Macbeth (Shakespeare's Play)
Roman Polanski
Throne of Blood (Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth)

Study Guide for Macbeth


1. BIBLIOGRAPHY: For Lady Macbeth as an unsuccessful Machiavellian, see Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, p. 230 (Ornstein follows J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century; my ideas on early political theory come from George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 3rd edn. [New York: Holt]); for comments on "the dry-eyed sons of Duncan" see Ornstein, p. 233; for an excellent introduction to Macbeth, see A. C. Bradley's lectures in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 275-332 in the Fawcett paperback (Premier book m263); for the contrast between England and Scotland, see Derek A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2.134-37; for the sickness motif, see Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (1935; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1968) 331-33; for the Macduff/Malcolm interview, see Dolora G. Cunningham, "Macbeth: The Tragedy of the Hardened Heart," SQ, 14 (1963): 45; for the classic discussion of the famous lines on "pity, like a naked new-born babe" see Cleanth Brooks, "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," ch. 2 of The Well-Wrought Urn (1947; New York: Harcourt, n.d.) esp. 29, 39, 42-49 (Brooks's essay is a fine example of "new critical" technique and is frequently anthologized); for objections to Brooks's new critical approach, see Helen Gardener, "A Reply to Cleanth Brooks" section in The Business of Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), reprint in Norman Rabkin, ed., Approaches to Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 90-98--see also Traversi, 2.124-25; for Macbeth trying to dull the pain of his damnation by getting "all caught up in the fierce staff work" of killing off his enemies, see Robert A. Heilman, "'Twere Best Not Know Myself," SQ, 15 (1964): 96; for Macbeth's ambitions resembling those of Faustus and Satan, see Irving Ribner, "Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action," SQ, 10 (1959): 149-50; for Macbeth's seeking out the witches as symptomatic of his sin of "witchcraft," see Thomas Marc Parrott's Introduction to Macbeth in Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets, rev. edn. (New York: Scribner's, 1953) 825; for Macbeth's "honesty" in defining himself as a murderer and open tyrant, see Ornstein, p. 232 and G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 4th rev. edn. (1949; London: Methuen, 1954) 156; for the cessation of fear as a result of the death of conscience, see Roland M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963) 152; for a neoAristotelian reading of the play, see Francis Fergusson, "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action," reprinted by Alfred Harbage, ed., Shakespeare: The Tragedies (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1964)--Twentieth Century Views, Spectrum Books S-TC-40; Harbage also collects L. C. Knights, "Macbeth" from Some Shakespearean Themes.


2. I'll probably stress the political implication of Macbeth a bit more than warranted, compensating a bit for my impression that the politics of the play are frequently neglected. Just keep in mind that the main consideration of Macbeth is Macbeth's self-damnation. Note simply that the mechanism of this damnation is Macbeth's open acceptance of the role of tyrant. I may also stress questions concerning family relationships.

3. What is the world like in Macbeth? Is it a melodramatic world where "God protects the working girl," and legitimate rulers, and intervenes in politics to reward the good and punish the wicked? Is it a Machiavellian world in which the most vicious win?

a. How do the witches function in this world? Are they alien to the world or part of it? In Stephen Vincent Binet's story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," Webster tries to get his client out of his contract with the Devil by arguing that Satan is a foreign prince, and, therefore, it was unConstitutional for Webster's American client to swear allegiance to him. Satan has no difficulty in showing that he's an old inhabitant of the New World and as American as cherry pie. Wouldn't Satan be more or less equally at home in any other country? If Christian doctrine is right about Original Sin, isn't Satan the natural lord of all (merely) natural people?

b. What are the people like in this world? Can they commit murder without qualms? Can they just wash their hands of crime as Machiavelli seems to think a person can? Is it a world in which crime corrupts?

c. Does Lady Macbeth recognize a moral aspect to the universe at the beginning of the play? Does she recognize the full power of the moral and imaginative aspect of human beings? Does she come to recognize one or the other? Does she at least recognize that you can't kill a friend without being affected? What is Lady Macbeth's finis, her goal, before the coronation? Does she believe that any means are justified in achieving it? Does she really want a crown for herself? Is she just a stereotypical Good Wife, ambitious for her husband?


4. Note Banquo, Macduff (and family), Ross, Lennox, and Malcolm. They raise the question, What is wise action under the rule of a tyrant?

a. Macbeth clearly satisfies the relevant 16th- and 17th-century definitions of "tyrant": he is a usurper; he is new on the throne; he is a murderer; and he was not given fealty by all the key members of the State. Malcolm and Donalbain fled after the murder of Duncan; Macduff pointedly boycotts the investiture at Scone and Macbeth's banquet and refuses Macbeth's demand for attendance (2.4.35-36, 3.4.128-29, 3.6.39-40). The rebellion, moreover, is led by the rightful prince and the chief "magistrates" of the kingdom (the thanes), and is supported by so holy a king as Edward the Confessor. There is, then, no great moral issue in the play about rebelling against the "Lord's Annointed," a de facto king.

b. Banquo is the (legendary?) ancestor of James I (Shakespeare's king when Macbeth was produced). In Holinshed's history Banquo had been a co-conspirator in the murder of Duncan. For prudential and dramatic reasons Shakespeare's altered his source to show Banquo as basically a good man and a noble thane. But just how good is Banquo? To what extent is he the sort of combination of piety, wisdom, and fortitude that defines the ideal retainer?

How does he respond to the witches' prophecies? Why is he silent about the witches after the murder of Duncan? Has he forgotten about them? Does he suspect Macbeth? Is he caught up in the desire to found a dynasty (as predicted by the witches)? If Macbeth makes him chief counsellor, is it to reward Banquo's "wise" silence? Would such silence be as dangerous as "foolish" resistance? If you think that Banquo does evil in keeping silent, would you see his death as the righteous judgment of a super-efficient political providence acting in the play? If such a providence is acting, should others also be punished for silence and mild cowardice?

c. In his film version of Macbeth, Roman Polanski's Ross is a straightforward villain: an amoral man willing to all-hail anyone King of Scotland if Ross can profit from him. Shakespeare's character is more complex: a survivor who refuses to think much about the cost of his survival.

d. What should we make of Lennox? He's the first person in the play to say aloud that Macbeth is a tyrant (3.6.22), and shorly thereafter he brings the news to Macbeth of Macduff's flight. Is he simply a handy character to deliver a message? Is he an exemplum of the silent, passive obedience that Pope Gregory the Great recommended to Christians? Is he an exemplum of a requirement for tyranny: obedience against conscience where obedience is not due? What is the immediate effect of Lennox's delivering the message to Macbeth about Macduff's self-imposed mission to England?

For the classic Biblical text on obedience to earthly rulers, see Romans 13.1-7. Note that James I saw only two possibilities for good people under a bad king: flight or obedience. Would Shakespeare dare disagree with his king? Note that Macbeth was well-received at Court. Note also the characters of Kent and Oswald in King Lear and Paulina and Camillo in The Winter's Tale. Kent is the good servant who tells off his king when his king does evil; Oswald is "a serviceable villain" who gives evil obedience [and is celebrated, so to speak, as the villain for our time at the end of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus]. Paulina and Camillo also defy a king, with audience approval.

When does Lennox go over to the side of good--when it's safe to do so?


5. What is the COST of opposition to a tyrant like Macbeth?

a. What happens to Macduff's family? Was he wise to leave them unprotected? Does the massacre at Fife prove just how essential Macduff's embassy to England really was?

b. Is Macduff's wife right about Macduff's flight to England--was it unnatural cowardice? When Lady Macduff and her son discuss definitions of "treason," of what "treasons" is Macduff accused? Where does Macduff's primary loyalty lay (given his actions)? If your primary loyalty should be to your family, is patriotism a kind of treason? If your primary loyalty should be to your country, should you be willing to betray your family?

c. What is the significance of the messenger who warns Lady Macduff? Is there still some decency in Scotland? Is decency and good will enough in this world? Will they help people living under the rule of a tyrant? Is "to do good" a "dangerous folly" in this world? Under the rule of a tyrant? Do patriotism and family loyalty conflict in Scotland but not in England? Is this conflict part of Scotland's disease?


6. Malcolm is the true prince who will restore legitimacy and good rule to Scotland, and Macduff is his agent in the holy restoration. Still, how good are our two heroes?

a. How much vice would Macduff tolerate in a king? When does he finally conclude that Malcolm is unfit to rule? (Ornstein discusses the interview in England in Moral Vision, p. 233.) About whom is Macduff talking when he says "He has no children. All my pretty ones?" (4.3.216)? How would you play the scene to imply that he's talking about Malcolm? What would the line mean if he's talking about Macbeth? Would Macduff kill off Macbeth's children if Macbeth had any? Do you think such reduction to brutality is a common effect of life under a tyrant?

b. In Polanski's Macbeth, Malcolm quite cynically incites Macduff against Macbeth, and the interpretation works for the conclusion of the scene in England. How would you direct that scene?


7. What is Lady Macbeth's idea of the qualities that make for greatness? What qualities does she see making for manhood? Does she think that murder is womanly? Is she "unsexed" as the play progresses? Is she dehumanized? Does she have the imagination to suffer as Macbeth suffers? She recreates her crime in her sleep--how does Macbeth recreate his crime? To what does she appeal when she tempts Macbeth to commit murder? Does she answer any of the objections to the murder that Macbeth raises in his soliloquy at the beginning of the temptation scene (1.7.1-28)? Does she appeal to his ambition? Is she arguing off the point when she convinces Macbeth to commit the murder (1.7.38-59)? Why can't she murder Duncan herself? In the sleepwalking scene, the Doctor and the Gentlewoman seem to think that murderers should fear heaven. Is this correct? Should they at least fear walking in their sleep, recreating their crime? Does the Gentlewoman think that Lady Macbeth has made a good bargain for the crown (5.1.50-51)? Is the "wisdom" of Machiavellian murder foolishness in terms of the nature of a God-controlled universe? Is such murder foolishness given human nature? (Subversive thought: Is such murder foolish for some humans?)


8. Macbeth gives up his "eternal jewel" for a mere earthly crown--and a sterile crown at that. Does that make him a "fool theological"? Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, a famous plays of the 1590s, climaxes with the personal tragedy and cosmic comedy of Faustus carried off to Hell. What in Macbeth corresponds to that catastrophe? How does Macbeth work out his damnation?

Does Macbeth really want a crown? If not, why does he kill for one? Does he know all the arguments against the murder (1.7.1-28)?

Robert Ornstein suggests, that Macbeth kills for peace; can you buy so paradoxical a suggestion? Will the murder prove he's a real man and silence some sort of fears about his virility? Is Macbeth happy once he becomes king? The effect of the murder is to place Scotland under a tyrant. What is the COST of this to Macbeth? Is being a tyrant a punishment? Does it eventually become a punishment to be Macbeth?


9. To what extent do the witches and Lady Macbeth help to damn Macbeth? Why does Macbeth proceed deeper into damnation? Why does he seek out the

witches? Why does he keep killing people? Does murder ease his pain? SUGGESTION: "His fear of becoming a murderer leads him to murder, and the murder itself moves him to define himself as a murderer and open tyrant--at least there is honesty in that."

Does Macbeth misunderstand the nature of the world? Does he misunderstand his own nature? Do heaven and hell exist in the play? Do they come to exist in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the world around them? Does Macbeth make Scotland into a hell? Does he will chaos to return?

Does he ask the witches to lie to him? (He conjures them "by that which you profess"--they "profess," of course, hell and damning people.) Does Macbeth at the end of the play project a universal vision of chaos upon the world? Or, should we accept the "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy as a true picture of life as presented in the play?


10. How should we respond to the death of Macbeth? What is lost? How good is the world of the "leftovers"? How great is it?


11. BRUTE FORCE CRITICISM: Comments and Questions



Gets your attention, doesn't it? If it didn't, check out again the stage directions, and redo the scene in your head ("the theatre of the mind").

Note the 3's: three witches, three rounds of speeches, the word "three" in the first line of the play, three possibilities for meeting again. Consider yourself cued to look for later 3's.

The witches may have a nicely distanced view of human achievement: the action of a major battle is "the hurlyburly."

There's more rime here than you may notice at first: "heath" rimes with "Macbeth" in Early Modern pronunciation; and, of course, "again" can still be pronounced to rime with "rain" (although it's now--probably--a different rime).

What do you make of "Fair is foul, and foul is fair"? Minimally, it's paradoxical (look up "paradox" if you don't know the word).

What or who should "Hover through the fog and filthy air"? Supernatural hovering sounds neat, but would you like hovering as described (briefly) here? Would the witches like "fog and filthy air"?



.10-23: The rebellion by Macdonwald at first appears to do well, but Fortune (as she is wont to do) turns away from him, and Macbeth--who disdains Fortune--defeats the rebel.

.16 f.: The first reference to Macbeth: "brave Macbeth," the loyalist hero of the war against the rebels and against the Norwegian vikings.

For the rest of the play keep in mind that Macbeth is a military hero. What more does he need to do to establish himself as the traditional manly (macho) man? If you answer that question with the "f" word that complements "fighting" in the traditional formulation, would you have a very sexy relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? (So Roman Polanski and the BBC directors decided, and the business of a romantic Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plays well.) If you were directing the play, how would you handle the sterility of the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

.44 s.d. and line 45 f.: Malcolm notes entrance of "The worthy thane of Ross," who tells the story of a second traitorous noble, "The Thane of Cawdor," who was put down at Fife (by Macduff? Fife is his territory).


Note the rule in rhetoric that the most emphasized (and best remembered) parts of rhetorical unit are the beginning and end. Here, the last lines are emphasized by two couplets, riming "death" and "Macbeth" and "done" and "won."

Recall the witches' assertion that "Fair is foul" when you note here that one Thane of Cawdor looked fair and proved foul. Who is to be the new Thane of Cawdor? (Subtle it ain't, but popular drama shouldn't be subtle.)

At the end of the play, Malcolm says to the surviving nobles, "My Thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforth be Earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor named" (5.8.62-64). The Thanes bit is appropriate to the time of Macbeth, ca. 1040 C.E., when a "noble" was generally a clan chief and the vikings were attacking and Old English eorl meant just plain ol' (professional or semi-pro) warrior. The play is a period piece and part of the period appeal is to the primitive time when kings were battle leaders and nobles were his kin and/or personal retinue (described very favorably in its German form by the Roman historian Tacitus as the tribal leader's comitatus). The treasons in Macbeth are indeed political crimes but also personal betrayals.



Cut back to the witches, for a kind of politics sandwich: 1.1: witches, 1.2: battle results, 1.3: witches, about to interact with men.

.1-29: We learn here of the witches' power and the limits of that power. They can torment the sailor and make him a sleepless wreck, but they may not kill him. The witch can approach the sailor's wife, but a simple "Aroint thee, witch!" is enough to drive away 1. Witch.

.32: "The weird sisters" refers to wyrd, the Old English word for "fate." The Germanic and Scandanavian tribes in England were strongly into a fatalistic philosophy; but short of the Calvinists, most Christian sects teach that baptized Christians possess sufficient free will to seek for grace and resist the Devil--and it's unlikely Shakespeare accepted much of the theology of Puritanical Calvinists who wanted to close the theaters. Anyway, the witches identify themselves with Fate, but what we see and hear suggests that their power is limited.

THEOLOGICAL NOTE: St. Paul taught that by faith and faith alone might one be saved. But how might a fallen soul--Original Sin and all that--have faith? Calvin said we can have faith by grace and grace alone: God does what God will do and saves whom He'll save and damns whom He'll damn (Exodus 33.19). And anyway, predestination is implicit in the idea of the absolute, sovereign will of God. If God's will is absolute, it's relative to nothing. If it's relative to nothing, it sure ain't relative to anything you might do. Hence, whether you're good or bad doesn't determine whether God decides to save or damn you (although whether you're saved or damned might well determine your behavior). And when does God decide whether you're saved or damned? Well, "when" God does anything--in Eternity. From the human point of view, trapped as we are in time, God determined your salvation or damnation at the moment He entered time to create the universe. You are "fated" to do what you're scripted to do so God can justly damn or save you. Q.E.D. Except such fated savlation for some and damnation for most makes a trickster of Moses when he said God said that we had a choice between choosing good and living and evil and dying and should choose life--presumably a real choice.

.38: Macbeth's opening line on "foul and fair" echoes the witches.

.48-50: Note the witches' threes.

For a positive view of those triplets, see, e.g., Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology (or most other radical feminist works) on the Triple Goddess, one of whose forms was Hecate, mistress of earth, heaven, ocean. As the patriarchal Olympians took over, Hecate got reduced to a minor Greek goddess of sorcery; under Christianity, Hecate and any followers could only be a spirit of witchfraft and witches. (James I had a "thing" about witches, which would be pathetic, except that he was a king and helped bring to Scotland and England an attenuated form of the witchcraft hysteria moving like a plague on the European continent. See Daly for the horror of the massacre: roughly speaking, the Renaissance witch hunts are competetive for the worst massacres in Europe between the crusade(s) against the Albigenses (1209-44) and the 17th-c. wars of religion.

.108-16: Macbeth on "borrowed robes" begins a series of clothes images. Angus easily explains the (apparent) paradox of Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor--note that it has to do with "treasons, [1] capital, [2] confessed and [3] proved" (hmmm . . . lots of triplets once you start looking).

.120-23: Banquo understands the danger that the witches' prophecy, "trusted home, / Might yet enkindle" Macbeth "to the crown"--and warns Macbeth of the obvious: "The instruments of darkness" may tell us little truths only to later betray us--a familiar theme by now--on important matters.

130.-143: Macbeth on the witches' prophecy:

"Cannot be ill, cannot be good" may parallel "fair is foul."

The witches have said nothing about murder or anything violent, but Macbeth in imagination ses some "horrid image" and makes fairly clear that he's picturing murdering someone.

Robert Ornstein suggests taking absolutely literally Macbeth's "Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings." If standing at a murder scene produces "Present fears" that are bad but still less terrible than thinking about the murder, then one might feel better committing the murder.

Macbeth knows that "If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me / Without my stir." Macbeth isn't dumb, exactly.

.144-46: Banquo picks up the clothes motif with "strange garments."



.11-15: King Duncan speaks of how he was fooled by the late Thane of Cowdor--and greets the entrance of Macbeth, the new Thane of Cowdor. Note, though, that Duncan is also not stupid; he is only a little more trusting than he should be, and, poor sot, he doesn't know he's in a play, where a line on how "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" is going to be significant when it cues the entrance of the villain-hero.

.28-33: Duncan and Banquo talk about planting and growing things; contrast

the images that are starting to build up around Macbeth.

Consider how you might "point" such imagery for an audience. One production at the U. of Chicago in the 1960s used greens with Duncan et al. and reds with Macbeth (clothes and lighting). Would you find that too heavy-handed?

.37-39: England has primogeniture (look it up), and Shakespeare probably approves of Duncan's taking care to arrange his succession by making Malcolm heir apparent. Still,

Until now we may've assumed primogeniture, but we couldn't be sure from Macbeth how Scotland ca. 1040 C.E. selected its kings; apparently, up to now, it was by election among the thanes. That uncertainty helps us wonder why, when the witches said "king," Macbeth right off thinks murder.

Macbeth now has a slightly better motive: Duncan has changed the rules in deciding to "establish our estate upon / Our eldest"--at least a legitimate motive to organize the thanes against this innovation in succession, which is emphatically not what he does.

.28-33: Note image of "o'erleap" and the stressed imagery of darkness and not allowing oneself to know what one is doing.



.1-12: Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth's letter

"Success" in Shakespeare usually means "that which comes next ('succeeds' in a succession of events), outcome, result"; here, though, it seems to have our meaning.

Macbeth calls the witches "these weird sisters," and Lady Macbeth reads the phrase without comment; they may accept this "fate" too readily. Here and later--to what extent does belief in the witches' prophecies help to fulfill those prophecies?

Note repetition of "greatness" and Macbeth's reference to his lady as "my dearest partner of greatness."

Richard II refers to the usurping Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, as "Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good" (R2 4.1.263)--and the antithesis of "great" and "good" was well on its way to becoming a cliché by the time of Macbeth.

The Macbeths may have a sterile marriage, but it seems to be a good, loving one. You needn't get ingenious about explaining (away) that fact: horrible people needn't be horrible all the time, and people can be good with their families and commit atrocities in other relationships.

13.-28: Lady Macbeth on Macbeth

If you want to see Macbeth motivated simply by ambition, this speech is a problem: Lady Macbeth will go no farther than "Art not without ambition"--a very weak double negative.

Note contrast between ambition and Macbeth's natural "milk of human kindness," which makes it hard for him "To catch the nearest way," apparently through the "illness" (nastiness, evil) that "should attend" ambition.

Note image of "pour my spirits in thine ear."

In Shakespeare's earlier play, Hamlet, there is much ado about poison poured into an ear.

Keep your eyes and ears open for "spirits." In Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, the word means something like "devils," "evil spirit"; what does it come to mean in Macbeth?

Is there a kind of paradox in Lady Macbeth's pouring her spirits into Macbeth (via his ear orifice) and intention to "chastise with the valor of my tongue" all that keeps him from the crown she seems to want for him? She's being the traditional Good Wife and Helpmate in wanting the crown for him, but her imagery is rather macho: she will pour into him; she will administer the tongue-lashing for, of course, his own good.

37-52: Soliloquy, "The raven himself is hoarse . . ."

What sort of "spirits" would take care of "mortal [= deadly] thoughts"? What sort would handle unsexing, where removing femaleness includes getting rid of compassion?

Throughout the play, note Lady Macbeth's understanding of what it means to be a man and what to be a woman. Shakespeare was sufficiently sexist to stay out of trouble and to keep him from being a miracle of radical thinking; but he wasn't stupid, and he was a pretty consistent critic of what we'd call macho (or, for the older noun, machismo). It is very interesting that Shakespeare assigns macho theory to Lady Macbeth; but is it fair?

There have been and are women who contribute to patriarchy--Queen Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, to name two important examples--but how much should other women blame them? Is it decent for men to point out women aiding in what directly or even indirectly oppresses women?

Note the second reference to "milk" and the mention of "breasts"; you're being set up for a very spectacular image later in the play. (Should a modern actress "point" the breast reference for the audience? Should she be costumed to emphasize her breasts?)

Note the invocation to "thick night" and the hell reference. Lady Macbeth pretty obviously turns away from heaven and toward hell.

S.D.: Enter Macbeth. Here and elsewhere, note significant entrances.

.56-57: Macbeth's first line to his lady is "My dearest love." If you direct a passionate kiss here, you can suggest Macbeth as a complete traditional hero: a fighter and a lover. If so, that would be a possibility for Macbeth's high point before his (moral) fall.


This dialog starts with Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth's face and ends with her returning to comments about his face.

Note repetiton of "time." Shakespeare was very concerned with time, and in Macbeth the word is used significantly. Look for a time motif.

Lady Macbeth recommends hypocrisy, where there is disagreement among appearance and reality, faces and intention, eyes, hands, tongue.

Jesus of Nazareth enjoins his apostles to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Does Lady Macbeth work a nasty variation on that advice with her opposition of "innocent flower" and "the serpent under't"?

Throughout, note repetition of day/night.

Lady Macbeth is more active here than Macbeth and continues to be so through "This night's great business." Watch for when she becomes inactive and Macbeth becomes more active.



.1-9: King Duncan and Banquo on what a nice place Inverness is--or seems to be. Note for appearance/reality disjunction, with "appearance" here including all "our gentle senses." Start with the fertility images.

S.D.: Enter Lady [Macbeth]. As I said, note entrances.

If you were filming Macbeth, how would you handle the entrance to Inverness to retain both "realism" and the neat business of Lady Macbeth's entrance? (That seems easy, but Roman Polanski had a problem with it.)

.10-30: Note "hostess," "love," "service," "business," "honors," "guest" and related words. The King repeats "hostess" three times: beginning, midst, and end of the dialog. That's heavy stress, and it's justified. As Macbeth will tell us explicitly, there is a strong bond between host(ess) and guest.



.1-28: Macbeth's First Soliloquy, "If it were done . . ."

The opening two sentences set up an "If . . . then" logical structure. If killing Duncan were all there was to the matter, then (1) it's best to kill him now, and (2) "We'ld jump the life to come"--i.e., he'd ignore damning himself by murder.

BUT "in these cases we / We still have judgment here," in this life.

(Were you ever told that good writers never start sentences with conjunctions like "but"? Well, now you know your source was wrong about that; a "but" can be a very elegant way to turn a paragraph, which it is here. / Again, Macbeth is about damnation, but it's about damnation "here, / But here upon this bank and shoal of time." As Hamlet says, "The rest is silence": tragedy rarely deals with an afterlife.)

(1) OK, there is damnation.

(2) In addition to damnation, becoming a king by assassinating a king is imprudent: a really bad precedent.

(3) Killing Duncan is unnatural: Macbeth is Duncan's kinsman and subject, "Strong both against the deed," plus, he's Duncan's host. I.e., there are natural bonds connecting them, literal bonds in The Great Chain of Being; to break those bonds is a violation of nature.

(4) Duncan is virtuous.

(5) . . . And pity, like a naked new-born babe

Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

That tears shall drown the wind.

This is a biggy. Picture that "naked new-born babe." Got it? Now, picture it "Striding the blast." Jesus just walked on the water; this kid is on the air, and not just walking but striding and not just air but the blast. What looks weak is really very, very strong--strong enough, in fact, to destroy Macbeth. And, of course, it's a baby; note babies in Macbeth.

(6) Last, Macbeth says he's got only ambition.

People in Shakespearean soliloquies never lie; but they don't always tell all they know, and they can't know everything. This scene can be played with ambition as Macbeth's major motive, but that doesn't work well for much of the rest of the play.

S.D. Enter Lady [Macbeth] for THE TEMPTATION OF MACBETH.


(7-8) Macbeth says "We will proceed no further in this business" because of gratitude for benefits from Duncan and because he doesn't want to risk the "Golden opinions" he has "bought" and now desires to (figuratively) wear, in a clothing image, "in their newest gloss."

Lady Macbeth counters:

(a) With three rhetorical questions that use the motifs of

clothes, sleeping and waking--and a negative use of the color green.

(b) With a questioning of Macbeth's love.

(c) With an extended accusation of cowardice.

Macbeth perceives an attack on his manhood and responds with a good point: "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none."

(d) "What beast was't then / That made you break this enterprise to me?" Consider what the "nonMan" might be, what a real man is not. If a man is an adult, male human being, a man is not a woman, a child, a beast, or a devil. Lady Macbeth picks up the beast possibility, and, of course, a beast couldn't propose a murder.

(e) It'd now be expedient to kill Duncan. (When did Macbeth mention the murder earlier? [One theory has it that the text of Macbeth we have is a short version, with scenes cut.])

(f) The climactic one: Macbeth promised he'd kill Duncan, and if Lady Macbeth had similarly sworn to dash out an infant's brains, she'd have done so. Would such infanticide be manly?

She's pretty well got Macbeth. All he can manage now is "If we should fail?"--which Lady Macbeth can easily handle.

How'd you have her pronounce "We fail"? In the First Folio, it's punctuated with a question mark, but, then, so is much of Hamlet's speech "What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in Reason? how infinite in faculty?"--which isn't how actors say the lines. Perhaps an actress would do best to simply say "We fail." Period. Pause--and get to the "But."

Note Macbeth's response, "Bring forth men-children only . . . ." I'll argue that central to Lady Macbeth's success is her converting Macbeth to her vision of manhood.



.15-16: A little icing on the cake, so to speak--King Duncan sends Lady Macbeth her hostess present, a diamond.

Is Shakespeare's King Duncan too good to be true? (Did Roman Polanski do well to give a bit more of an "edge" to his Duncan?)

.20-29: Banquo and Macbeth on the "three weird sisters"--Banquo's phrase--and something else.

Successful thanes need to be politicians as well as warriors, and we have here a bit of negotiation between two politicians.

The two remaining prophecies are that Macbeth will be king and Banquo will beget kings; keep that in mind when Macbeth tells Banquo that (although he doesn't think about the prophecies) it'd be nice if the two of them could talk about "that business, / If you would grant the time." Banquo will find time. Note the delicacy of Macbeth's "If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis, / It shall make honor for you." The Pelican ed., Alfred Harbage, paraphrases the first part of the sentence, "[If you will] favor my cause at the proper time," and that's correct. The second part uses "honor" in our sense but also in more concrete senses, senses suggesting profit. Banquo replies in kind: so long as he loses no honor "In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchised [= guiltless] and allegiance clear, / I shall be counselled."

Macbeth and Banquo both retain what we nowadays call "deniability": nothing concrete has been said about anything, but Banquo has been tempted to go along with . . . something . . . perhaps. Keep this in mind for just a bit later; after the murder, Banquo keeps his mouth shut.

.33-64: Macbeth's Second Soliloquy, "Is this a dagger . . . ?"

(If you've been taught that good authors always use "that" for restrictive clauses, and ", which" for nonrestrictive, the first line of this soliloquy shoots that theory to hell. It is, though, good advice.)

If you were directing Macbeth, how would you handle the dagger? On film easily, but even on stage, you could show the dagger. Would you? If you would--why? If not, why not?

Note well Macbeth's telling the dagger (familiarly), "Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going"; that may be a good formula for all the temptations of Macbeth. The witches, Lady Macbeth, the dagger--all move him the way he was going, toward murder. (The witches only said "king" . . . .)

Note "present horror." I'm not sure what it means here, but I am sure it echoes: "Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings" (1.3.137-38).

Note also the imagery of this soliloquy: a lot on night, witchcraft, and unnatural stuff--plus, again, "business" in "bloody business."

Note S.D. A bell rings, which Lady Macbeth can hear. (It may explain a line in her sleepwalking soliloquy.)



.1-14: Macbeth must exit if the murder is to be done offstage, and someone must come on the stage for Macbeth to re-enter a succeeding scene--that's a convention of the Elizabethan and Jacobean public stage in general and emphatically Shakespeare in particular. Decorously, it's Lady Macbeth who enters to begin the Murder Scene.

How drunk should Lady Macbeth be played here? How bold?

Do you buy her excuse that she'd have killed Duncan herself "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept"? Do you think better or worse of her for not skewering the old man herself?

S.D. Enter Macbeth

Note Lady Macbeth's greeting, "My husband!"--the personal formulation, rather than something political like, say, "My Thane!"

.14-21: You get rapid dialog here, with very short speeches; the technique is called stichomythia (or the more Anglicized "stichomythy"). If you were directing the play, how'd you have your actors handle so formal a convention?

.20-21: How is it sensible for Lady Macbeth to say, "A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight." If such a thought is folly, what would be wise?

.22-45: The drugged and drunken grooms laugh and cry out "Murder!" in their sleep, wake, say their prayers; "One cried 'God bless us!' and 'Amen!' the other"--all very normal. Why can't Macbeth say "amen"?

After the natural actions of the grooms, Macbeth hears--or thinks he hears--a less natural "voice cry 'Sleep no more!'" In Elizabethan propaganda, tyrants are sleepless. Does Shakespeare make this propagandistic cliché seem "natural" for Macbeth?

In addition to sleeping no more--well, more or less no more--will Macbeth also laugh no more?

Has Macbeth murdered sleep? Will the Porter sleep all right? Others in Scotland until Macbeth terrorizes the country?

When I taught Macbeth at the Ohio maximum security prison at Lucasville, I got professional opinions concurring with those of Lady Macbeth. Speaking from more personal experience than I care to think about, members of the class said Macbeth was a very incompetent murder: you shoot the guy, drop the gun, walk away--and forget it.

.45-71: Blood, Water, Daggers

In performance, how might your motivate Lady Macbeth's "Why did you bring these daggers from the place?"?

Note Lady Macbeth's insistence on "A little water clears us of this deed" opposing Macbeth's rather melodramatic rhetorical question about whether an ocean could wash away the blood on his hands.

Doth the Lady protest a bit too much to be totally believable?

Is it right for Macbeth to talk so hyperbolically?

What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

Picture the hand going into water and discoloring an entire ocean. (If you know Hamlet--this is similar to the image of poison spreading out from the ear of King Hamlet, only the poetry is a bit better.) Note that any author with a thesaurus and time can put together a line like "The multitudinous seas incarnadine"; genius is following that high-flown line with the nearly monosyllabic "Making the green one red." In addition to just translating the line for an audience, that last line stresses the green/red imagery.




Picture the Porter; he's funny.

One reason the Porter is there is because there had to be a comic role for the Clown in Shakespeare's company. (There may be a Shakespearean tragedy without a clown or fool, but if there is I can't think of it.) Figure out how Shakespeare made this necessity into a virtue.

The Porter has been drinking and now jokes about being in Hell. He's not in Hell. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have done a terrible thing, but they haven't literally turned Scotland into Hell.

Note well the association of Hell and equivocation; "equivocator" is repeated very soon, and equivocation becomes important later.

The "professions" here has two meanings: careers and those things that people profess.

.20-37: Bad joke about drink as "a great provoker of three things" (another three!) and a slightly better joke about "much drink" as "an equivocator with lechery."

How would you deliver the lines on drink and lechery to make them (1) clear to an audience and (2) funny? Note that a Porter might carry a key, and if it's a large, Medieval key, one needn't be a devout Freudian to see it as phallic, and your Porter needn't be a great actor to do a "stand to, and not stand to" sight gag on a drunken man's getting, and losing, an erection.

Adding a bit of bawdiness, if not exactly sex, after the violence of the regicide and before the violence of other murders is good box office (not unknown in our time); is it thematically significant?

S.D. Enter Macbeth.

.50-59: Lennox on uncanny, unnatural events where he was, and Macbeth's terse, "'Twas a rough night."

.60-100: Discovery of regicide.

Macduff starts off with a triple "Horror!" and goes on, and on.

How would you play Macduff's passion? The more dignity you give

Macduff, the more you can make him heroic later. The less dignity . . . .

Note Lady Macbeth's "Woe, alas! What, in our house?" and Banquo's very appropriate response to too little response, "Too cruel anywhere."

Note Macbeth's clichéd lines on "Had I but died an hour before this"--and the next word should be a strong one, but it's only--"chance." This bit of b.s. by Macbeth prepares us for his following speeches.

.102-114: Macbeth ties up loose ends by killing the grooms guarding the king, and announces the act, but not the motive, with "O, yet I do repent me of my fury / That I did kill them." To which Macduff responds in good, simple English with the obvious question, "Wherefore [= why] did you so?"

Would you buy Macbeth's explanation, with its (lousy) lines on Duncan's "silver skin laced with golden blood" or the guard's daggers "Unmannerly breeched with gore"? Do the thanes buy it?

Does Lady Macbeth faint as a diversion because the thanes don't seem to be buying her husband's explanation?

If not, why does she faint? (An actress might well decide that the faint is both calculated and a real reaction to major stress.)

.115-42: Thanes Adjourn to Council, Exeunt Duncan's Sons

It does indeed happen that a disaster doesn't hit people emotionally for a while (as we may've just seen with the fainting of Lady Macbeth), and you might play Malcolm and Donalbain that way: their tears will be copious and sincere, but they "are not yet brewed." Is it also legitimate to play them more cynically, as two young politicians about to save their butts?

Do you think better of Malcolm and Donalbain because they speak right on and are not "dainty of leave-taking" when surivial requires them to flee?

Note that the eminently sensible flight of Malcolm and Donalbain turns out to have unfortunate political implications. Prudence has its limits.



.1-19: Ross and Old Man about macrocosmic ("big world") parallels to atrocity in the microcosm ("little world") of Scottish politics: "'Tis unnatural, / Even like the deed that's done."

If the universe is organized into a Great Chain of Being with parallel planes, then it's decorous for an act that breaks Order in the upper reaches of the political plane to cause breakdowns in the cosmos and among the noble animals (like falcons and horses [there being no regal lions in Scotland]).

.20-41: Political stuff between Macduff and Ross.

It's significant that Ross goes to Scone for Macbeth's investiture and Macduff doesn't. At Scone the thanes will take an oath of fealty to Macbeth. Ross will take the oath, which he'll later break. Macduff can more honestly resist Macbeth since he never directly swore to obey him.

Note Macduff on "robes"; it's part of the clothes motif.



.1-10: Banquo's Soliloquy

Banquo is not the co-conspirator he was in Shakespeare's source, but he's hardly perfect. Apparently he said nothing about witches and prophecies at the Council after Duncan's murder, and from now on, "But hush, no more!"

S.D. Entrance of Macbeth with Lady Macbeth, Lennox, Ross, and others.


Banquo is to be Macbeth's "chief guest"; who was the last "chief guest" at the Macbeths' place?

Is Banquo's high status with Macbeth a kind of payoff for Banquo's silence? Do we get some hints that the right hand of Macbeth is probably not a safe place to sit?

Note "Fail not our feast"; it becomes highly ironic.

.48-72 (end of scene): Macbeth's Third Soliloquy, "To be thus is nothing"

Macbeth speaks here of Banquo's wisdom; is Macbeth wise to act against Banquo? Prudent? If it's bad politics to kill Banquo--and we know Banquo will remain quiet--why does Macbeth do it?

According to mainstream Elizabethan propaganda, all usurpers are tyrants (by definition), and all tyrants are what we'd call paranoid. Is that good psychology? Alternatively, might we apply to Macbeth the prophet Isaiah's famous lines on how the wicked are "like the raging sea, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked" (57.20; Geneva trans.).

Does Macbeth have Banquo killed because he comes to live the role of tyrant? To "kill" his conscience by desensitizing himself? Does Macbeth envy Banquo for having a son--and a peaceful conscience?

Why does Macbeth challenge Fate to a duel in the final two lines of this soliloquy (real question for me).

.73-142: Macbeth with Murderers

Note 1. Murderer's "We are men, my liege" and Macbeth's reference to the catalog of dogs in The Great Chain of Being. Any parallels between Macbeth's invocation of "real manhood" here with Lady Macbeth's temptation of him to murder Duncan?

Note Macbeth's use of "business" for murder.

Note Macbeth on why he doesn't destroy Banquo openly. Is he sincere here? That's a real question; he may not be yet an open tyrant.

A major debate in Medieval theology was whether force or fraud was worse. To have Banquo assassinated and then "wail his fall" is rather close to fraud and may be less bad than using "barefaced power" and ordering his public execution. Or not.



.1-12: Lady Macbeth thought she and Macbeth would be happy if they killed Duncan and got Macbeth the crown. How's her theory working out so far?

See Macbeth's first soliloquy "If it were done when tis done" and Lady Macbeth's line in her sleep-walking scene, "What's done cannot be undone" (5.1.63-64); now note here "Things without all remedy / Should be without regard. What's done is done"--good advice for murderers, but not advice she can take. That's important for the critique of Machiavelli and the idea that it should be easy to commit political murders and then just wash one's hands. For some people, that may be hard to do--which is a damn good thing.

.13-56: Macbeth is now more active than Lady Macbeth. Is that progress for him? If so, why does his language dwell on horrible things? Why does he seem to have a will to chaos?



It's coincidence that this is 3.3, but the third murderer is not; the number 3 must mean something in Macbeth. Who should play 3. Murderer? In a film, it might be Macbeth; in a stage production, that'd be difficult. It's impossible if one obeys the rule forbidding a character who exited at the end of scene N to enter at the beginning of scene N+1--unless you have an

intermission between 3.3 and 3.4, which would be unusual in Jacobean practice, especially for so short a play.



.1-9: Appearance of good order and domestic cheer.

S.D. Enter First Murderer.

.10-31: Note reality of murder behind facade of royal respectability. Note Macbeth's desire to kill kids, starting with Fleance.


Murderer exits, and Lady Macbeth properly reminds Macbeth to be a better host: ". . . the sauce to meat is ceremony."

First entrance of Banquo's ghost, who sits on Macbeth's stool.

Lady Macbeth raises again the questions of manhood and wisdom: "What, quite unmanned in folly?"

Macbeth complains about the disorder of things nowadays: dead men should stay dead and stay away from banquets. Irony time: Macbeth is the major source of the disorder in his world.

89-121: Second entrance of ghost to end of banquet.

It's clear that Shakespeare intended the entrance of a ghost that Macbeth can see and we can see but no one else can see. How would you stage that? Would you make the ghost a hallucination?

Manhood theme again in Macbeth's "What man dare, I dare."

The breakdown of goodly order is made explicit in Lady Macbeth's appropriate command to the guests, "Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once." That's prudent, but bad form for nobles.

122-44: After-party conversation, with some twists.

Macbeth is growing superstitious: "It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood"; and Lady Macbeth has no practical rejoinder.

Note reference to Macduff's denying to give Macbeth attendance--and to spies Macbeth keeps in the houses of his thanes. He's becoming consciously Machiavellian. He's also getting to where he actively seeks out evil; he'll find the weird sisters--and he'll leave early on his trip: "More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know / By the worst means the worst."

Macbeth gives us a hint why it's unlikely he'll repent: "I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." That's wicked theology--but is it good psychology?


3.5 Often thought to be an interpolated scene, not by Shakespeare; I agree. One useful couplet: "And you all know security / Is mortals' chiefest enemy."


3.6 (Choral Commentary by Lennox--Significantly--and an Unnamed Lord)

Macbeth's "perfect crimes" really aren't even very good crimes. Why has he been able to get away with them so far?

Machiavelli says princes can pretty well do what they want not because people are stupid but because most people are selfish and cowardly. So long as the prince doesn't get too greedy or bloody, he can get away with murder because most people will refuse to see facts that are dangerous to be known.

From Lennox's actions we may infer that there's much to be said for Machiavelli's interpretation. Lennox will pray for "Some holy angel" to help Macduff, but he won't yet do anything to help. Note when even this worm finally turns. Some princes can be good Machiavellians and just murder when strictly necessary (indeed, Shakespeare has two major Machiavellian heroes in his works); still, some may find murder emotionally disturbing and, in its way, habit-forming.



.1-47: Note build up to 2. Witch's "By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes." In this context, identifying Macbeth as "Something wicked" is very, very impressive.

.50-60: Macbeth's conjuration of the witches.

(1) Again, note the irony: what these witches "profess" is damning human beings.

(2) Macbeth is working on his will to chaos; here it comes through very strongly. He wants an answer even if it means the end of the cosmos.

Political Reminder: To repeat an important point--the assumptions in Macbeth about witches are traditional Christian and patriarchal, wherein any nonorthodox religious ceremonies are highly suspect, and if they're blatantly unChristian and run by women they must be Satanic and an invitation to chaos. See above on the witch hunts and keep in mind that those assumptions resulted in body counts that made regular tyrants like Macbeth look like small potatoes. I doubt that Shakespeare knew how bad things had gotten on the Continent, or even suspected that English speakers would start hanging witches in significant numbers--but his little nod to King James's hangup contributed to massacres.

.68-106: Three Apparitions

Armed Head: If the dagger led Macbeth the way he was going, the Head tells Macbeth something he already knows.

Bloody Child: Equivocation here, but it should be fairly clear that something's up with a bloody child. Still, I'll accept that Macbeth misses the equivocation: he hears what he wants to hear from a source--that bloody child--that'll have some powerful psychological effects on him.

Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand: Same as for the bloody child, with appropriate modifications.

How would you stage the apparitions? Polanski's presentation suggests that Macbeth was downright dense to get fooled.

.106-24: Show of eight Kings and Banquo with a mirror.

A compliment to James I, and a sign of the futility of Macbeth's reign

.125-32: An interpolation, not by Shakespeare.


Any of the remaining thanes could bring Macbeth the message that Macduff has fled; it's significant that it's Lennox, the first person in the play to refer to Macbeth as a tyrant. In dramatic terms (although not in logic) it's significant that Lennox's bringing the news of Macduff's flight is the occasion for Macbeth's decision to "Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge of the sword / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line." Even trivial service to a tyrant can have horrible results.



.1-29: Discussion between Lady Macduff and Ross on Macduff's wisdom, natural love, loyalty, and courage--or lack thereof.

The massacre at Fife shows how necessary Macduff's mission to England

is to Scotland; it also shows why he was needed at home.

People who have problems with arithmetic will often tell you to give "110%" to your country, job, school, or whatever. Note that even giving 100% leaves nothing for your family (or for yourself). Whatever percentage Macduff gave to patriotism, it was a bit too much for his family's safety.

Ross is probably about to cry when he says "I am such a fool, should I stay longer / It would be my disgrace and your discomfort." If Macbeth is so terrible that Macduff has to go to England to help raise a rebellion against him, maybe there's something to be said for Lady Macduff's fears. If that's the case (as events prove), maybe sentimental slob Ross should've had his little cry and then stuck around to check out the defenses of the castle.

.30-62: Lady Macduff and Son

Macduff's son is a cute kid; in a Shakespearean play, that usually means he's about to be killed.

The discussion of treason here is light but very serious. A traitor is "one that swears and lies": i.e., swears fealty and then breaks the oath. Macduff is not a traitor to Macbeth: he has sworn no fealty to Macbeth and owes none; he has, though, sworn an oath to Lady Macduff--matrimony.

.62-72: That the Messenger comes to warn Lady Macduff at all shows that there's some decency left in Scotland under Macbeth; that his decency does no good, shows the limitations of mere decency under a tyrant.

.73-78: Important lines on wisdom and folly "in this earthly world."

S.D. Enter Murderers.

.79-84: Murder of Son, beginning of massacre.

How would you stage this? Shakespeare makes clear that he wants the kid to be courageous and Lady Macduff dignified: note her "thou" to the Murderer's formal "your." But what else? Shakespeare puts the massacre offstage; how do you horrify the audience with the one death?


4.3 (Malcolm and Macduff in England)

.1-44: Malcolm setting up test of Macduff. Note that Malcolm's reasons for suspecting Macduff include that Macbeth "hath not touched you yet." That's cold-blooded, but prudent; Malcolm knows that appearances may deceive, and that Macduff may be an agent for Macbeth. The point is driven home when Malcolm asks, "Why in that rawness left you wife and child . . . ?" I suspect Macduff just lacks the imagination to conceive of Macbeth's slaughtering a family because of a husband, father, and thane's actions. Malcolm has the imagination, and that says much about Malcolm, both good and bad.

.45-99: Malcolm's test of Macduff.

Malcolm skips through the Seven Deadly sins from the least, lust, to avarice, the second most deadly--and then to a rejection of everything good, including humility ("lowliness," thereby implying acceptance of pride, the deadliest sin), plus a general will to chaos. Somewhere in through here, Macduff's stomach turns. Where would you place that disgust?

.100-113: Macduff's very orthodox reply to Malcolm. Given the lack of a True Prince to follow to Scotland, all he can do is go into exile.

.114-38: Malcolm admits what a perfect little prince he is.

I'm being sarcastic here--but very much too sarcastic? Can you believe he's quite as good as he says he is? Does Macduff buy it easily?

.140-159: Doctor on Edward the Confessor's gift of healing scrofula.

This is a compliment to James I, who believed in the King's touch business. Would you keep this little scenelet in a modern production? What

does it do besides flatter James I? If nothing, just cut it. If it serves other functions, how would you make up for the loss?

There's an obvious contrast between England under pious Edward and Scotland under demonic Macbeth: health stuff among other contrasts. Could you get over the point with lighting and scenery?

S.D. Enter Ross.

.159-203: Build up to bad news for Macduff.

Ross equivocates on the Macduffs' being "well" and "at peace."

.205-240: Macduff learns of the massacre at Fife.

Why does Malcolm tell Macduff, "let's make us med'cines of our great revenge / To cure this deadly grief"? To comfort Macduff? To incite him to heroism against Macbeth? Both? Any problem if part of Malcolm's motivation is political? A prince is a politician, and grief can be politically useful.

Note very well Macduff's response to Malcolm's "Be comforted" and call for revenge: "He has no children."

The decision on the referent for "He" will say a lot about the tone of a production. If it's just Malcolm--no big deal. If it's ambiguous, perhaps even for Macduff, then it's a darker play. If the "He" is emphatically Macbeth, then it's a very dark vision: our Boy Scout, Macduff, would slaughter Macbeth's kids (if he had any) to avenge his own.

Note also Malcolm's "Dispute it like a man," and Macduff's response, "I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man." Malcolm appeals to macho maleness; Macduff responds with acknowleging his humanity and its demands. (This works even if you reject, as we should nowadays, "man" as a generic like "goose" [including geese and ganders]. "Man" = adult, male human being. Malcolm says, Revenge it as a macho male; Macduff says he will, but he must feel his loss as a human being.)



.1-16: The doctor parallels the doctor in England; but England is healthy while Scotland is sick, figured here in the mental illness of the Queen.


Macbeth "repeats" waking his murder of Duncan; in a more direct way, Lady Macbeth "repeats" the murder in her sleep.

Note "Hell is murky": In what sense is Lady Macbeth in "hell" already?

Indeed, "What need we fear who knows it"--about the murder--"when none can call our pow'r to accompt?" That's basic Machiavelli 101; "Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?" Moving to "What, will these hands ne're be clean" and "What's done cannot be undone."

They'd committed a satisfactory, if not the perfect, crime and had what they thought they wanted, what Machiavelli says regal sorts want: a crown and princely power. What went wrong? Well, some people just can't wash their hands and walk away. Some people get neurotic and paranoid and tyrannical--hence, politically stupid. And some people just go whacko and walk around at night compulsively "washing" their hands.

The Gentlewoman looks at the sleep-walking Queen Macbeth and makes a simple calculation: "I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body." A crown might cost more than it is worth.


5.2: External forces, of the military variety, move against Macbeth.



.1-19: Comedy moves toward integration of the protagonist and as many others as possible into a new, better, more flexible community; tragedy moves toward isolation. Macbeth moves toward political and personal isolation.

.20-28: Macbeth's Fourth Soliloquy, "My way of life / Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf."

Macbeth speaks--movingly--of his isolation.

Macbeth really pushes the limits of tragedy by having a quite so nasty a person for a (villain-)hero. Perhaps what allows us to identify enough with Macbeth for a tragic response is that he talks so well.

If you were putting together a cast for Macbeth, how old would you want your lead actor? Note that a relatively young Macbeth might be very effective feeling so old here.

.29-62: Macbeth's political isolation stressed again, plus his tyranny--"Hang those that talk of fear"--plus the disease motif. Scotland is indeed sick, but it's getting ready to effect a cure: getting rid of Macbeth.


5.4: Moving forest schtick, plus more on Macbeth's increasing isolation.



Coming together of external and internal forces moving against Macbeth, isolating him.

.9-14: Macbeth's Fifth Soliloquy, "I have almost forgot the taste of fears," moving into "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."

As I said, using contemporary jargon, Macbeth desensitizes himself. The "up" side of that for him is it's the end of both "Present fears" and "horrible imaginings" (1.3.137-38); the "down" side is in his response to Lady Macbeth's death and in the "Tomorrow" soliloquy.

"She should have died hereafter" is ambiguous in British English; "should" = our "should" plus "would."

How would you go from "She should have died hereafter: / There would have been a time for such a word" into "Tomorrow"? Try omitting the period after word and saying "There would have been a time for such a word / Tomorrow" then pause and slowly move into the soliloquy. Other suggestions?

Note the three "tomorrows."

Note that however beautiful the "Tomorrow" soliloquy is, its upshot is utter despair: a vision of life as "a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." Is life that way, at least in this play? Has Macbeth made his life absurd? If so, that tells us one form of damnation "here, / But here upon this bank and shoal of time" (1.7.5-6).

.30-52: Birnam Wood business, leading to Macbeth's final return to what he had at the start of the play and doesn't lose, physical courage: "Blow wind, come wrack, / At least we'll die with harness on our back."


5.6: Note the goodly order of the forces opposing Macbeth.


5.7: Macbeth's final isolation and defeat--and ultimate isolation of death.


5.8 (Conclusion)

Death of Young Siward, for a sentimental tear or two and to have some cost for the end of Macbeth.

Malcolm as new King of Scotland, with a new and better country coalescing

around him, a more civilized one, with the surviving thanes now earls.

Note well Malcolm's final speech: planting and growth images, call for return of exiles, contrast of Macbeths with Malcolm, who calls upon "the grace of Grace" and will have all performed "in measure, time, and place."

If you were directing the show, would you let it end with so upbeat a re-establishment of order?

Polanski shows Donalbain seeking out the witches, suggesting another cycle of usurpation and destruction.

A late 1960s production at Stratford, CT, had Malcolm exit while accepting the curtsies of three ladies of the court, the three ladies who doubled as the witches.

Is it a good idea to remind the audience that a new king is just a new king, but the powers of evil are a constant?

[back to top]

Roman Polanski's Production of Macbeth


FULL CITATION (for Works Cited):

Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. UK: Playboy (production) / Columbia-Warner (distribution), 1971. Hugh Hefner, executive producer. From the play by William Shakespeare. Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, script.


Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Playboy / Columbia-Warner, 1971.


MAJOR CAST (from Jack J. Jorgans, Shakespeare on Film [Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1977]):

Macbeth: Jon Finch

Lady Macbeth: Francesca Annis

Ross: John Stride

Banquo: Martin Shaw

Duncan: Nicholas Selby

Malcolm: Stephen Chase

Donalbain: Paul Shelley

Macduff: Terence Bayler

Young Witch: Noelle Rimmington

Blind Witch: Maisie MacFarquhar

First Witch: Elsie Taylor

Lady Macduff: Diane Fletcher



1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a young Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? Does Jon Finch's relative youth undercut his speech on his "way of life" falling into "the sear, the yellow leaf"--or make it more poignant?

2. One obvious advantage of having actors who aren't stars is that they can be more easily ordered around and even messed over. If Francesca Annis had been a name actor she might have fought (effectively) to save her speech "I have given suck , and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me." There is an obscene joke on why the speech was cut, but in earnest--what might be the (relative) advantage of cutting it? (See below on the justifiable nude scene by the witches--and then consider why Lady Macbeth might be naked for her sleep-walking scene. She has a nice body, but those who're interested would infer her figure without the nudity.)

3. One went to hear a play in Shakespeare's time; we go to see plays and films (and, I've heard, even rock concerts in contemporary young-teen dialect)--and Polanski has been accused of showing too much and showing it too literally. What are the advantages and disadvantages of his use of realistic film technique in Macbeth?

Is there too little mystery to the witches?

Does Macbeth seem stupid to be fooled by hags and to miss major hints at the true meaning of their equivocal prophecies? (In a theory going back to the Greeks, some moralists have contended that evil is essentially a mistake: usually getting fooled into taking a lesser good for a greater good. In Christian theory, the Devil can put on a pleasing appearance and can make even evil look good. In choosing such ugly witches and having them naked at their Witches' Sabbath, Polanski undercuts the idea that Macbeth was tricked.)

Does the intercut of Lady Macbeth at the battlements of her castle work as well as having her enter right after the King and Banquo comment on how "This castle hath a pleasant seat" (1.6)?

Does it work well for us to see the murder of Duncan? To see the air-borne dagger--or maybe even to see Banquo's ghost, as Shakespeare intended?

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Study Guide for Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

Works Cited Citation:

The Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-Djo [The Castle of the Spider's Web, vt. Cobweb Castle]). Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Japan: Toho, 1957. Prod. Shojiro Motoki and Akira Kurosawa. Script by Akira Kurosawa et al. (but not intended as a film to be directed by Kurosawa). Based on William Shakespeare's Macbeth. 110 min., 115 min., otherapparently released in different lengths for different countries.



Taketoki Washizu (Macbeth): Toshiro Mifune

Hoshiaki Miki (Banquo): Minoru Chiaki

Asaji (Lady Macbeth): Isuzu Yamada

Yoshiteru (Fleance): Akira Kubo

Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Duncan): Takamaru Sasaki

Kunimaru (Malcolm): Yoichi Tachikawa

Noriyasu Odagura (old counsellor): Takashi Shimura

Witch: Chieko Naniwa


From Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970) 115-24.

For Kurosawa the pattern of repetition is destructuve and it is this pattern which his free heroes attempt to destroy . . . . This is not the only possible attitude. [Yasujiro] Ozu celebrates patterns [in his films,] and his characters sometimes acknowledge that it is pattern, their knowledge of it, that gives them strength to continue. . . .  One may either accept . . . or wholly reject [the pattern]. Anything else--as The Throne of Blood . . . suggests--leads to death.

The fable of Macbeth held a[n] especial attraction for Kurosawa. The hero . . . tries to realize himself. His fault--not ambition nor pride, as such--is his failure to realize himself completely. Instead, he wants merely to rise in the world, he wants something as conventional as power. Naturally, one murder leads to another, because this is the pattern of power. The play had the attraction of being an exemplary or cautionary tale . . . . One, further, as true now as then. . . . 

. . . The characters have no future. Cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist. Those who complained that the film was cool were only half right. It is ice-cold. Here, Kurosawa is making his point by allowing no hope and no escape. (115)

His [Kurosawa's] Macbeth is not grand. Rather, he is possessed from the beginning, he is compulsive, he is so profoundly afraid that he kills to insure that he himself is not killed. He is a little man, lacking in grandeur precisely because he is not torn between desires. Rather, he is ruled by ambition[,] and we watch his rise and fall unmoved. At the same time, Kurosawa has so prdigiously illustrated this fall, so subtly indicated the parallels, the hidden meanings . . . so fully explained the pattern, that his cautionary tale truly cautions. (117)

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