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Macbeth Study Guide (FULL)

Macbeth Study Guide (FULL)

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Published by Eamon Barkhordarian

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Published by: Eamon Barkhordarian on Nov 23, 2009
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MACBETH
William Shakespeare
Context
T
HE MOST INFLUENTIAL WRITER 
in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in1564 toa successful middle-classglove-makerin Stratford-upon-Avon,England.Shakespeare attended grammarschool, but his formal education proceeded no further.In1582 he married an older woman,Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her.Around1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as anactor and playwright.Public and criticalacclaim quickly followed,and Shakespeare eventually became the mostpopularplaywright in England and part-ownerof the Globe Theater.His careerbridged the
reigns of Elizabeth I(ruled 1558–1603)and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he wasa favorite
of bothmonarchs.Indeed, Jamesgranted Shakespeare’s company the greatestpossiblecompliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthyand renowned,Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616at the age of fifty-two. At the time of 
Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his worksas timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in variouseditions in the century following
his death,and by the early eighteenth centuryhis reputation as the greatestpoet ever towrite
in English waswell established.The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led toa fierce curiosityabout Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has leftmanydetails of Shakespeare’spersonal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have
concluded fromthis factand fromShakespeare’s modesteducation thatShakespeare’s plays
 were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the twomostpopularcandidates—but the support forthis claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial,
and the theory is nottaken seriouslybymany scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as theauthorof the thirty-seven playsand 154 sonnets that bearhis name. The legacy of this body 
of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the
category of brilliance,becoming so influentialas to affect profoundly the course of Western
literature and culture everafter.
Shakespeare’s shortestand bloodiest tragedy,
Macbeth 
tells the story of a brave Scottish
general (Macbeth)who receives a prophecy froma trioofsinister witches thatone dayhe will
 become king of Scotland.Consumed withambitious thoughts and spurred toaction by his wife,Macbeth murders King Duncan and seizes the throne for himself.He beginshis reign wracked with guiltand fearand soon becomes a tyrannical ruler,as he is forced to commit
 
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more and more murders toprotect himself from enmityand suspicion.The bloodbath swiftly 
propels Macbeth and Lady Macbeth toarrogance, madness,and death.
Macbeth 
wasmost likely written in 1606,early in the reign of James I, who had been James
 VI of Scotland before he succeeded to the English throne in 1603.James was a patron of 
Shakespeare’s acting company,and of all the playsShakespeare wrote underJames’s reign,
Macbeth 
most clearly reflects the playwright’s close relationship with the sovereign.Infocusing on Macbeth,a figure from Scottish history,Shakespeare paid homage to his king’sScottish lineage.Additionally,the witches’prophecy that Banquo will found a line of kings isa clear nod to James’s family’s claim to have descended from the historical Banquo.In alargersense,the theme of bad versusgood kingship,embodied byMacbethand Duncan,respectively,would have resonated at the royal court,where James was busy developing hisEnglish version of the theory ofdivine right.
Macbeth 
is not Shakespeare’s most complex play, but it is certainly one of his mostpowerfuland emotionally intense. Whereas Shakespeare’s other majortragedies, suchas
Hamlet 
and
Othello,
fastidiously explore the intellectual predicaments faced by their subjects and the fine
nuances of theirsubjects’characters,
Macbeth 
tumbles madly from itsopening to itsconclusion.It is a sharp,jagged sketch of theme and character; as such, it has shocked and
fascinated audiences fornearly four hundred years.
 
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Plot Overview 
T
HE PLAY BEGINS
 with the briefappearance of a trio of witchesand then moves to a military camp, where the ScottishKing Duncanhears the newsthat hisgenerals,Macbethand Banquo,have defeated two separate invading armies—one from Ireland,led by the rebelMacdonald, and one from Norway.Following theirpitched battle with these enemy forces,Macbethand Banquo encounterthe witchesas they cross a moor. The witches prophesy thatMacbeth will be made thane (a rank of Scottishnobility) of Cawdorand eventually king of 
Scotland.Theyalso prophesy that Macbeth’scompanion,Banquo, will beget a line of Scottish
kings, although Banquo will never be king himself. The witches vanish,and Macbethand
Banquo treat their prophecies skepticallyuntil some of King Duncan’s men come to than
the twogenerals fortheir victories in battle and totell Macbeth that he has indeed beennamed thane of Cawdor. The previous thane betrayed Scotland by fighting fortheNorwegians and Duncan has condemned him to death.Macbeth is intrigued by thepossibility that the remainderof the witches’prophecy—that he will be crowned king—might be true,but he is uncertain what toexpect.He visits with King Duncan,and theyplan todinetogether at Inverness,Macbeth’s castle, thatnight. Macbeth writesahead tohis wife,Lady Macbeth,telling herall thathas happened.LadyMacbeth suffersnone of herhusband’suncertainty.She desires thekingshipforhimand wants him to murderDuncan in orderto obtain it. When Macbetharrives at Inverness,she overrides all ofherhusband’s objectionsand persuades him tokill the king that vernight. He and Lady Macbethplan to get Duncan’s two chamberlains drunk so they will black out; the next morning they will blame the murderon the chamberlains, who will bedefenseless, as they will remembernothing. While Duncan isasleep,Macbeth stabs him,despite hisdoubtsand a numberof supernatural portents, including a vision of a bloody dagger.When Duncan’sdeath is discovered the nextmorning, Macbethkills thechamberlains—ostensibly out of rage at theircrime—and easilyassumesthe kingship.Duncan’s sonsMalcolmandDonalbainflee to England and Ireland, respectively, fearing that  whoeverkilled Duncan desires their demise as well.Fearful of the witches’prophecy that Banquo’sheirs will seize the throne, Macbeth hires agroup of murderers to kill Banquoand his sonFleance.Theyambush Banquo on his way toa
royal feast, but they fail tokill Fleance,whoescapes into the night. Macbeth becomes furious:
as long as Fleance isalive,he fears that hispowerremains insecure. At the feast that night,
Banquo’sghost visits Macbeth. Whenhe sees the ghost, Macbeth raves fearfully, startling his
guests,who include most ofthe great Scottishnobility. Lady Macbeth tries toneutralize thedamage,butMacbeth’s kingship incites increasing resistance fromhis nobles and subjects.Frightened, Macbeth goes to visit the witches in theircavern.There,they show hima

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