Introducing: The Tragedy of Macbeth

For this inaugural post about an actual Shakespeare play, I decided to go light and easy, and provide a summary of sorts. There’ll be plenty of time to cover more ground in the future, but for now, here’s a brief overview of the play (contains a couple of spoilers!).

The Tragedy of Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and is most commonly dated 1606, making it a Jacobean play. As with all his plays, Macbeth was drawn from other sources, namely Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), which detailed a lot of British history. Basically, Shakespeare read the Chronicles and decided to yoink some aspects about Macbeth, the King of Scotland (who reigned between 1040–1057), and make up lots of things along the way to make it a more interesting story. Sounds like (inaccurate) historical (fan)fiction that’s nonetheless entertaining? Yup, Macbeth is exactly that—a Renaissance version of The Tudors or Vikings, if you will.

King James IV of Scotland and I of England. Look at all that gingery goodness!

King James IV of Scotland and I of England. Look at all that gingery goodness!

Remember how I’d mentioned King James I of England was also King James IV of Scotland? Many scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James, who was supposedly a descendant of Banquo, who, in the play, was prophesised to father a line of kings. Never mind that the play depicts our eponymous Macbeth committing regicide in order to take over the throne and the poor Banquo being murdered by Macbeth—so long as we do our best to please King James, all will be well, right? Right?!

(I don’t think Jamesy became a super Macbeth fanboy, but hey, we gotta give Shakespeare credit for trying.)

So, what actually happens in Macbeth? Hope you’re ready for a little introduction, Samantha-style!

The first page of Macbeth as it appears in an edition of the First Folio (1623).

The first page of Macbeth as it appears in an edition of the First Folio (1623).

The play opens with three “weird sisters” (commonly known now as witches) who are being all ominous and sinister, and talking about some battle and this guy called Macbeth. We immediately get a sense that, uh-oh, dude’s gonna get in trouble… We then learn there’s a battle going on, because one of King Duncan’s subjects, the Thane (a Scottish Lord) of Cawdor, has betrayed him and is raising an army against him. Fortunately for Duncan, he’s got Macbeth on his side, who’s a pretty swell warrior and goes and slays all the enemies. Duncan decides to execute the Thane of Cawdor, and gives the title to Macbeth. Go Maccy boy!

Once the battle’s over, Macbeth and his BFF Banquo ride back to join Duncan…and meet the weird sisters on the way. They greet Macbeth by his actual title, the Thane of Glamis, his second actual title, the Thane of Cawdor (Macbeth doesn’t know this, but the audience does—this literary device is called dramatic irony), and his future title, “King hereafter”, before disappearing. Well, what can you make of that… Soon after, one of Duncan’s subjects comes up to Macbeth and pretty much says “yo, you’re now the Thane of Cawdor—congrats, dude!”, and Macbeth starts to think maybe there’s some truth to the possibility of becoming king…

…except there’s the minor problem of the present King Duncan. There can’t be two Kings of Scotland! We then get a scene change, and are introduced to Lady Macbeth, who’s one fierce woman (and not necessarily in a good way). Her hubby has written to her about the prophecy (but I’m sure he would’ve texted if he could), and Lady Macbeth’s pretty gleeful about the news, though she knows her hubby is “too full of the milk of human kindness”, and will need a wee push in the right direction (which, in her case, means a massive and pretty impressive monologue).

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the plot, but let’s say there’s some pretty epic plotting, daggering, cleaning of said daggers, more plotting, more daggering, some hallucinating, some sleep-walking, and some sword-fighting (though those soldiers were probably equipped with daggers, too).

All in all, it’s a deliciously entertaining play, where you also get to see the darker side of human ambition and the thirst for power. The supernatural element is also great fun, because yay weird sisters and eyes of newts and toes of frogs and chanting around a bubbling cauldron! And being Shakespeare, the play offers a few life lessons—some that are even a little unexpected—and it’s those little quotations and lessons I’ll be focusing on for next week’s post. Until then, please stay clear of regicide!


Do you have any thoughts or experience with Macbeth? What do you think about Shakespeare as essentially an epic fanfic writer? Please do leave a comment!

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