Shakespeare’s dark and bloody Jacobean tragedy follows the journey of the great warrior, Macbeth, and his descent from grace into murder and madness. Set in Scotland during the Dark Ages, Macbeth is an intricate examination of the inner workings of the human mind and could be seen as an exploration of fear itself. It’s about ambition and power, appearances and reality, fate and choice. And it’s framed with an overarching air of the supernatural and the effect it has on the characters within the play.

At the opening of the drama, three witches gathered upon a blasted heath, anticipate a meeting with the soldier Macbeth, who has just been victorious in a war against Norway and some rebellious Scottish thanes. When the witches encounter Macbeth shortly after and prophesy that he will become king, Macbeth’s latent desire is aroused, and the power of suggestion sends him on a path of bloodshed and destruction.

1606: Why This Play, Why Now?

Macbeth was first performed in 1606. One of Shakespeare’s later plays and written in the Jacobean period, this was a dark time in England’s history after the renaissance of the Elizabethan era. James I of England (who was also King of Scotland) came to the throne after some tumult, largely due to the fact that Elizabeth I had died without an heir. A lot of Shakespeare’s plays during this time deal with problematic or corrupt rulers, as well as the human tendencies towards selfishness and ambition.

I believe Shakespeare to be one of the greatest writers of historical fiction – very few of his stories are original ideas.  What is believed to have inspired him to write the tragedy of Macbeth is James I almost fanatical obsession with witchcraft, alongside a certain historical tome called Holinshed’s ‘Chronicle of Scotland’, written in 1577.   

While Holinshed’s Chronicle is said to be more of a legendary source than an historical one it is widely accepted that a man called Macbeth (or similar – some call him Maelbeatha) was king of Scotland form 1040-57.  It is also recorded that he succeeded his father as mormaer (earl) of the province of Moray c.1031 and was a military commander for Duncan I.  In 1040 he killed Duncan (in battle, not in his bed!) and seized the throne. Although it is possible that Macbeth was of royal descent himself, he acquired a direct claim to the throne through his wife Grouch – the granddaughter of Kenneth III, who had been overthrown by Duncan’s ancestor Malcolm II.  Tumultuous times! Who had the rightful claim to the crown?

Tragic Heroes or Shakespeare’s Greatest Villains?

At the true heart of Macbeth is indeed this unforgettable couple who, out to take what they believe to be theirs, kill together and die apart. Macbeth himself is often referred to by scholars as a tragic hero. Aristotle defines the term as a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to a brutal end through error of judgement. One could argue that Macbeth is definitely capable of evoking fear in the audience through the terrifying visions he experiences, his increasingly erratic behaviour and his killing spree triggered by the paranoia that sets in after the planned murder of Duncan. But what of pity? An argument that’s often put forward is that Macbeth is set on the path of destruction not only by the witches but also his wife. Lady Macbeth often comes off as far worse that her husband for being callous, nagging and manipulative.

Let’s consider an essay topic along the line of:

In the final scene of the play, Malcolm describes the Macbeths as ‘this dead butcher and his fiend like queen’. To what extent do you agree this is an accurate summation of the characters?

A popular reading of the Macbeths are as Shakepeare’s greatest villains. But to what extent is this too simplistic? Too obvious? How does Shakespeare, as a brilliant dramatist and humanist elicit sympathy from his audience for these characters? What argument can we make through the close analysis of the text in support of their humanity?

Under the Microscope: Act 1 Scene 7

Let’s examine Shakespeare’s depiction of the couple in Act 1 Scene 7. This is the classic scene in which Lady Macbeth gets her husband to do a 180 degree turn. But just how exactly does she manage to do this?

Here’s what Spark Notes has to say about Lady M in  Act 1 Scene 7: ‘Basically, she dares him to commit the murder, using words that taunt rather than persuade. Under her spell, all of Macbeth’s objections seem to evaporate and he is left only with a weak “If we should fail?” to set against her passionate challenge (1.7.59).’

Cliffs Notes says: ‘Finally, and most damningly, she tells him that her own lack of pity would extend to murdering her own child as it suckled at her breast. With this one terrifying example, she confirms that "the milk of human kindness" is absent in her.’

Here at Edcellent we could argue that far from taunting her husband, she’s actually both highly persuasive and supportive of Macbeth in this scene: she knows her husband very well, and is aware he’s going to need all of her strength behind him in order to go through with the deed. Although, one could also argue that Lady Macbeth’s own tragic flaw was to not know her husband well enough: her failure to recognise that Macbeth would not be psychologically strong enough to cope with the aftermath of the deed...

At the opening of Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth, who has taken some time out from the banquet, begins speaking in soliloquy: a speech made alone on stage by a character either talking to themselves or directly to the audience in order to tease out a problem they are facing. He’s wrestling with himself as to whether or not he should go through with the murder of King Duncan.  His thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of Lady Macbeth who has come to find out why he left the banquet so suddenly. At this point, Macbeth has come to the conclusion that:


We will proceed no further in this business...

And so Lady Macbeth has to implement some seriously ‘tough love’.

Let’s remember that in his letter to his wife in Act 1 Scene 5, Macbeth calls Lady M his ‘dearest partner in greatness’. He views her as an equal. And in Act 1 Scene 7, Lady Macbeth will take it up to him as such: he’s a soldier and, far from being the ‘nagging wife’, she could be seen as assuming the role of a Captain rallying their troops. As such, Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth try several different persuasive techniques to bring her husband back around to the cause.

She starts off by appealing to his sense of desire and to his courage: suggesting that he’s abandoned both his love for her as well as his life’s ambition. Shakespeare has her pose Macbeth a series of questions, imploring him to examine his true character:


Was the hope drunk

Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely? From this time

Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and valour

As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'

Like the poor cat i' the adage?

The words ‘knock’ quite harshly against one another and her tone is forceful, aided by Shakespeare’s use of alliteration (‘drunk’ and ‘dress’d yourself’, ‘slept since’) as well as short, punchy sentences.

Macbeth’s response is that he’ll commit to any action that is acceptable for a man to undertake. But that a man who acts outside these bounds, surrenders his right to call himself a man (foreshadowing the loss of humanity Macbeth will experience following the murder of Duncan).


Prithee, peace:

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who dares do more is none.


What beast was't, then,

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And, to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place

Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:

They have made themselves, and that their fitness now

Does unmake you.

Lady Macbeth, clearly flips this, appealing to Macbeth’s concept of manhood, by reminding him that when he came to her with the idea of murdering Duncan he was indeed a man. While this appeal begins and ends using clipped, sharp language, for the central four lines, Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth extended vowel sounds (the vowels are where the emotion lies in spoken language) and have a driving, yearning tone, thus attempting to inspire Macbeth by engaging him emotionally.

Lady Macbeth’s next tactic is considered by many to be her most cruel:

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.

The imagery is certainly brutal. But so is the world in which the Macbeths live: it’s do or die. When an opportunity presents itself in this superstitious, war-torn world, it may not come again. I would argue it’s at this moment that the Macbeths are closest in the play. It’s also the turning point in the scene. After this line, Lady Macbeth gets her husband back on side. She brings up the memory of their son who has, we assume, died. It’s the only mention of the child in the entire play, and Shakespeare possibly chooses to include it in order to show a deep connection between the Macbeths through shared grief and personal tragedy. It adds a humanity to the couple they may not otherwise have. Lady Macbeth uses the violent image of committing to killing their beloved baby boy, if that’s what she’d vowed to do, as the strongest appeal to love she knows. It’s also a reminder of the fragility of life and the need to seize the moment.

With Macbeth’s courage screwed ‘to the sticking place’, Lady Macbeth unfolds a plan:

...When Duncan is asleep--

Whereto the rather shall his day's hard journey

Soundly invite him--his two chamberlains

Will I with wine and wassail so convince

That memory, the warder of the brain,

Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason

A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep

Their drenched natures lie as in a death,

What cannot you and I perform upon

The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon

His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt

Of our great quell?

Again, some will argue she’s had this up her sleeve all along: that it’s premeditated, cold and calculating. However, the way Shakespeare structures her speech could imply otherwise. Notice that until the two final questions it is all one sentence: one thought, leading to the next thought, leading to the next. This implies an element of discovery: that the plan could be occurring to her moment by moment. There is also a swiftness to her thought process that is somewhat intoxicating, coupled with the personification of memory as ‘the warder of the brain’ becoming a ‘fume’. Again, alliteration, pleasing to the ear, aids her argument: ‘wine and wassail’, receipt of reason’, ‘swinish sleep’.

By this stage, Macbeth is right back in the game:


I am settled, and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

Away, and mock the time with fairest show:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

The final line of the scene echoing the advice given to him by Lady Macbeth in Act 1 Scene 5:

Look like th' innocent flower,

But be the serpent under ’t.

As well as reinforcing the theme of appearances and reality.

Let’s finally have a look at the way Shakespeare manipulates the rhythms of the scene to show the deep connection the Macbeths have for one another, even during an argument. The scene is written in verse: in iambic pentameter. Even though there is conflict, there is a sense of control because the meter is largely regular (ten two-part beats to a line, with 5 of the second parts stressed) rather than broken. Most interestingly, Shakespeare often has the Macbeths complete one another’s sentences to create these lines of perfect iambic pentameter: a device used to show the unity of two characters’ thought patterns. For example:


Prithee, peace:

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who dares do more is none.


        What beast was't, then,

That made you break this enterprise to me?

And my personal favourite:



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.


    If we should fail?


       We fail!

This connection will be severed by Shakespeare in Act 2 Scene 2, immediately after the murder of Duncan. The rhythm and meter is completely and utterly shattered to show the chaos, horror and panic of the situation. The fact that Macbeth’s regret is so viscerally immediate, as is Lady Macbeth’s horror of his rapid psychological deterioration and subsequent heinous deeds, is further evidence provided by Shakespeare of their humanity: they simply weren’t evil enough to cope with the fallout of committing such a crime.

The Detective Work

Once again, when it comes to analysing Shakespeare’s characters, look for evidence within the text which challenges what is immediately obvious. It’s through questioning the status quo that you’ll discover unique angles and interpretations that will make your essay writing stand out!