all, there are heroes, like the noble Macduff and Duncan’s son Malcolm, who step up to take down the tyrant. We’d all like to think we’re more like these characters—but, if destiny was on the line, could we end up more like Macbeth or Lady Macbeth

Macbeth asks a lot of heavy questions, and we had a hard time narrowing our list down to just one. But out of all the motifs of destiny, fate, time, and nation-building, we think this question just might resonate the most: how far would you go to have power and achieve your deep desires?


Macbeth Resources


He Lies!

According to this website, William Shakespeare besmirched the reputation of an (almost) innocent man. Compare and contrast the real with the fictional Scottish nobleman.

A Pleasant Seat

Cawdor Castle actually exists. And you can stay there! Shmoop summer camp, anyone? Whoever wins the tug-of-war gets a new title and becomes the new king!


Some developers are tossing around the idea of making Macbeth into a video game. Is the world ready?

The Scottish Play

Legend has it that some real-life witches were unhappy with Shakespeare's play and put a curse on it. To this day, most actors and theatrical types will tell you that even saying the word “Macbeth” in a theater (unless you’re in the play) is bad luck. 

Based on a True-ish Story

Read more about Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles based in Scotland and Ireland, which tells the histories of the real people who Shakespeare (very) loosely based Macbeth, King Duncan, Lady Macbeth, Malcolm, Donalbain, Lady Macduff, the Thane of Fife and other characters on.

The Real Birnam Wood

The weird sisters’ prophecies of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane are a key part of Macbeth’s downfall. Unfortunately, the real Birnam Wood is almost gone, except for a handful of trees that are still pretty cool-looking!

Movie or TV Productions

Black, White, and Bloody

Orson Welles directs an adaptation (1948) with Jeanette Nolan, Roddy McDowall, and Dan O'Herlihy.

Chicago Noir

In the 1955 Joe MacBeth, Lily MacBeth encourages her husband Joe to take over Chicago's underworld.

La Vie Boheme

Akira Kurosawa's masterful 1957 adaptation, Throne of Blood, sets Macbeth in Feudal Japan.

A Wizard Always Arrives Exactly on Time

Trevor Nunn's 1979 A Performance of Macbeth stars dream team Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf or Magneto) and Judi Dench.

Would You Like Fries With That?

And then there's Scotland, Pa., a 2001 remake of Macbeth set in a hamburger stand in 1975 in Pennsylvania. This one aired at Sundance.

Macbeth Goes Bollywood

Go global with 2003's Maqbool, a Hindi adaptation set in the Mumbai underworld, starring Irrfan Khan and Tabu.

It's Australian for Murder

In Geoffrey Wright's 2006 Macbeth, the events play out in Melbourne, Australia amidst gang warfare.


Make It So

Watch the entire 2:41:52 long PBS version here, with Captain Picard starring as the Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth, Starring Sock Puppets

A condensed version of the play featuring Scottish sock puppets. Enough said.

Snack Time!

The BBC’s hilarious Bitesize summary tells the story of Macbeth in under eight minutes.


Old Enough for You?

Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Jaggard, 1623. Opening page of Macbeth.

We're Sleeping With the Light on Tonight

Henry Fuseli painted Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head in 1793.

Triple, Triple, Boil and … Cripple?

An 1827 painting by Alexandre-Marie Colin.


Get Out Your Spectacles

You're going to need them to tackle Freud's complex but fascinating analysis that explores the downfall of Lady Macbeth, and the historical context of the Elizabethan transition to King James I of Scotland, son of Elizabeth's cousin Mary. Freud highlights the father-son relations in the play, and touches upon the idea of Elizabeth's own childlessness, and the tangle for the throne that ensues, to explain Shakespeare's special treatment of this otherwise well-known story.

"Lady Macbeth, Prickly Pear Queen"

In Jane Avrich’s hilarious short story, Lady Macbeth marries a young fruit mogul (we’re not kidding) and baffles everyone with her eccentric behavior. Read it on Google Books.

Macbeth Goes Digital

Leave the Complete Works of Shakespeare at home and read this on your iThing.

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