Everything You Need to Know About 'Macbeth'

4 Facts About Shakespeare's Shortest Play

Written in around 1605, Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest play. But don't let this tragedy's length fool you— it might be short, but it really packs a punch. 

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What Happens in Macbeth?

Macbeth Murders Duncan
Macbeth Murders Duncan.

A very brief version of the story is that a soldier called Macbeth visits three witches who tell him he will be king.

This puts an idea into Macbeth's head and, with the help of his scheming wife, they murder the King while he sleeps and Macbeth takes his place.

However, to keep his secret safe, Macbeth needs to kill more and more people and he quickly turns from a brave soldier into an evil tyrant.

Guilt starts to catch up with him. He starts seeing ghosts of the people he has killed and before long, his wife also takes her own life.

The three witches make another prophecy: Macbeth will only be defeated when the forest near Macbeth castle start moving towards him.

Sure enough, the forest starts moving. It is actually soldiers using the trees as camouflage and Macbeth is defeated in the final battle.

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Is Macbeth Evil?

Macbeth Close Up
Macbeth Close Up. Photo © NYPL Digital Gallery

The decisions that Macbeth makes during the play are evil. He murders a Kind in his bed, frames and kills the guards for the death of the King and murders someone's wife and children.

But the play wouldn't work if Macbeth was just a two-dimensional baddie. Shakespeare uses lots of devices to help us identify with Macbeth. For example:

  • At the start of the play he presented as a hero returning from battle. We see this in him again at the end of the play, where he fights on even through he knows he cannot win.
  • The three witches work to drive him on with his plan. If it wasn't for them, he probably would not have even started his plan to become King.
  • Macbeth couldn't carry out his plans by himself. He needed to be pushed by Lady Macbeth. In some ways, she is even more cold-hearted than her husband.
  • We see Macbeth suffering from guilt throughout the play. Power, and the crimes he commits to attain it, do not make him happy.

Take a look at our Macbeth character study for more information.

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Why are the Three Witches Important?

The Three Witches
The Three Witches. Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 The three witches in Macbeth are essential to the plot because they kick-start the entire story.

But they are mysterious and we never find out what they want. But they do ask an interesting question. Is this real prophecy or self-fulfilling prophecy?

  • Real Prophecy: If the witches do really have supernatural powers, then the events of the play are not Macbeth's fault ... they are mapped out for him as his destiny.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: If the witches cannot really tell the future, then perhaps they have put an idea in Macbeth's mind and his own ambition to become King is what triggers the murders.
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Who is Lady Macbeth?

Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is Macbeth's wife. Many claim that Lady Macbeth is more of a villain than Macbeth because, whilst she doesn't actually commit the murders, she manipulates Macbeth into doing it for her. When he feels guilty or tries to back out, she accuses him of "not being man enough!"

However, the guilt catches up with her and she eventually takes her own life.

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Your Citation
Jamieson, Lee. "Everything You Need to Know About 'Macbeth'." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/facts-about-macbeth-2985025. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, October 29). Everything You Need to Know About 'Macbeth'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-macbeth-2985025 Jamieson, Lee. "Everything You Need to Know About 'Macbeth'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-macbeth-2985025 (accessed March 30, 2023).