Macbeth (1611) by William Shakespeare

A Summary with Notable Quotes

John Downman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What can one say about Macbeth (1611) that hasn’t already been said?  Well, as it turns out, this is one of those pieces of literature that, no matter how many times we read it, there is always something new or unexpected to discuss. 

One thing that is always a pleasure in revisiting this classic work is the humor, of course.  Even in the tragedies and history plays, William Shakespeare is a witty writer.

His quips, double-entendres, sarcasm, etc. are always something to look forward to, as is the language in general, like the genius, quotable lines and phrases that have lived on for hundreds of years. There’s a reason why we still read Shakespeare and quote him all the time. Much of what he says is universally appropriate and timeless, and his topics cover love, power, religion, sex, economics, deception, family. This one man seemed to have great insights into every aspect of human life and human nature. Macbeth reinforces that understanding.

Also, Lady Macbeth’s agency, the witches’ trickery, and Hecate’s jealousy are still wonderful elements. Lady Macbeth’s agency is brilliant – almost unthinkable, given the time period and the way these plays would be staged. Shakespeare’s audience must have been simultaneously fascinated and horrified by this Lady who took it upon herself to act, to speak.

 Her strength, her cunning, would have been unheard of and likely quite disturbing. 

Of course, it’s also quite a bit sexist, no doubt.  Placing the majority of the evil nature on Lady Macbeth’s shoulder is a convenient “out” for Macbeth and the male audience, and for the historical figures being alluded to.

The witches’ trickery has always been a great reason to read (or watch) this play, and that, too, remains unchanged. They are hilarious – their double-talk sets a standard for future works of a similar kind (ones which invoke the mystic arts of foresight). Shakespeare borrows from the mythological Fates and the prophets (or prophetesses) of Greek mythology who also spoke in riddles, half-truths, or double-talk, often misleading or inaccurately reassuring the great heroes. It is an effective and notably spooky re-imagining of this canonical device.

On the other hand, the story construction overall can feel lacking, particularly for those familiar with Shakespeare’s later works. Some of the problem areas for this one include historical inaccuracies, weak spots in the plot, and simplistic deus-ex-machina. There are many more intricate and complicated Shakespearean plays, such as Hamlet and Measure for Measure, and even some of the gender-bending comedies, like As You Like It can be more appealing because they are more daring and inventive overall. Still, Macbeth is a classic for good reason. Murder, plotting, witchcraft, trickery, manipulation, language gymnastics – something for every reader!

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it” (1.4.7-8).

“Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50-51).

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.82).

“Double, double toil and trouble. / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

“By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes” (4.1.44-45).

“Out, damned spot. Out, I say!” (5.1.31).

“Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles” (5.1.63-64).

“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” (5.5.19-28).