MACBETH STUDY GUIDE

MACBETH

Who is Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but today it is celebrated on April 23, which is the date of his death and, based on the record of his baptism, may very well also have been his birthday. Shakespeare's father was John Shakespeare, a glover, and his mother was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

Shakespeare probably attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School. At age 18 he married a farmer's daughter, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and, two years later, the twins Hamnet (who died in childhood) and Judith. 

Nothing more is known of his life until 1592, when his earliest known play, the first part of Henry VI, became a hit in London, where Shakespeare had gone (without his family) to work as an actor.

Soon afterwards, an outbreak of the plague forced theatres to close temporarily, and Shakespeare turned for a while to writing poetry. By 1594 he was back in the theatre, acting with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He quickly established himself as one of London's most successful dramatists, with an income that enabled him, in 1597, to buy a mansion back in Stratford. In 1599 he became a shareholder in London's newly built Globe Theatre. In 1603, Shakespeare's company was awarded a royal patent, becoming known as the King's Men.

Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, living there and continuing to invest in real estate until his death on April 23, 1616. He is buried in the town's Holy Trinity Church.

In the first collected edition of his works in 1623, fellow playwright Ben Jonson called him a man "not of an age, but for all time." Not only did Shakespeare write some of the most popular plays of all time, but he was a very prolific writer, writing at least thirty-eight works in twenty-three years. Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, and 450 years later, he is still the most produced playwright in the world. 

Have you noticed that Shakespeare's plays usually have a lot of characters? It's true, and it can sometimes feel daunting to figure out who's who. It's helpful to understand that the characters often come in groups, with different groups being featured in different parts of the plot.

Scroll below to meet some of these memorable characters and hear a few of their emblematic lines.

The Story at Warp Speed

Returning from victory on the battlefield where they have crushed a rebellion against King Duncan and invasion from abroad, his generals Macbeth and Banquo are accosted by three mysterious women. These "weird sisters" greet Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor - a title belonging to one of the vanquished rebels - and predict he will become king. But the future successors to the throne, they say, will be Banquo's descendents, not his.

Part of this prophecy seems to be fulfilled shortly afterwards, when Duncan rewards Macbeth by bestowing on him the newly executed Cawdor's title; Macbeth's prospect of becoming king, however, seems dimmed when Duncan names his son Malcolm as his successor.

Urged on by his wife, Macbeth decides to take matters into his own hands. He murders Duncan as he sleeps, while Lady Macbeth contrives to throw suspicion on the king's own attendants. Fearing for their safety, Malcolm and his brother Donalbain flee, and Macbeth assumes the throne.

Fearing Banquo's suspicions, Macbeth orders his murder and that of his son, Fleance - but that deed, far from bringing him peace, has consequences as terrifying as they are unexpected. Haunted by the spectre of his guilt, Macbeth consults the sisters, who assure him that he need fear no man born of woman and that his position will be secure until a nearby wood is seen to move.

Meanwhile, as Macbeth's rule degenerates further into a reign of terror, the exiled Malcolm returns with English troops to claim the throne. Too late, Macbeth realizes that the sisters' prophecies are riddled with deadly ambiguity, and that the destiny he has pursued is a double-edged sword, forged by his own murderous hand.


DID YOU KNOW

Did You Know?

The historical Macbeth (c.1005-1057) was king of Scotland from 1040 to 1057. His wife was Lady Gruoch, a granddaughter of Scottish king Kenneth III and formerly the wife of Gilcomgain, Thane of Moray. After Gilcomgain's death in battle, during a revolt against Duncan, Gruoch fled to the neighbouring county of Ross with her son, Lulach. Macbeth, Thane of Ross, became her protector and, in 1035, her second husband.

Although Shakespeare portrays Duncan as an elderly man, he was actually under 40 when he was killed - in battle, not in bed - by Macbeth. His sons Malcolm and Donald Bane were less than 10 years old at the time.

Macbeth, who reigned for 17 years, was by all reports a good king: under his rule, Scotland prospered and was relatively peaceful until a failed invasion by the Northumbrians in 1053. In 1057, Duncan's son Malcolm Canmore, now a grown man, returned to Scotland and killed Macbeth in a battle in Aberdeenshire - nowhere near Dunsinane or Birnam Wood. Assuming the throne as Malcolm III, he died in 1093. 

Shakespeare would have seen no reason to question the traditional belief that Banquo's son, Fleance, fled to Wales, where he married a daughter of the Welsh king, and that their son returned to Scotland to become the founder of the Stuart royal line. There is no historical evidence however, that Banquo or Fleance actually existed.

If, as seems reasonable to suppose, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the hopes of pleasing James I (formerly James VI of Scotland) - who was a patron of Shakespeare's company and had doubled the fee they received for court performances - the attempt misfired. Perhaps upset by its depictions of the assassination of a Scottish king and of witches influencing human destiny, James banned Macbeth for five years. It was produced only once more during Shakespeare's lifetime: in 1611 at the Globe Theatre, which burned to the ground shortly afterwards, destroying all sets, props, costumes and manuscripts - which may be another origin of the play's reputation for ill luck.

The Macbeth Curse

Macbeth has been considered unlucky since its very first production - perhaps because the text supposedly contains an actual witches' incantation: the famous "Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble." At any rate, the play is notorious for the superstitions surrounding it - so much so that director Des McAnuff began rehearsals for the 1983 Stratford Festival production with an exorcism! It is true that some productions of the play have been marred by fatal or near-fatal incidents. Laurence Olivier was nearly killed while playing Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1937, while in 1942, four people associated with John Gielgud's production died - including two of the actresses playing witches. Most theatre people - even those who are not normally superstitious - observe the rituals that have arisen as a result of the play's reputation. It is considered bad luck, for instance, to mention the title or quote from the play inside a theatre. Actors and staff call it "the Scottish play, "that play" or "Mackers." Macbeth and his wife are referred to as "the Scottish couple." If you break these rules, you are supposed to leave the room, turn around three times, reenter and swear in order to placate the curse.

Themes and Motifs in Macbeth

Themes

  • Power 
  • Ambition
  • Gender
  • Good Governance vs Tyranny
  • The Supernatural
  • Time
  • Fate & Free Will

Motifs

  • Hallucinations
  • Violence
  • Prophecy

THE PRODUCTION

LESSON PLANS

ACTIVITIES

THE PLACE

The Stratford Adventure

This 1954 Oscar-nominated film follows the founding of the Festival: how the idea grew, how a famous British director, international stars and Canadian talent were recruited, and how the Festival finally became a triumphant reality.