2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Theatre

Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath by Théodore Chassériau.
Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath by Théodore Chassériau.

Macbeth is among the most well known of William Shakespeare's plays, as well his shortest surviving tragedy. It is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world. The play, loosely based upon the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland by Raphael Holinshed and the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece, is often seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.

Date and text

Due to significant evidence of later revisions, Macbeth cannot be precisely dated. Many scholars believe the most likely date of composition is between 1603 and 1606. They suggest the play is unlikely to be earlier than 1603 given that it seems designed to celebrate King James's ancestors and the Stuart accession to the throne in 1603 (James believed himself to be descended from Banquo)and the parade of eight kings which the witches show Macbeth in a vision in Act IV is generally taken to be intended as a compliment to King James VI of Scotland. Other editors of the play suggest a more specific date of 1605-6; the principal reason for this are possible allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and its ensuing trials, specifically the Porter's speech (Act II, scene iii, lines1-21) may contain allusions to the trial of the Jesuit Henry Garnet in spring, 1606; "equivocator" (line 8) may refer to Garnet's defense of "equivocation" [see: Doctrine of mental reservation], and "farmer" (4) was one of Garnet's aliases. However, the concept of "equivocation" was also the subject of a 1583 tract by Queen Elizabeth's chief councillor Lord Burghley as well as the 1584 Doctrine of Equivocation by the Spanish prelate Martin Azpilcueta that was disseminated across Europe and into England in the 1590s.

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting byWilliam Rimmer
Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting by William Rimmer

Scholars also cite an entertainment seen by King James at Oxford in the summer of 1605 that featured three " sibyls" like the weird sisters; Kermode surmises that Shakespeare could have heard about this and alluded to it with the three witches. However, A. R. Braunmuller in the New Cambridge edition finds the 1605-6 arguments inconclusive, and argues only for an earliest date of 1603. The play is not considered to be any later than 1607, since, as Kermode notes, there are "fairly clear allusions to the play in 1607." The earliest account of a performance of the play is April 1611, when Simon Forman recorded seeing it at the Globe Theatre.

Macbeth was first printed in the First Folio of 1623 and the Folio is the only source for the text. The text which survives has been plainly altered by later hands. Most notable is the inclusion of two songs from Thomas Middleton's play The Witch ( 1615); Middleton is conjectured to have inserted an extra scene involving the witches and Hecate, because these scenes had proven highly popular with audiences. These revisions, which since the Clarendon edition of 1869 have been assumed to include all of Act III, scene v, and a portion of Act IV, scene i, are often indicated in modern texts.On this basis, many scholars reject all three of the interludes with the goddess Hecate as inauthentic. Even with the Hecate material, the play is conspicuously short, indicating that the Folio text may derive from a promptbook that had been substantially cut for performance, or that an adapter has cut the text himself.

Performance History

Apart from the one mentioned in the Forman document, there are no performances known with certainty in Shakespeare's era. Because of its Scottish theme, the play is sometimes said to have been written for, and perhaps debuted for, King James; however, no external evidence supports this hypothesis. The play's brevity and certain aspects of its staging (for instance, the large proportion of night-time scenes and the unusually large number of off-stage sounds) have been taken as suggesting that the text now extant was revised for production indoors, perhaps at the Blackfriars Theatre, which the King's Men acquired in 1608.

In the Restoration, Sir William Davenant produced a spectacular "operatic" adaptation of Macbeth, "with all the singing and dancing in it" and special effects like "flyings for the witches" ( John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, 1708). Davenant's revision also enhanced the role of Lady Macduff, making her a thematic foil to Lady Macbeth. In an April 19, 1667 entry in his Diary, Samuel Pepys called Davenant's MacBeth "one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and music, that ever I saw." The Davenant version held the stage until the middle of the next century. It was this version that the famous Macbeths of the early eighteenth century, such as James Quin, employed.

David Garrick returned much closer to the Shakespearean original in a 1744 production. He restored much of Shakespeare's language, which Davenant had simplified, and restored most of the characters to their original roles. However, he retained the witches' songs and added a moralizing speech for Macbeth to the conclusion. Garrick's Macbeth was celebrated; Thomas Davies claims that when the Duke of Parma asked Garrick to demonstrate his acting ability, he acted the scene of Banquo's ghost. Garrick's Lady Macbeth was Hannah Pritchard, and he did not act the role after her death in 1768.

Charles Macklin, not otherwise recalled as a great Macbeth, is remembered for performances at the Covent Garden in 1773 at which riots broke out, related to Macklin's rivalries with Garrick and William Smith. Macklin performed in Scottish dress, reversing an earlier tendency to dress Macbeth as an English brigadier; he also removed Garrick's death speech and further trimmed Lady Macduff's role. The performance received generally respectful reviews, although George Steevens remarked on the inappropriateness of Macklin (then in his eighties) for the role.

After Garrick, the most celebrated Macbeth of the eighteenth century was John Philip Kemble; he performed the role most famously with his sister, Sarah Siddons, whose Lady Macbeth was widely regarded as unsurpassable. Kemble continued the trends toward realistic costume and to Shakespeare's language that had marked Macklin's production; Walter Scott reports that he experimented continually with the Scottish dress of the play. Response to Kemble's interpretation was divided; however, Siddons was unanimously praised. Her performance of the "sleepwalking" scene in the fifth act was especially noted; Leigh Hunt called it "sublime." The Kemble-Siddons performances were the first widely influential productions in which Lady Macbeth's villainy was presented as deeper and more powerful than Macbeth's. It was also the first in which Banquo's ghost did not appear onstage.

Kemble's Macbeth struck some critics as too mannered and polite for Shakespeare's text. His successor as the leading actor of London, Edmund Kean, was more often criticized for emotional excess, particularly in the fifth act. Kean's Macbeth was not universally admired; William Hazlitt, for instance, complained that Kean's Macbeth was too like his Richard III. As he did in other roles, Kean exploited his athleticism as a key component of Macbeth's mental collapse. He reversed Kemble's emphasis on Macbeth as noble, instead presenting him as a ruthless politician who collapses under the weight of guilt and fear. Kean, however, did nothing to halt the trend toward extravagance in scene and costume.

The Macbeth of the next predominant London actor, William Charles Macready, provoked responses at least as mixed as those given Kean. Macready debuted in the role in 1820 at Covent Garden. As Hazlitt noted, Macready's reading of the character was purely psychological; the witches lost all superstitious power, and Macbeth's downfall arose purely from the conflicts in Macbeth's character. Macready's most famous Lady Macbeth was Helena Faucit, who debuted dismally in the role while still in her mid-20s, but who later achieved acclaim in the role for an interpretation that, unlike Siddons', accorded with contemporary notions of female decorum. After Macready "retired" to America, he continued to perform in the role; in 1849, he was involved in a rivalry with American actor Edwin Forrest, whose partisans hissed Macready at Astor Place, leading to what is commonly called the Astor Place Riot.

The two most prominent Macbeths of midcentury, Samuel Phelps and Charles Kean, were both received with critical ambivalence and popular success. Both are famous less for their interpretation of character than for certain aspects of staging. At Sadler's Wells Theatre, Phelps brought back nearly all of Shakespeare's original text. He brought back the first half of the Porter scene, which had been ignored by directors since D'Avenant; the second remained cut because of its ribaldry. He abandoned Irving's music and reduced the witches to their role in the folio. Just as significantly, he returned to the folio treatment of Macbeth's death. Not all of these decisions succeeded in the Victorian context, and Phelps experimented with various combinations of Shakespeare and D'Avenant in his more than a dozen productions between 1844 and 1861. His most successful Lady Macbeth was Isabella Glyn, whose commanding presence reminded some critics of Siddons.

The outstanding feature of Kean's productions at the Princess's Theatre after 1850 was their accuracy of costume. Kean achieved his greatest success in modern melodrama, and he was widely viewed as not prepossessing enough for the greatest Elizabethan roles. Audiences did not mind, however; one 1853 production ran for twenty weeks. Presumably part of the draw was Kean's famous attention to historical accuracy; in his productions, as Allardyce Nicoll notes, "even the botany was historically correct."

Henry Irving's first attempt at the role, at the Lyceum Theatre, London in 1875, was a failure. Under the production of Sidney Frances Bateman, and starring alongside Kate Josephine Bateman, Irving may have been affected by the recent death of his manager Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman. Although the production lasted eighty performances, his Macbeth was judged inferior to his Hamlet. His next essay, opposite Ellen Terry at the Lyceum in 1888, fared only slightly better. Friends such as Bram Stoker defended his "psychological" reading, based on the supposition that Macbeth had dreamed of killing Duncan before the start of the play. His detractors, among them Henry James, deplored his somewhat arbitrary word changes ("would have" for "should have" in the speech at Lady Macbeth's death) and his "neurasthenic" approach to the character.

Barry Vincent Jackson staged an influential modern-dress production with the Birmingham Repertory in 1928; the production reached London, playing at the Royal Court Theatre. It received mixed reviews; Eric Maturin was judged an inadequate Macbeth, though Mary Merrall's vampish Lady was reviewed favorably. Though The Times judged it a "miserable failure," the production did much to overturn the tendency to scenic and antiquarian excess that had peaked with Charles Kean.

Among the most publicized productions of the twentieth century was mounted by the American Negro Theatre at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1936. Orson Welles, in his first stage production, directed Jack Carter and Edna Thomas ( Canada Lee played Banquo) in an all-African-American production. Welles set the play in post-colonial Haiti, and his direction emphasized spectacle and suspense: his dozens of "African" drums recalled Davenant's chorus of witches.

Laurence Olivier, who had played Malcolm in the 1929 production and in the lead a decade later, starred in what is probably the most famous twentieth-century production, by Glen Byam Shaw at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955. Vivien Leigh played Lady Macbeth. The supporting cast, which Harold Hobson denigrated, included many actors who went on to successful Shakespearean careers: Ian Holm played Donalbain, Keith Michell was Macduff, and Patrick Wymark the Porter. Olivier was the key to success. The intensity of his performance, particularly in the conversation with the murderers and in confronting Banquo's ghost, seemed to many reviewers to recall Edmund Kean. Plans for a film version faltered after the box-office failure of Olivier's Richard III. It was of this performance that Kenneth Tynan asserted flatly that "no one has ever succeeded as Macbeth--until Olivier.

After the Olivier performance, the most notable twentieth-century production is that of Trevor Nunn for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976. Nunn had directed Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren in the play two years earlier, but that production had largely failed to impress. In 1976, Nunn produced the play with a minimalist set at The Other Place; this small, nearly round stage focused attention on the psychological dynamics of the characters. Both Ian McKellen in the title role and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth received exceptionally favorable reviews. In 2004, members of the RSC voted Dench's performance the greatest in the history of the company.

The production was eventually moved to London (and ultimately filmed for television); it overshadowed Peter Hall's 1978 production with Albert Finney as Macbeth and Dorothy Tutin as Lady Macbeth. However, the most infamous recent Macbeth was staged at the Old Vic in 1980. Peter O'Toole and Frances Tomelty took the leads in a production (by Bryan Forbes) that was publically disowned by Timothy West, artistic director of the theatre, before opening night.

On the stage, Lady Macbeth is considered one of the more "commanding and challenging" roles in Shakespeare's work.


Duncan - King of Scotland

  • Malcolm - Duncan's eldest son.
  • Donalbain - Duncan's youngest son.

Macbeth - A general in the army of King Duncan.

  • Lady Macbeth - Macbeth's wife.

Banquo - Macbeth's friend and a general in the army of King Duncan.

  • Fleance - The son of Banquo.

Macduff - The Thane of Fife.

  • Lady Macduff - Macduff's wife.
  • Macduff's Son

Lennox - A Scottish lord.
Ross - A Scottish lord.
Angus - A Scottish lord.
Mentieth - A Scottish lord.
Caithness - A Scottish lord.
Siward - Earl of Northumberland, General of the English forces.

  • Young Siward - The son of Siward.

Seyton - An officer.
The Weird Sisters
Three Murderers


Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

The play opens amid thunder and lightning, with three Witches—the Weird Sisters—deciding that their next meeting shall be with a certain Macbeth. In the following scene, a wounded soldier reports to King Duncan of Scotland that his generals, Macbeth (who is the Thane of Glamis) and Banquo, have just defeated an invasion by the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald. Macbeth, the King's kinsman, is particularly praised for his bravery, and fighting prowess.

The scene changes. Macbeth and Banquo enter in conversation, remarking on the weather and their win ("So foul and fair a day I have not seen"). While they wander into a heath, the three Witches who have been waiting greet them with prophecies. The first hails Macbeth as " Thane of Glamis", the second as "Thane of Cawdor", while the third proclaims that he shall "be King hereafter". The Witches also inform Banquo he shall father a line of kings. While the two men wonder at these pronouncements, the Witches vanish, and another Thane, Ross, a messenger from the King, soon arrives and informs Macbeth of his newly-bestowed title—Thane of Cawdor. The first prophecy is thus fulfilled. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming king.

Macbeth writes to his wife about the Witches' prophecies. When Duncan decides to stay at the Macbeths' castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth hatches a plan to murder him and secure the throne for her husband. Macbeth raises concerns about the regicide, but Lady Macbeth eventually persuades him to comply with their plan.

In the night of the visit, Macbeth kills Duncan. Lady Macbeth arranges to frame Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by planting bloody daggers on them. Early the next morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. The porter opens the gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's corpse. In a sham fit of fury, Macbeth murders the servants before they can protest their innocence. Macduff is immediately suspicious of Macbeth, but does not disclose his suspicions publicly. Fearing for their lives, Duncan's sons flee, Malcolm to England and his brother Donalbain to Ireland. The rightful heirs' flight makes them suspect, and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman to the dead king.

Macbeth seeing the Ghost of Banquo by Théodore Chassériau.
Macbeth seeing the Ghost of Banquo by Théodore Chassériau.

Despite his success, Macbeth remains uneasy regarding the prophecy that Banquo would be the progenitor of kings. Hence Macbeth invites Banquo to a royal banquet and discovers that Banquo and his young son, Fleance, will be riding that night. He hires two men to kill Banquo and Fleance (The third murderer mysteriously appears in the park before the murder). While the assassins succeed in murdering Banquo, Fleance is able to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Disturbed, Macbeth goes to the Witches once more. They conjure up three spirits with three further warnings and prophecies, which tell him to "beware Macduff", but also that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and he will "never be vanquish'd until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him". Since Macduff is in exile, Macbeth massacres everyone in Macduff's castle, including Macduff's wife and their young children.

Lady Macbeth eventually becomes racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands.

Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff plan an invasion of Scotland. Macbeth, now a tyrant, sees many of his thanes defecting. Malcolm leads an army, along with Macduff and Englishman Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers, thus fulfilling the Witches' second prophecy. Meanwhile, Macbeth delivers a famous nihilistic soliloquy (" Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow") upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the cause is undisclosed, but it is assumed by some that she committed suicide).

A battle ensues, culminating in the slaying of the young Siward and Macduff's confrontation with Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped" (i.e., born by Caesarean section before his mother's actual delivery)—and was therefore not "of woman born". Too late, Macbeth realises the Witches have misled him. A fight ensues, which ends with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the prophecies.

In the final scene, Malcolm is crowned as the rightful King of Scotland, suggesting that peace has been restored to the kingdom. However, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo, "Thou shalt [be]get kings", was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true, as James I of England was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.

Themes and motifs

  • Paradoxes/Things in Twos/Oxymorons. Throughout Macbeth, there are many situations and characters' internal conflicts which are paradoxical. There are also many things which come in twos; these are similar, but not always identical. From almost the beginning of the play ("when the battle's lost and won"), paradoxes/doubles appear regularly. Examples include:
    • "when the battle's lost and won" (1.1.4)
    • "fair is foul and foul is fair" (1.1.12), (said by the witches)
    • "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater." (1.3.65)
    • "Not so happy, and yet much happier" (1.3.66)
    • "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38) (Macbeth's first line)
    • "they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe." (1.2.42)
    • "the service and the loyalty I owe in doing it pays itself." (1.4.25-6)
    • "I have thee not, and yet I see thee still." (2.1.46)
    • "double, double, toil and trouble..." (4.1.10)
  • Ambition and Betrayal. Macbeth's tragic flaw is likely his own ambition, which leads him to betray King Duncan and, later, murder his friend Banquo. He becomes Thane of Cawdor only after the previous thane rebels against the king; Macbeth thus continues a tradition of betrayal among those in power. The play dwells on ambition's ability to be a morally corrupting agent. It has the same effect on Lady Macbeth, whose sins drive her to madness and suicide.
  • Visions. There are several hallucinations in the play. In Act 2 Scene 1, Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air, pointing to King Duncan’s resting chamber, perhaps encouraging his upcoming deed. In Act 5 Scene 1 Lady Macbeth hallucinates that her hands are covered in blood, despite her obsessive washing. Macbeth also sees the ghost of Banquo at the royal banquet. The precise meaning and origins of these visions is ambiguous. They could possibly be conjured by the three witches, who are actively involved in the play's events. Or they could be simple products of madness, reinforcing the play's thesis that betrayal is corrupting in the mind. (The ghost, at least, would not be unusual to see in a Shakespeare play that already involves the supernatural.)
  • Blood and bloodshed. Macbeth is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays (see also Titus Andronicus, another of Shakespeare's more bloody works.) As the play opens, Macbeth has just defeated Norwegian invaders in a gruesome battle. As a gravely-wounded captain arrives, Duncan remarks: “What bloody man is that? He can report, as seemeth by his plight” (1.2). In this and other examples, blood might signify the advent of a messenger, the admonitions of God, or a warning for the future. The witches' cauldron too is filled with blood. Macbeth of course serves a bloody term in office, ordering the murder of opponents and potential rivals. Lady Macbeth's hallucination of blood on her hands seems to represent her feeling of guilt. At the play's end, Macduff presents the new king (and the audience) with Macbeth's severed head, clearly a gruesome spectacle, illustrating the price of treason and murder. Shakespeare uses the word blood 42 times throughout the play.
  • Infants and children. Children are frequently referenced, though hardly seen, in the play. Their innocence is frequently contrasted with the guilty meditations of Macbeth and other characters. Lady Macbeth provides the most graphic example, making an analogy to her level of commitment: "I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this" (1.7).
  • Natural Order/ Great Chain of Being. The 'unnatural' replacement of Duncan by Macbeth disturbs the natural order of the royal lineage. Those in Shakespeare's time valued the divinity of the king, i.e. the king's preordained selection by God. Thus, by unnatural replacement of the king, Macbeth has invoked the wrath of greater beings. Nature is disturbed and thrown into turmoil: horses cannibalise each other, and a small owl kills a regal falcon.
  • Insomnia. Sleep is referenced several times through out the play; Duncan is murdered in his sleep, while his guards sleep. Following the murder, Macbeth states, "Sleep no more!/Macbeth doth murder sleep, that innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care... (2.2). Indeed, following the crime, both Macbeth and his wife are cursed with insomnia and sleepwalking. These seem to be tangible expressions of each character's guilt. Fear of sleep might also represent Macbeth's fear of his inevitable death.
  • Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Ambiguity. Shakespeare shows in the play a connection between masculinity and violence, as well as ambition. Lady Macbeth goads Macbeth on to treason by saying, "when you durst do it, then you are a man" (1.7.48). Even more explicit is her early soliloquy: "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!" The "here" plainly refers to her genitals, although few modern actresses can bring themselves to make that obvious. The women of the play manipulate Macbeth into doing their bidding. The witches awaken Macbeth's ambitions, and then Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to kill Duncan.
  • Moral Ambiguity. The witches, servants of the devil, and their dark prophecy steer Macbeth through the play. Early on, they set an overall tone of moral uncertainty with their chanting. The evil in Macbeth grows throughout the play. In the beginning he is reluctant to commit murder, but it slowly becomes easier for him. At the turning point of the play Macbeth says, "Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." (3.4.164-165) He has decided it would be just as easy to keep killing and murdering as it would to repent and turn back.
  • Conflict and Opposition. The play is full of contradictory statements, beginning with the witches' conversation in Act 1: "When the battle's lost and won," (1.1.4) and "Fair is foul, and foul is fair", (1.1.12)I. Macbeth's first line in the play is: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." (1.3.38) Shakespeare's portrayal of Macbeth's world is a confusing and chaotic one. This mirrors the moral dilemma involved in the plot to kill the King, and Macbeth's own indecision.
  • Internal Struggle. In the first two acts of the play, Macbeth struggles with morality and ambition, trying desperately to reconcile the two. After Act 2, he struggles instead to reconcile with his regicidal 'new self,' finally failing in the task and falling into utter moral darkness and abandoning all optimistic perspective. His former greatness decays until his "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" speech, which shows he has given up on all hope of self-reconciliation.

  • Deception:

Deception is the heart of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Everything revolves around what seems to be; however, the truth does not emerge until the end when all deceptions are revealed. The witches and Macbeth use the tools of deception to cloud the issues and move the play along leaving the reader to ascertain what is real. The Weird sisters set up the theme of appearance vs. reality with their opening lines “fair is foul, and foul is fair, /hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-13). These lines hint to the reader that people and events in the play will not be as they appear! When the witches give Macbeth his three titles Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis, and King hereafter (1.3.51-53) thoughts of suspicion arise. Will Macbeth try to achieve these titles or let things take their natural course? Banquo tries to be the voice of reason and portrays feelings of doubt in his lines: “That, trusted home, /Might yet enkindle you unto the crown, /Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But tis’ strange./ And oftentimes to win us to our harm,/The instruments of darkness tell us truths, /Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequence”(1.3.32-38).

Your vessels and your spells provide, Your charms and everything beside. I am for th’ air. This night ill spend Unto a dismal and a fatal end. Great business must be wrought ere noon. Upon the corner of the moon There hangs a vap’rous drop profound. Ill catch it ere it come to the ground, And that distilled by magic sleights, Shall rise such artificial sprites As by the strength of their illusion, Shall draw him on to his confusion. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear. (3.5.18-31) In these lines, Hecate reveals that she plans on showing Macbeth illusions that will lead him to destroy himself. Hecate believes Macbeth is doing everything for himself, and does not appreciate anything the witches have done for him. This fuels Hecate’s anger and knowing how greedy Macbeth is, she is aware that the illusions she shows him will eventually lead to his self destruction. Hecate is not the only person who is a leading Macbeth to his demise. Lady Macbeth also urges Macbeth to kill Duncan, thus helping to push him further down the path of self-destruction. When Duncan comes to stay at Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth tells him: “Bear welcome in your eye, /Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent/ flower, /But be the serpent under ‘t” (1.6.75-78) All of the illusions set up by the witches come true in the end but, they come through in deceptive ways. The witches warned Macbeth to beware of Macduff, that no man born of women could harm him, and that he would not be destroyed until Birnam Wood traveled to Dunsinane Hill. What Macbeth doesn’t know is that Macduff was born through a C-section which he revealed to Macbeth in his lines: “Tell thee Macduff was from his mothers womb/Untimely ripped” (5.8.19-20). Macbeth is astounded to find out that the opposing army cut off branches from the trees in Birnam Wood and uses them to hide while traveling to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth is defeated and although it was his own fault, he uses the witches as an excuse for everything he does. This goes to show that in Macbeth, things aren’t always as they appeared

The "Scottish Play"

While many today would simply chalk coincidence, actors and other theatre people often consider it to be bad luck to mention Macbeth by name while inside a theatre, and usually refer to it superstitiously as The Scottish Play or sometimes, "The Scottish King".

This is said to be because Shakespeare used the spells of real witches in his text, so witches got angry and are said to have cursed the play. Thus, to say the name of the play inside a theatre is believed to doom the production to failure, and perhaps cause physical injury or worse to cast members. A large mythology has built up surrounding this superstition, with countless stories of accidents, misfortunes and even deaths, all mysteriously taking place during runs of Macbeth.

An alternative explanation for the superstition is that struggling theatres or companies would often put on this popular 'blockbuster' in an effort to save their flagging fortunes. However, it is a tall order for any single production to reverse a long-running trend of poor business. Therefore, the last play performed before a theatre shut down was often Macbeth, and thus the growth of the idea that it was an 'unlucky' play.

This superstition was parodied in the Blackadder the Third episode Sense and Senility, in which two actors had to go through the Macbeth ritual (an exorcistic chant/dance) every time the name "Macbeth" was mentioned which Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, exploits for his own amusement.


  • The longest Broadway run of Macbeth was Margaret Webster's 1941 production starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson. It ran for 131 performances.
  • Judith Anderson played Lady Macbeth on television twice, in 1954 and 1962, winning Emmy Awards for both performances.
  • A 2004 opinion poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company voted Judi Dench's 1976 performance of Lady Macbeth as the greatest Shakespearean performance by an actress in the history of the RSC.
  • Old Vic Theatre director Lilian Baylis died the night before Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson opened in the theatre's 1937 production of Macbeth.
  • Olivier's makeup was so thick and stylized for that production that Vivian Leigh was quoted as saying "You hear Macbeth's first line, then Larry's makeup comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on".
  • The most critically reviled production of Macbeth may have been Bryan Forbes' 1980 staging at the Old Vic Theatre starring Peter O'Toole. The production was publicly disowned by Old Vic artistic director Timothy West, despite being a sellout because of its notoriety.
  • On Bruce Dickinson's 2005 album, Tyranny of Souls, the title track "Tyranny of Souls" is somewhat based on MacBeth, and includes direct quotes and lines from the play throughout the song.

Retrieved from ""