‘Macbeth’: Shakespeare’s masterpiece

Mini-lecture series for GCSE #2

This is the second of four mini-lectures designed to support Year 11 students in their revision of GCSE Literature. It was first delivered to pupils at Hethersett Academy on Thursday 7th March 2019.

Accompanying presentation

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A critic called Harold Bloom wrote that Shakespeare ‘invented the human’. In many ways, he could be right. We learn what it is to be human through imitation or mimesis: starting from when we are babies, we imitate our parents, then our friends, those we see around us or on TV. Shakespeare was arguably the first playwright to expose audiences to a full range of human emotion. It’s very possible that Renaissance audiences learned and developed their responses to joy, grief, ambition and power through their experiences at Shakespeare’s theatres. And the theatre was a truly democratic institution: unlike today, the theatre was affordable no matter what your social background, so it was a place where everyone could come together and witness the same revolutionary works of art unravel on stage reflecting who we are as a society, or as individuals.

Macbeth fits into these ideas perfectly. It is full of beautiful poetry, for example this from Act 3 which perfectly expresses Macbeth’s feelings of entrapment and isolation in four well-chosen words: “But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound”. As well as its poetry, it’s got the array of characters, from kings, to demonic women to ghosts. It explores the widest range of human emotion imaginable from pride, excitement, ambition, dissatisfaction, dedication, love, loss, guilt, regret, irresoluteness.

This lecture will take you through some of the things that makes Macbeth completely brilliant. We’ll start by looking at it as a moral play and then as a political allegory. We’ll then look beyond this to explore the play’s ambiguity and its complexity; the way it’s impossible to break it down into the simple binaries of good and evil. We’ll then go on to look at Shakespeare fascinating exploration of gender and human psychology. I’ll finish up by giving you some practical advice for your exam.

A moral play

At first glance, Macbeth seems to be a very moral play. It is interested in the difference between right and wrong. In some ways, it follows in the traditions of earlier medieval morality plays that were so popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whose purpose it was to teach illiterate people about the stories of the bible and how best to live a moral life. If we are to read Macbeth as a moral play, we might see it as teaching us the following things:

1. We should beware ambition. Remember, it is Macbeth’s “black and deep desires” that cause him to choose the wrong path.

2. Transgressions lead to turmoil. Shakespeare symbolises the devastating consequences of transgression in the motif of “blood”. We see it literally when Macbeth kills Duncan, covering his hands so that “Neptune’s ocean” wouldn’t be able to wash it away. And it returns metaphorically over and over again, for example when Macbeth acknowledges the cycle of violence he is caught up in, in “blood will have blood”, and in the powerful imagery of “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”. In spilling innocent blood, Macbeth finds himself surrounded by it, and he imagines himself wading through it like a river, unable to return, but equally unable to reach the other side.

3. Power corrupts. The more power you get, the more evil you become. Macbeth becomes more and more tyrannical the more powerful he finds himself. Shakespeare uses children almost as a motif to reveal the impact of tyranny on the innocent and vulnerable. Lady Macbeth shows herself to be a brutal, ruthless character when she’s convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan. She says passionately:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.62–67)

She takes a tender, intimate image of a mother breastfeeding a baby, and distorts it violently, claiming she would rather dash its brains out than break a promise to Macbeth. Shakespeare uses this chilling image of warped infancy to expose Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness. Shakespeare also uses the children of Fleance and Macduff’s son to reveal Macbeth’s tyranny. Audiences are likely to be shocked by Macbeth’s instructions for Fleance to be killed alongside his father, and Macbeth shows he is aware of his brutality when he even keeps it a secret from his wife, telling her to be “innocent of the knowledge”. The instruction to murder Macduff’s family is given in the brutal euphemism of “give to the edge of the sword his wife, his babes” and babes is placed at the end of the line to emphasise the barbarism. It’s interesting how at the start of the play, Macbeth is shown to do his killing honourably, by his own hand. But once he becomes king he defers this to others. He becomes less and less heroic. And unlike the killing of King Duncan, the murder or attempted murder of the children takes place onstage. The audience is given no choice but to watch first-hand the horrific destruction of innocent children. So Shakespeare very cleverly uses children to accentuate the corrupting impact of power and the evil acts it provokes.

A mirror to Jacobean society

Of course, we know that Shakespeare is also interested in the politics of his day, and Macbeth can be seen as a mirror to Jacobean society: it reflects the anxieties and concerns of its time. In many ways, it was written to appeal to the interests of the new King of England: James I. King James I had recently become Shakespeare’s benefactor: he provided money for Shakespeare’s theatre company and Shakespeare renamed it ‘The King’s Men’ in his honour. The new king was clearly a very powerful and influential figure, and Shakespeare would have undoubtedly needed to impress him and keep him happy. He does this throughout Macbeth through the presentation of the witches and regicide.


James I was equally fascinatedand repelled by what he believed was the evil magic of witches. Shakespeare responds to this in his sinister presentation of the witches, speaking unnaturally in unison, using the threatening sounds of trochaic tetrameter, rather than iambic pentameter. When you write about the supernatural, you must use the verb ‘reflect’. Don’t say: ‘this shows that everyone was scared of witches in Jacobean England’. Do say: Here, Shakespeare may reflect the Jacobean anxieties surrounding witchcraft and the supernatural.

Deterrent against regicide

King James I lived through the threat of regicide. In 1605, a year before Macbeth was first performed, Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament as part of the Gunpowder Plot. Early 17thCentury was a very volatile time. Shakespeare in some ways picked a very sensitive subject in regicide, but the play can be read as a clear moral lesson against killing the king. In the play, the consequences of regicide are clear: kill the king, and both you and your nation will suffer horribly.

Shakespeare draws from the philosophical belief of the Divine Right of Kings in his dramatization of regicide. He makes it clear that the king is chosen by God, and there is a natural order. Disrupt this order, and you disrupt the entire country. Shakespeare incudes an entire scene to show this. The Old Man, who only appears in Act 2 Scene 4, has but one purpose. He tells us all the unnatural events that have happened since Duncan was murdered. He tells us that “dark strangles the travelling lamp”, Duncan’s horses “turned wild in nature” and a small “mousing owl” killed a majestic “falcon”.It’s not hard to see that the mousing owl symbolises Macbeth, while the falcon represents Duncan. Regicide has caused huge fractures in the natural world, summed up in the very useful quotation: “Tis unnatural, even like the deed that’s done”. The euphemistic word “deed” echoes Macbeth himself in Act 2 Scene 2 in “I have done the deed”, rooting the cause of the unnatural disturbances in Macbeth’s murderous actions.

Some of us might know that James I was thought to be a descendent of Banquo. This is significant. Shakespeare makes Banquo heroic and fair-minded to gratify his monarch, and to show that James I is the rightful king according to the Divine Right. Even more interesting is that in the original story of Macbeth, where Shakespeare got the story, Banquo was not a heroic character. A man called Holinshed first wrote the story of Macbeth in the 16thCentury, and it this version Banquo was an accomplice of Macbeth, who helped him kill the king. Shakespeare cleverly manipulates his source material to transform Banquo into a noble character to appeal to the king.

Now pause and look over your notes. Then jot down a beautiful sentence that starts with:

Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ can be seen as a highly moral and political play. It…

So, Macbeth can be seen as including a very clear moral lesson: don’t kill the king. It can be interpreted as a deterrent against regicide. However, nothing in Shakespeare’s plays is so simple. It is impossible to say that Macbeth is only a moral play with a clear moral message. It is far too ambiguous for that. And I will explain this ambiguity now.


If it were simply a moral play, then Shakespeare would show Duncan to be a perfect king. He doesn’t do this. Although Macbeth does say his “virtues will plead like angels”and that he has been “clear in his great office”, the audience might have other ideas. He is too old to fight in the wars against the rebels. He says that he put his “absolute trust” in the traitor who went to war against him at the start of the play, and he puts his absolute trust in Macbeth too. Shakespeare shows him to be naïve. Immediately Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have laid their plan, Shakespeare shows Duncan on his way to Macbeth’s castle, saying how beautiful it is, and how it has a “pleasant seat”. Shakespeare uses structure and dramatic irony brilliantly here. We know what Duncan doesn’t, and in Duncan praising the Macbeths’ castle he again seems naïve and just too trusting. Duncan is far from the ideal king for a stable and secure Scotland.

Next, if it were simply a moral play, Shakespeare would show Macbeth to be purely villainous. We should hate him. But we don’t. Macbeth is a captivatingcharacter. He commits tyrannical acts, but Shakespeare frequently forces us to sympathise with him, to identify with him and to take his corner. He does this firstly through the structure of the opening. We hear about Macbeth before we meet him when the Captain describes him as “brave Macbeth” whose “sword smoked with bloody execution”. Before we meet Macbeth, we learn that he is a brave and noble warrior. Our expectation of him has been raised. In his long soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7, he decides rationallynot to kill Duncan, saying, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition”. Shakespeare encourages us to see him as a fair-minded and rational character, thinking carefully about his motivations. He encourages us to admire him, even. Similarly, when he has killed the king, Shakespeare puts the murder offstage, but the highly stressful and anxious aftermath onstage. This makes us complicitin the murder. We too jump at the small noises and feel anguish that Macbeth didn’t think to get rid of the murder weapons. The structure of the scene puts us firmly on Macbeth’s side. And finally, even after all the horrendous acts Macbeth does, Shakespeare gives him the most beautiful, poignant lines of poetry from the whole play:

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.

First notice how bleak and despairing this is. Notice Macbeth’s realisation of the futility of life: for him it is utterly pointless. Notice the choice of meta-theatrical metaphors: Shakespeare reminds us we are all actors or “players” on a stage, strutting and fretting like idiots. Perhaps life is just like a play, where we all pretend to be different versions of ourselves pointlessly through life until our candle burns out. Shakespeare cleverly adopts iambic pentameter but distorts it. Iambic pentameter can be seen in lines 4, 7 and 8 but manipulates it in line 1 to slow down the pace, showing Macbeth’s hopelessness. Similarly in line 5 he break from iambic pentameter to stress the second “Out”, reminding us of Lady Macbeth’s devastating “out damned spot”. Finally, the final line is cut short to reinforce the impending death and sense of failure. If Macbeth was supposed to be a truly moral villain, Shakespeare hasn’t done a very good job. His tragedy is overwhelmingly moving here. It is Macbeth’s moral ambiguity that makes him the perfect tragic hero.

Finally, if it was supposed to be a purely moral play, then Malcolm would be a perfect ideal king, ready to take Scotland on to new heights. However, we could argue that Malcolm cowardly runs away to England when his father is murdered. He slyly lies to Macduff to test his loyalty in Act 4, stating that he is lustful and lecherous. While it might be a trick, these admissions stay in the audience’s mind. Malcolm seems more of a sly politician than a strong leader. Both Duncan and Malcolm therefore seem quite flawed kings.

The character most suited to be king is, of course, Macduff. He stays when Duncan is murdered and heroically raises an army to fight for Scotland. Although his family is angry with him for leaving them unprotected, Shakespeare movingly shows his grief when they die, in repeated rhetorical questions, “my children too?”and he contrasts to Macbeth’s view of masculinity when he says he must “feel it like a man”. For Macduff, being male doesn’t exclude feeling and showing love and emotion. Ultimately, it is Macduff who kills Macbeth at the end and carries his head on stage at the end. However, ironically Macduff proves his kingly nature when he gives up the crown. He knows he is not the rightful king, and it is in giving the crown to Malcolm that his proves his honour.


In the same way, the ending of Macbeth is highly ambiguous. In some ways, it can be seen as a full resolution. The trees that approach Dunsinane Hill symbolise new life and a fresh start. Macduff, who is “none of woman born”, is associated with birth and new beginnings. The fact that he unifies armies and recruits many of Macbeth’s own soldiers shows that he represents unity over Macbeth’s isolationism. Malcolm describes the usurper as “this dead butcher and his fiend like queen”, emphasising the brutality of their reign in which they treated their subjects like meat. There is a sense of pride in the nation at the end in the repeated declarations of “Hail, King of Scotland!”.In many ways, it seems like a fully resolved tragic ending with all loose ends tied up, ready for a new order. The disorder seems to have stabilised. Audience might be expected to experience catharsis from this: they see the removal of the old corrupt powers and purge their need for blood and violence. Calm is restored.

However, although many of the corrupt influences have been removed, the most threatening figures of all are dangerously silent. The witches have not been seen since Act 4, and it is certain that they linger on just outside the text. The truly malignant forces have not yet been eradicated. The threat remains. Similarly, the cyclical structure of the text hints that history may well repeat itself. The play opens on a battlefield with a dead traitor and Macbeth heroic; the play ends on a battlefield with a dead traitor and Macduff heroic. The implication is that thecycle of corruption may well continue. The ending therefore is ambiguous: Shakespeare refuses to give us a simplistic resolution.

You therefore get the sense that Shakespeare’s imagination couldn’t be restrained. He seems to set out to create one thing, for example a moral cautionary tale, but finds that he can’t be restrained in set conventions or rules. He sets out to write a highly moral play, with clear guidelines of right and wrong, but somehow the characters are just too complex, too interesting, to fit into clearly defined categories of right and wrong. We perhaps learn that no one is purely good or evil; we are all duplicitous; complete order is a myth.

Again, now pause and consolidate your notes. Then write down how Shakespeare presents these three things ambiguously, or uncertainly in his play.


Shakespeare also presents gender ambiguously. Lady Macbeth desires to reject her gender in her famous “unsex me here” soliloquy, realising that within patriarchal social expectations her power is restricted. This is made more ambiguous by the fact that Lady Macbeth would have been played by a male actor during Shakespeare’s time. Macbeth also seems uneasy in his gender. He seems to be persuaded by Lady Macbeth’s gender-based manipulation, stating, “I dare do all the becomes a man”, yet changing his mind from the assertive “We will go no further in this business” to “I am resolved”. As I’ve already mentioned, Macduff is aware that grief and emotion is not in conflict with his masculinity. Shakespeare uses his text to explore shifting ideas of gender and gender expectations.

So, it’s very important to remember that Macbeth is highly ambiguous. There are many interpretations that make it a wonderfully vivid and complex play. And there’s one final aspect of this play that I think make it a masterpiece.

Psychological play.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare shows his fascination with human psychology. This is completely revolutionary: psychology didn’t even become a subject until the 19thcentury — 200 years after Shakespeare was writing. Yet Shakespeare dramatically brings to life the turmoil that goes on inside human minds. I don’t think anyone before him did it in so much incredible detail. How does he do it?

Firstly, he uses frequent asides and soliloquies. He shows that what’s going on inside our heads is often very different from outward appearances. In Act 1 Scene 3, when Macbeth is first told he is Thane of Cawdor, Shakespeare peppers the page with asides, showing Macbeth’s duplicity. He shows that appearance and reality are very different things: we are all the “flower”while hiding the “serpent” beneath. Similarly, Macbeth has frequent soliloquies throughout which grant the audience access to his deepest thoughts and shifting emotions. He uses the structure of the play to give us a window directly to the inner human mind.

In a similar way, we know that Shakespeare is interested in the psychological consequences of crime through the structure of the play. He puts the murder towards the beginning of the play, and as we’ve mentioned, he puts the murder itself offstage. This puts the full focus on Macbeth himself, and we have over three acts to see the psychological impact of the crime. The vast majority of the play is focused on exploring the psychology of a killer.

At the heart of the play, in Act 3, Macbeth reveals the extent of his psychological anguish. Using potent animal imagery, Macbeth declares “O full of scorpions is my mind”. The scorpion is suggestive of the poisonthat guilt creates. Shortly after this, Macbeth hallucinates Banquo’s ghost. Unlike the vision of the dagger, this hallucination is humiliatingly public, and Shakespeare shows the unpredictability of the human psyche. Macbeth is losing control of himself. This, of course, is echoed in the tragic transformation of Lady Macbeth, from her malicious control to a broken woman. She has powerful command of the English language in Act 1, speaking in tightly controlled iambic pentameter, whereas in Act 5 her language has broken downcompletely. The high frequency of punctuation in “Out — damned spot! Out — I say!” reflects her fragmented self. She no longer speaks in verse: Shakespeare’s use of prose here shows how much her psychology has broken down. He manages to achieve through this, I think, I high degree of pathos.

Guilt is shown to be almost as corrupting as power. Ultimately, it’s his despairthat brings Macbeth inevitably towards his tragic end.


Macbeth is a highly ambiguous, open ended play. It can be interpreted in many different ways. It can be seen as:

· An exploration of murder that teaches us that crime does not pay.

· A psychological study of a murderer’s mind.

· A play of political realism: how oppressive societies produce and reproduce corrupt individuals.

· A play of illusions, showing the powerlessness of humans in the path of the immortal supernatural.

· The tragic portrayal of the fall of a great man because of a fatal flaw in his character.

Take one of these ideas now. Complete one of the following sentences:

· In putting the act of regicide offstage, Shakespeare…

· In placing the murder of King Duncan early in the play, Shakespeare…

· In giving Macbeth some of the most beautiful lines of poetry in the play, Shakespeare…

· In powerfully dramatizing Lady Macbeth’s transformation, Shakespeare…

· In exposing each king as flawed in different ways, Shakespeare…

· In refusing to acknowledge the witches in Act 5, Shakespeare…


· Celebrate ambiguity. Come up with multiple interpretations of everyone and everything. Use the word ‘However’ or ‘Nevertheless’ to shift between your interpretations.

· Don’t blame Lady Macbeth — see both sides of her.

· Think about form and structure. When you get an extract, place it in the play. Ask, why this, why now?

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