The story of Macbeth by Shakespeare is one of the most renowned plays around the world. In fact, Shakespeare garnered a lot of acknowledgment and success after the story of Macbeth. This was due to the messages, themes, and emotions behind the play that resonated with readers around the globe. Briefly, the story of Macbeth is about how ambition, power, and greed can corrupt man. IGCSE English Literature students will have to study Macbeth as a part of their syllabus. Hence, this quick guide or summary of the story of Macbeth and its main messages or themes in the play will be useful during their revision.
The Story of Macbeth by Shakespeare in a Nutshell
Prophecies, Ambition, and Power
Essentially, the story is about a valiant general called Macbeth who serves under King Duncan of Scotland.
Macbeth is a very valiant, courageous, and strong general.
He was loyal to King Duncan and won many battles for him.
However, one stormy evening when returning from battle he and another fellow general by the name of Banquo came across Three Witches in the middle of the forest.
These three witches prophesized that Macbeth will be named the Thane of Cawdor and thereafter take over the throne as King of Scotland.
Similarly, they had a prophecy for Banquo as well.
The witches said that Banquo will never be King himself but his descendants will rule Scotland in the near future.
Although intrigued and surprised by the prophecies, Macbeth and Banquo shrugged them off and continued on their journey to meet the King.
However, Macbeth was astonished to find that the King had in fact named him the Thane of Cawdor upon returning to the kingdom.
Macbeth was now sure of the prophecy and wondered if he can be the King of Scotland too.
King Duncan was deemed as a kind yet weak King.
So, Macbeth was convinced that he deserved to be the King, as he was stronger and had won many victories for Scotland.
Later that night, King Duncan expressed his wish to dine with Macbeth at his castle, in order to honor his bravery and victory.
Macbeth Becomes King
Taking things into his hands, Macbeth together with his wife, Lady Macbeth plotted the death of the King.
In his lust for ambition and power, together with encouragement from Lady Macbeth who agreed with the prophecy and desired the kingship all along, Macbeth started his journey down the path of power, greed, and evil.
Both of them planned to trick the two Chamberlains who were guarding the King and intoxicated them to the extent that they wouldn’t remember anything.
After that, Macbeth stabbed the King and stained the Chamberlain’s clothes and weapons with the King’s blood.
Once everyone found out about the death of King Duncan, Macbeth killed the Chamberlains in a display of rage to show the other subjects his loyalty.
Next, he proclaimed his rightful place on the throne and became King of Scotland.
King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm, and Donalbain ran away to Ireland and England respectively to avoid being assassinated.
This made it very easy for Macbeth to rule as King of Scotland.
Macbeth’s success fueled his vicious greed for power and ambition to remain the ruler.
Macbeth’s Evil Greed For Power
Fueled by Lady Macbeth’s evil intentions Macbeth then targets Banquo.
Because, as per the Witches’ prophecy, Banquo’s children will rule Scotland.
Macbeth feared that as the prophecy said, Banquo’s children will one day take over the throne from him, so he sends soldiers to assassin Banquo and his son Fleance.
Banquo dies but his son Fleance escapes and that makes Macbeth paranoid.
He has no other option now but to go and see the Witches himself to know what else he can do.
Later that day, Banquo’s ghost visits Macbeth at a feast.
Macbeth’s strange and frightening behavior shocked the guests.
Lady Macbeth quickly diverts their attention by saying that Macbeth is ill.
The Witches show him that there is another person who dislikes him called Macduff, a Scottish nobleman.
Moreover, the witches also mention that Macbeth cannot be harmed by any man born through natural childbirth from a woman.
And also till the great Birnam Woods come into the Dunsinane part of Scotland.
This puts Macbeth at ease as he feels all men are born from natural childbirth and it will take ages for the Birnam Woods to grow into Scotland.
However, when Macbeth hears that Macduff has traveled to England to meet Malcolm.
In a fit of rage and power, he orders the death of Macduff’s family.
Saddened by the death of his family, Macduff takes an oath to kill Macbeth.
He joins forces with Malcolm to kill Macbeth.
Meanwhile, other generals and noblemen join forces with Malcolm and Macduff as they are unhappy with Macbeth’s cruelty, tyranny, and greed for power.
They are all shocked by Macbeth’s evil and murderous nature and fear for their lives as well.
Gradually, Lady Macbeth becomes paranoid.
She starts to see visions of herself stained with the blood of the people that have been murdered.
The play shows that she becomes mentally unstable and kills herself.
In England, Malcolm secures the English King’s trust and alliance.
The English King allows him to take the English army to Scotland to defeat Macbeth.
Malcolm’s forces invade Scotland with shields and boughs made of Birnam Wood.
It seems that the Witches’ prophecy is coming true.
On the other hand, Macbeth is mourning his wife’s death when he hears that Malcolm and Macduff are advancing on Scotland.
As a precaution, Macbeth travels to Dunsinane castle to protect himself.
The weapons made of Birnam Woods symbolize the Birnam Woods entering the Scottish territory.
Once Macbeth understands this he realizes that he can be defeated.
The English army is formidable and defeats the Scottish army, resulting in more bloodshed.
Macbeth has to face his end and eventually meets Macduff on the battlefield.
There he declares with all his arrogance that no man born from a woman can kill him.
But, Macduff replies back saying that he was born through a cesarean instead of normal birth, and finally beheads Macbeth.
Finally, The Scottish people accept Malcolm as their rightful King.
Main Themes and Messages of the Play
Ambition and Greed for Power
This is the most important and prominent theme or message in the story of Macbeth.
The whole play revolves around a character who is engulfed in ambition and the idea of being powerful.
Macbeth very clearly carries the whole message of how ambition drives him to act in the way he did.
Moreover, the greed for being powerful and the ambition to achieve that goes hand in hand throughout the play.
It is also shown through the character of Lady Macbeth who influences Macbeth.
The extent to which ambition can push people to do unimaginable things is also portrayed in this play.
Macbeth is blinded by ambition to such an extent that in order to remain powerful he must commit tyranny and murder.
At the beginning of the play, one can see that Macbeth is not ambitious.
However, once the Witches give him the prophecy his attitude changes.
Moreso, Lady Macbeth is the one character that completely sides with Macbeth’s ambitious nature.
In the quote below, Macbeth thinks to himself if it is right to kill the King to whom he swore loyalty and kingship.
But, he also admits that there is no other reason for him to kill the King except for his own ambition.
‘I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other’.
Given below is a quote by Lady Macbeth, she receives a letter from Macbeth relating the prophecy and his plan to kill Duncan.
Thereafter, she says that she must rush to Macbeth and persuade him to kill the King so that the fortunes can make Macbeth king.
‘Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal’.
The supernatural elements in Macbeth are portrayed through several characters and incidents.
Shakespeare is a master storyteller and weaves a mystical yet horrifying experience when he includes supernatural elements in the play Macbeth.
He was well aware of the different dramatic effects the supernatural elements can have on the reader’s mind and emotions.
It would be useful to remember that Shakespeare wrote plays at a time when audiences themselves believed in supernatural elements.
The age and times in which Shakespeare wrote, were different from the time today.
People were considerably influenced by supernatural phenomena in their lives and so were able to relate to the plays they watched.
1. THREE WITCHES
The first interaction with a supernatural element in the play is through the Three Witches.
Macbeth meets the Three Witches in the forest and their prophecy sets the stage for the rest of the play.
Their appearance highlights the chaos and disruption that is to follow.
The Three Witches also happen to be sisters and are portrayed as weird, horrid, and melancholy.
Banquo describes them using the following lines:
“What are these? So withered and wild in their attire, That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth And yet are on it.”
Firstly, by introducing The Witches at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare is able to grip the attention of the audience.
He is able to create a scenario of exhilarating mystery, evil, and chaos forcing the audience to pay attention to the story.
Secondly, he introduces the elements of fate, prophecies, ambition, and power.
As a result, he is able to show how Macbeth’s character changes, as the seed of ambition and power is planted in his mind after The Witches narrate the prophecy.
2. VISIONS AND GHOSTS
Visions and ghosts are another very prominent supernatural force that Shakespeare has used to create a dramatic effect.
These effects certainly pull at the reader’s heartstrings and establish a medieval mythical atmosphere.
The visions and ghosts are also a way of pushing Macbeth to realize the gravity of his murderous actions.
In the story of Macbeth Shakespeare uses the ghosts to tug at his conscience and make him feel guilty.
Eventually, these apparitions do serve the desired effect as both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become paranoid, frightened, and fall into traps of mental instability.
The scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost is a reminder to him that in the lust for power and ambition he murdered his friend and comrade.
Loyalty and Betrayal
Themes of loyalty and betrayal are shown throughout the play as well.
Macbeth is a story where power and loyalties to the King keep evolving.
Loyalty is a central theme because it highlights the different actions of the characters.
King Duncan was a loyal and just king, he named Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his bravery.
In contrast, Macbeth murdered him and betrayed the King who so fondly rewarded him.
Next, even though Macbeth and Banquo were friends, fellows, and comrades Macbeth still murdered him because of his paranoia and fear of losing the Kingship.
Again, here betrayal takes center stage and highlights the evil actions of Macbeth.
Meanwhile, Macduff pledges his loyalty to Malcolm to avenge his family and kill Macbeth.
The other Scottish noblemen side with Malcolm as well because they feel betrayed by the tyranny and revengeful behavior of Macbeth.
Hence, in this part of the play loyalty takes center stage.
To highlight the brave actions of Macduff and the Scottish noblemen against Macbeth.
Light and Darkness
There are many instances in the story of Macbeth by Shakespeare where light and darkness have been used as symbols to show good and evil.
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both take the help of darkness and seem to ask the nighttime to cover their evil deeds.
It is as if under the cover of darkness they can go unnoticed and complete their deeds without feeling ashamed.
The Three Witches are symbols of darkness and evil. Every time they appear there is an atmosphere of evil and demons.
Light is used to show goodness and innocence in the play.
When Macbeth is given the title of Thane of Cawdor, there is a display of sunshine and light to highlight his valiant and loyal characteristics.
Fate and Free Will
The everlasting debate of fate versus free will is addressed in this play.
Macbeth is a classic tale of who wins the battle, fate or free will.
Naturally, it is very convenient to say that Macbeth’s actions were the result of the prophecy.
On the other hand, Shakespeare shows the readers the struggle in Macbeth’s mind when he contemplates killing the King and the repercussions that will follow.
This goes to show that although there was a prophecy, man has the free will to choose between good and evil.
Nevertheless, due to the influence of the Witches and his own wife Lady Macbeth, Macbeth gives in to his ambition and CHOOSES to commit the crimes he committed.
Revision Tips for Story of Macbeth by Shakespeare
1. Read the play at least 3 times before you sit for the IGCSE examination.
2. Reading aloud and getting the feel of the play as if you were performing it will help you remember certain quotes and lines better.
3. Remember to write, and take notes while you study the play in class or while revising. This will help you remember themes, symbols, and motifs.
4 . If possible watch the play story of Macbeth by Shakespeare performed at the theatre or on film (You can find that many plays by Shakespeare were filmed and made into motion pictures).
5. Color coding / Highlighting characters and the themes or characteristics they portray helps too.
6. Keep in mind the symbolic references and the context of the play when revising.
7. Students may find the language Shakespeare uses very difficult, but it helps to have a dictionary or a thesaurus to make things simpler.
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