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October 22, 2013

Summary of Shakespeare's Macbeth-Introduction by Stephen Orgel

Summary of Stephen Orgel's Introduction to William Shakespeare's Macbeth

This is a summary of Stephen Orgel's Introduction to William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603

One of his first official acts as king was becoming the patron of Shakespeare’s company, and subsequently they went from being known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men.

It is impossible to know exactly when Macbeth was written due to the fact that Shakespeare’s original version is not the version that has survived; instead, the version we know today appears to have been heavily revised by someone other than Shakespeare.

However, the allusions to the Gunpowder Plot—“the Jesuit attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605, and the subsequent trial of the conspirators”—suggesting a date of 1606.

Also, the witches songs (“Come away, come away…;” “Black spirits…;” etc.) came from Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch, which was written sometime between 1610 and 1615.

Macbeth is a tragedy.

The elaboration of the witches is likely due to society’s love of witchcraft; witchcraft was prevalent in literature and in theatrical productions at this time (1610).

The tone changes significantly in IV.1.151-54: “the witches are not professional and peremptory anymore; they are lighthearted, gracious, and deferential. We may choose to treat this as a moment of heavy irony, though Macbeth does not seem to respond to it as such; but if it is not ironic, the change of tone suggests that the “great king” addressed in the passage is not the king onstage, but instead a real king in the audience, Banquo’s descendant and the king of both Scotland and England. If this is correct, then the version of the play preserved in this folio is one prepared for a performance at court” (xxxi).

King James I was very interested in witchcraft. He would attend witch trials whenever his schedule would allow.

The mere presence of witches in this play is another unusual feature of this play. There is no other Shakespeare play that had witches playing such an integral part of the plot. This play was written for a “culture in which the supernatural and witchcraft even for skeptics, are as much a part of reality as religious truth is…the reality of witches in Macbeth is not in question; the question, as in Hamlet, is why they are present and how far to believe them” (xxxii).

The witches both open the play and set the tone for the play.

Lady Macbeth takes on the masculine role in her marriage by accusing him of being afraid to act like a man, which poses the question: what does it mean to act like a man, in this play? The likely answer to this question is killing. “Lady Macbeth unsexing herself, after all, renders herself, unexpectedly, not a man but a child, and thus incapable of murder” (xxxiii).

Murder is what makes you feel like a man—IV. 3.221-23

The witches speak in paradoxes.

“fair is foul and foul is fair”—something that is fair for one is most likely going to be foul for the other.

“when the battle’s lost and one”—any battle that was lost by one was won by another. A person who describes a battle as being lost and won is either neutral or is playing sides (on both sides so that they will come out winners either way).

Paradoxes all the witches to tell the truth while at the same time deceiving those hearing their riddles and prophecies. They tell the truth about what is really going on in the world of the play: there are no ethical standards in this world—there is no right or wrong side.

Even though the witches live outside of the social order they personify its contradictions.

“beneath the woman’s exterior is also a man, just as beneath the man’s exterior is also a woman; nature is anarchic, full of competing claims, not ordered and hierarchical” (xxxiv). This is reminiscent of King Lear

Macbeth is based on real people, but Shakespeare did not portray them as they really were.

This play is also like Hamlet: “the issue of legitimacy remains crucially ambiguous” in both (xxxvi).

The monarchy in Macbeth is not based on heredity; Macbeth is “elected” by the thanes to be King.

One of the major topics of this play is the “divided self” of Macbeth.

The drama in Macbeth is between Macbeth and his ambition; Macbeth and the witches; Macbeth and his wife; Macbeth and his hallucinations; and Macbeth and his tortured soul. Also, the drama of prophecies and riddles and how he understands them, and what he decides to do about them, and how they, in themselves, constitute retribution.

The Birnam Wood prophecy does not actually come true, Macbeth just thinks that it does—the wood does not move, it just seems like it is.

Macbeth and his wife are well suited for one another. The both care and understand each other deeply, which displays a sense of trust and intimacy that one does not find in any other Shakespearean marriage.

Macbeth and his wife are similar to Adam and Eve

The wife persuades her husband to commit the primal sin against the father.

She gives a voice to Macbeth’s inner self and releases in him the same forbidden desire that the witches have called forth.


Orgel, Stephen, Ed. Macbeth. New York: Penguin, 2000.