Listen to Peter as he takes a deep dive into the play, discussing everything you need to know about Macbeth as a Leaving Cert student and giving you loads of interesting ideas that you can use in your essays.
The Macbeth Podcast Series: The ultimate audio guide for Leaving Cert students
We've teamed up with Leaving Cert English teacher, Peter Tobin, to bring you a podcast series all about Macbeth, the play by William Shakespeare.
Table of Contents
What is covered in this podcast?
There are 5 podcast episodes in total and you can find them on Studyclix Explains, a new podcast channel dedicated to bringing you high-quality notes in audio form.
Click below to listen to each episode on Spotify:
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Peter Tobin has his own Youtube Channel where he regularly uploads free and brilliant content covering the Leaving Cert English course - we can't recommend enough that you check him out and hit subscribe to get updates on the new videos he makes.
How to use this podcast to learn
We recommend having each poem to hand while you listen to the podcast. You can find all of these poems by looking them up on Google. We have also included the transcript of this podcast so you can take down the notes you find useful.
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Below is a transcript of this full podcast packed full of top tips and H1 notes. Make sure to copy these into your notebook to use on the day of your exams!
Episode 1: Macbeth
Hi everyone, when you’re studying Macbeth for any exam but for the Leaving cert in particular, it’s important to have developed and considered responses to the play.
One of the best ways to show this is to have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the characters. This simply means, being able to see the characters in a variety of ways. I’m going to go through a few ways of understanding the character of Macbeth beyond the basic view.
The first is that he’s a character destroyed by his ambition.
The second is that his individualism and selfishness mean he can’t survive in the world he’s born into.
The third is that he’s suffering a crisis of masculinity.
The character of Macbeth may be understood in a number of different ways. On the first level, we can see Macbeth as a character who is destroyed by having too much ambition. He is already a thane, he is the King’s most trusted general and yet he is not happy. He wants the crown for himself and all it takes is a prophecy from the “weird sisters” to set him off. In pursuing that ambition, he ends up destroying himself, his family, everything. To look at Macbeth in this way is to take Shakespeare’s message to be a warning of the dangers of being over ambitious.
To look at Macbeth in this way is to take Shakespeare’s message to be a warning of the dangers of being over ambitious.
Shakespeare makes it clear the impact that this surplus of ambition has on Macbeth. At the beginning, he is portrayed as a brave, noble warrior. He is described as “brave Macbeth”, by the Bloody Sergeant and “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman” by King Duncan in Act 1 Scene 2 but over the course of the play he changes completely so that by the end, in Act 5 Scene 8 the epithet Malcolm uses to describe him is “dead butcher”. He undergoes a transformation from Act 1 to Act 5 and we see this play out before our very eyes. Macbeth wants to be king, he is aware of the ambition within him. In Act 1 Scene 7 he says,
Here he acknowledges that there’s no reason for him to kill Duncan but his own ambition. There is a remarkable passage before this quote where he goes through all of the reasons why he shouldn’t kill the king. Shakespeare is painting a picture of a man who is at war with himself. He has the ambition within him but logic and reason, his own mind, is telling him not to do it.
Predictably, after Macbeth carries out the murder, he begins to suffer the consequences almost immediately. He is frightened and rambling in his speech when he tries to speak with his wife, a direct contrast with the experienced and skilled warrior on the battlefield described in Act 1 Scene 2 and the well-spoken, eloquent Macbeth we see just one scene earlier. He believes that he has “murdered sleep” and even heard a voice call out that:
When we consider sleep as a symbol of peace of mind, it’s clear that Shakespeare is showing us that Macbeth’s deeds, in the name of ambition, have destroyed his conscience and he will no longer have peace of mind. He has destroyed that part of himself.
This is clearly a huge price to pay for an ambitious nature and many people have interpreted this as Shakespeare’s warning about the cost of being over-ambitious.
Another consequence of Macbeth’s actions is his descent into blood and further murders. It’s a path that he cannot turn back on once he has begun and he makes this clear in Act 3 Scene 4 when he says “blood will have blood”. The spilling of blood simply leads to more blood being spilt and represents the guilt on his conscience. Later in the same scene, Macbeth says:
This is a poignant image of Macbeth, wading through a river of blood and realising that he may as well keep going as returning to what he was before. Again, Shakespeare is showing the consequences of unchecked ambition.
Aside from seeing the play Macbeth as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition, there are other ways of looking at the character of Macbeth, especially if we consider Shakespeare’s intentions when writing the play.
As we know from the Introduction, the play was written in the same year that the Gunpowder Plot (a plot to assassinate King James I) was foiled. Shakespeare, as one of the King’s Men and a servant to the court, wrote a play that supports the traditions and the established hierarchies of the court and the crown.
It’s important to remember that Shakespeare was writing at a time of change when ideas about authority, rules and man’s place within the world were changing.
From this perspective, we can see Macbeth as an example of what happens when you try to take fate into your own hands and go against the chain of being and established order.
Macbeth, as a Thane and one of Duncan’s most trusted generals, has a very privileged position. Generally, the crown is passed down to a King’s eldest son. In Scotland, as a consequence of bloody wars, there was an exception made and a King was allowed to choose his successor – it didn’t have to be his son. Macbeth expects Duncan to choose him and, when he doesn’t, he plots to kill him.
Shakespeare is writing the play in support of the monarchy and in support of the idea of Kingship and so, he makes an example of Macbeth and shows what happens when you step outside of your pre-ordained role within society. Macbeth has contravened the established rules and traditions. He is not being loyal to his king or his country, he is simply being loyal to his own ambition, something that Shakespeare cannot condone.
Looking at Macbeth in this light, we see that all the things that befall him are the consequences of his individualism and his selfishness. In Act 3 Scene 4 he says:
Life, Shakespeare appears to be saying, has meaning only within the roles decided for us by god and, by extension, the King. Macbeth cannot be happy once he steps outside his position. To go against the establishment of selfish individualism is to open the door to chaos, evil and, ultimately, death.
Finally, another way to look at the character of Macbeth is as an exploration of masculinity. We have, in the beginning, the presentation of Macbeth in stereotypically masculine terms.
He is described as “carving” his way through the men on the battlefield and “unseaming” the rebel lord, Macdonald. Macbeth is powerful, warrior-like and manly. The closeness exhibited with his wife in the letter she reads in Act 1 Scene 5 as well as the dominance she shows in their subsequent scenes together changes the picture somewhat. How can Macbeth be presented as a warrior on one hand and yet almost afraid of his wife on the other?
His reluctance to kill the king, indecision before the act and his suffering afterwards are all signs of his weakness or as Lady Macbeth puts it, his excess of “human kindness”. So within Macbeth, there are two types of masculinity. The stereotypical one that surrounds ideas of violence and cruelty. When Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “unsex her” and fill her with “direst cruelty” it’s so that she can be manly enough to kill Duncan. When Macbeth is trying to encourage the murderers to kill Banquo, they respond with "we are men my liege".
When Macbeth is trying to fend off his wife’s bullying he says:
and when Lady Macbeth is trying to goad her husband into killing Duncan, she attacks his manhood saying "Are you a man?" and "when you durst do it, then you were a man".
The other type of masculinity is rational, kind and decent. This is exhibited when Macbeth lists the reasons he shouldn’t kill the King. Chief among them is that he is a man, not just that he is the king. We also see this side of Macbeth in his closeness with his wife as well as his regrets in Act 5.
Macbeth then is torn between these competing types of masculinity. He eventually goes against the kindness in his own heart and resorts to the stereotypical presentation of masculinity and this ends up being his downfall.
In summary, then we have looked at three ways of interpreting the character of Macbeth. The first is that he’s a character destroyed by his ambition, the second is that his individualism and selfishness mean he can’t survive in the world he’s born into and the third is that he’s suffering a crisis of masculinity
There are of course other ways to read the character but I hope you’ve found some of these interesting and ththought-provokingn your study of Macbeth.
Episode 2: Lady Macbeth
Hello everyone, welcome back. So again at Leaving Cert, it’s always important to be able to offer alternative interpretations of the play, the characters within it and also be able to show how the characters change. Lady Macbeth is a great character for evidencing all of these and in this video we will look at some ways of doing exactly that.
Like her husband, there are multiple ways of interpreting the character of Lady Macbeth. She changes over the course of the play from her presentation in Act 1 as a fiercely malevolent force, intent on convincing her husband to do her bidding no matter what the consequences to broken and defeated woman in Act 5 who is tortured by her own guilt and her inability to have peace of mind.
Just like with the character of Macbeth, the underlying message from Shakespeare may be about the dangers of ambition. She is reduced from a seemingly powerful character to a mere shadow in the space of five acts.
In Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source material for the play, there is a reference to an ambition-crazed queen who Shakespeare, no doubt, based his Lady Macbeth on.
If Macbeth is in any doubt about whether or not he should proceed with the plan to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth doesn’t flinch for a second. From the moment she reads her husband’s letter regarding the prophecy, she is hell-bent on seeing it through.
There is even an interesting point in Act 1 Scene 5 when having read the letter, a servant enters the scene and says:
Having allowed her mind to rush ahead, she says “Thou art mad to say it” indicating that she has, momentarily, thought the servant was calling her husband ‘king’ and not Duncan, who is still very much alive. So, we can assume then that Lady Macbeth is just as ambitious as her husband.
Considering the restrictions that many women faced in Elizabethan times and considering further that the play is set in the 11th century, it’s clear that Lady Macbeth needs her husband in order to realise her own ambitions of being queen. She is, in a sense, using him to fulfil her own desires.
This contributes to the idea that Lady Macbeth is a powerful character. She dominates her husband in a wholly subversive way.
It goes against much of what we know about gender roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Even for Lady Macbeth to have the desire to be queen recognises her not simply as a woman or a wife but as an individual with desires and ambitions.
As a small, but significant aside, approximately 90% of all women in Shakespeare’s time were illiterate yet Lady Macbeth is not. Our very first introduction to her sees her reading a letter. Granted she is a high-born character but it’s significant nonetheless. Another point is that when Macbeth speaks to his wife he uses phrases such as “dearest partner” and “dearest chuck”. Whereas when she speaks to him, she refers to his titles – “worthy Cawdor…” Perhaps Lady Macbeth is simply a scheming character who is using whatever is at her disposal in order to achieve what she most desperately craves:
But another way of looking at Lady Macbeth is to consider her as not powerful at all, that Shakespeare is actually depicting Lady Macbeth as weak and powerless and typical of a woman of her time. Lady Macbeth is ambitious but she needs the help and support of the forces of darkness in order to carry out her plan. Following the killing, she is terrified. Perhaps this scene is the true picture of Lady Macbeth as it is one that we see in Act 5 also when she is sleepwalking. She has become a mere shadow; she has faded into insignificance.
An important difference between Lady Macbeth and her husband is that Macbeth considers the consequences of his actions.
He goes into the act of murder aware of what may come of it. He has also realised, almost immediately, that he has destroyed his own conscience after the murder and he appears to embrace it. Whatever we think of Macbeth for his actions, we can’t say that he is naïve or blind to what he is doing. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, believes that “a little water clears us of this deed”, and later says “how easy it is then”. To Lady Macbeth, she believes that murder is easy and straightforward.
She has no experience of this as her husband does and she hasn’t thought things through as her husband has done. In this light, we don’t see Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a strong powerful character but, in fact, as a weak and naïve character who doesn’t understand the full import of her actions. She doesn’t understand anything until later although there is some acknowledgement of what they’ve done when she admits that she couldn’t carry out the murder herself, saying that if Duncan hadn’t reminded her of her own father as he slept:
We can see Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth in one sense as subverting feminine stereotypes of the Jacobean era but also, in a contradictory way, reaffirming them. She doesn’t think rationally and logically about the consequences of their actions and, her mad grab for power ends up destroying her and reducing her to a caricature of female helplessness in Act 5.
Significantly, we see another parallel between Act 1 Scene 5 and Act 5 Scene 1 when Lady Macbeth goes from encouraging the spirits of darkness to being afraid of the dark. The gentlewoman in Act 5 Scene 1 confirms that Lady Macbeth has light by her all through the night:
In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth demands to be unsexed by the spirits. There is an acknowledgement here that her feminine qualities need to be removed before she can achieve her ambitions, perhaps emphasising the idea that women are not naturally equipped with the faculties to be ambitious and achieve their desires. Also, despite the fact that she is technically no longer a ‘lady’ having been unsexed, she then deploys what we might consider ‘feminine tricks’ to encourage her husband to murder Duncan. Many productions depict her being seductive and flirtatious, particularly in Act 1 Scene 7, when she eventually convinces Macbeth to carry out the deed.
So, to finish then, there are multiple ways of seeing Lady Macbeth. She can be seen as an evil influence, a powerful manipulator and someone who brings about harm in the play. Alternatively, we can see her as weak and powerless, someone who is desperate for power but, because of her gender, needs to use others to get it.
Either way, it’s clear that Lady Macbeth is a very interesting character to explore primarily because of how she changes so dramatically over the course of the play.
Episode 3: The witches
This time we will be looking at the witches. If you want to hit high marks in your exam, you’re going to have to offer something a little bit different in your interpretation of the witches and that’s what we’re going to look at in this video. We will start though by looking at the basics.
The presence of the three witches in Macbeth is one of the most talked about elements of the play.
Their importance is immediately clear as they are the very first thing that the audience sees, appearing on stage in Act 1 Scene 1 to set the tone for the rest of the play. While it is true that belief in witches in Shakespeare’s time was relatively common it wasn’t necessarily widespread and there would have been large amounts of scepticism from some members of the audience about what they were watching.
One of the most common reasons given for Shakespeare’s inclusion of the witches in his play is in order to please the new king, King James I. King James I was very much interested in witchcraft and even published a book on the subject in 1597 called Daemonologie. He had a great desire to spread knowledge and fear of witches and witchcraft – something that was more popular in Scotland than in England by the time King James I came to the English throne – and some of it seems to come from personal experience.
In 1589, King James was due to marry Queen Anne of Denmark. On her voyage across the North Sea to meet her new husband, Queen Anne’s ship was hit by severe storms that nearly cost her her life. Prevented from sailing further, she returned to Denmark. James decided to sail to Denmark himself to collect her in person and, on their return voyage to Scotland, their ships were once again, hit by severe storms that almost claimed both their lives.
James was convinced it was the result of witchcraft and, upon returning to Scotland, he had no fewer than 70 ‘witches’ from the coastal town of North Berwick rounded up, interrogated and tortured until many of them ‘confessed’ that they were witches and they had been responsible for the storms and they were executed.
There are also some other interpretations of the witches however that are interesting in the context of the rest of the play.
Witches in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras were, by and large, old women.
Banquo, upon first seeing the witches, says that their “beards” forbids him from believing that they are female. They are similarly described throughout the play as“hags” or “withered and wild”. One of the other descriptions is, however, “weird sisters”. While the stage directions refer to them as witches, within the play itself, they are most often referred to as the “weird sisters” or “weird women” and actually, only once as witches in the dialogue.
The meaning of weird here isn’t similar to the way we would use the word to describe something strange or peculiar but instead, the word refers to the idea of destiny.
So then, the weird sisters could in fact be the goddesses of destiny, implying that they can, in some way, control destiny or fate. In this light, the witches take on a different role. Rather than simply being there to impress King James I, they may have a more complex and far-reaching role.
They are clearly evil but their influence and reach is felt far and wide throughout the play. They are more than simply agents of darkness to set the tone but rather, their presence ‘infects’ the rest of the play as even the characters begin to take on their speech patterns and mimic their word choices.
The witches talk of a battle “lost and won” is heard again when Duncan is speaking in the following scene and says "what he hath lost [referring to Cawdor], noble Macbeth hath won".
The Witches’ couplet “fair is foul and foul is fair” is echoed closely by Macbeth in his very first words:
We even see this focus on oppositions (which we can also call antithesis) in Macbeth’s first extended soliloquy when he says:
Later in the play, the repetition, opposition (which we can also call antithesis) and the Witches’ rhyming couplets are heard in Lady Macbeth’s own words in Act 3 Scene 2 when she says, “Nought’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content: ‘tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”.
The same metre is used here as when the witches say ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’.
There are some interpretations of Macbeth that suggest that Lady Macbeth is perhaps a fourth witch. There are indeed some things that suggest that this may be the case.
In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls on the powers of darkness to take her over:
One belief about witches at this time was that their blood was thick and slow-moving. This in turn made their skin hard, like armour, that made them difficult to kill.
By calling on the spirits to do something similar with her own blood, Lady Macbeth can be seen to be one of the witches or at least aligned with evil.
Despite all of this, however, we also have to question what it is that Shakespeare was trying to show us through the Witches. We can say that they are there to appeal to King James I and we can also say that their influence is felt throughout the play and has a knock-on effect on many different characters but one of the central questions that still gets asked today is this:
Who’s to blame? Would Macbeth have done what he did if he had never met the witches?
If we consider Shakespeare’s use of the word “weird” to mean fateful or controlling destiny, then we could look at the witches as agents of destiny and, in that case, perhaps Macbeth was destined to follow this path, to become a tragic figure.
There is also, however, a suggestion that the witches’ power is limited. In a reference to King James’ own personal experience in Act 1 Scene 3, the line “and though his bark cannot be lost/ yet it shall be tempest tossed” tells us that the witches have power over certain things but not over life and death and, as such, they are only suggesting these things to Macbeth and that it is Macbeth himself who is personally responsible for his actions.
Episode 4: Minor characters
We’re going to look at a few ways we can interpret the character of Banquo. For your essay at Leaving Cert level, you’re going to have to show a good understanding of the characters in the play and a good way to show off your understanding is to give sophisticated interpretations.
The simplest way to look at the character of Banquo is to see him as a foil for Macbeth.
A foil character is one who has contrasting characteristics or behaves in contrasting ways to another character.
Banquo is Macbeth’s friend and someone who is of equal rank to him. They are perfect parallels. They are both present when the Witches deliver their prophecies and, it’s often forgotten, Banquo receives a prophecy also, that although he won’t be a king, he would “get kings”. This means that he will ‘beget’ kings or, in other words, his descendants would be kings.
Despite the fact that both of these men, of equal position in the social hierarchy, receive prophecies from the “weird sisters”, only Macbeth takes matters into his own hands and embarks on his bloody campaign of violence. Banquo’s role as a foil here is perfect. He doesn’t succumb to the prophecies in the same way as Macbeth because he doesn’t have the same hamartia or fatal flaw. He is not ambitious in the way that Macbeth is.
Therefore, Banquo could be the perfect embodiment of Shakespeare’s warning of selfish individualism.
The character that Banquo is based on, again from Holinshed’s Chronicles, reveals some interesting distinctions. In the source material, Banquo was a part of the plot to kill the king along with Macbeth. Shakespeare alters this in his own play to paint Banquo in a good light, possibly because it was believed that King James I was a descendant of Banquo. Remember, Banquo’s prophecy was that he would ‘beget’ kings. Shakespeare’s own king, who was the patron of his company, was said to be one of these. With this in mind, Banquo would simply have to be presented in a sympathetic light.
Shakespeare goes further in his presentation of Banquo as good through his reaction to the witches. Whereas Macbeth believes in the witches at first sight and even echoes their language and their metre, his very first words of the play being :
Banquo questions their very existence. The witches only speak to Banquo when he insists upon it. Perhaps they recognise in him a resistance to evil that is not present in Macbeth. Similarly, Macbeth requests that the witches stay and speak more to him, but Banquo makes it clear that he "neither beg[s] nor fear[s] [their] favours nor [their] fate.”
The main distinction then, between Banquo and Macbeth is how they respond to evil.
Banquo openly admits that he has thought of their prophecies subsequently and also allows the possibility that if their predictions proved true for Macbeth then he could also hope that his might come true. But there is a huge difference between hoping a prophecy comes true and taking fate into one’s own hands as Macbeth did.
There are some reservations, however, about how good Banquo really is. At the beginning, he does remind Macbeth that:
But shortly after the murder, Banquo remarks that Macbeth “has it all” but fears that he played “most foully for it”. This is an acknowledgement that Banquo suspects Macbeth.
But why does Banquo not sound the alarm? Why does he not raise objections or even refuse to support the king, like Macduff does?
A line in Act 2 Scene 1 gives us an idea perhaps why he doesn’t object. Macbeth tells Banquo that should he “cleave to his consent” when the time comes that it may work out well for him.
Banquo’s response is very vague and he simply says that, so long as he loses no honour by doing so he will. At best, Banquo here is morally ambigious and at worst he is conspiring with the person he suspects has killed the king.
Another enlightening scene is when Banquo and Fleance are in the castle before the murder of Duncan. Banquo admits to having disturbed sleep while thinking about the witches’ prophecies and he asks Fleance to
at one stage perhaps hinting that he can’t trust himself not to do something evil with it. It also should be remembered that Banquo is silent for forty lines after he learns of Duncan’s death. It is almost as if he’s paralysed by Macbeth’s actions. The appropriate action would be to show loyalty to the rightful heir, Malcolm and stand in support of his claim to the throne but instead he does nothing.
Ultimately, however, Banquo’s resistance to evil and his goodness are what costs him his life. Many critics observe that Macbeth, representing evil and Banquo, representing good, can’t exist together – one must survive.
Either Macbeth destroys Banquo or is destroyed by him. When Macbeth agonises over this decision he says something very telling about Banquo, he refers to his :
He is acknowledging that the thing he fears most about Banquo is his good and wise nature.
Whether Shakespeare was simply rewriting the history books in order to please King James I or rewriting his source material to tell an even better story, Banquo is a character that is often misunderstood in terms of his complexity.
He is good where Macbeth is evil, he leaves things up to chance where Macbeth takes fate into his own hands.
The character of Banquo complements Macbeth insofar as it highlights Macbeth’s downfall but Banquo himself is no angel.
His actions and his indecision in the face of treason paint him out to be a more complex character that we may imagine. Perhaps Shakespeare is allowing for the fact that nobody is perfect, no person is all good or all evil but the conflict within Macbeth that leads him to evil deeds appears to have the opposite result in Banquo, yet more evidence of Shakespeare’s fascination with complex characters, contrasts and opposites.
We’re going to look at a character who’s not really a character at all – The Porter. He only appears once in the play and it’s rarely covered in much detail when students are studying Macbeth.
Remember though, in order to achieve the highest marks, it’s really important to be able to give sophisticated interpretations of the play and its characters and being able to discuss the porter will really make your essay stand out.
Act 2 Scene 3, also known as ‘The Porter’s scene’, is a curious one in Macbeth. Some scholars and critics have dismissed it as almost “un-Shakespearean” and, therefore irrelevant. Others have identified the scene as simple ‘comic relief’ after the murder of King Duncan in the previous scene, a contrast between the horrors carried out by Macbeth and the rude humour of the Porter.
The most common consensus, however, is that this scene and the Porter himself, is vitally important to the rest of the play and does much more than get a few laughs from the audience.
In summary, the porter is a servant of the Macbeth household whose job it is to answer to callers to the castle gates.
The porter has been up late, enjoying the celebrations with King Duncan and the other guests and, so, he is tired but also, hungover having drank too much. When he hears the knocking, that of Macduff who has come to wake the king, he imagines that the knocking is that at the gate of hell and he is the porter for hell’s gate.
He imagines himself admitting three different sinners into Hell.
The first is a farmer who tried to make money by hoarding his grain in the hope that the price would rise but, when the price drops, he realises he’s financially ruined and hangs himself.
The second is the equivocator (there’s a link here with the witches and their equivocation) who has committed treason but tries to get himself out of it by telling half-truths.
The third is an English tailor who has been condemned for stealing by making clothes with less material than he charges for.
All three of these sinners are condemned to death and the porter imagines welcoming them to hell.
In defence of those who argue that the scene is all about providing comic relief after the intensity of Duncan’s murder, the humour comes from the fact that these were all topical events at the time that Macbeth would have been first performed. The farmer who hangs himself on the “expectation of plenty” would have been despised by many as someone looking to profit on the regular food shortages of Shakespeare’s era. Interestingly. Shakespeare himself was fined for hoarding grain in times of shortages while waiting for the best price.
The equivocator is widely believed to refer to Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest who was hanged for his role in the Gunpowder Plot – the catholic plot to kill King James I shortly before Macbeth was written. Finally, the English tailor and the French hose refers to the changing fashions of the time where French hose became so tight-fitting that any skimping of material would have been noticed immediately. Therefore, the English tailor who had been cheating his customers for years finally gets found out when the fashion changes.
The audience would have understood these references and they are certain to have generated some laughs, especially when they are taken with the Porter’s later conversation with Macduff about drinking and sexual performance, but we can also look at the function of the porter and his scene in three other ways.
Normalising Macbeth’s crimes in the previous scene
The ‘simple’ vices of the Porter are not as bad as Macbeth's vices
Shakespeare is echoing his message about free-will, fate and the sanctity of the state
Firstly, Shakespeare could be normalising Macbeth’s crimes in the previous scene. By putting his actions alongside ‘ordinary’ crimes such as stealing and greed and lying, his actions don’t seem big in scale, they seem lowly and cowardly – murdering an old man as he slept in his bed. Macbeth has become no different to an ordinary low criminal through his actions. It serves the function of lowering the standard against which Macbeth’s crimes are to be judged. As the famous critic John B. Harcourt puts it:
Macbeth’s murder is an ugly deed when put alongside these smaller crimes.
So perhaps, by listing these ‘smaller’ crimes that condemn their culprits to hell, immediately after the murder of Duncan, Shakespeare is trying to emphasise that Macbeth’s actions are not other-worldly or noble or outside of the realm on consequences. They are lowly and common and ugly. But, alternatively, Shakespeare could also be emphasising the monstrous nature of Macbeth and how he is, in fact, closer to real evil than these other criminals.
The second of these three ways involves the conversation between Macduff and the porter at the beginning of the scene. The Porter speaks to Macduff about alcohol and what it does to a man. He talks at length about sexual performance, and how alcohol encourages a man to want sex but stops him from being able to perform. In Act 2 Scene 3 he says:
It’s clear that, for the porter, alcohol and sexual desire are vices that he battles with. He refers to being under the influence of alcohol almost like demonic possession. There is no question that Macbeth does not share these vices. There are no references to Macbeth indulging in alcohol or women.
Shakespeare, here, could be suggesting that the ‘simple’ vices of the Porter – alcohol, women – are not as bad as Macbeth’s vices – greed, self-seeking ambition and pride. Macduff himself, when he meets with Malcolm, echoes this when he suggests that Malcolm’s vices wouldn’t prevent him from being king until he says that he wants to destroy peace. According to Harcourt:
The third way of examining this scene is one that Shakespeare is echoing his message about free-will, fate and the sanctity of the state. When we examine the crimes of the three imaginary sinners, we see that they roughly correlate with Macbeth’s own actions.
The farmer’s sin is self-seeking greed, the equivocator’s crime is treason and the tailor’s crime is theft of clothing that properly belongs to others (see here all the references to clothing in the play). Macbeth is guilty of all of these sins also and, in each of these cases, the sinners’ own actions led to their deaths. It is only logical that Macbeth’s actions will also lead to his death.
On a final note, there is something hopeful in the Porter’s speech. It doesn’t appear so from the outset but in all his descriptions of his ‘battle’ with alcohol where he describes a physical fight –
This battle of an individual man against alcohol is won ultimately by the man when he vomits the alcohol up “I made a shift to cast him”.
Similarly, the evil in the state of Scotland will also be purged or removed – the killing of Macbeth by Duncan. The Porter, in many ways, is a representative of ordinary people and he is looking to the future.
We’re going to examine the character of Macduff and look at some ways that we can understand him. I will give you some ideas that you can use in your essays if you’re writing about Macduff so that you can show critical literacy and a sophisticated understanding.
One way of understanding the character of Macduff is, similarly to Banquo, as a foil for Macbeth. If we consider that Macbeth turns his back, through selfish greed, on the established system and traditions of his country by killing the King and claiming the crown for himself, then Macduff does the complete opposite. He sacrifices everything he has – his wife, his children, his castle – to restore the rightful heir to throne and restore the balance and equilibrium in his country.
Through Macduff, the audience sees the correct choices and actions that should be taken by a good subject.
If we recall that Shakespeare was a supporter of royal power and the existing system, it’s clear then that Macduff, who is the most outspoken in terms of his desire for revenge,
is to be seen as a sort of hero himself. He sacrifices his family not to become king himself, but simply to restore the correct authority in his country. He is a pure traditionalist and as close to the perfect nobleman as you could get.
When Macduff travels to England in Act 4 Scene 3 to meet with Malcolm to get his support to remove Macbeth from the throne, he reveals his deep concern about his country and the way it’s going. Speaking to Malcolm, he says:
and later he says “O Scotland, Scotland!”. It is clear that Macduff’s loyalties lie with his nation, just as Macbeth’s seemed to at the beginning of the play, before selfish ambition took over. Macduff, too, isn’t willing to sacrifice his country simply to give Malcolm the throne either.
When Malcolm, in an effort to test Macduff, lists all of his ‘vices’, Macduff is willing to overlook his desire for women and riches but when Malcolm says that if he had power he would “pour the sweet milk of concord into hell” and “confound all unity on earth”, Macduff says that not only is Malcolm not “fit to govern” he’s “not fit to live”.
In this scene Shakespeare presents the audience with the ideal version of the royal subject.
He is willing to sacrifice all that he has to maintain the system but, ultimately, loyalty to his nation is the number one priority. Macduff’s dedication and commitment to his country and his ‘real’ king makes Macbeth’s disregard of it stand out all the more.
When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth carry out their deeds, the repeatedly call on heaven to look away or for light to be put out so they can’t be seen. It’s an acknowledgement that what they are doing is wrong. There can be few things worse than regicide. When Macduff is informed in Act 4 Scene 3 that his family have been murdered by “the tyrant”, he swears revenge. Interestingly, he invokes heaven and brings the idea of God and heaven into his quest.
Here, Macduff is secure in the knowledge that his desire for revenge is righteous. He asks “gentle heaven” to bring Macbeth before his sword so he can deal with him. Malcolm too invokes heaven when he responds to Macduff telling him:
The suggestion here is that they are righteous and that theirs is somehow a holy war against the tyrant Macbeth. Macduff and Malcolm are on the side of God and heaven.
All of this confirms the idea that Macduff is an idealised version of the royal subject, deployed to expose and highlight Macbeth’s worst excesses. It’s no coincidence that, at the end of the play, it is Macduff who kills Macbeth. If Macduff is the perfect subject and Macbeth is to be viewed as an example of where selfish ambition, then Shakespeare makes a very obvious claim for tradition and upholding the system through the last interaction between the two in Act 5 Scene 8.
Macbeth at first is reluctant to fight Macduff because he feels that his “soul is too much charged” with Macduff family blood already – a reference to the slaughter of Macduff’s family. But Macduff, following the lead of Lady Macbeth, calls him a “coward” in order to bait him into doing something he said he didn’t want to do and it works. Macbeth, in his final few lines says:
Macduff re-enters in the next scene carrying Macbeth’s head and announces that now “the time is free” and hails Malcolm as “King of Scotland”. Shakespeare does something quite interesting here. The fact is that, despite Macbeth’s actions, he was the crowned King, and, as such, Macduff has committed regicide, the same crime as Macbeth. But the audience and Macduff himself are protected from this by Macbeth’s extreme actions in murdering Macduff’s entire family.
It is clear then that Macbeth and Macduff are broadly similar. They are both noble lords, they both have outspoken wives and they both take fate into their own hands – Macbeth to claim the crown and Macduff, travelling to England to restore the rightful heir. Macbeth’s actions are all prompted by selfishness, greed and personal ambition whereas Macduff’s actions are prompted by his love for his country and the rightful king. Macduff then shows up Macbeth to be lacking in loyalty and traditional values.
Episode 5: Themes
Obviously, it’s important to know the text, the plot and the characters for any study of Macbeth but it’s equally important to be able to identify and trace an exploration of a theme throughout the play. I will give you some good ideas that you could write in an essay that discusses the theme of kingship in the play.
It may not seem like a very important theme to modern audiences, certainly not as important as ambition or good vs evil, but for Shakespeare’s original audiences, this idea of what makes a good king would have been a very important theme. Those other themes are universal, human things – people today are still afflicted by good and evil and even over-ambition but the importance of kings has waned.
According to the Divine right of Kings, a system of thought that existed throughout Europe at the time, Kings were chosen by God and, as such, not accountable to any earthly system like the will of the people or parliament, they were as good as Gods.
In fact King James I, the king on the throne when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, believed that kings were Gods – using scripture to defend his position. Obviously then, with a King who thought that way, Shakespeare had to make sure that his play didn’t offend him and we see his exploration of Kingship almost as an instruction manual on how to be a good king.
Duncan is presented at the beginning of the play as an excellent king. He rewards the bravery of Banquo and Macbeth with fine words “golden opinions” and in Macbeth’s case, a new title. It’s important to remember however, that although Macbeth says that Duncan is the perfect king, “he hath been so clear in his great office” that “his virtues would plead, like angels, trumpet-tounged, at the deep damnation of his taking off” or his killing, Duncan makes several errors.
The first is obviously to trust the original Thane of Cawdor
The second is to give that title to Macbeth and not suspect him
Perhaps Shakespeare is showing here that to be a good king, you also need to be a little more wary and suspicious, a little more ruthless. For example, we see that Malcolm, when Macduff comes to him in Act 4 to get him to return to Scotland, doesn’t trust immediately and instead tests him to work out his intentions. He appears to have learned from his father’s mistakes. There’s also the fact that there is a rebellion in the first place and that the Norwegians felt that they could attack. All of this points to a kind and decent, if not terribly effective king.
Macbeth however, proves to be a bad king. Over the course of his time as king Scotland descends into a tyrannical place filled with death knells, bloodshed and suspicion. He admits that he keeps spies in the houses of all the lords and he is suspicious of everyone. After his second visit to the witches in Act 4, he promises that the:
that he won’t wait or consider things anymore, just act. This has terrible consequences for Macduff’s family and is obviously a very bad trait in a ruler.
Although we don’t see Malcolm as king as the play ends with him going to be crowned, we get a sense of what he would be like from his exchange with Macduff in Act 4. His supposed flaws of lust, greed and a desire for chaos are revealed to be the polar opposites of his real character. He has no interest in accumulating wealth, he is a mild and peaceful person and is as yet unknown to women. This is perhaps the best description of what a king should be – if we accept the doctrine of the time, the divine right of kings to rule because they are chosen by God, then its best that they see it, as Malcolm does, as some sort of sacred duty, to rule justly and fairly (but not weakly and not be overly trusting).
We can see that Shakespeare, in most of his works, isn’t trying to upset the status quo – he is in many ways a supporter of or even an apologist for royal power.
His exploration of Kingship in Macbeth is no different. It seems that his distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kings reflects favourably on Shakespeare’s own king at the time the play was performed – King James I.
It’s important to note firstly that loyalty was a crucial part of the way a man should behave, both in the world of the play and Shakespeare’s own world. The idea of masculinity, or what a man is or should be is heavily interlinked with the idea of loyalty. If we look at where we see loyalty in the play, there are a few very obvious instances.
At the beginning, Macbeth is very clearly loyal to his king and country and this is part of what gives him such a strong reputation. He is referred to as ‘brave macbeth’ and repeatedly as ‘noble’. He helps his king’s forces overcome both the rebel revolt and the Norwegian invasion. This loyalty is counterweighted with his ambition however, and as his ambitious nature comes to the fore, his loyalty diminishes.
To get a sense of how important loyalty was in the world of the play and how it also acts as a marker of masculinity, we look to the end of the play where Old Seyward, the English lord sent north with Malcolm and Macduff to help take back the Scottish crown for the rightful heir, hears that his son, Young Seyward, has been killed.
When Old Seyward learns that his son’s wounds were to the front – meaning he hadn’t turned his back on the enemy and run, he had remained loyal to his fellow soldiers, himself and his king – he says that it’s the ideal death and he doesn’t need to feel sadness for his son’s death. This highlights the importance of loyalty in the play.
Similarly, when Macduff hears that his family have been slaughtered, we see that loyalty to his country and the rightful king trumps the loyalty he owes to his own family. His loyalty to his king is the most obvious area where Macbeth himself falls short. He kills him in his sleep. But his loyalty to others also diminishes.
We see that he shows loyalty to his wife in the letter she reads in Act 1 Scene 5 – he tells her everything and calls her his:
but later excludes her from his plans – “be innocent of the knowledge”. Similarly, with Banquo, they appear very close colleagues and friends and Macbeth arranges his murder and the murder of Fleance, his son.
Interestingly, Shakespeare presents loyalty as something that is not fixed.
Duncan’s loyalty is often actually a weakness – he is betrayed by both the Thane of Cawdor and Macbeth. Macduff’s loyalty to king and country is tested to the extreme but ultimately held up to be the epitome of virtue and goodness, even if it costs him his family.
As Macbeth descends into tyranny and bloodshed, the bonds of loyalty between him and everyone else are weakened. At the end of the play, Macbeth realises what has become of him. Without loyalty to anyone else, no one is loyal to him. It’s a two-way street. As the other lords begin to abandon him, he says “let them fly all” before bemoaning his situation shortly after that he has no “troops of friends” that he feels he should have in old age.
Loyalty then is fickle. The consequences of an absence or lack of loyalty are severe – usually death in the world of the play but just because you show loyalty to others doesn’t mean you will receive it in return. Once again, Shakespeare is identifying and highlighting another very human quality – the ability we have to betray each other and break bonds of trust and loyalty.
Ambition is often cited as the number one theme in Macbeth. And there’s a good reason for that. Macbeth’s hamartia or fatal flaw is that he is too ambitious. He wants to be king. The fatal flaw is what causes the downfall of a character and so we can say that, in Macbeth, it is Macbeth’s ambition that causes his disgrace and eventual death.
What’s wrong with ambition? In the 21st Century we certainly wouldn’t see ambition as being such a problem, would we?
It’s important to contextualise this for Shakespeare’s time. In Shakespeare’s world, status was generally fixed.
Everyone and everything had their place in the Great Chain of Being. God was fixed at the top and then each less important rank had their level moving from the king downwards. Because of a belief in fate and destiny and the reason for social status, people didn’t believe that you could or even should try to shift your position. Kings couldn’t move down; peasants couldn’t move up.
This is what all of society, people’s entire understanding of their world was based on so, for it to be challenged or to change, was a matter of great discomfort. In the play we even see how a change to the order (Macbeth killing the king and moving up in the chain) is reflected in nature with great disturbances – we are told about storms, smaller animals hunting larger ones and tame animals turning wild.
So ambition then, or rather too much of it, is dangerous. It’s dangerous to society and to the individual. This is shown regularly throughout the play.
If we look at Macbeth for example, we recognise that his ambition is shown early on. His desire for the crown is there even before he encounters the witches and this is made clear to us by his reaction to their prophecy “how of Cawdor” “to be king stands not within reason” “stay and tell me more”. He leaps to thoughts of murder almost immediately “whose murder yet is but fantastical” and when Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth acknowledges his:
Once he has killed Duncan, Macbeth soon realises that, despite his actions, he is not safe. There are threats everywhere. One murder then leads to another and another and Shakespeare makes it clear that Macbeth’s ambitious grab for power has destroyed his peace of mind and his reputation.
Appearance vs Reality
There are lots of uncomfortable and unsettling desires and ideas raised in Macbeth. Macbeth has an excess of ambition and wants to be king although to want that goes against all the social codes of the time. His wife is so determined to help him that she calls on the powers of darkness, a terrifying divergence from what would be expected from a woman of the time. Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth, confronting him with his actions while he tries to keep a brave face for his guests.
What’s interesting about Shakespeare’s portrayal of these desires and ideas is that they are very rarely shown openly. Our deepest, darkest desires are mostly concealed because we don’t want people to know what it is that we are thinking or entertaining in our minds.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s inner thoughts and feelings are available to us both through their soliloquies and interactions with each other.
The theme of appearance vs reality then is all about the concealment of our inner selves – a deeply human thing that all of us do to some extent.
Straight away, Macbeth knows that his ambition is something that should be hidden from others.
His wife too recognises that Macbeth’s thoughts and feelings should not be seen by others and, to go even further, she encourages him to play false and hide what he truly is.
She says, “Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t” and “false face must hide what false heart doth know”. When she worries that people might be able to tell what he’s thinking, she says “your face, my lord, is as a book where men may read strange matters” and this, of course, echoes the opposite idea of what Duncan says about the first Thane of Cawdor “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”.
In Act 4, when Macduff travels to England to persuade Malcolm to return to Scotland, the theme of appearance vs reality is in full view. Malcolm pretends to be something he’s not in order to test Macduff’s intentions. Here, the divergence between appearance and reality is not to conceal evil, but to draw it out.
The witches, the masters in equivocation and half-truths, use their dark arts to draw out the internal evil from willing people.
Remember, their equivocation had little impact on Banquo but a great one on Macbeth.
The theme of appearance vs reality is also reflected in the role of light and dark in the play. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on darkness to obscure the reality of their actions or their desires and Scotland itself is under a cloud of tyranny until the end of the play when Macbeth is killed.