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- If 'why did this have to happen?' is tragedy's great question,

why do the evil events happen in Macbeth? As in most
Shakespearian tragedies, the sources of evil are complex.
-As for a tragic flaw, Macbeth is ambitious, of course; more
interestingly, he is abnormally imaginative and sensitive, for
a murderer.
- Far from having the poker face necessary for keeping secret
murders quiet, he shows everything in his face. 'Why do you
make such faces?' demands his wife (3.4.66). 'Your face ... is
as a book where men,/May read strange matters', she tells
him, advising him instead to 'look like the innocent flower, /
But be the serpent under't' (1.5.60-4). Macbeth suffers for a
crime before he even commits it, because he imagines it so

- He imagines murdering the King and the 'horrid image cloth
unfix [his] hair / And makes [his] seated heart knock at his:
-Even a hideous reality disturbs him less than do 'horrible
imaginings', and although the murder is as yet only a fantasy,
it shakes his psyche to the foundations, until he can no longer
distinguish between fantasy and reality: 'nothing is / But
what is not' (1.3.134-41)
-Lady Macbeth is less imaginative and doesn't start suffering
until after the crime; but she is fully as sensitive as Macbeth
(she is the one who relives details of the murder nightly in her
sleepwalks and sees blood on her hands forever). The fatal
combination of lack of imaginative foresight and
hypersensitive visual memory drive her to insanity and

-Villains are normally part of the 'outside forces' against
which a hero contends; but in this tragedy Shakespeare
collapses the villain role into the protagonist role: the
Macbeths are villains-as-heroes.
-Macbeth is the clearest example of a Shakespearian
departure from Aristotle's dictum that tragedy involves
unmerited misfortune, since the Macbeths fully deserve their
misery. But by putting them in the role of tragic heroes,
Shakespeare seems to invite us to sympathize with them,
guilty or not.
- Unlike a murder mystery, in which we see through the eyes
of the law, here we view crime through the criminals' eyes,
with a corresponding demand put upon us to understand
how those criminals feel.

-Though they are criminal, we can't heap all blame on the
Macbeths: outside forces are at work as well, in forging the
evil of the play. Was murder the Macbeths' destiny?


- Macbeth begins with witches. Before the inception of the
play proper, before the audience is introduced to the title
character or any of the Scottish nobility or soldiery, the stage
is overtaken by creatures from another world.
- But who are these witches, as they are usually called? Are
they male? Female? Real or imaginary? Benevolent or
wicked? Are they, indeed, supernatural, or are they merely
old Scottish ladies with a curious rhyming dialect of speech?

-In fact, only once in the actual spoken text of the play is one
of them called a witch, and that is in an account of an
offstage momentthe rude refusal of a sailor's wife to share
her chestnuts: Aroynt thee, witch, the rump-fed ronyon
cries (1.3.5).
Usually, however, the witches in Macbeth are called not
witches but weird sisters.
- Wyrd is the Old English word for fate, and these are, in a
way, classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates
as well as Norns.
- The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin,
apportion, and cut the thread of man's life. But
the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor
merely historical targets of vilification and superstition:

on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive
psychological reality of their own.
-What Shakespeare did with the weird sisters was make them
into an emblematic state of mind, the unmetaphored
counterpart of the ambiguous and powerful Lady Macbeth. --
- Are the witches inside or outside Macbeth? Are they part
of his consciousness, prompting him to ambition or murder
or are they some external supernatural force?
- The nature of theater does not require an either/or answer
to this question; the success of Shakespeare's play is in
producing both of these effects, alternately and concurrently.
-The witches are both inside and outside the mind of the
protagonist; they tell him what he has already been thinking.

-If the witches are causative, it is not because they tell
Macbeth what to door, in fact, because they tell
him anythingbut because they allow him to interpret things
as he wants to see them.
-They are real in the sense that they are visible and audible
onstage, unlike, for example, the dagger that he sees before
him, [t]he handle toward my hand, or the voice that cries
Macbeth shall sleep no more' (2.2.41).
-But the stage reality of the witches is clearly coded, by the
play, as of a different order. Unlike the voice and the dagger,
the witches are seen, heard, spoken to, and vouched for by
another onstage witness, Banquo, who provides very much
the same kind of independent assurance as does Horatio,
in Hamlet, who sees the ghost of Hamlet's father

-. Both Horatio and Banquo play a crucial role in establishing
a link of verisimilitude with the audience. They arein the
play's termsordinary people like ourselves. They are the
confidants and companions of the tragic hero. And what they
confess to seeing and hearing, we may believe also.
- The weird sisters hint, they speak in riddles, and they leave
their hearers to decipher answers to the riddles they propose.
Plainly these witches are not causes;
-Banquo, who has heard that his sons will be kings, does not
immediately go off to commit murder to fulfill the prophecy,
but Macbeth does. In fact, like all omens and portents in
Shakespeare, the witches exist to be interpreted. They are
the essence of ambiguity, ambiguous not only in their speech
but in their gender: You should be women, / And yet your
beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so (1.3.4345).

It is Banquo who speaks here, and his word interpret is a
telling one. If only Macbeth had felt similarly forbidden to
interpret. They should be women, yet they are bearded. - --
- Furthermore, they are neither wholly of the air nor of the
earth, but rather a combination of these dark elements: The
earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of
them (1.3.7778).
- Most strikingly, they speak in charms, or magic riddles,
and their language is dominated by what in the play is called
equivocation: the equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like
truth (5.5.4142).
-The word equivocation was much in use in the period,
since it was a technical term used to describe the mental
reservation by which Jesuits, often suspected of treason
because of their Catholic faith, could tell untruths or partial

truths under interrogation without breaking their word
to God.
-Equivocation: ambiguity, the dangerous double meanings of
language. Macbeth, we will see, is an equivocator in all
things: a man who is split in two directions, who commits
murder to become King, and suffers every moment once he
is King.
- Fair is foul, and foul is fair, say the witches. In their
world, nonhuman and antihuman, everything is equivocal
literally double-voiced.
- And Macbeth whose mind encompasses these witches, so
that they reflect his own appetite, his own uncensored wish
fulfillmentdeclares, the first time we see him, in his very
first words, So foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3.36).

- So foul and fair. His mind is already in a condition to
receive the witches and their tempting message. His echo
of them is unconscious, but it is there.
Double, double, toil and trouble, the witches chant.

- There's clear evidence in the play that the Macbeths have
discussed murdering the King before Macbeth ever met
the three sisters.' But the presence of these supernatural
agents in the play still suggests a complex interaction
between human agency and a malign destiny.

- The protagonists' culture, too, offers hostile elements: it
apparently valorizes violence and ambition over more
humane values.

-Between the evil gore of murder and the 'good' gore of
battle described so graphically in the opening scenes there is
a very fine line: the latter in some ways seems merely to set
the stage for the former.
- The prominence of Lady Macbeth as co-protagonist is
unusual in tragedy, normally a male-oriented genre. She joins
only two other genuinely powerful female figures in Shake-
spearian tragedies (Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and
Volumnia in Coriolanus), and all three are powerful at the
expense of the man to whom they are closest, whom they
help to ruin. Like most other female tragic figures, Lady
Macbeth loses her personal power and dies before Act Five.

-The play's four temptressesthree witches and Lady
Macbethhave prompted many to regard Macbeth as a
misogynistic play which ascribes evil to a female principle;
but the play destabilizes simplistic thinking about men and
women or about 'masculine' or 'feminine' character traits.
- Macbeth himself challengesat least initiallyLady
Macbeth's definition of manliness as innately violent,
ambitious, and murderous-, he argues that gentleness and
compassion are basic human values, not flaws of the
-She taunts him, 'When you durst do it [commit the murder],
then you were a man', and tempts him with the prospect of
becoming, if he murders the king, 'so much more the man'
(1.7.49-51); but he declares, 'I dare do all that may become a
man; / Who dares do more is none' (1.7.46-7).

-Macbeth's two tragic heroes give us special opportunities to
observe what a tragic hero is like. The Macbeths, like other
tragic heroes, possess strongly individualized characters.
Lady Macbeth displays a unique blend of murderous
toughness, delicate squeamishness, and fear of her own
- Macbeth possesses a complex individuality, suffering for a
deed before he even does it, imagining actions in such vivid
pictorial detail that it often verges on hallucination, and
speaking in highly individualized, associative speech
patterns, as in his 'tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'
soliloquy (5.5.16-27)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,/Creeps in this petty
pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time

;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty
death. Out, out, brief candle!/Life's but a walking shadow, a
poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the
stage,/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)
- In this speech, 'tomorrow' makes Macbeth think of
'yesterdays', which he personifies as fools carrying candles in
a tomb, which leads to a metaphor of life as a candle, which
reminds him of a shadow, which (because of another
meaning of 'shadow') makes him think of actors, which
reminds him of storytellers, all in the space of a very few
lines, and all imagined visually, or in terms of sound
Macbeth's senses are abnormally vigilant.
- He carries the rhetorical figure of personification almost to
the lengths of hallucination, so visual is his mode of thinking:

a man whose imagination can turn a personified abstraction
like Pity into a 'naked new-born babe' in a storm, or a
personified abstraction like Ambition into a spurred rider
vaulting onto a horse (1.7.21-8), may sooner or later clutch at
daggers hanging in the air.
-Typically of tragedy, the Macbeths are seen more in their
private than their public character: even in this play of
political ambition, the emphasis falls on what ambition does
to the soul more than on what it does to the state.
-We witness here the complete unravelling of two strong
personalities. Lady Macbeth, initially the stronger partner,
who pushes her husband to action and holds him together
when he keeps threatening to crack, ultimately breaks down
first, driven to madness and probable suicide by nightmares
in which she relives the murder.

-And that preternaturally sensitive man Macbeth grows
brutalized, hardened almost beyond recognition. The man
who once stared aghast at his murdered king's blood upon
his hands now confesses he has 'almost forgot the taste of
fears' (5.5.9).
- His senses, once honed (sharpened) to a razor edge, are
now so dulled he can barely respond when he hears women
shrieking in the castle:
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hail
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. (5.5.10-13)

-But now horror is merely 'familiar' amidst his 'slaughterous
thoughts'. He can hardly even respond when he learns that
the women are crying at the death of his wife: 'She should
have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such
a word' (5.5.16-17).
- The horror of their own deeds which destroys their
individual personalities also destroys their marriage. The
Macbeths, ironically one of the most close-knit of
Shakespeare's married couples as the play begins, find that
one of crime's lessons is that partners can't stay together in
-Macbeth doesn't tell Lady Macbeth about his plan to murder
Banquo and Fleance: 'Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest
chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed' (3.2.46-7).

-Nor does he consult her on his barbaric plan to exterminate
Macduff's wife, children, and servants; we are left to infer that
she identifies with this poor murdered wife, as she murmurs in
her sleep, 'The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?'
- In comedies, and in plays by some of Shakespeare's
contemporaries, dramatic characters do not change
graduallyeither they are relatively static in their behaviour,
or they undergo instantaneous character reversals such as
Duke Ferdinand's religious conversion in As You Like It.
-One of the hallmarks of Shakespearian tragedy is that
characters change over time, in believably gradual
-Sometimes they grow, as King Lear grows from a petulant,
egomaniacal old tyrant into a humane man who worries about

the poor and whose gaze has turned outward: he dies not
justifying himself, but thinking only of Cordelia.
-Sometimes they shrink, as Othello dwindles from a
magnificent, heroic, self-possessed general into a cramped,
suspicious wife-abuser, shrivelled of soul. The Macbeths are
among those who shrink.
- Like other tragic heroes, the Macbeths suffer from isolation:
each is left alone at the moment of greatest agony. The crime
alienates the Macbeths from each other, and from the very
society they had sought the honour of leading.
- Before this happens, the two spouses together form a
complex whole, so in tune with each other (in early scenes)
that they echo each other's words and thoughts even when they
are apart.

- Lady Macbeth in soliloquy,planning Duncan's murder,
invokes night so that she will figuratively not have to see
what she is doing: Come, thick night .. .
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,/
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark. (1.5.48-51)
-Macbeth in soliloquy, planning Banquo's murder, invokes
night for exactly the same reason: 'Come, reeling night,/
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day' (3.2.47-8).
-These wishes are uttered in soliloquyit is themselves the
Macbeths are trying to blind. To render their evil intentions
relatively invisible to themselves, both use euphemisms to
avoid having to say 'murder', such as the 'business' (1.5.66,
1.7.31, 3.1.126), 'his taking-off' (1.7.20), and 'I have done the
deed' (2.2.14).

- Even 'business' and 'deed', though having a much higher
invisibility quotient than 'murder', are still nouns, and the
Macbeths prefer pronouns, as in the oft-repeated 'do it', or
'he is about it' (2.2.4)the latter, uttered by Lady Macbeth at
the moment Macbeth is killing Duncan, causes 'Macbeth' to
disappear into 'he' as well as 'murder' into 'it'; the victim
disappears entirely.
- Often a pronoun's antecedent is unspecified, as in Lady
Macbeth's opening soliloquy, which begins Act One, Scene
Five. Tellingly for their close relationship, she begins by
speaking in Macbeth's voice, reading aloud a letter from him:
'They met me in the day of success, and I have learned
by the perfect'st report they have more in them than mortal

- Here the weird sisters' identity disappears into two 'they's'
and a 'them' (Macbeth has never asked their names,
-As Lady Macbeth's soliloquy begins in medias res (in the
middle of events or a narrative), Macbeth two scenes later
begins a closely analogous soliloquy in mid-meditation; like
hers, it features a pronoun whose antecedent noun has been
suppressed: 'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well /
It were done quickly' (1.7.1-2).
-Here again the pronoun 'it' replaces the noun 'murder', and
even 'it' is contracted to "t' in "tis' and "twere', diminishing
the crime almost to invisibility (that tiny 't') or inaudibility.

- The witches parody the Macbeths' grammar of invisibility,
their terror of naming, when Macbeth visits them to demand
'How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags, / What is't
you do?'
- Flinging his weasle-verb 'do' and his miniaturized ''t' in his
face, they reply in Macbeth-speak: 'A deed without a name'
-In this context, it is fitting that actors' superstitions have
preserved for this play the fear of naming something
frightful: it is supposedly bad luck, even now, to refer to 'the
Scottish play' by its true title.

-The Macbeths talk uncannily alike, even when apart. Writing
at the height of his creative powers, Shakespeare creates
speech patterns perfectly expressive of character and
situation. In the Macbeths' language of evasion, we find two
people determined not to look squarely at what they are
-Unlike King Lear, whose characters are forced to 'see better'
as the tragedy progresses (1.1.58), Macbeth gives us
protagonists who start out seeing the situation and
themselves pretty clearly: 'I am his kinsman and his subject,
/ Strong both against the deed-, then, as his host, / Who
should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the
knife myself' (1.7.13-16), Macbeth reminds himself, when
contemplating regicide.

-But they know their own sensitivity well enough to realize
that to go through with their ruthless drive for power, they
must commit murders with averted face: 'Stars, hide your
fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires; / The eye
wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when
it is done, to see' (1.4.50-3).
-'To know my deed', Macbeth acknowledges, "twere best not
know myself' (2.2.71).
-Their shared language of euphemism and evasion expresses
this situation, but it also reminds us how close they are to
each other, how perfectly in tune their two minds are. A
couple who can accurately read each other's suppressed
nouns is a very intimate couple.

- The tragic waste of the play lies not only in their deaths, nor
even in the probable loss of their immortal souls, but also in
the destruction of a marriage, in the tragic estrangement of
two lost souls who have loved each other.


1. How would you characterize the relationship between
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. If the main theme of Macbeth is
ambition, whose ambition is the driving force of the play
Macbeths, Lady Macbeths, or both?

2. One of the Aristotelian principles of tragedy is that the
hero's downfall is caused by a moral weakness or flaw that
inexorably leads him to his tragic destiny.
In this respect, can Macbeth be seen as an Aristotelian
tragedy? What basic human flaws or weaknesses does
Macbeth display? How do they contribute to his downfall?
3. The three witches have been seen as figures of the Greek
Fates, who respectively spin, measure out and cut the thread
of human life. Note how the scenes with the "weird sisters"
punctuate and structure the play. To what extent do their
predictions dictate events? Are their prophecies binding? Is
Macbeth trapped by destiny, a victim of fate, or does he have
free will? How do we know?