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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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The story of Macbeth is a combination of two stories found in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Shakespeare developed many of the plots and characters for his plays from this book of history and legend.

Holinshed tells one story about a man named Macbeth who killed a king named Duncan, but this story is different from the play in several important ways. The Duncan of the story was a bad king. He did not care about his people, and Banquo helped Macbeth overthrow him.

Shakespeare combined that story with another Holinshed story about someone named Donwald who killed a king named Duff. Duff was a good and pious king, and was Donwald's guest when he was murdered. Also, Donwald killed Duff because his wife urged him to.

For the supernatural elements of the play, Shakespeare might have consulted a book called Demonology, written by none other than King James I himself. (Remember that Macbeth was first presented at James' court.) In his book, James states that witches can predict the future.


Shakespeare takes a clear moral stance in telling the story of Macbeth. He portrays humans as creatures capable of good but in danger of giving in to the temptations of evil. Evil is introduced through supernatural beings-the witches. You could say Macbeth is as much a victim of their deception and his own ambition as he is a victimizer of others.

All evildoers are punished. The numerous mentions of heaven and hell remind us that good people who are killed will find eternal happiness, while those who do evil will suffer eternal damnation.

It is important not to confuse the point of view that Shakespeare gives to a character with the playwright's own point of view. For example, Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow" speech says that life is meaningless, but the play as a whole says just the opposite. Macbeth's utter despair at that moment is a result of his evil deeds. The very fact that he and Lady Macbeth are punished for their wickedness is proof of a higher good which gives meaning to life.


Like all of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is divided into five acts. Each act is broken down further into scenes. Editors disagree about the proper division of scenes in Act V. Some divide it into six scenes. Others make eight scenes from the same text, as we have in the scene-by-scene analysis, and still others make it into nine scenes. All these versions have the same text; only the divisions are different.

Let's look at the form of the play in terms of storytelling. At each moment in the play, there is a question that keeps our interest. That is called dramatic tension.

From the point when Macbeth hears the witches' prophesies, he is obviously enticed by the idea of becoming king. We wonder what he will do about it. Will he kill Duncan? Once the murder has been committed, we wonder what the consequences will be.

Macbeth becomes king, but some are suspicious. What will happen to Banquo and Macduff? In the next section of the play, Macbeth tries to make his position secure through murder. We can see that things are only getting worse for him, and we wonder how long he can hold on.

In Act IV, the end of the play is set up. Macbeth visits the witches, who give him new prophesies. Anybody who is following the story should suspect that they are deceiving him somehow, but we do not know how. In the same act, Malcolm and Macduff join together to defeat Macbeth. Now we wait for the final battle.

Notice how skillfully Shakespeare maintains suspense up to the end. Macbeth's followers have deserted him; Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane. He seems doomed, but we know that he cannot be defeated by any man born of woman. Who can beat him, then? Finally, Macduff reveals his secret, and Macbeth is killed. All that remains is to cheer the new and rightful king, Malcolm.

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