Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


This oddly short play doesn't show up in any form until the 1623 First Folio. The supposed relevance to the Stuart royal line (concerning James I's descent from Banquo's bloodline, and his interest in demonology and witchcraft) has suggested to many that the play was probably written no earlier than 1603. But "The oft-repeated view that Macbeth was written as a compliment to King James deserves a closer look": it works better as an insult, "like attempting to flatter an Italian-American by writing The Sopranos" (Farina 189).

Traditional interpretation likes to read into the play allusions to events in 1607, and although orthodoxy has established 1606 as a date of composition (after de Vere's death), "There is absolutely nothing in Macbeth which could not have been written between 1588 and '91" (Ogburn and Ogburn 787). Other textual problems cloud the issue: signs of another author responsible for certain scenes, and the peculiar shortness of the play. This latter issue is attributed sometimes to the notion that the First Folio perhaps used a touring company's abbreviated version. E.T. Clark and R.L. Miller make a good case for a 1589 date of composition due to striking parallels with French politics of the 1580s -- particularly the assassination of Henry, Duke of Guise, by Henry III of France while the latter's mother, Catherine de Medici, was in the Château on a stormy night (Clark 809ff; Ogburn and Ogburn 791). She also was said to have had a vision of the future kings of France (Clark 812; Ogburn and Ogburn 790), much like Macbeth's vision of the future kings of Scotland.

Richard F. Whalen does the best job ["Shakespeare in Scotland." The Oxfordian 6 (2003): 55-70)] debunking the proposed connections to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, pointing out James' dread of violent death ["No surprise, since his father was assassinated and his captive mother was beheaded" (Whalen 56) -- making this an unlikely play for his benefit], and showing the many actual connections to the assassination of Lord Darnley, consort to Mary Queen of Scots, by the ambitious James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who then married the young Queen. A sketch of the assassination site and grounds was sent to Burghley and includes a floating dagger (Whalen 60; Clark 847). See here, and check out the top right corner for the dagger. Knowledge that the Setons were hereditary armor-bearers for the kings of Scotland (Whalen 65) points to Oxford, who had spent part of 1570 in Scotland, as the author. Apparently, Oxford was afflicted with "nightmare visions" once he returned from "active military duty in Scotland" (Farina 191). The anachronistic Lennoxes here also points towards Oxford, who was friends with the contemporary Lennoxes. Margaret, Countess of Lennox, was the mother of Lord Darnley, and her family archives held the manuscript source of Macbeth not in print otherwise until the mid-19th century, the Buik of Croniclis of Scotland by William Stewart, whom Shakespeare favors over Holingshed (Anderson 72).

Macbeth is "seemingly one of the least subjective of all his dramas" (Ogburn and Ogburn 785-786), but underlined in Oxford's Geneva Bible are verses about not putting one's hand against "the Lord's anointed" (1 Samuel 26:11-12), verses which also mention a spear and a cup of water (Anderson 383-384). Anderson makes much of the execution of Mary Stuart, formerly in England in "double trust" (albeit an imprisonment) as guest and kin of Queen Elizabeth (Anderson 217). Supposedly, Macbeth contains quotations from Howard's libellous Defensative too (see Harlow, Studies in English Literature 5.2 (Spring 1965): 269-281).

It is a little odd that this play is so popular as a high school infliction. What can a fifteen-year-old glean? Don't listen to your wife? Don't kill kings? Not the most relevant of moral messages. Perhaps a Marxist explanation: the administrative mind reduces the play conceptually to a cautionary tale about rebelling against authority and thus promotes its perpetual curricular inclusion. Such a reductive, pro-monarchic, propagandistic reading may have dominated early too, if the play was applied early on to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Or else it's just more pro-breeding propaganda: "Where some have 'blood' in the sense of family, issue, children, and lineage, others -- like the 'childless' Macbeth and Lady Macbeth -- have blood in the sense of bloodshed, ultimate disorder rather than orderly sequence, death rather than life, the end of a line rather than a line without end" (Garber 716).

The words "blood" and "night" show up a lot, naturally. More interestingly, watch for uses of the "un-" prefix; Shakespeare coins some pretty strange terms here. And he creates some very cool special effects with time, another major theme in the work. "So rapid and foreshortened is their [the Macbeths'] play (about half the length of Hamlet) that we are given no leisure to confront their descent into hell as it happens" (Bloom 518). The play has gotten a reputation for being bad luck in terms of productions and those who act in it, and so it is referred to as "the Scottish play" to avoid naming it.



The first word in Hamlet is "Who"; in Macbeth it's "When." This is appropriate because of the extent to which Time is thematically explored. Here in what is "more overture than scene" (Goddard, II 108), we meet three conspiring witches -- women who have aligned themselves with the dark forces and black magic. The play begins with them ending their meeting the way all meetings end: discussing when the next meeting is: "When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" (I.i.1-2). The response -- "When the battle's lost and won" (I.i.4) -- points out the phenomenon regarding two sides to the same coin, or the theme of equivocation. Macbeth is specified as the witches' target (I.i.7). And the final lines -- "Fair is foul and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air" (I.i.11-12) -- set the stage for the chaos and corruption to come. From now on whenever someone is declared "fair," we catch the grim irony.

A series of witch trials in 1591 included references to Grimalkin and Paddock (the cat and toad familiars) and to rough, stormy weather (Ogburn and Ogburn 800).


Duncan, the Scottish King (historically in the eleventh century), his sons, and other nobles and attendants come upon a "bloody man" whom Duncan realizes can report "of the revolt / The newest state" (I.ii.1-3). This Sergeant tells of Macbeth and Banquo's successes in quelling an uprising. Macbeth "unseam'd [Macdonwald] from the nave to th' chops, / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (I.ii.22-23). As a general, Macbeth wielding a bloody sword is, one presumes, acceptable, but his savagery in eviscerating and decapitating, along with later details, Freud would have something to say about. The Sergeant reports more, but his "gashes cry for help" (I.ii.42). "The passage is like a smear of blood across the first page of the play" (Goddard, II 108).

Rosse and Angus, two other nobles, supply further news that Macbeth has been victorious. Rosse calls him "Bellona's bridegroom" (I.ii.54) -- aligning him with a goddess of war (and unintentionally prefiguring Lady Macbeth). Since the former Thane of Cawdor will be executed for treason, the title will go to Macbeth. Shakespeare intriguingly rhymes "Macbeth" with "death" near the end of this scene (I.ii.64-65). Its final line -- "What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won" (I.ii.67) -- ominously echoes the witches already.

Often in Shakespeare's plays, "Men who have been valiant on the battlefield can come home to act like cads or criminals in time of peace.... Macbeth, murderer of Duncan, and Macbeth, tyrant of Scotland, are implicit in Macbeth, slaughterer of Macdonwald" (Goddard, II 108-109).


On the formless wasteland of a "heath," the witches report their misdeeds, and one, because a woman would not give her some chestnuts, will make sure her husband is harassed by storms at sea, "Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it can be tempest-toss'd" (I.iii.24-25). So a husband will suffer because of his wife's uncharitableness. [The mention of the Tiger (I.iii.7) is a topical allusion to a ship last in London port in 1588 (Ogburn and Ogburn 788-789).]

The witches identify themselves as the "weïrd sisters" (I.iii.32) -- from wyrd, the Old English word for "fate," but ultimately the extent of their powers is limited and ambiguous. The repetition of the number nine may relate to the Duke of Guise having been warned nine times that Henry III intended to have him killed (Clark 819).

Macbeth and Banquo arrive, and Macbeth echoes the witches: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (I.iii.38). The witches have beards (I.iii.43), so gender is blurry. The weird sisters greet Macbeth with his current title, Thane of Glamis; his coming title, Thane of Cawdor; and even King. Banquo asking, "Good sir, why do you start...?" (I.iii.51), indicates that the witches have hit a nerve with Macbeth already. They claim that Banquo shall beget kings, and they vanish. Rosse and Angus bring the news that Macbeth has been made Thane of Cawdor, so he and Banquo discuss the strange prophecies. Banquo warns that "The instruments of darkness" sometimes report truths to sucker us in (I.iii.123-126).

"Hamlet is to Macbeth somewhat as the Ghost is to the Witches" (Goddard, II 111) -- as a prompt or catalyst to his own intense thoughts. In an aside, Macbeth reveals that either he's already been considering dark thoughts, or he's particularly quick to do so now suddenly. He hopes fate itself will do the dirty work, though: "chance may crown me / Without my stir" (I.iii.143-144).

Macbeth had called the witches "imperfect speakers" (I.iii.71), and the scene several times alludes to difficulties in reading (e.g., I.iii.90) and interpreting (I.iii.46). Macbeth asks that Banquo consider what they've witnessed. They will think about this and will talk later, Macbeth decides -- and he will make a habit of this technique of promising future discussions (I.iii.153-155).


The King and his court hear of the previous Thane of Cawdor's execution: "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it" (I.iv.7-8) -- he seemed casual about it [and the elder Ogburns detect a later application to Burghley (800-801)]. Learning from his mistake with this previous Cawdor, he thinks, Duncan gives up on the idea of correct "reading" when it comes to faces (I.iv.11-12). In walks Macbeth. Botanical metaphors abound as Duncan welcomes Macbeth and Banquo. But he appoints his son Malcolm as his heir, which frustrates Macbeth, who calls the Prince "a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap" (I.iv.48-49). Note this notion of "overleaping." And here's a weird line from Macbeth to Duncan: "The rest is labor, which is not us'd for you" (I.iv.44) -- meaning, on the surface, that leisure time spent not on you is a chore, but can also be taken in a wider and darker sense.


Lady Macbeth [who has no name of her own in this play, but who historically had the "uneuphonious" name of ... brace yourself ... Gruoch (Asimov 167; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 789)] reads her husband's letter to her regarding the witches. Macbeth calls her his "dearest partner in greatness" (I.v.11), so it's an odd marriage. They may leave a lot unsaid -- it's difficult to tell (or to read). Lady Macbeth considers that her husband is too kind and insufficiently ambitious -- "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" (I.v.17) -- so she plans to "pour [her] spirits in [his] ear" (I.v.26). (There's an echo from Hamlet and Othello.) When she hears that Duncan will be spending the night at the Macbeths' castle, she delivers a dramatic apostrophe:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"
"This is her vivid way of asking to be stripped of feminine weakness and invested with masculine resolve" (Macrone 175). It also focuses attention on what is becoming another theme: bodily openings, hereafter mostly a matter of wounds.

Macbeth arrives and she announces, "Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant" (I.v.56-58). The enjambment is effective for conveying this time warp. Macbeth says Duncan is coming tonight and Lady Macbeth asks when he's leaving. "To-morrow," replies Macbeth, "as he purposes" (I.v.60) -- adding a troubling note of ambiguity. Lady Macbeth coaches her husband to be more poker-faced, worrying that his visage can be read like a "book" (I.v.62-63). "To beguile the time, / Look like the time... / look like th' innocent flower, / But be the serpent under 't" (I.v.63-66). [Catherine de Medici was called "Madame la Serpente" (Ogburn and Ogburn 794).] As he promised with Banquo, he tells his wife, "We will speak further" (I.v.71).


Duncan loves the castle and the weather and is greeted by Lady Macbeth politely. Banquo presents some ornithology about the "marlet" [which was featured on a badge in Mary Stuart's mother's side of the family, the House of Lorraine (Ogburn and Ogburn 796)]. Lady Macbeth is declared a "Fair" hostess (I.vi.24), but note that she's the one who does not use the word "love" in this scene, despite its frequency. She tells Duncan, "Your servants ever / Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt / To make their audit at your Highness' pleasure / Still to return your own" (I.vi.25-28). What on earth does that mean? (It's interesting that the first two lines end in "ever" and "compt.")


In this scene, Shakespeare first coins the word "assassination" (I.vii.2) and the phrase "the be-all and the end-all" (I.vii.5), both used by Macbeth himself, who seems to be hissing a bit in these opening lines of the scene. Well, Lady Macbeth did instruct him to "be the serpent" (I.v.66). He recognizes that to plot against the King is a breach of both hospitality and kinship. If only Duncan were a big bastard, this would be easier to rationalize, he indicates (I.vii.16ff). "We will proceed no further in this business" (I.vii.31).

Lady Macbeth argues against his squeamishness or conscience, saying that his indecision applies to his love for her, questioning his manhood, and insisting that his vow to proceed was as binding as hers would have been to the extreme of her dashing the brains out of her own newborn "had I so sworn as you" (I.vii.58). It's odd and unclear when exactly Macbeth made this supposed vow that she's capitalizing on. "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none" (I.vii.46-47).

So "screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we'll not fail" (I.vii.60-61). Lady Macbeth will drug Duncan's officers with wine (I.vii.64ff) so that they can be framed with the murder afterwards. Macbeth says, "Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males" (I.vii.72-74). But he is resolved:
Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

One established quibble is that of the contours of the Macbeth family. Lady Macbeth indicates in this scene that she has been a breeder. But whither the kid(s)? Later comes an indication that Macbeth has never sired a child. So is this Lady Macbeth's second marriage? I find none of this discussion at all gripping. (But historically, the woman had a child with a previous husband.)

Instead, the coolest thing about this scene involves the way Macbeth's "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself" (I.vii.27) emerges in his language. "If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well done quickly" (I.vii.1-2). About this soliloquy, Marjorie Garber says, "Like Lady Macbeth's open eyes and closed sense in the sleepwalking scene, this speech refuses to look where it is going, to see where it is headed -- and so, in effect, it beheads itself" ["Macbeth: The Male Medusa." Profiling Shakespeare. NY: Routledge, 2008. 87]. Soon Macbeth will say to the "dagger of the mind": "Thou marshal'st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use" (II.i.42-43). He's looking ahead to the dirty deed, but as close to speaking in the past tense as is possible while still keeping the meaning clear -- in other words, his language is "vaulting" or "o'erleaping" the murder. This is why productions that actually show the murder are wrongminded. As with the Greek version of Oedipus Rex, this is psychological drama, not Roman (or American) spectacle. The most horrifying blood is either that on the Macbeths' hands, or maybe that in their minds -- not blood potentially spilled in a scene Shakespeare intentionally did not present. The overall effect of Act I is that a lot happened but what we saw doesn't quite match up with what seems to have happened -- a result either of the incomplete nature of this play, or an intentional effect of anxiety created in us. "So rapid and foreshortened is their [the Macbeths'] play (about half the length of Hamlet) that we are given no leisure to confront their descent into hell as it happens" (Bloom 518). "It is his [Shakespeare's] intention, in fact, to push through the play in a whirlwind of activity, making very little time seem to pass. For that reason, he has none of the characters age in the play" (Asimov 154).

Act II

Shakespeare Index