Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, and very likely, the most reworked of all Shakespeare's plays. It is now assumed that some of the play was actually written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, and modern editors have found it necessary to rearranged lines they feel are otherwise disjointed and confusing.
With such egregious textual meddling, one who is about to read the play for the first time might conclude that it is not going to be on par with Shakespeare's great masterpieces. Yet scholars will attest that the quality of poetry and prose, in the scenes we know to be complete and wholly Shakespeare's, is possibly the finest in the entire Shakespeare canon, if not the entire dramatic canon of Western literature.
Students new to Macbeth should be aware of the important motifs in the play, and make notes when they happen upon relevant passages. This way they will be well-prepared to discuss any theme on an exam or debate any point in an essay with specific references to the text. Moreover, students should locate a copy of the play with detailed and lengthy annotations. Reading a comprehensive edition ensures that a student will understand the passage as a whole and not just the difficult or obsolete words. In this study guide you will find exhaustive explanatory notes by clicking on a word or line from the play and at the bottom of each scene.
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Macbeth (2.1), Macbeth
The Roman king, Tarquin (Sextus Tarquinius), rapes Lucrece, the act upon which Shakespeare's long poem of the same name is based. Macbeth and Tarquin have many similarities. Compare Macbeth's soliloquy to the following two stanzas from The Rape of Lucrece:
Now stole upon the time the dead of night,
When heavy sleep had closed up mortal eyes:
No comfortable star did lend his light,
No noise but owls' and wolves' death-boding cries;
Now serves the season that they may surprise
The silly lambs: pure thoughts are dead and still,
While lust and murder wake to stain and kill.
And now this lustful lord leap'd from his bed,
Throwing his mantle rudely o'er his arm;
Is madly toss'd between desire and dread;
Th' one sweetly flatters, th' other feareth harm;
But honest fear, bewitch'd with lust's foul charm,
Doth too too oft betake him to retire,
Beaten away by brain-sick rude desire.
Macbeth was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite play. The well-read president would often entertain guests by quoting his favorite passages. Eerily, less than a week before his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth – himself an actor who had played Macbeth to packed audiences – Lincoln became fixated on these fateful lines:
Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further. (3.2.24)
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. Macbeth (1.7), Macbeth
"In this passage where the wild emotions of Macbeth's mind are struggling for utterance, one metaphor crowds upon and displaces another. "Pity" is first personified as a newborn infant, naked and miserable, such as would appeal to the sympathy of all men; then this infant bestrides the wind for a charger to carry the news of Duncan's murder throughout the world. This figure of a messenger seated upon the wind calls up a confused memory of a verse of the Bible (Psalms, xviii. 10.) to Macbeth's mind, and his imagination embodies pity as an angel riding on the wind." Read on...