Macbeth literature

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By David Bevington | View Edit History

Macbeth, tragedy in five acts by William Shakespeare, written sometime in 160607 and published in the First Folio of 1623 from a playbook or a transcript of one. Some portions of the original text are corrupted or missing from the published edition. The play is the shortest of Shakespeares tragedies, without diversions or subplots. It chronicles Macbeths seizing of power and subsequent destruction, both his rise and his fall the result of blind ambition.

scene from Macbeth
scene from Macbeth
Jon Finch (center) as Macbeth in Roman Polanski's 1971 film version of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Caliban Films/Playboy Productions (courtesy Kobal)

Macbeth and Banquo, who are generals serving King Duncan of Scotland, meet the Weird Sisters, three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will become thane of Cawdor, then king, and that Banquo will beget kings. Soon thereafter Macbeth discovers that he has indeed been made thane of Cawdor, which leads him to believe the rest of the prophecy. When King Duncan chooses this moment to honour Macbeth by visiting his castle of Dunsinane at Inverness, both Macbeth and his ambitious wife realize that the moment has arrived for them to carry out a plan of regicide that they have long contemplated. Spurred by his wife, Macbeth kills Duncan, and the murder is discovered when Macduff, the thane of Fife, arrives to call on the king. Duncans sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee the country, fearing for their lives. Their speedy departure seems to implicate them in the crime, and Macbeth becomes king.

Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters (Three Witches) on the blasted heath; title page by John Gilbert for an edition of Shakespeare's works, 185860.
Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters (Three Witches) on the blasted heath; title page by John Gilbert for an edition of Shakespeare's works, 185860.
Facsimile of one of William Henry Ireland's forgeries, a primitive self-portrait of William Shakespeare(tinted engraving). Published for Samuel Ireland, Norfolk Street, Strand, December 1, 1795. (W.H. Ireland, forgery)
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In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo says, In such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little [fill in the blank], / Slander her love, and he forgave it her. Hamlet says, Is not parchment made of [fill in the blank] skins? Test your knowledge. Take the quiz.

Worried by the witches prophecy that Banquos heirs instead of Macbeths own progeny will be kings, Macbeth arranges the death of Banquo, though Banquos son Fleance escapes. Banquos ghost haunts Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth is driven to madness by her guilt. The witches assure Macbeth that he will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and that no one of woman born shall harm him. Learning that Macduff is joining Malcolms army, Macbeth orders the slaughter of Macduffs wife and children. When the army, using branches from Birnam Wood as camouflage, advances on Dunsinane, Macbeth sees the prophecy being fulfilled: Birnam Wood has indeed come to Dunsinane. Lady Macbeth dies; Macbeth is killed in battle by Macduff, who was from his mothers womb untimely ripped by cesarean section and in that quibbling sense was not of woman born. Malcolm becomes the rightful king.

For a discussion of this play within the context of Shakespeares entire corpus, see William Shakespeare: Shakespeares plays and poems.

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David Bevington
  • Nicolaus Copernicus: heliocentric system
    English literature: The tragedies
    Lear(160506), political tragedy inMacbeth(160607), and heroic tragedy inAntony and Cleopatra(160607). In each category Shakespeares play is exemplary and defines its type; the range and brilliance of this achievement are staggering. The worlds of Shakespeares heroes are collapsing around them, and their desperate attempts to cope
  • William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare: The tragedies
    Macbethis in some ways Shakespeares most unsettling tragedy, because it invites the intense examination of the heart of a man who is well-intentioned in most ways but who discovers that he cannot resist the temptation to achieve power at any cost. Macbeth is a
  • Aeschylus
    tragedy: From comedy to tragedy
    Hamlet and Macbeth are thrust to the very edge of sanity; Lear and, momentarily, Othello are thrust beyond it. In every case, as in the Greek plays, the destructive forces seem to combine inner inadequacies or evils, such as Lears temper or Macbeths ambition, with external pressures,
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