Macbeth is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written between 1603 and 1607. The play’s Scottish war hero turned tyrannical king is based on, but bears little actual resemblance to, King Macbeth of Scotland (reigning from 1040 until his death in 1057); the historical king is believed to have actually been a good and able king.
The play includes many magical incantations thought to have been taken from real witches without their permission, angering them and causing them to curse the play in revenge. For this reason, the play is considered unlucky. Accordingly, when actors are rehearsing the play, referring to it or the title character by name is taboo. Instead, one calls it ‘the Scottish play’, ‘MacBee’, etc. If one accidentally says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre, there are cleansing rituals that can be done to avert disaster, one example being spinning around three times as fast as possible, spitting over one’s shoulder, and uttering an obscenity. Disastrous performances from the play’s history have contributed to the superstition. The BBC comedy ‘Blackadder the Third’ did a hilarious sendup of this superstition in the episode, ‘Sense and Senility’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h–HR7PWfp0
Macbeth is the shortest Shakespeare tragedy, with a quick-moving first act and, apart from the title character himself, minimal character development, causing some scholars to believe we don’t have a complete copy of the play. Banquo’s son Fleance is supposed to have begot a line of kings leading up to James I, the (as of the writing of the play) new king of both Scotland and England, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I: this long lineal connection to Fleance is thought to be a politically-movitated praising of the new king.
Here are some famous quotes:
‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair;/Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ –3 Witches, I, i, lines 10-11
‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ –Macbeth, I, iii, line 38
‘Two truths are told/As happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme.’ –Macbeth, I, iii, lines 127-129
‘I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on the other.’ –Macbeth, I, vii, lines 25-28
‘Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.’ –Macbeth, II, i, lines 33-34
‘Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep.‘ –Macbeth, II, ii, lines 35-36
‘Double, double, toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’ –3 Witches, IV, i, lines 10-11
‘Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!’ –Lady Macbeth, V, i, about line 34
‘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.’ –Macbeth, V, v, lines 19-28
Three prophecies for Macbeth’s fate:
I) Beware Macduff, beware the Thane of Fife.
II) None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.
III) Macbeth shall never fall till great Birnham wood come to high Dunsinane hill.
One important theme in Macbeth is that of fertility versus infertility, or of life versus death. Banquo’s fertility allows him to begin a line of kings that continues right up to the reign of King James, almost six centuries later, and during Shakespeare’s time. Macduff, the one eventually to kill Macbeth, has several children, ‘all [his] pretty chickens’, whom Macbeth has had killed. Macduff observes that Macbeth, however, ‘has no children’.
Macbeth is defeated when Birnham wood comes to Dunsinane; all those tree branches, symbols of life and fertility, coming to Macbeth, symbol of death and infertility, to end his reign of terror.
The most important theme of Macbeth, however, is that of equivocation, perfectly embodied in the quote, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ These opposites appear several times throughout the play, as in the second quote above.
Other examples include when Banquo asks why, upon hearing the witches prophesy of Macbeth being Thane of Cawdor and the future king of Scotland, Macbeth starts in fear on hearing of things ‘so fair’. Later, when Macbeth has been crowned king (having murdered Duncan, the previous king, to get the throne), Banquo correctly suspects that Macbeth ‘play’dst most foully for’t.’
The beginning of the play is ‘So foul and fair a day’, for it is foul with the smell of the blood of war, and yet fair with Scotland’s victory over Norway and Ireland, thanks to Macbeth’s valour.
Macbeth says the witches’ prophecies ‘Cannot be ill; cannot be good’; for if bad, how do they result in good for him, making him Thane of Cawdor? If good, why do the prophecies frighten him with the firing up of his murderous ambition? Macbeth shudders over the ‘fair’ prophecies of his being Thane of Cawdor and the future king, for these spur his ‘Vaulting ambition’, his tragic flaw, which will change him from the fair war hero at the play’s beginning to the foul tyrant who must be killed at the play’s end. Indeed, even though the play ends happily with Macbeth killed and Scotland restored, it is still a tragedy in how a good man is turned into a bad man, who ultimately must be destroyed.
Banquo’s prophecies are also foul and fair. He is, according to the witches, ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater’; ‘Not so happy, yet much happier’. For though Banquo won’t be a king himself, his descendants will be, right up to King James, and as Macbeth imagines, possibly ‘to th’ crack of doom’.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch the roles of foul and fair midway into the play, when he is crowned king. Before that, he is still somewhat good in his feelings of guilt and fear over the plotting of King Duncan’s murder; Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, relishes in her wickedness, even calling on evil spirits to keep her constant in her ambition. After he’s crowned, however, it is Lady Macbeth who is fearful and remorseful, while he is grinning in his machinations. He frowns only from his fears of losing his power; he never repents. Though Banquo’s ghost frightens him, the witches’ prophecy–that ‘none of woman born’ will kill him–gives him a false ‘fair is foul’ kind of confidence. (More on that later.)
Lady Macbeth, after disposing of the bloody daggers her husband has used on King Duncan, says ‘How easy is it’ to wash the blood off; later, during the sleepwalking scene, the imaginary blood she has on her hands is impossible to remove, as is the erasing of her guilt. The fair of easy becomes the foul of impossible.
Even the porter speaks of equivocation in bawdy humour. Wine’s effect on a man ‘provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance…makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep,…’ etc.
Finally, the second two prophecies of Macbeth’s ultimate fate are equivocal in his destiny being both foul and fair at the same time. That he will never lose his power till the forest of Birnham moves to his castle sounds as though he’ll be king forever…fair. How can the trees be uprooted and made to move up to Dunsinane hill? Macbeth doesn’t consider, however, that the English army, led by Duncan’s son Malcolm, will cut off branches from the Birnham trees and carry them to Dunsinane, to hide their numbers. Within the time frame of this play, these branch-carrying usurpers of Macbeth seem to come very soon, too…foul. When Macbeth learns the truth of this, he begins ‘To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’
Furthermore, the cocky self-confidence Macbeth gains from the prophecy ‘none of woman born’ will kill him (that is, none born by going through his mother’s birth canal) makes him forget all too easily the first prophecy, ‘Beware Macduff’, who wasn’t born of woman, but ‘was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripp’d’, that is, born by Caesarian section. Again, what makes Macbeth feel invincible–fair–should actually make him feel most vulnerable–foul.