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Macbeth Attitude Changes Essay, Research Paper
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Macbeth was first performed in 1606, three years after James I
succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. By that time, William
Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in England, and his
company, which had been called the Chamberlain’s Men under Queen
Elizabeth, was renamed the King’s Men.
You can see from the subject and content of Macbeth that Shakespeare
was writing to please the new king. At the time James became James I
of England, he was already James VI of Scotland, so a play like
Macbeth about Scottish history was a tribute to him. This play was
especially flattering because James was of the Stuart line of kings,
and supposedly the Stuarts were descended from Banquo, who appears in
the play as a brave, noble, honest man. Also, James wrote a book
called Demonology, and he would have been very interested in the
scenes with the witches.
It is not unusual that Shakespeare would have written Macbeth with an
eye toward gratifying his patron. Shakespeare was a commercial
playwright–he wrote and produced plays to sell tickets and make
One of his early plays–Titus Andronicus–was popular for the same
reason certain movies sell a lot of tickets today: it is full of
blood and gore. The witches and the battles of Macbeth, too, may
have been there in part to appeal to the audience.
It was Shakespeare’s financial success as a playwright that restored
his family’s sagging fortunes. John Shakespeare, William’s father,
was the son of a farmer. He opened a shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and
eventually become one of the town’s leading citizens.
John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father’s landlord. Mary
was a gentle, cultivated woman, and their marriage helped John
socially in Stratford.
William, their first son, was born in 1564. It seems that by the
time he was twenty his father was deeply in debt, and John’s name
disappeared from the list of town councillors. Years later, when
William was financially well off, he bought his father a coat of
arms, which let John sign himself as an official “gentleman.”
So Shakespeare was no aristocrat who wrote plays as an intellectual
pursuit. He was a craftsman who earned his living as a dramatist.
We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life. When he was eighteen,
he married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six. They had three
children, two girls and a boy, and the boy, Hamnet, died young. By
his mid-twenties, Shakespeare was a successful actor and playwright
in London, and he stayed in the theater until he died, in 1616.
Macbeth was written relatively late in Shakespeare’s career–when he
was in his forties. It was the last of what are considered the four
great tragedies. (The others are Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.)
Macbeth is one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s works, and its
economy is a sign that its author was a master of his craft. You are
amazed at the playwright’s keen understanding of human nature and his
skill in expressing his insights through dramatic verse as, step by
step, he makes the spiritual downfall of Macbeth, the title
character, horrifyingly clear.
All Shakespeare’s plays seem to brim over with ideas–he is always
juggling several possibilities about life. England, too, was in the
midst of a highly interesting period, full of change.
Queen Elizabeth was a great queen, and under her rule England had won
a war against Spain, which established it as a world power. America
was being explored. Old ideas about government and law were
changing. London was becoming a fabulous city, filling with people
from the countryside. Even the English language was changing, as
people from distant areas came together and added new words and
expressions to the common language.
More than a half-century earlier, Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had
broken away from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church
of England. Forty years later, in the middle of the 17th century,
King Charles I would lose his head, executed by the Puritans in a
Elizabeth was not as secure on the throne as you might think. Though
her grandfather, Henry VII, had stripped the nobles of England of
much power, Elizabeth still struggled with them throughout her reign.
She had to be a political genius to play them against each other, to
avoid the plottings of the Roman Catholics and to overcome the
country’s financial mess created by her father, Henry VIII.
A lot was “modern,” a lot was “medieval” about the way people thought
in Shakespeare’s time. People were superstitious, and the
superstitions became mixed up with religion. Things that nobody
understood were often attributed to supernatural forces.
You can feel some of these things moving behind the scenes as you
read Macbeth. But none of this background–not the influence of
James I or the intrigues of Elizabeth’s court or the superstitions of
the times–should determine the way you read the play. It has a life
of its own, breathed into it by Shakespeare’s talent and art. It
stands on its own and must be evaluated on its own terms. So now
let’s turn to the play itself.
MACBETH: THE PLOT
On a deserted field, with lightning and thunder overhead, we see
three eerie witches. They chant spells, make plans to meet someone
named Macbeth, and vanish into thin air.
In a military camp not far away are King Duncan of Scotland and some
of his followers. A battle is raging nearby. We learn there is a
rebellion against the King. He is too old to fight himself, and
wants to know how his army is doing.
A badly wounded soldier reports that the battle was horribly bloody
but the brave Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, saved the day, fighting
fearlessly and killing the rebels’ leader. (Thanes were Scottish
noblemen.) Duncan is moved by Macbeth’s courage.
The Thane of Ross arrives with more news: the Thane of Cawdor, one
of Duncan’s trusted captains, is a traitor. When Duncan learns that
his army has won, he orders the Thane of Cawdor executed and
indicates that Macbeth inherit his title.
Before Duncan’s men can reach Macbeth to tell him the good news,
Macbeth and Banquo, who have led Duncan’s army together, come upon
the three witches. Banquo thinks the three weird women are bizarre
and funny, but Macbeth is strangely fascinated by them. They greet
Macbeth with two predictions: that he will be Thane of Cawdor and
that he will be king. Then they prophesy that though Banquo will
never be a king, his children will be kings. And then the witches
Macbeth and Banquo cannot believe their eyes. As they joke uneasily
about the predictions, they are interrupted by Duncan’s messengers,
who announce that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. Suddenly, the
witches are no laughing matter. Macbeth’s mind is racing. Could he
actually become king someday? King Duncan personally thanks Macbeth
for his bravery in the following scene, at his palace. But at the
same time Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will inherit the
throne. That is not good news for Macbeth. You can see already that
he wants to wear the crown himself.
At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband
telling her about the witches. It is clear that she will be willing
to do anything to see Macbeth king. When the news arrives that
Duncan will spend the night at her castle, she’s amazed at his
stupidity–or his innocence–and thrilled to have the chance to
That night, as the royal party is being entertained, Duncan’s hosts
secretly plot his death. Macbeth is scared of what he is about to
do, and wants to back out, but his wife makes it clear that if he
doesn’t kill Duncan, she won’t consider him a man. Macbeth commits
the murder, but he is appalled by his deed.
When the King’s body is discovered the next morning, nobody seems
more shocked or surprised than Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth blames
Duncan’s servants and kills them–pretending he is so enraged he
cannot stop himself. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, sense
treason and treachery and decide to run away, afraid that they will
be killed, too. Macbeth has himself crowned king. The witches’
predictions have come true, and Macbeth seems to have all he wants.
But Macbeth is not happy. He’s afraid that some of the thanes
suspect Duncan was not really killed by his servants. Worse,
Macbeth’s friend Banquo was told by the witches that he would father
kings. To prevent that, Macbeth decides, he must also murder Banquo.
This time without Lady Macbeth’s help, Macbeth sends three men to
kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Banquo’s throat is slit, but
Fleance manages to escape.
On the night of his friend’s murder Macbeth holds a great feast. But
the merrymaking is spoiled by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost.
Macbeth is the only person there who can see him, and it makes him
rave like a madman.
Terrified now of losing the crown, Macbeth goes back to the witches.
They tell him three things: first, that he should fear Macduff, the
Thane of Fife; second, that Macbeth will never be harmed by any man
born of woman; and third, that he will never be defeated until Birnam
Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Two out of three of the predictions
sound comforting, but the witches go on to show Macbeth a vision of
Banquo as father to a line of kings. The vision makes Macbeth
furious, but the predictions make him even more ruthless.
Macbeth soon learns that the witches gave him good advice about
fearing Macduff. The Thane of Fife has gone to England to meet with
Malcolm, the rightful king, and plan a revolt. In his rage, Macbeth
has Macduff’s wife and children murdered.
When Macduff hears the news, his grief makes him even more determined
to overthrow the tyrant Macbeth. He and Malcolm set out from England
with ten thousand men.
In Scotland, Macbeth’s world is falling apart. His followers are
deserting him; his wife has lost her mind. Only his pride and his
confidence in the witches’ predictions keep him going.
As Malcolm is approaching Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane, he orders
his troops to cut branches from trees in nearby Birnam Wood and carry
them as disguises.
Macbeth at Dunsinane is waiting for the attackers when he’s told that
his wife is dead; she has killed herself. He barely has time to
react before a report arrives that Birnam Wood seems to be
moving–toward the castle! Furious, frightened, and desperate,
Macbeth calls out his troops.
Malcolm’s army throw down the branches and the battle begins.
Macbeth’s men hardly put up a fight, but Macbeth battles like a
Finally, Macbeth comes face to face with Macduff, who has been
looking for him in the battlefield. Macbeth warns his enemy that no
man born of woman can harm him. Macduff isn’t frightened–he was
“untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. (Today we would call it a
cesarean section.) Though he knows the end has come, Macbeth fights
on and is killed. In triumph, Macduff carries Macbeth’s severed head
out to the people, who turn to Malcolm as their rightful king.
Macbeth is a character of powerful contradictions. He is a man who,
for the sake of his ambition, is willing to murder his king and his
best friend. At the same time, he has a conscience that is so strong
that just the thought of his crimes torments him. In fact, even
before he commits his crimes the thought of them makes him miserable.
Is Macbeth a horrible monster or is he a sensitive man–a victim of
witches and his own ambitions? Or is he both? If he is both, how
can the two sides of his nature exist side by side?
To answer those questions, let’s first look at what he does. Then we
will look at how he feels about what he does. In the play, of
course, the two go together.
His actions are monstrous. If Macbeth were a criminal brought to
trial, the list of the charges against him would be long:
1. He murders his king, who is also a relative. The crime is
treasonous and sacrilegious, since every king is set on his throne by
God. Macbeth’s guilt is even blacker because the King was his guest
at the time of the murder. A host has responsibility to protect his
2. He hires men to kill his best friend, Banquo. He wants the men
to kill Banquo’s young son, Fleance, too, but Fleance escapes.
3. He sends men to kill Macduff’s wife and children.
4. Having taken the crown by murder, he keeps it by deception. He
plants spies in all the nobles’ homes and spreads lies about Malcolm,
who should rightfully inherit the throne.
5. More crimes are referred to but not specified. Macbeth rules by
terror, since he does not deserve–or have–anybody’s loyalty.
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