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"By the pricking of my thumbs,
—The Weird Sisters, Macbeth
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a 1606 play written by William Shakespeare. It was written at the express request of King James I/VI of England and Scotland, who asked Shakespeare to present a new play to honor his visitor, the King of Denmark.
The play takes place in the Scottish Highlands. Fresh from putting down a rebellion against King Duncan, Lord Macbeth meets three witches who relate a series of prophecies, one of them being that he will rule Scotland. When one of the other seemingly unlikely predictions comes true, his scheming and heartless wife convinces him to murder Duncan. Both are driven mad with guilt; while Lady Macbeth copes by sleepwalking and then killing herself, Macbeth himself copes by extending his power, especially after the witches predict that "No Man of Woman Born" shall slay him. After being visited by the ghost of one of his victims, Macbeth is overthrown and killed by Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" - in other words, delivered via crude caesarean section from his mother's dead or dying body.
Many of the inconsistencies in Macbeth come from the fact that Macbeth was a real person who was featured in Holinshead's Chronicles, a best-selling popular history of Shakespeare's time. Holinshead played fast and light with the facts in many cases, though - for instance, he includes legendary or wholly fictional characters such as Fleance, who was supposedly an ancestor of the Scottish royal family. (In the play as produced now, Fleance disappears in Act Three: in the original 1606 presentation, he was brought back on stage after the play in a "dumb show" that explained he was the ancestor of the Stuarts.) Holinshead also refers to Lady Macbeth as "burning with an unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen". In reality he had no historical justification for this - the only thing that's actually known about Lady Macbeth is that she existed (and that her first name was Gruoch, and that Macbeth was her second husband) - but Shakespeare turned that one sentence into one of his best-known female characters.
Shakespeare also takes liberties with the facts, although in his case his changes are justifiable as they improve the dramatic tension and the flow of the action; after all, he was writing a play, not a history. For instance, he makes Duncan a wise, old good king instead of a young wastrel, he has Macbeth kill him while sleeping instead of in a fair fight, and he compresses the action into two seasons when the real Macbeth ruled for 17 years (and successfully).
Another source of the inconsistencies is that Shakespeare wanted to get in all kinds of things that he thought King James would like - witches, ghosts, the legitimacy of the Stuart line, the divine right of kings (something James was for, to put it mildly), and the portrayal of his Scottish ancestors as noble and warrior-like. The fact that Shakespeare snuck in the trope that "power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely" - possibly a criticism of James's desire for absolute power - was not noticed until after Shakespeare had died, and may not even be noticed these days by readers looking for the blood and guts. And yet, even considering all this, the man wrote a play that four hundred years later people still pay good money to see. Old Shaky was a genius, people.
Superstitious actors refer to this as "The Scottish Play" (or, occasionally, "The Tartans"). The head role is "The King" or "Mackers" anywhere outside the play itself. And even though the script calls for it, sometimes things still happen, though they are usually less injurious. Some of the wackier ones talk about The Scottish Restaurant.
Trope Namer for:
Notable adaptations/inspired media
- Orson Welles' 1936 Harlem stage adaptation set in Haiti with an all-black cast was considered one of the best stage productions in history.
- Welles also made a film version in 1948, where he played the title role.
- Roman Polanski's 1971 film version, memorable for its explicit violence (allegedly influenced by the murder of Polanski's wife and unborn child by the Manson Family) and for Lady Macbeth's nude sleepwalking scene. This is notable for being produced by Playboy Productions, as part of a short-lived attempt to create a mainstream film arm.
- From a Jack to a King- Bob Carlton musical, with a lot of Sixties songs.
- It's one of the four adapted-to-modern-times stories from the 2006 BBC mini-series Shakespeare Re-Told. They changed the setting to a plush Glaswegian restaurant. Duncan is the owner, who carries the laurels off the actual chef, Macbeth (played by James McAvoy).
- Scotland, PA, a dark comedy also set in a restaurant, this one in 1970s Pennsylvania.
- A character in Gargoyles, who surprises the audience by being based more on the historical Macbeth than the better-known Shakespeare version. Word of God mentions that he was amused by the play, and suggests that he and Shakespeare may have been drinking buddies (though Shakespeare wouldn't have known his friend was the actual Macbeth).
- Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa's take on the story, set in feudal Japan.
- Wyrd Sisters from Discworld, which references and parodies Macbeth throughout and opens with a spoof of the famous witches' cauldron scene in which the response to "When shall we three meet again?" is "Well, I can do next Tuesday."
- The Weird Sisters, three witches who form a rock band in Harry Potter, are named after the nickname given to the three witches in Act 1 of Macbeth.
- Another of the more famous lines, "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble" (from the same monologue that named Eye of Newt, was also the name of an early (by which we mean Full House-era) Olsen Twins movie.
- One of several Shakespeare plays adapted into a Graphic Novel recently. Available in original Shakespearean, modern text, and a paraphrased version.
- Mac Homer, Rick Miller's one-man show, which casts Simpsons characters in the roles. While largely following the play's basic story, many liberties, fourth wall breaks and lampshades unsurprisingly occur for comedic effect.
- A 2006 Australian film starring Sam Worthington, with a Setting Update to the Melbourne ganglands. It sticks to the play fairly well, but adds a few silent scenes, and suggests that Lady Macbeth acted out of grief of a dead child. And she's also a cocaine addict.
- Punchdrunk and Emursive produced a loose adaptation of The Scottish Play mixed with elements of Hitchcock, styled in the late 1930s: Sleep No More. Characters are lifted from The Scottish Play and mingle with ones from Hitchcock's Rebecca. Bernard Herrmann's soundtracks are heard throughout the immersive play.
- A 2010 PBS production with a Setting Update to the Russian Revolution, starring Patrick Stewart.
- An audio novelization by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson, narrated by Alan Cumming. It features deep analysis of several characters, portraying both Macbeth and his wife as tragic figures.
- Age Lift: When Patrick Stewart played the role recently, the portrayal of the character was changed into that of an aging general with a young trophy wife, rather than the vigorous thirty-something (sometimes forty-something) warrior he is portrayed as in most film and stage productions of the last century.
- All Witches Have Cats: One of the witches has a cat named Greymalkin.
- Almost-Dead Guy
- Ambiguous Gender: Banquo is unsure what gender the three witches are. They were originally played by men pretending to be women, so his line that they have beards is likely an inside joke. In the recent Globe version, this caused the actors to do a rather hilarious double take.
- Ambition Is Evil - At least if you have to murder your king for it. What's especially sad is that Macbeth had already gained enormous prestige and rewards for his heroism in putting down the rebellion and invasion from Norway, and the high esteem he was held in by Duncan would have given him tremendous influence even if the king had stayed alive and passed the throne on to Malcolm. At that period in Scottish history the kingship was more adoptive than hereditary (indeed, Duncan was the first ever king to succeed his own father) and Macbeth, as a successful general and a lord in his own right, had every reason to suppose that he might be tapped as next in line to the throne. (This is the back-story to the part about "if chance will have me king, then chance may crown me" and the reason he is so shocked when Duncan names his son Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, i.e. heir to the throne.) In real life, Macbeth drew his support from the more conservative element in the Scots ruling class, who were horrified at the thought that supreme power might become a monopoly of one family. In that sense, he might be seen as the Darker and Edgier version of Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: Witches can predict the future and cast spells, dead men can come back as ghosts, apparitions can rise from cauldrons... but trees can't move. That would be silly.
- Arc Number: 3. Three witches, three murderers, twenty-seven (three cubed) scenes, et cetera.
- Badass: Macbeth, if all the exposition about him is to be believed.
- Bearer of Bad News
- Beard of Evil: In Roman Polanski's film, Macbeth starts as a baby-faced young Thane, and as his murderous intentions grow, so does his beard.
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: Inverted. Macbeth refuses to "play the Roman fool and die on [his] own sword", instead choosing to die in single combat with Macduff.
- Big Bad: Macbeth himself.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to be one: "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it."
- Bittersweet Ending: Macbeth, after falling as far as he can, is killed by the rebels and Malcolm becomes the new king. The bitter part comes when you remember how noble Macbeth had been before his fall.
- Blood on These Hands. Perhaps the most famous example. "Out, damn'd spot!"
- Bond One-Liner: "Thou wast born of woman." Especially played up in the 2006 film.
- Byronic Hero: Macbeth
- The Caligula: Macbeth himself after taking the throne.
- Combat Pragmatist:
Young Seward: With my blade, I'll prove the lie thou speakest!
- The 1990s adaptation Macbeth On The Estate turns Macduff into this. He goads Macbeth into charging him, then pulls out a gun. Justified given the setting. A gun would be hard to obtain, but when taking revenge for your murdered family...
- The 2006 version from Australia turns the final fight between Macduff and Macbeth into this. After their guns run out, they go at it with knives, fists, wine bottles, broken glass, and more.
- Come to Gawk: Invoked, and why he's willing to fight to death.
- Contract on the Hitman
- Creepy Child: The second and third apparitions take this form.
- The Dark Side Will Make You Forget: Specifically, Lady Macbeth wants to become evil so that she will be able to carry out the murder without remorse.
- Decapitation Presentation: In the last scene, Macduff greets Malcolm with Macbeth's severed head.
- Deceased Fall Guy Gambit: Macbeth pins the murder on a pair of guards, then kills them.
- Despair Speech: The "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue.
- Downer Ending/Gainax Ending: The 1971 adaptation adds a silent epilogue (sometimes tacked onto the play) in which Donalbain goes to the witches' hut, presumably to do exactly what Macbeth did. It is deeply unsettling. The Australian version has Fleance, who Banquo tried to keep out of the gang warfare, sneaking into the attack on Macbeth's home, even killing a maid in a Start of Darkness.
- Driven to Suicide: Lady Macbeth. Macbeth, however rejects suicide and decides to fight to the death.
- Evil Redhead: Given their origin, Macbeth and his lady are generally portrayed as redheads.
- Executive Meddling: About a hundred years after Shakespeare died, an English theatre impresario (probably Colley Cibber) added an extra "witches" scene to Act III which was later assumed to have been part of the original play. (After the witches' "double, double, toil and trouble" speech, Hecate and three other witches show up randomly, sing a song called "Black Spirits", and vanish). This is never mentioned again. Most versions of the play produced before about 1970 include this scene; most since leave it out.
- Eye of Newt: Trope Namer.
- Face Heel Turn
- Fainting: Lady Macbeth fakes a faint when Duncan's murder is discovered.
- Fallen Hero: One of the best examples there is, possibly the Trope Codifier.
- Faux Symbolism: Macbeth's personal servant in Act 5 is called Seyton. Guess how it's pronounced.
- Genre Savvy: Upon hearing of their father's murder, Malcolm and Donalbain immediately resolve to leave the country, realizing the murders are unlikely to stop with Duncan.
- Girls with Moustaches: The Weird Sisters are bearded.
- Healing Hands: King Edward is said to be able to cure diseases.
- The Hecate Sisters: The Weird Sisters clearly invoke this trope, though atypically they are all crones.
- Heel Realization: "Out, damn'd spot!"
- Henpecked Husband: Macbeth
- Hero Antagonist: Macduff
- Heroic BSOD: Well, sort of. Macbeth's brain sort of breaks for a while after he kills Duncan.
- He Will Not Cry, So I Cry for Him: Malcolm attempts this to Seward. Seward stops him.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Duncan
- Ignored Epiphany: Macbeth realizes several times, most prominently after the feast, the wrongness of what he's done and that he has a chance to turn back. He doesn't.
- I Have Come Too Far
- The Insomniac: "Glamis hath murdered sleep, and there Cawdor/Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!"
- It Gets Easier: Macbeth feels a lot more guilty about murdering Duncan than about any of his later crimes. (And averted by Lady Macbeth, who basically has a nervous breakdown from the guilt, and may even be Driven to Suicide.)
- It Was Here, I Swear: Banquo's ghost.
- Karma Houdini: The Murderers who do in Banquo and Macduff's family.
- In the 2006 version there's a silent scene where Macduff and Malcolm kill them before attacking Macbeth.
- Kick the Dog: The witches have a lengthy discussion of all the petty, cruel things they've been doing in their free time.
- Klingon Promotion: How Macbeth becomes thane of Cawdor, and later king.
- Lady Macbeth: Guess who?
- Last-Name Basis: Lady Macbeth's first name is never stated. This may be because the historical Lady Macbeth had what most non-Scots would consider to be an Embarrassing First Name - Gruoch.
- Last Villain Stand: Macbeth has an extremely famous one.
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: The Porter's scene is chock full of this stuff.
- Lonely At the Top
- Louis Cypher: Seyton.
- By Maggotpies and Choughs and Rooks: Act 3, scene 4, line 126.
- The Man Behind the Man: Macbeth wouldn't have gone so far without the encouragement of his wife.
- Manipulative Bastard: Macbeth. Also, Lady Macbeth is the Manipulative Bitch.
- Mobile Shrubbery: "Birnham Wood to Dunsinane."
- Mood Whiplash: Between the scene in which Duncan is murdered and the scene where his body is found, we're treated to an interlude involving a drunk doorman complaining about how he can't get an erection when liquored up.
- More Deadly Than the Male: Lady Macbeth.
- Never One Murder: Explored from Macbeth's perspective as the body count rises.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Macbeth becomes this as his world begins to crumble around him. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more..."
- No Man of Woman Born: Another Trope Namer.
- Oh Crap: When Macbeth learns of Macduff's birth.
- Ominous Fog
- Only in It For the Money: One of the assassins hired by Macbeth notes that they shouldn't doubt the orders they're given as long as they get paid.
- Out, Damned Spot!: Still another Trope Namer.
- Outlaw Couple
- Papa Wolf: Macduff.
- Pet Rat: The murderers Macbeth hires to kill Banquo.
- Pet the Dog: Lady Macbeth's kind treatment of a tired messenger contrasts with her next wishing to see her best nature destroyed so she can ruthlessly vie for the crown.
- Pride: Like a lot of Shakespeare's tragedy protagonists, Macbeth has this as a major failing.
- Prophecy Twist
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Lady Macbeth makes this point to convince her husband to murder the king, but the rest of the play can be seen as a massive deconstruction of this trope. (Also played straight in Act I Scene ii, where a minor character recites Macbeth's bloodthirsty feats of arms to universal applause. "Unseamed him from the nave to the chaps and fixed his head upon our battlements" comes pretty close to Ludicrous Gibs
- Remember the New Guy?: The Third Murderer, who appears out of nowhere--Macbeth charges two Murderers with killing Banquo and Fleance, but when the time comes three show up. Given that the Third Murderer is of no importance, this is probably a continuity error due to textual corruption.
- The Third Murderer is frequently played by an extant actor, often Macbeth himself, to add layers of conspiracy theories.
- Alternately, the mysterious third was an extra hire or a servant of Macbeth's, charged with being a spy on the first two. The idea adds more depth to the idea that Macbeth is pretty paranoid at this point.
- Rightful King Returns: Malcolm
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Suffice it to say that Macduff does not take the murder of his family well.
- Sacred Hospitality
- Sanity Slippage: An archetypal example, as gnawing guilt drives the Macbeths crazier and crazier as the story progresses. Lady Macbeth also suffers this, as she starts to have visual and aural hallucinations and eventually kills herself.
- The Scottish Trope
- Secret Test of Character: When Macduff finds Malcolm, Malcolm pretends to be a Complete Monster and then asks if Macduff will still restore him to the throne. Horrified, Macduff refuses, and then Malcolm explains it was a test and he's actually closer to Purity Personified, and knowing Macduff has scruples means he can join the righteous cause of toppling Macbeth.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
- Self-Made Orphan: Subverted in that Malcolm and Donalbain are suspected of murdering Duncan because they fled, although they are in fact innocent.
- Setting Update: Very popular for this particular play, with the kingdom usually replaced with either a business or an organised crime syndicate. The fun part is seeing what the Witches are changed to (practitioners of Wicca, Gothic schoolgirls, Japanese forest spirit, black garbage collectors, Russian nurses...).
- Shout-Out: Macbeth disdains the idea of acting like a "Roman fool" who "dies on my own sword," as Brutus does in Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar.
- Shut UP, Hannibal: Mac Duff delivers one to Macbeth during their climactic fight.
- Smug Snake - Lady Macbeth.
- Start of Darkness: The beginning of Act II, when Macbeth murders King Duncan.
- Super OCD: Freud compared Lady Macbeth's obsession with bloodstains with mysophobia, a typical trait of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
- Symbolic Blood: Macbeth is drenched in symbolic blood, like the blood on the floating dagger and the blood on Lady Macbeth's hands.
- This Cannot Be!
- Those Two Guys: Many productions put Ross and Lennox together as this.
- Too Stupid to Live: Macbeth in the 1971 film, after getting the prophecies to beware of Macduff and No Man of Woman Born can kill him, Macbeth lets Macduff live because: "[Macbeth] has spilt too much of [Macduff's] family's blood." Guess what happens.
- Tragic Hero or Tragic Villain: Depending on how you view Macbeth.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Macbeth to a certain extent, as Duncan rewards him for his heroism by giving him the lands and titles of Macdonwald, the rebellious thane who tried to help King Sweno of Norway conquer Scotland. He'd have probably been more than happy with this if the witches hadn't inflamed Macbeth and his wife's ambitions.
- Unholy Matrimony: One interpretation of Macbeth and his wife's relationship.
- Unwitting Pawn
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Shakespeare changed lots of historical details in order to please the newly crowned King James, who believed himself to be a descendant of Banquo, a friend of and probable co-conspirator with Macbeth that Macbeth eventually killed. The character of Macbeth himself was also changed dramatically. In reality, Donnchad (Duncan) failed badly at invading part of England, and so decided to pillage Mac Bethad's (Macbeth's) territory. Mac Bethad defeated him in battle, Donnchad dying, and Mac Bethad became King. He proceeded to rule for the best part of two decades and evidently felt pretty secure in his position, since it's documented that he took several months off to go to Rome and get personally blessed by the pope. The time frame of Shakespeare's play isn't entirely clear, but seems to be quite a bit shorter than the seventeen years of Mac Bethad's historical reign.
- Villainous Breakdown: Macbeth has one when he hears Lady Macbeth has died. "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day..."
- Villain Protagonist: Guess who?
- What Happened to the Mouse?:
- So Donalbain just stayed in Ireland, then?
- Perhaps Fleance was found by a bear or something.
- Written by the Winners: Or written to appeal to a descendant of the winners, to be more precise; Duncan was an ancestor of King James, and portraying him in a historically accurate way might have upset King James; he was in fact an ineffective ruler who died in an unsuccessful attack on Macbeth.