'Macbeth' Overview

Shakespeare's Scottish Play on Ambition

First Folio of Shakespeare's Macbeth
First Folio of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, tells the story of a Scottish nobleman and his own ambition to become king. The source material is Holinshed’s Chronicle, which compiled a history of England, Scotland and Ireland. First published in its Folio edition in 1623, it is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Despite its brevity, it had a rich legacy.

Fast Facts: Macbeth

  • Title: Macbeth
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Publisher: Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard
  • Year Published: First Edition, Folio, 1623
  • Genre: drama
  • Type of Work: tragedy
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Ambition, fate, free will, loyalty, appearance vs. reality
  • Characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, The Three Witches, Duncan, Banquo, Macduff
  • Notable Adaptations: Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth (1936); Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957); Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)
  • Fun Fact: due to superstition, actors avoid addressing Macbeth by its name directly, and use the phrase “The Scottish Play” instead.

Plot Summary

Macbeth is a tragedy telling the story of the Scottish nobleman by the same name, consumed by his own ambition to become king and by the consequences of the acts he commits in order to achieve his goal.

At the beginning of the play, after a victorious battle, Macbeth and fellow general Banquo meet three witches in a heath, and they deliver prophecies to both of them: Macbeth would become king of Scotland, and Banquo will father a line of kings while not becoming king himself. Encouraged by Lady Macbeth, his ruthless wife, Macbeth plans to kill King Duncan. After his murder, since his heir Malcolm and his brother Donalbain promptly flee to England and Ireland, respectively, Macbeth is crowned king.

Consumed by guilt and paranoia, he becomes more and more of a tyrant as the play progresses. First he has Banquo killed, and his ghost visits him during a banquet. After consulting the witches again, who tell him to beware of Macduff and that he won’t be vanquished by anyone “of woman born,” he tries to have Macduff’s castle seized and everyone inside killed. However, since Macduff had gone to England to join forces with Malcolm, Macbeth only succeeds in having Macduff’s family killed. This prompts Macduff and Malcolm to raise an army aimed at dethroning Macbeth.

Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth, who initially was more assertive than her husband, has become consumed by guilt to the point of insanity and eventually kills herself. The Scottish generals rally against Macbeth, and Macduff manages to vanquish him—he was not “of woman born” but “from his mother's womb untimely ripped.” The play ends with Malcolm being crowned king of Scotland.

Major Characters

Macbeth. Macbeth is initially presented as a Scottish nobleman and a valiant warrior. However, after listening to the prophecy delivered by the Three Witches in which he is told he would be king, he is overcome by blind ambition, and, strongly encouraged by his wife, he kills the king to usurp the throne. His thirst for power is counterbalanced by paranoia, which leads to his downfall.

Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s wife, she thinks her husband’s nature is too full of kindness. She is the one who devises the plot for her husband to murder King Duncan, and is initially less fazed by the deed than her husband. However, she eventually unravels too, and commits suicide.

The Three Witches. Whether they control fate or are merely its agents, the Three Witches set the tragedy in motion: they deliver Macbeth and his companion Banquo with a prophecy that the former shall be king, and the latter shall generate a line of kings. These prophecies have a great influence on Macbeth, who decides to usurp the throne of Scotland.

Banquo. Banquo is another Scottish thane who was with Macbeth when the witches delivered their prophecy. He is told that he will father a line of kings while not becoming king himself. After the king’s murder, Macbeth feels threatened by Banquo and has him murdered by hired assassins. Yet, Banquo returns as a ghost at a banquet, visibly startling Macbeth, who is the only one who can see him. 

Macduff. Macduff finds King Duncan’s body after he was murdered and immediately suspects Macbeth. Eventually, he murders Macbeth.

King Duncan. The wise and firm king of Scotland at the beginning of the play, he is murdered by Macbeth so he can usurp the throne. He represents moral order in the play, which Macbeth destroys and Macduff restores.

Main Themes

Ambition. Macbeth’s ambition is devoid of any morality and is the cause of Macbeth’s downfall. After becoming king of Scotland, Macbeth’s ambition turns him into a tyrant, and he has his suspected enemies murdered. Ambition is a trait his wife Lady Macbeth shares, and she, too, succumbs to it. 

Loyalty. At he beginning of the play, King Duncan rewards Macbeth with the title “Thane of Cawdor” because the original Thane of Cawdor was actually a traitor, but Macbeth betrays the king in order to usurp the throne. Macduff, who suspects Macbeth once he sees the king’s corpse, flees to England to join Duncan’s son Malcolm, and together they plan the downfall of Macbeth and restore the moral order. 

Fate and free will. The witches do show Macbeth his future and his fate, but Macbeth’s actions are arbitrary and not pre-ordained. 

Appearance and reality. “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” is one of the famous quotes in Macbeth, and appearance and reality intermingle in the play: the witches give out paradoxical prophecies and characters hide their true intentions. For example, Macbeth seems honorable but actually plans to murder King Duncan. Malcolm soon flees Scotland after his father’s murder, which seems suspicious at first, but it’s actually a way for him to protect himself.

Literary Style

The language used by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth evolves throughout the play. At first, they’re both characterized by a fluent and energetic style, but, as their ambition gradually overtakes them, their speech becomes fragmented. For instance, while prose in Shakespeare's plays is reserved to characters of low social orders, once Lady Macbeth is overcome by madness, she utters her lines in prose too. By contrast, the witches speak in enigmatic riddles interposed with grotesque elements. 

About the Author

William Shakespeare, who wrote ten tragedies and eighteen comedies, wrote "King Lear" (1605), "Macbeth" (1606), and "The Tempest" during King James’ reign. King James was patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, and "Macbeth," by stating that King James descended from the Scottish thane Banquo, is a de facto tribute to Shakespeare’s sovereign.