It was in 1606 when Shakespeare’s darkest and shortest tragedy was first performed. Ever since its first performances, it has etched fear into theatregoers as well as the actors who conspire to do the play justice – even uttering the name ‘Macbeth’ is supposed to conjure bad luck, linked with the dregs of the universe and witches. The play illustrates Shakespeare’s incredible ability to take a realistic snapshot of man; more specifically, a person’s ability to sabotage themselves and everything around them in pursuit of something. Despite the gruesomeness of the plot, the play acts as a beautiful portrait of the greediness and committal to do wrong.
Macbeth is a butcher; a serial killer. And yet so intensely is the character crafted that it is possible for anyone who studies Macbeth closely enough to feel sympathy for him. This is because Shakespeare has not written a play about a monster. Rather, he has written a play about a man: a man that could exist. It is clear that the intention of Shakespeare in writing Macbeth was to explore the darker side of the human psyche and to what extent our actions affect our conscience. Moreover, it explores anyone’s ability to commit evil and grotesque acts. Psychoanalytically, it explores the power and influence of the mind over the individual: is the mind ‘part of us’ or something separate that resides within us that we cannot control? Indeed, it has only been in recent years and advances in medicine and the understanding of mental illnesses such as depression, OCD and schizophrenia which has suggested humans have little control over the mind: the mind, therefore, is something that cannot be tamed. It is its own character. Yet, Shakespeare tapped into this concept almost 500 years ago. In short, the play suggests that anyone has the capacity to commit violence when our minds are possessed by enough justification to commit them. Such is the extent of the play’s close link to the destruction of the rational psyche that actors who have been lucky enough to act in a production have feared the effect it would have on them.
The plot is a simple one: Macbeth, a thane, is seen as a heroic warrior, rewarded for his bravery and honour by the King of Scotland, Duncan: ‘The King hath heavily received, Macbeth, the news of thy success. We are sent to bring thee from our royal master thanks’. Three ‘weird sisters’ appear, the witches, tells Macbeth that he himself will be king. Their prophecy plants the seed in his head that he is destined for greater things: ‘All hail Macbeth. Thou shalt be king hereafter’. Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, decide to make it happen. He murders the king himself as well as all other possible rivals. As well as the violence, it is the prophesies of the supernatural that fire his ambition.
The language of the witches, seen in act 1, scene 1, is so evocative and strange. The alliteration ‘fair is foul and foul is far’ and pathetic fallacy of ‘thunder, lightning and rain’ proactively opens the play and it is clear from the short opening scene that this is a play is unique where the playwright has taken compositional risks. Macbeth meets them in a strange barren wasteland symbolising that disconnect between reality and experience. Notoriously, the entire play takes place in a shadow-land, with all scenes deliberately being set at night to reflect the darkness of the subject matter (this is probably why Shakespeare goes into such detailed descriptions of the settings and weather as plays were performed in late afternoons. Without such detail of setting it would have been hard for a Elizabethan audience to imagine darkness at three PM). But the purpose of the witches is always open for debate: do they simply predict what is going to happen, or do they cause what happens? Macbeth will murder to satisfy is ambition, but the inspiration itself comes from the three sisters. They tell him that he will be king, meaning the current king must die. That decision is the central pivot of the play’s narrative – it is the ‘haramtia’ as Aritsotle would deduce: the error in judgement that sets the tragic protagonists fortune in reverse. The effect the witches have on Macbeth is mentally claustrophobic – the promise of great things is something he cannot escape from. No matter how much you do not believe in horoscopes, the idea has still be planted. Shakespeare has highlight the susceptibility of humans to the concept of fate and destiny.
What is scary about the play is the one thing that brings about Macbeth’s downfall is simply ambition, which we all have. Theatregoers would see themselves in the actors on stage which was true for all his plays – by going to see a Shakespeare play you were expecting to see yourself on stage. Not all of us would want to be king, but each of us has something we would like, and one of the questions Macbeth asks is to what extent would we each go to obtain it?
For Shakespeare, writing such as play, which is essentially about mass murder, was risky. This was a time in which society believed heavily in the damaging existence of witches. The play is set in an age of witchcraft where everyday lives were infested with the conflicts between the Devil and God. For the early-modern audience, witches were everywhere. Everyone would have known one, whether she was still living or whether she had been executed. Crucially therefore, the witches and Banquo’s ghosts in the play are not aesthetic extras in a vain attempt to make the play memorable or stand out, but have a precise purpose and a link to the time using powerful languages and iconography that a Shakespearean audience would identify themselves with. There were major political implications about writing about witches in Shakespeare’s time. Everyone took them seriously, even King James I wrote a book on demonology in 1597 doing so because he believed in witches’ existence and could bring down the divinely ordained monarchy. To this end, to write a play about killing a king was clearly a risky idea. The great anxiety that dominates sixteenth and seventeenth century political history is the concept that Devil, normally through the agency of the Pope and the Antichrist are somehow going to topple the Protestant government of England. By writing the play, Shakespeare is dealing with sensitive matters of state where if he gets it wrong, he could be considered seditious and treasonous.
The play questions where dark forces come from. For Macbeth, is he influenced by dark forces, or are the dark forces that make him into a conspiratorial murderer already present within him? It is almost impossible to differentiate between whether or not the witches plant the idea in Macbeth’s head or only see the dark potential that is already within him. In other words, does the supernatural cause the events, or merely predict them? Shakespeare is notoriously ambiguous, leaving it up for the actors and audience themselves to decide.
There was a real Macbeth, who lived in Perthshire, Scotland one thousand years ago. Dunsinane is the most likely place. All that remains today is a hill that sits high up above sea level, ideal for fortification. The landscape is eerie and bleak and it is easy to imagine the weird sisters drifting over the moors. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is very much the tyrant who kills King Duncan while he is sleeping (sleep is an ever-present extended motif throughout the play as ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’ which in act 2, scene 2 has been personified as something innocent and cleansing). In real life, Macbeth defeated Duncan on the battlefield and according to historians. It was more than likely that Duncan was the aggressor, probably invading Macbeth’s kingdom. Macbeth did what any good king should do and protect what was rightfully his. Shakespeare is known for adapting existing sources which he based his plays on. It is Shakespeare who has added in the traitorous treason for his play. Despite Shakespeare being notorious for embroidering his plays and changing the facts, in this case those facts had already been altered by historians. Historians were well-known for changing the facts so history was always written by the victors. The historians were expected to help kings by proving they had the rights to the throne and not their rivals. Much of Scottish history is based on fiction. But because that fiction suited the powers that be, they remained credible as anything else.
Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth, is just as notorious as her husband. Both are ‘dearest partners in greatness’ in the beginning. She is his partner in crime who persuades him (or reassures him) to kill Duncan because they are united in their power to do wrong to get reward. This close bond between them is reflected through the pronoun ‘we’. Macbeth asks what should happen if he fails to kill Duncan to which she replies ‘we fail’. She is an imperative character, stating ‘you shalt be what thou art promised’. Like the witches, the debate is on-going as to whether Lady Macbeth causes Macbeth to commit murder or just nurtures the dark behaviour that is already inside him.
Over the years, Lady Macbeth has been played by a variety of different actresses all of whom emphasise something different about her character. Judith Anderson was the evil vampire Lady Macbeth and indeed, the most successful Lady Macbeths have been the ones that have explicitly bullied their onstage husbands into action. Arguably, to case a meeker, more timid actress into the play does it a disservice. Charlotte Cushman for example, in the nineteenth century, was notorious for towering over her husband and knowing what she needed to do to get her husband to do what she wanted. She played the role tough, whilst atypically living openly as a lesbian. In contrast, Sarah Bernhardt’s Lady Macbeth decided to play up the inherent sexuality in the play making their relationship quite lusty. Again, contrasted to Judi Dench’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth where the symbols of femininity – clothes, hair, makeup – are all cut back or hidden altogether by black costumes, making her blend in with the dark backdrop. What is so ironic about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship is it’s one of the few happy marriages in a Shakespeare play (in the beginning).
Whichever version of Lady Macbeth is used, a woman pushing her husband to excess has become iconic. Does she make him a killer? Who wields the power in their relationship? In act 1, scene 7, Macbeth’s opening soliloquy clearly states he intends not to kill Duncan because he should be his protector not ‘bear the knife myself’; Duncan ‘hath honour’d me of late’ and has virtues that will ‘plead’ like angels. He has basked in the ‘golden opinions’ Duncan has presented. Lady Macbeth, is furious, attacking his masculinity by calling him ‘green and pale’ as well as a ‘coward’. She knows her husband well enough to know he has ambition but lacks what it takes to achieve it, or in her words, he is too full of ‘the milk of human kindness’ – contrasted to her request to the spirits to change her breast milk into ‘gall’ after her wish to be more masculine in order to shut out feelings of remorse – ‘unsex me here’. She knows he’d rather play by the rules than and succeed rather to play dishonest and succeed quicker. She is perhaps more realistic about what needs to be done if they are to be united in power on the throne. After Lady Macbeth’s grotesque declaration that she would kill a ‘smiling’ new-born baby if her husband had asked her to do it and used a degree of emotional blackmail, she successfully gets Macbeth to carry out the plot to kill the king. He goes from ‘we shalt proceed no further in this business’ to saying ‘I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat’. We see her strongly identify with his ambition and her fear that he may fail to realise it, perhaps reflected by the use of heroic couplets: ‘Away, and mock the time with fairest show: False face must hide what false heart doth now’.
Lady Macbeth raises the question about what ‘masculinity’ is and what a man is. Is a man someone who dares to take what he is promised? Is a man someone who goes beyond that and gets something through more ruthless means? Is a man someone who dares to challenge authority? As Lady Macbeth declares, ‘when you durst do it, then you were a man’. At this point, Macbeth is on a thin ledge where he could topple either way – he could either kill Duncan or not. But in the back of his mind he understands that if he doesn’t do it, he will be shamed in the eyes of his loving wife forever, hence the emotional blackmail. Arguably, the fact act 1 scene 7 is so short may suggest it was fairly easy for her to persuade him and therefore she was only nudging him to do something he already deep down wanted to do. Perhaps he wasn’t such a hard sell after all.
In act 2, scene 2, Macbeth kills Duncan and goes through with the plan that Lady Macbeth has devised. Duncan is sleeping over at the Macbeths’ castle and Macbeth kills him in his bedchamber, while Duncan’s two sons Donalbain and Malcolm sleep in the second one. He is now a murderer. 'I have done the deed’ he announces. The scene is filled with onomatopoeia and noises that reflect the heightened tensions and senses at this pinnacle part of the plot. The alliterative personification seen through ‘crickets cry’ again reflect the gothic nature of the atmosphere. The couple’s interactions become staccato and lack the original fluidity. The intimate address terms such as ‘dearest love’ have gone. Through language, we can see the couple is beginning to drift apart. Macbeth is now in a sense of mental paralysis. Shock, numbness and denial are the first stages of human response after a trauma. What is exceptional about Shakespeare’s storytelling is he demonstrates an awareness of criminology and the workings of the mind, more specifically, a mind that has been subjected to certain trauma. In act 2, scene 2, the sentences begin to fall apart, reflecting Macbeth’s mental break down. This is exactly what happens in real life as people’s language does fall apart when they are agitated or in distress.
Furthermore, Macbeth demonstrates that he is not used to killing out of the battlefield as he brings the daggers he used to kill Duncan back when he was supposed to leave them at the scene of the crime to frame the drunk servants. Upon Lady Macbeth’s request to have him take them back, he refuses: ‘I will go no more, and leaves her to do it. This is crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, upon returning, Lady Macbeth’s hands like her husbands are now covered in blood (metaphorical guilt) reflecting the fact they are in this together. Secondly, Lady Macbeth is the one who is trying to maintain order and rationale to the situation. Yet her control can only be physical. She can only use her rhetoric to tell what her husband should do and only physically help frame the servants with the daggers. She cannot, however, control Macbeth’s mind. Ironically, as we later find out, she can’t even control her own. Macbeth’s mental paralysis is precisely what happens to people who have committed a horrendous crime for the first time: the finality of it all; the fact that you have changed the universe and can never go back to how things were which is so profoundly understood by Shakespeare.
As well as a Shakespearean audience being terrified of witches, Shakespeare was also writing the play at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, when Roman Catholics had planted gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament , planning to blow up ministers and King James. The parallel between this and Macbeth is clear. At this time, the dangers of sedition, conspiracy, deceit and the threats of rebellion and treason would have stirred in the psyches of the audience. All of this is the white noise of politics of the time. For Macbeth and his wife, the fear of being discovered as the king’s killer would have fuelled much paranoia, seen in act 3, scenes 2 and 4: found guilty of killing a king and you would face execution and dismemberment. The impact killing someone, not necessarily a king, and the effect this has on the mind is something that both Macbeth and his wife underestimate.
Shakespeare has also tapped into something that modern psychologists recognise. Perpetrators of homicide usually create a fictional fantasy world which may be easier to do with another person. The concept of justifying something to yourself after committing a deed becomes crucial, and that’s where the other person comes in because they can take the role and reassure.
After the murder of Duncan, the couple start to react differently to what they are responsible for. Even though he has become king, he doesn’t feel secure in his role. Ridden with paranoia, he asks murderers to kill his close friend Banquo who suspected that Macbeth had something to with Duncan’s death. What is so crucial about this is the fact that Macbeth was able to arrange Banquo’s death without confiding in his wife at all. At the banquet scene in act 3, scene 4, Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth. This is particularly ironic seeing as Macbeth expects Banquo to appear knowing he is dead. But he does appear, just in a supernatural way he does not expect – the level of dramatic irony is high as only Macbeth, the murderers and the audience are aware of Banquo’s fate. Not even Lady Macbeth knows which is important in assessing her role as the person who wants to maintain control. As Macbeth has kept the deed from her, she has two problems – first, the danger Macbeth will out himself in front of guests, and second, the fact she cannot control his mind.
Banquo’s ghost is a hallucination of Macbeth’s mind, fuelled by his lack of sleep. In preparing to play the role at the RSC, actor Antony Sher spoke to two real-life murders. To the question ‘do you ever dream of your victims?’ both answered ‘only when I’m awake’. The role of sleep is therefore important – it nourishes the mind and rejuvenates. Macbeth no longer has. The banquet scene is the last time we see man and wife on stage together. Whereas language had started to show their divide, now it is represented structurally. Rather than seeking solace from his wife, Macbeth goes to the witches; a sad end the play’s initially happily married couple. Their love just fades out with a degree of sombre realism.
Ironically, Macbeth seemed to need his wife in the earlier acts. Now, in act 5, it is her who needs him. She is reduced to a solitary woman; lonely, and mad. Yet they are both equally solitary – Macbeth is a solitary tyrant, she is a solitary shell of her former self. In a sense, they have both developed and transitioned to a new emotional setting, something often found in gothic literature. In act 5, she is seen sleepwalking, muttering to herself about not being able to wash the blood from her hands (‘out damned spot!’), even though there is no blood on them. The scene again debates the power of the mind. It undermines her previous advice to Macbeth in act 2, scene 2 – by washing your hands clean you eradicate the guilt felt. However, this may erase physical guilt, but not emotional guilt. To this end, you cannot wash the mind of its imperfections. Again, she underestimates the effect such deeds can have on the human psyche. Further irony is created when a doctor notes down her ramblings. As a result, she outs herself, something that she has tried so hard to stop Macbeth doing at the banquet scene. She was once calculating, powerful and manipulating. She has unravelled. A further contrast is created when considering sleep – in her dream-like state, Lady Macbeth is tormented. But it’s in Macbeth’s awakened state where he is anguished.
At the same time, Macbeth’s blood has become thickened (as Lady Macbeth had hoped it would) by his deeds and seems to just plough on. Macbeth has got so far along the murderous path that all he can do it continue. She loses her grip on him and it’s almost as if she has let loose a monster. He has become more of a maniac than she could ever envisage and he has gone past the point at which they could enjoy their power. He is someone who is just not going to be content. Their separation and isolation is further exacerbated when Macbeth is told his wife has committed suicide. All he replies with is ‘she should have died thereafter’, meaning ‘oh well, she would have died sooner or later’. As he admits himself in act 5, scene 5, ‘I have almost forgot the taste of fears’. Lady Macbeth is now isolated in death; her husband isolated in life before his downfall. We may feel sympathy for her - she was rejected by her husband and died alone. She did not envisage the manic her husband would become. She had a heart – she stated the reason she couldn’t kill Duncan was because ‘he [Duncan]…resembled my father’ which is something someone with a conscience says. Maybe she only said the things she did in act 1, scene 7 to persuade him? Did she really mean what she said or did she think she had to say it to get Macbeth to kill Duncan? The loss of a woman he clearly loved means nothing to him. Macbeth can no longer feel. This is Shakespeare’s deepest insight into what it is to commit murder without remorse: that is, you lose the capacity to feel. In the end, this is where we may feel the most sympathy for Macbeth – he loses everything that is most precious to him.
Shakespeare’s great gift as a writer is the amount of leeway he gives his audience. Shakespeare never presents a character and says the audience should feel a certain way about them. He merely crafts a character and allows the audience to make up their own mind, hence why is entirely possible, if now probable, that audiences sympathise with a mass murderer. Shakespeare’s Macbeth debates many issues we still have today – the power of the human mind and the effect trauma has on it; what we are prepared to do for love; to what extent we will pursue something that has been promised to us, and whether ruthlessness and ambition is a bad thing. But it also questions emotions: the relationship between love, life and death: ‘Your cause of sorrow must not be measur’d by his worth, for then it hath no end’ (try not to grieve with the same intensity in which you loved, for then it will be unbearable).
Macbeth is a truly remarkable play.