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Macbeth Attitude Changes Essay, Research Paper


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

civil war.

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.


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

murder him.

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

trapped animal.

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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