Macbeth opens with three witches conjuring on a heath amidst thunder, lightening, "fog and filthy air" and then proceed to throw around sinister prophesies, so, yeah, we're going to go ahead and say that this is one dark and foreboding play.
Even the humor is bleak. In Act II, Scene iii, the Porter tells some knock-knock jokes (seriously) about who could be knocking at the doors of Macbeth's castle at such an hour. He goes through an extensive comedy routine as he imagines what it would be like to be the porter at the gates of hell. (Pretty busy, apparently, because there's so much evil in the world. Then again, notes the Porter, Macbeth's castle is much too "cold" to be hell.) The joke, of course, is that Macbeth's castle is a lot like hell, especially since Macbeth has just murdered Duncan while the king was sleeping.
Cue the uncomfortable laughter.
Later in the play, Macduff's young son and his wife crack jokes about how Lady Macduff can just trot off to the market to buy twenty more husbands, since hers has apparently abandoned her (4.2). And just as we're enjoying a few chuckles, a couple of murderers enter and stab Macduff's son in the guts. So there's that.
Was Macbeth the greatest tragedy ever written? Maybe. But before we go throwing around words like "greatest," lets take a peek at our handy-dandy tragedy checklist:
Dramatic work: Check. Macbeth's a play, that's for sure.
Serious or somber theme: The play's all about what causes people to commit evil acts (like murder). So, check.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Macbeth's got some serious ambition (so does his wife), which makes him willing to kill in order to secure his position as King of Scotland. Plus, once Macbeth eliminates Duncan, he can't seem to stop killing people. Is there some other "overpowering force" at work too? Keep reading.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Here's where Shakespeare mixes things up. On the one hand, the "weird sisters" (three witches) prophesize that Macbeth will become King of Scotland. "Weird" comes from the old English ("wyrd") word for "fate" (see these ladies' "Character Analysis for more about that), which aligns the witches with the three fates, who are supposed to control man's destiny.
So, does that mean the witches control Macbeth's fate? If the answer to this question is yes, then Macbeth is destined to murder Duncan, become king, and get then later get his own head lopped off by his disgruntled countryman. But this isn't necessarily the case. In fact, the play goes out of its way to dramatize Macbeth's deliberation about whether or not he should kill the King. What's more, the three sisters never say a word about murder. Are the weird sisters just a catalyst for the murderous ambition that's maybe been inside Macbeth all along? There's lots more room for interpretation here so go ahead and take a stab at it.
Ends in death but with the promise of continuity: Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do. The question isn't whether things will end badly, but how badly. In Macbeth, it's pretty bad—Macduff's entire family is murdered, along with Banquo and his son, and, of course, Macbeth himself.
But despite the deaths of individuals in the play (King Duncan, the guards, Macduff's wife and kids, Lady Macbeth, the Siward's son, etc.), Shakespeare is also interested in the restoration of political order. With Malcolm on their thrones, things (we hope) are going to get back to normal—culminating in Shakespeare's very own king James I, who traced his lineage back to Banquo.
So there you have it: Macbeth is definitely a tragedy. Is it the greatest ever written? At the least, it's a strong contender.
Exactly what you think is up with the title. Shakespeare wasn't a guy to waste words: this is a play about a guy named Macbeth.
That said, we don't want to leave you feeling disappointed so here's a bit of trivia: it's considered bad luck to say the play's name out loud—that's why theater folk call it "the Scottish play."
Macbeth ends when Macduff presents Macbeth's severed head to Malcolm, who celebrates by inviting everyone to his coronation party. Fun!
Well, what did you expect from a play about regicide? The thing is, though, Shakespeare's tragedies are also always interested in reestablishing a sense of political order and continuity. So, while Macbeth has been running amok throughout the entire play (killing kings, ordering the murders of children, hanging out with witches, and putting his own selfish needs before the good of the kingdom), we're left with a sense that Malcolm's rule will be a time of healing and restoration…or will it?
After Macbeth's severed head is delivered to the soon-to-be-king, everyone in the vicinity yells out "Hail, King of Scotland" (5.8.70). Now, where have we heard that before?
Oh, we know: that's what the witches call out to Macbeth at the play's beginning, just before all hell breaks loose. In fact, the witches say "hail" to Macbeth no less than ten times, which makes that word a loud and creepy echo by the time they're done with it. We can't help but wonder if Malcolm, who is enthusiastically "hailed" as King of Scotland, will be a good ruler or, if he'll turn out to be just as oppressive as Macbeth.
Boom. You just got Dick Wolfed.
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Get your popcorn: the play opens on a foggy heath amidst a terrible thunder storm, so you know you're in for a laugh-riot of a play.
Not. Macbeth is a dark, dreary play with a lot of dark, dreary action taking place under the cover of darkness, whether at Macbeth's first castle, Inverness, or later, at the palace in Dunsinane. Despite these set changes, Macbeth doesn't go into a lot of detail about it's setting—that's why, like a lot of Shakespeare plays, it can be adapted to pretty much any time period the director fancies. Gangsters in Australia? Been there. Soviet era? Done that.
Though the play is kind of set in the 11th century, based on Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare isn't into historical accuracy. (Historical accuracy wouldn't be invented for another two hundred or so years.) So, the play is full of allusions to contemporary, 17th-century events, like the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in Act II, Scene iii (see "Symbols: The Equivocator" for more on that, and to King James I (see "Symbols: Eight Kings" for our take on that.) Plus, the actors would have been dressed in 17th-century clothing.
There is one quirk we want to bring up: Macbeth is the only Shakespearean play that's set in Scotland. This likely has something to do with the fact that after Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England, just a few years before the play was written. Since all plays were performed at the discretion of the monarch, Shakespeare had a major interest in stroking James' ego.
Other than having more "Macs" than an Apple store, though, is there anything peculiarly Scottish about this play?
We admit it: Macbeth is hard. The plot isn't overly complicated, since the tragedies tend to be more straightforward, and this plot is basically Man Meets Witches, Man Kills King and Many Others; Man is killed. Finis.
But in the midst of all that, there's a lot of treasonous talk, confusing prophecy, and even a brief detour to England. Like a lot of Shakespeare's plays, it's easier to watch than it is to read, but even then it's not super easy. But relax: Shmoop is here to help.
Here's what you should remember about Shakespeare's plays: The nobility tend to speak in "blank verse," which is essentially unrhymed poetry. The commoners tend to speak just like we do, in regular old prose.
OK. Now, let's think about Macbeth specifically.
In Macbeth the noble characters mostly speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is a fancy way of saying they talk like this:
ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
See, an "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry. Let's try it out on this line, where Lady Macbeth urges her husband to wash his hands after he has murdered King Duncan:
and WASH this FILthy WITness FROM your HAND.
Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.
The witches also speak in verse but it's done in a way that sets them apart from other characters. In fact, they often chant in a sing-song way that sounds a lot like a scary nursery rhyme. Many of their lines are delivered in what's called trochaic tetrameter with rhymed couplets.
That's a mouthful but, again, it's actually pretty simple once you wrap your brain around it. Let's take a closer look at "trochaic tetrameter."
A "trochee" is the opposite of an "iamb." It's an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable that sounds like DUM-da. "Tetra" means "four" and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "trochaic tetrameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of four trochees per line. It sounds like this:
DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da.
Here's an example from Macbeth:
DOUble, DOUble, TOIL and TROUble.
FIre BURN and CAULdron BUbble.
Notice the way the endings of these two lines rhyme (trouble and bubble)? That's what's called a rhymed couplet. On the one hand, the meter and the rhyme kind of make the chanting seem a little silly, especially for modern audiences, who don't necessarily believe in witchcraft. At the same time, all the talk about "hell-broth" and "trouble" sounds frightening, especially when what goes into the "hell-broth" consists of disturbing things like "eye of newt" and "finger of birth-strangled babe."
And now for the ordinary folk, like this poor hungover porter:
'Faith sir, we were carousing till the second
cock: and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three
Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; It provokes
the desire, but it takes away the performance. (2.3.24-26; 29-31)
Notice that it's not just the type of speech that sets the Porter apart from the nobles —it's also the content of what he says (which is "low" or "common"). Here, the Porter explains that he was up late "carousing" (partying) and then goes on to describe the physical consequences of excessive drinking: a red nose, a frequent urge to urinate, sleepiness, sexual desire, and problems "performing" in bed. Witty, sure—but it's not exactly what you'd call classy.
Before he hears the witches' prophecy, Macbeth was pretty content with his life. Now he's having some pretty naughty thoughts—thoughts about killing his king. He's not exactly excited about the prospect, but he's also not exactly exploring other options.
Turns out, murder is easier than he thought it would be. Macbeth frames Duncan's guards with his wife's help, casts suspicion on Duncan's sons, and takes the crown for himself. Victory complete. Right?
Actually, it turns out that, if you become king through treachery, you end up suspecting everyone else of treachery. Macbeth plots (and carries out) a few more murders, but he's still feeling uneasy.
Talk about a nightmare: the murdered Banquo shows up to cast a little gloom over Macbeth's banquet by throwing him into a raving fit. That same night, Macbeth has received intelligence that Macduff, Thane of Fife, has gone to England to gather forces with Malcolm and Siward. Yep, things are falling apart pretty quickly.
Turns out, you can't trust a witch. Malcolm suggests that Lady Macbeth commits suicide; Birnam Wood actually does come to Dunsinane; and Macduff was delivered via C-section rather than "born," which means that his sword has Macbeth's name on it. The one good thing? He leaves the play a warrior —just as he entered it.
In the beginning we meet (or hear about) our characters: King Duncan is a nice old man who was going to be taken advantage of by traitors; Macbeth is a courageous war hero who defends his king, his country, and his honor. Sweet! Time for a heroic action flick, right?
Not so much. Along come three pesky witches/ sisters/ fates who announce that Macbeth is going to become King of Scotland. He's stoked, but quickly realizes the problem: if he's going to become king, someone else is going to have to not be king. Like the current king Duncan, and Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain.
With a little spurring from Lady Macbeth, Macbeth kills the king to secure the kingship. (That must have been quite a "honey-do" list.) It immediately becomes clear that the only way to hide the murder is to keep murdering, which means that the body count begins to climb.
A friendly little visit from the ghost of his murdered friend Banquo sends Macbeth into a raving fit, bringing a quick end to the banquet Macbeth has thrown together to celebrate his new kingship. We suspect that things are about to go quickly downhill.
Macbeth visits the weird sisters, who tell him some cryptic things that he interprets as: "It's cool; no one can defeat you." But, what's this? Forces—lots of forces, but King Duncan's son Malcolm—are gathering in England to fight his tyranny.
To the surprise of… no one, it turns out you can't trust witches' tales to help you out in any way. It looks like Macbeth is going to be defeated, and he goes out committed to dying soldierly death.
The last part of the prophecy fulfilled, Macbeth stands against a man not-of-woman-born. Still he fights, but good prevails over tyranny and madness. He's killed, Malcolm is named the rightful king, and everyone goes off to party at the coronation ceremony.