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Term Definition

Macbeth is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. Set mainly in Scotland, the play dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.

Background and summary of Macbeth

Macbeth is a play written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1606. A tragedy, it is set in Scotland and examines the damage that can be done by political greed and ambition for those who seek it purely for the sake of having power. Macbeth is a general of Scotland who hears of a prophecy from three witches that he will someday be the king of Scotland. Macbeth becomes obsessed with this prophecy and so overcome with ambition that he murders the king in cold blood. After his seizure of the throne, he is wracked with paranoia and guilt over what he has done and is so consumed with maintaining his power that he becomes a tyrant. He murders more and more people as he tries to shield himself from suspicion or hostility. Macbeth’s obsession spurs a bloodbath upon his subjects and a civil war ensues, driving the king and his wife into madness until they ultimately meet their death. 

Because of these negative circumstances, Macbeth is appropriately categorized in the genre of tragedy.

Common themes: Power and corruption

The foremost theme in Macbeth is the corrupting power of ambition when left unchecked. Macbeth is a brave general who, though not naturally inclined to greed and abuse, craves power and the advancement of his position. Against his better judgement, he murders his king, resulting in his decent into madness. Lady Macbeth, his wife, also pursues her goals with great passion, but is incapable of withstanding the consequences of her actions. She urges her husband to murder the king and encourages him to commit further murder in order to secure their position as rulers of Scotland. Lady Macbeth is eventually driven mad due to the guilt and paranoia that comes with her part in so much chaos. In the play, ambition is what consistently causes characters to commit further atrocities and crimes against each other. Shakespeare suggests that once one employs violence in order to gain or maintain power, it leads to a vicious cycle that can be extremely difficult to break.

Historical origins and theatrical vesions of Macbeth

The play is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and comes from the story of Macbeth, Kind of Scotland found in a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland called Holinshed’s Chronicles, written in 1587. The story is similar to the one Shakespeare wrote, but the events differ vastly between the two. In the tale of the real Macbeth, the story ties in more closely with the execution of Henry Garnett for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. 

The earliest performance of Macbeth was done in the summer of 1606 at the Globe Theatre. The play was not officially published until 1623 when it was printed in the Folio from a prompt book. During the time that the play was written, James I sat on the throne of England and the king was a benefactor of Shakespeare’s acting troupe. Of all of Shakespeare’s work during the reign of King James, Macbeth most evidently echoes the relationship between the two. Click here to read about another one of Shakespeare's works: Hamlet.

In theater, many believe that the play is cursed. Many refuse to say the title of the play out loud for fear of invoking bad luck, thus referring to it exclusively as ‘the Scottish play’. This superstition comes from the fact that Shakespeare is said to have used real spells in his writing, which is said to have angered several witches who then cursed the play. To say the name inside a theater is considered to doom the production to be an absolute failure with the potential to cause injury or death to the play’s cast and crew members. Over the centuries, the play has not diminished in popularity and the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are still coveted on both the stage and the screen.

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Synonyms: macbeth

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