It's the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, in fact some critics think that some parts of the play has gone lost and one scene and some sentences has been added after Shakespeare's death. The play is set in Scotland. When the action is outdoor it's always nighttime and the weather is very bad. When the action is set inside, places are very dark. It's a nighttime and dark tragedy. There's a romantic symbolism: the play is dominated by two colors: black, which symbolizes the nighttime, the death, the tragedy, the sin, the guilt; and red, which is the color of blood. All tragedies are filled with bloody episodes, but this more than anyone else. Macbeth murders even without a reason, he become slave of his violence.
Sources for Machbeth
The main source is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. It's an historical book and it was published in two different editions in 1577 and 1587. Shakespeare changes the events Holinshed told, in fact in the chronicles Duncan isn't an old man and he's not a wise and good king that everybody loves, and when Macbeth kills the king he reigns for several years as a very good king. The fact of killing the king was presented in that years as a normal thing. Shakespeare makes the murder worse by introducing some facts ad the king was an old man etc.
Gunpoweder plot (1605)
It's the attempted murder of king James just become king of England as James I and of Scotland as James VI. The plot was leaded by Guy Fawkes. It was a religious plot formed by Christians. He and his accomplices try to blow up the palace in which there was an assembly between the parliament and the king. But the English secret police discover the plot and when Guy goes to check the gunpowder on 4th November, he is captured and tortured for six days, then he confesses the names of his accomplices and the all of them are put to death. Every 5th November it's celebrated the Bonfire night to remind this event and the children burn a puppet which represent Guy Fawkes. We can date Macbeth after this event.
The figure of Machbeth
The title hero soon becomes the villain of the play (a fact that happens only in this play). Before he's a brave and faithful general, but then he becomes a bloody villain. At the end of the tragedy, in the final battle when he's killed Malcolm calls him “...of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (di questo macellaio morto e della sua regina demoniaca). When he's killed he's skinned, he's beheaded and his head is impaled.
The figure of lady Machbeth
Another particularity of the play is the figure of lady Macbeth. It's the most successful woman in Shakespeare's plays. She's a real villain, she's a cruel person. When her husband hears the prophecy he sends a letter to her, because he's not sure of what to do and she convinces him to kill the king to become king. When he's not sure if going on killing she convinces him by blackmailing him; she says he's a coward and he's not completely a man from a sexual point. She's completely cruel, in one scene she also says she wants to be a man only to be even more cruel.
The role of the three witches
Shakespeare call them witches only in the indications for entrances and exits; in the rest of the play they're called “Weird sisters” (sorelle fatali). In this sense they do not just prophesy the future, when they do it, they don't just foretell, but they also determinate it. There's a connection to the ancient mythology, for example to the figure of Fates, who held human destiny in their hands in the form of a thread, and when a man die they cut that thread. There're other connections, for example in Scandinavian mythology there are Normes, who have a very similar role to the Fates.
The theme of false appearances
The theme of false appearances (or equivocations) is the most important theme of the play. The all the three witches says has an alternative interpretation. The theme is immediately introduced in the first act.
Act I scene I: the witches appear and say: “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (il buono è cattivo e il cattivo è buono [it depends on the point of view])
Act I scene III: Macbeth enters into the scene and the first words he says are connected to this main theme of the play: “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” (without knowing he's using the same words of the witches). With fair he means the glorious he's living, because he won the battle and with foul he should both means the bad weather conditions (there're thunders and lightnings) and the sadness of the enemies defeated in battle by him. After he becomes king he'll go often to ask the witches about the future, and they'll tell again ambiguous things and Macbeth will always interpret them in the wrong way.
Macbeth and Banquo, two generals of king Duncan, the king of Scotland, are coming back home after a victory against Scotland enemies in a bloody battle. In the heath (brughiera), a landscape typical of the northern countries (in fact the tragedy is set in Scotland) they meet the three witches. They talk first to Macbeth greeting him and saying: “All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis! (first witch)/ All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cowdor! (second witch)/ All hail Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter! (third witch)”. The thane is an ancient aristocratic title. In what the first witch says there's a confirmation of what Macbeth knows, in fact he know he's the thane of Glamis; when he hears the second sentence he's surprised, because he knows that the thane of Cowdor is alive and is good wealth; when he hears the third sentence he's again surprised because the king is still alive, but ambition starts growing in him. When the witches stop to talk to Macbeth, Banquo asks them about him and they say: “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. (first witch) / Not so happy, yet much happier. (second witch)/ Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none (third witch)”. Then the three witches disappear. Then the thane of Cowdor was found in league with Scotland enemies, accused to be a traitor and put to death, and when king Duncan gives the vacant title of thane of Cowdor to Macbeth for his courage, his merits and his victories, he understand that what the witches prophesied him the future, and he will be king, but he has a decision to take, in fact, in order to be king he has to kill king Duncan and all the heirs to the throne.
Reasons why the play is tributed to James
- for the attempted regicide;
- the setting, it's set in Scotland, where James lives also after he become king of England;
- the divinity of the king, established by James;
- the supernatural elements, because the king was very interested in sorcery (witchcraft).
- I nemici contro cui Banquo e Macbeth hanno combattuto sono Norwegian and Swedish;
- La scena in cui Macbeth e Banquo entrano è Act I scene II;
- La morte del thane of Cowdor viene detta a M e B da un messenger;
- I due figli di Duncan si chiamano Malcolm e Donalbain.
- Il castello in cui viene ucciso king Duncan è il castello di Macbeth a Inverness;
- why is king Duncan's murder so bad?
1. he's a guest and so it's against the laws of hospitality;
2. he's asleep so he's defenceless;
3. he's the king, a representative of God on Earth (James said the divinity of the king);
4. he's an old man;
5. he's a Macbeth's relative.
- What kind of king was king Duncan? He was old, wise, and a very good king that everybody loves.
Machbeth shall sleep no more (Act II scene II)
Macbeth and lady Macbeth want to kill the king. Macbeth has some doubts about it, but lady Macbeth convinces him. During the night he makes the guards drunk, so that they fall asleep, then he enters the king's room, kills him and coming out from the room he smears the guards so that it seems the king's death is their fault. The next morning he pretends to find the king death and finding out it is guards' fault he killed them before anyone can ask something. He becomes king. But he has another problem, because the witches said to Banquo he'll beget king, so he has to kill Banquo and his sons; he kills Banquo, but his sons escape. (the tragedy is a tribute to the new king James I, because it's supposed that the dynasty born from Banquo's children is the James I's one.
- In the first lines of the text there is a omen of death: the presence of two night animals as the owl and the cricket;
- ”I have done the deed”, Macbeth is very scared of what he has done; so scared that he neither has the courage to say what it is;
- ”This is a sorry sight”, he says it while watching the guards sprinkled of blood;
- v. 9-11: Macbeth has the first of the hallucinations he will have during the play. He thinks he can see a dagger which leads him to the king's room and he hears guard's voices saying “murder”.
- v. 12: lady Macbeth says it as if Macbeth didn't say nothing. She's thinking about the king's sons who are sleeping together in another room. She thinks they have to kill them too.
- v. 13-16: hangman: in Shakespeare days the task of hangman was kill the man, skin him, and impale his head; so the hangman didn't have clear hands, they were full of blood.
- v. 17: Lady Macbeth is determined and tries to reassure Macbeth, but it's like he doesn't hear her talking.
- v. 20-21: Lady Macbeth isn't able to say the word “murder” and, like Macbeth says “deed”. Without knowing she also does a foreboding of what will happen, saying “it will make us mad” because she'll became mad and commit suicide.
- v. 22-27: it's still as Macbeth doesn't hear her speak. He says some definitions of the sleep; without sleep there's no life. Sleep is everything.
- v. 28-30: Macbeth has another hallucination: he hears a voice which tells him he won't sleep anymore. Lady Macbeth doesn't understand what Macbeth is saying. (another hallucination is when, after two killers kill Banquo for him, during a feast he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in his place, so he can't sit, but the other people don't see it).
The voice then insist in telling him he won't sleep anymore, because he did such a bad deed as kill a sleeping man, so someone could kill him too while sleeping. He destroyed his trust. He has all this hallucinations because he feels guilty and frightened. (another hallucination is when, after two killers kill Banquo for him, during a feast he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in his place, so he can't sit, but the other people don't see it).
- v. 31-36: Lady Macbeth can't understand what Macbeth is saying. She isn't afraid for what they did, she's cruel and determined. But she has two hesitations, two signs of weakness in he play: she doesn't say the word “murder” and she become mad. She also says Macbeth did two errors: he didn't smear the guards and he take the dagger back from the room.
- v. 37-38: Macbeth says he won't come back to the king's room, because he's afraid and scared for what he did.
- v. 39-44: Lady Macbeth blames Macbeth because he behave like a child because he's scared. There's a pun: between guild and guilt which have nearly the same pronunciation and also guild is an hyperbole because it means both “cospargere” and “indorare”, the blood of kings is seen as gold blood.
- v. 45-49: another hyperbole: because the water of all the oceans won't be enough to wash his hands of the blood.
- v. 50-54: Lady Macbeth says he should be shamed because she has her hands covered with blood, but she isn't frightened.
- v. 58: watchers has two meanings: “testimoni” and “che stanno vegliando”. They have to pretend to sleep.