Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Notes on Macbeth by William Shakespeare. This set of Tower Notes is 97 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file with footnotes.

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Introduction: Macbeth and the Imagination

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a dramatic exploration of why an apparently good man commits terrible crimes. In the course of the play’s five acts, Macbeth kills his king and kinsman, Duncan; he then has his friend Banquo murdered, and finally he becomes a tyrant overseeing the slaughter of anyone in Scotland he considers untrustworthy – neither woman nor child is spared. At first, Lady Macbeth and the witches tempt him to do what he does: they are, in the first two acts, external agents in the internal drama that takes place inside Macbeth’s mind. It is clear, however, that the most powerful temptations he faces come from within , and that they specifically derive from his own disordered imagination. It is Macbeth’s murderous fantasy of glory that brings about his downfall, not his wife’s ambition or the plotting of the Weird Sisters.

This is not to say that Lady Macbeth and the witches are unimportant: the former plays a crucial role in her husband’s final decision to kill Duncan, and Shakespeare deliberately changes Holinshed’s fairy or elven Fates into a triad of witches , who are not unnaturally considered by Banquo to be servants of the devil (I.iii.107). As such, they can be assumed to be intent upon Macbeth’s damnation. Their actual words to him, however, are not a temptation as such: they simply prophesy that he will be a future King of Scotland – and, indeed, the possibility of him succeeding legally and honourably as Duncan’s proclaimed heir hangs unresolved over the first few scenes of the play, only to be dispelled by the latter’s announcement that Malcolm, his firstborn, is to be Prince of Cumberland (see especially I.iii.104n). As has been often noted, it is Macbeth, and Macbeth alone, who conjures up

that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And makes my seated heart knock at my ribs (I.iii.134-6)

The witches merely serve to stimulate and encourage Macbeth’s own wicked fantasies.

Shakespeare knew very well that human beings are tempted far more by such images than they are by mere words or ideas. It is no accident, for example, that when Macbeth visits the witches again they communicate with him, in part, through visual means, and that they do so at his own behest (IV.i.63).

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William Shakespeare