Laurence Olivier Essay
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The original classification of Shakespeare’s plays – ‘Comedies’, ‘Tragedies’, ‘Histories’ and ‘Roman plays‘ – don’t adequately describe all of Shakespeare’s plays, and scholars have come up with more names to do so. The most widely used categories are ‘Romance Plays’, ‘Problem Plays’, and Shakespeare’s ‘Tragicomedy Plays’. The plays in those categories have much in common, but there are enough differences to prevent some of them to fall into all three. The Winter’s Tale, for example is a play that does have the features of all three, however.
A tragicomedy is a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, although it has the features of both. Tragedies are usually focused almost exclusively on the central character, the tragic hero (although Shakespeare’s tragedies can sometimes be a double tragedy, with two tragic heroes, like Romeo and Juliet). The audience has insights into his mind and goes deeply in, as he does in Macbeth or Hamlet. Comic plays, on the other hand, remove that focus and the concerns are diversified so that the action is made up of the stories of several characters, particularly pairs of lovers.
The shadows in human emotions are usually minor in the comedies: they are such things as misunderstandings, playful deceptions and so on. Plays that fall between the two stools of tragedy and comedy are sometimes referred to as ‘Problem Plays. ’ so the whole area of classification is a very difficult one. It shouldn’t be necessary to classify them but scholars need a language in which to talk about the plays. The Merchant of Venice can be seen as a tragicomedy.
It has a comic structure but one of the central characters, Shylock, looks very much like a tragic character. The play has a comedy ending with the lovers pairing off but we are left with taste in the mouth of the ordeal of Shylock, destroyed by a combination of his own faults and the persecution of the lovers who enjoy that happy ending. The feeling at the end of the play is neither joy nor misery. The play has a decidedly comic structure but there is also a powerful tragic story. It can therefore be called a tragicomedy.
Shakespeare’ tragicomedies usually have improbable and complex plots; characters of high social class; contrasts between villainy and virtue; love of different kinds at their centre; a hero who is saved at the last minute after a touch-and- go experience; surprises and treachery. The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline are two plays that fit that tragicomical pattern. Shakespeare’s plays generally accepted as tragicomedy plays are: * Cymbeline * The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare’s Tragedy plays One of the main features of Renaissance art is that it was inspired by classical art and philosophy.
This is evident in the work of such artists as Michelangelo who, caught up in the spirit of Humanism that was sweeping across Europe, focused on the human form. Focusing on the human form during Mediaeval times would have been impossible as it would have been a distraction from the necessary focus on God. The essence of Humanistic art was that human beings were created in God’s image so it was possible for Michelangelo even to portray God – as a beautiful and physically powerful man with realistic human features, presented as perfection – in fact, the human form at its most beautiful.
Artists became anatomists, going as far as buying human bodies for dissection. The result was a new realism in the representation of human beings in art. Shakespeare is, in a way, the Michelangelo of literature. That he could, in one play, Othello, written four hundred years ago, represent what we can recognise as a modern psychopath and a modern alcoholic, in Iago and Cassio respectively, is incredible. Iago is a fully realised physochological character just as the David is a fully realized man physically. Greek drama was an important model for Renaissance drama after the flat, unrealistic morality plays of the mediaval centuries.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, defined tragedy and asserted that it was the noblest and most serious, dignified and important form of drama. Many of the plays of the Renaissance resembled those Greek tragedies. In several of Shakespeare’s plays there is a central protagonist who undergoes a harrowing experience as he is brought down from his lofty height, ending up dead. There is also a special feeling created in an observer of those Shakespearedramas, similar to the feeling described by Aristotle as the effect of tragedy on an observer.
Critics thus thought of those Shakespeare plays as tragedies and that notion has remained with us to this day, although many of those interested inShakespeare are now thinking differently about the plays. There are still teachers, though, who teach the ‘tragedies’ as though they were Aristotelian tragedies and miss a great deal of what those plays are doing. In his Poetics Aristotle outlines tragedy as follows: The protagonist is someone of high estate; a prince or a king. He is like us – perhaps a bit different in his level of nobility so that we can both identify with him and admire him as a man as well as respect him for his high estate.
The protagonist has a ‘tragic flaw’ in his character which makes him contribute to his own destruction. This can take the form of an obsession. The flaw is often part of his greatness but it also causes his downfall. The flaw causes the protagonist to make mistakes and misjudgments. That in turn begins to alienate him from his supporters so that he becomes isolated. He begins to fall from his high level. He struggles to regain his position but fails and he comes crashing down. He eventually recognises his mistakes, but too late. An important aspect is the suffering he undergoes, which the audience observes and identifies with.
We experience ‘pity’ and ‘terror’ as we watch what seems to us an avoidable suffering. At thend the air is cleared by the restoration of the order that existed before the events of the story and we experience what Aristotle calls ‘catharsis’ – a feeling of relief and closure. Using the term ‘tragedy’ about Shakespeare’s plays invites attempts to fit them to the Aristotelian pattern but none of them fits. Othello seems to conform to the pattern but when one thinks about it, Othello, superficially resembling a tragic hero, doesn’t even seem to be the main character in the play.
It can be seen as a modern psychological drama about a psychopath who manipulates everyone around him just for fun – just because he has nothing better to do – and destroying other human beings gives him pleasure or is necessary because they get in his way. Othello may seem to have a fatal flaw – too trusting, gullible – but so do all the other characters, because Iago has deceived them all with his psychopathic charm and a deliberate effort of making himself appear trustworthy. Every misjudgment Othello makes is the hard work of Iago. Easily manipulated? Jealous? Does he have all those ‘tragic flaws’ as well?
The feeling at the end is not quite Aristotle either. Perhaps it is more of a disgust for Iago than pity for Othello, who comes across as more stupid than tragic. And to make things more complicated, our feeling of pity is directed more to Desdamona. And yet some teachers miss the meaning of this play by their insistence on teaching it as an Aristotelian tragedy. Antony and Cleopatra is sometimes called a ‘double tragedy’. While Othello appears to fit the Aristotelian pattern because of the huge charisma of Othello at the beginning of the play Antony and Cleopatra cannot fit it in any shape or form.
In tragedy the focus is on the mind and inner struggle of the protagonist. The emotional information comes to the audience from that source. In comedy the information comes from a variety of sources and the comic effect is produced by a display of many different points of view, coming at the audience from different angles. That is exactly what happens in Antony and Cleopatra , so we have something very different from a Greek tragedy. What we have is a miracle – a tragic feeling coming out of a comic structure. So what is Shakespearean tragedy? Perhaps there is no such thing.
And yet we can identify a tragic feeling and even a cathartic effect in some of the plays. We must be very careful not to insist on fitting them to any pattern because that wouldn’t help us understand the plays. We must look elsewhere for our understanding of them. Moreover, all of Shakespeare’s plays have elements of both tragedy and comedy, sometimes very finely balanced, creating effects that Aristotle could never have dreamt of. List of Shakespeare’s Tragedy Plays * Antony and Cleopatra * King Lear * Macbeth * Othello * Romeo & Juliet * Titus Andronicus.
Shakespeare’s Comedy Plays Early Greek comedy was in sharp contrast to the dignity and seriousness of tragedy. Aristophanes, the towering giant of comedy, used every kind of humour from the slapstick through sexual jokes to satire and literary parody. Unlike tragedy, the plots didn’t originate in traditional myth and legend, but were the product of the writer’s creative imagination. The main theme was political and social satire. Over the centuries comedy moved away from those themes to focus on family matters, notably a concentration on relationships and the complications of love.
Such a universal theme was bound to survive and, indeed, it has travelled well, from Greece through Roman civilization and, with the Renaissance preoccupation with things classical, into Renaissance Europe, to England and the Elizabethans, and into the modern world of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, where we see Greek comedy alive and well in films and television. Shakespeare’s comedies (or rather the plays of Shakespeare that are usually categorised as comedies), just as in the case with he tragedies, do not fit into any slot.
They are generally identifiable as the comedies of Shakespeare in that they are full of fun, irony and dazzling wordplay. They also abound in disguises and mistaken identities with very convoluted plots that are difficult to follow (try relating the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to someone! ), with very contrived endings. Any attempt at describing these plays as a group can’t go beyond that superficial outline. The highly contrived endings are the clue to what these plays, all very different, are about. Take The Merchant of Venice for example – it has the love and relationship element.
As usual there are two couples. One of the women is disguised as a man through most of the text – typical of Shakespearian comedy – but the other is in a very unpleasant situation – a young Jewess seduced away from her father by a shallow, rather dull young Christian. The play ends with the lovers all together, as usual, celebrating their love and the way things have turned out well for their group. That resolution has come about by completely destroying a man’s life. The Jew, Shylock is a man who has made a mistake and been forced to pay dearly for it by losing everything he values, including his religious freedom.
It is almost like two plays – a comic structure with a personal tragedy imbedded in it. The ‘comedy’ is a frame to heighten the effect of the tragic elements. The Christians are selfish and shallow and cruel beyond imagination and with no conscience whatsoever. This is the use of the comic form to create something very deep and dark. Twelfth Night is similar – the humiliation of a man the in-group doesn’t like. As in The Merchant of Venice, his suffering is simply shrugged off in the highly contrived comic ending. Not one of these plays, no matter how full of life and love and laughter and joy, it may be, is without a darkness at its heart.
Much Ado About Nothing , like Antony and Cleopatra (a ‘tragedy’ with a comic structure) is a miracle of creative writing. Shakespeare seamlessly joins an ancient mythological love story and a modern invented one, weaving them together into a very funny drama in which light and dark chase each other around like clouds and sunshine on a windy day, and the play threatens to fall into an abyss at any moment and emerges from that danger in a highly contrived ending once again. Like the ‘tragedies’ these plays defy categorisation.
They all draw our attention to a range of human experience with all its sadness, joy, poignancy, tragedy, comedy, darkness, lightness, and its depths. Shakespeare’s Comedy Plays * All’s Well That Ends Well * The Comedy of Errors * As you Like It * Cymbeline * Love’s Labours Lost * Measure for Measure * The Merry Wives of Windsor * The Merchant of Venice * Twelfth Night * Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare’s History Plays Just as Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’ have some dark themes and tragic situations while the ‘tragedies’ have some high comic moments, the Shakespeare’s ‘history’ plays contain comedy, tragedy and everything in between.
All Shakespeare’s plays are dramas written for the entertainment of the public and Shakeseare’s intention in writing them was just that – to entertain. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Shakespearian scholars, who categorised his plays into those areas of tragedy, comedy and history – as well as ‘problem‘ and ‘Roman‘. Unfortunately, our appreciation of the plays is often affected by our tendency to look at them in that limited way. Most of the plays have an historical element – the Roman plays, for example, are historical but scholars don’t refer to those Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus etc.) ashistory plays.
The plays that we normally mean when we refer to the ‘history’ plays are the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenthcenturies, and the 1399-1485 period in particular. Each play is named after, and focuses on, the reigning monarch of the period. In chronological order of setting, these are King John, Richard II, Henry IV Parts Iand II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Richard III and Henry VIII, although Shakespeare didn’t write them in that order. The plays dramatise five generations of’ Medieval power struggles.
For the most part they depict the Hundred Years War with France, from Henry V to Joan of Arc, and the Wars of the Roses, between York and Lancaster. We should never forget that they are works of imagination, based very loosely on historical figures. Shakespeare was a keen reader of history and was always looking for the dramatic impact of historical characters and events as he read. Today we tend to think of those historical figures in the way Shakespeare presented them. For example, we think of Richard III as an evil man, a kind of psychopath with a deformed body and a grudge against humanity.
Historians can do whatever they like to set the record straight but Shakespeare’s Richard seems stuck in our culture as the real Richard III. Henry V, nee Prince Hal, is, in our minds, the perfect model of kingship after an education gained by indulgence in a misspent youth, and a perfect human being, but that is only because that’s the way Shakespeare chose to present him in the furtherance of the themes he wanted to develop and the dramatic story he wanted to tell. In fact, the popular perception of mediaval history as seen through the rulers of the period is pure Shakespeare. We have given ourselves entirely to Shakespeare’s vision.
What would Bolingbroke (Henry IV) mean to us today? We would know nothing of him but because of Shakespeare’s plays he is an important, memorable and significant historical figure. The history plays are enormously appealing. Not only do they give insight into the political processes of Mediaval and Renaissance politics but they also offer a glimpse of life from the top to the very bottom of society – the royal court, the nobility, tavern life, brothels, beggars, everything. The greatest English actual and fictional hero, Henry V and the most notorious fictional bounder, Falstaff, are seen in several scenes together.
Not only that, but those scenes are among the most entertaining, profound and memorable in the whole of English literature. That’s some achievement. Finally, although adding this at the end of the article and leaving it in the air, several questions are begged: what we see in the plays is not mediaval society at all, but Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Because although Shakespeare was writing ‘history’, using historical figures and events, what he was really doing was writing about the politics, entertainments and social situations of his own time.
A major feature of Shakespeare’s appeal to his own generation was recognition, somethingShakespeare exploited relentlessly. List of Shakespeare’s History Plays, Henry IV Part 2,Henry V,Henry VI Part 1,Henry VI Part 2,Henry VI Part 3,Henry VIII,King John,Richard II,Richard III. 2) Tragedy; Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello. King Lear Play: Overview & Resources The King Lear play is set in the BCE period, somewhere in England, usually thought of as being what is Leicestershire today. The action in the first two acts shifts among the castles of Lear, Gloucester, and those of Lear’s two daughters, Goneril and Regan.
The rest of the action takes place in the frozen countryside, mainly on a blasted heath with violent weather, symbolising the state of Lear’s mind. Date written: 1603-1606 Genre classification: King Lear is regarded as a Tragedy Main characters in King Lear: King Lear is the king of pre-Christian Britain. He has three daughters – Goneril, Regan andCordelia. The Earl of Gloucester is a senior duke in Lear’s kingdom. He has two sons, Edmund, an illegitimate son and Edgar, a legitimate son. The Earl of Kent is a fiercely loyal nobleman, sticking by Lear in spite of Lear’s atrocious treatment of him.
The Fool is the court jester, developed well beyond the jesters that appear in Shakespeare’s and other writers’ earlier plays. King Lear themes: This is a play about family – a thorough exploration of family relationships, particularly filial ingratitude, where the cruelty and disregard for their father by Goneril and Regan are contrasted with those of the love and loyalty of Cordelia in spite of the ruthless treatment she has experienced at her father’s hands. There is also a deep exploration oflegitimate versus illegitimate offspring.
Good versus evil is presented through the evil of the two older sisters against the saintliness of the youngest. Other themes are those of old age and authority. and attitudes to those; pain, justice, and the ever present theme in Shakespeare’s plays: appearance and reality. King Lear Plot Summary The Earl of Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son, Edmund, to the Earl of Kent at court. Lear, King of Britain, enters. Now that he is old Lear has decided to abdicate, retire, and divide his kingdom between his three daughters.
Each will receive a portion of the kingdom according to how much they love him. Goneril, Duchess ofAlbany, the oldest, and Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, the second, both speak eloquently and receive their portion but Cordelia, the youngest, can say nothing. Her declaration that she loves him according to a daughter’s duty to a father enrages him and she is disowned. One of Cordelia’s suitors, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless but the King of France understands her declaration and takes her as his wife, while the Earl of Kent is banished for taking Cordelia’s part against the King.
The kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan. Lear tells them that he intends to live alternately with each of them. Meanwhile, Edmund is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester and persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester’s life, using a deceitful device. Edmund warns Edgar that his life is in danger. Edgar flees and disguises himself as a beggar. Goneril becomes increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear’s hundred followers, who are disturbing life at Albany’s castle.
Kent has returned in disguise and gains a place as a servant to Lear, supporting the King against Goneril’s ambitious servant, Oswald. Lear eventually curses Goneril and leaves to move in with Regan. Edmund acts as a messenger between the sisters and is courted by each in turn. He persuades Cornwall that Gloucester is an enemy because, through loyalty to his King, Gloucester assists Lear and his devoted companion, the Fool, when they are turned away by Regan and told to return to Goneril’s household. Despairing of his daughters and regretting his rejection of Cordelia, Lear goes out into the wilderness during a fierce storm.
He goes mad. Gloucester takes them into a hut for shelter and seeks the aid of Kent to get them away to the coast, where Cordelia has landed with a French army to fight for her father against her sisters and their husbands. Edgar, pretending to be mad, has also taken refuge in the shelter and the Fool, the mad king and the beggar are companions until Edgar finds his father wandering and in pain. Gloucester has been blinded by Regan and Cornwall for his traitorous act in helping Lear. Cornwall has been killed by a servant after blinding Gloucester but Regan continues to rule with Edmund’s help.
Not recognised by his father, Edgar leads him to the coast and helps him, during the journey, to come to an acceptance of his life. Gloucester meets the mad Lear on Dover beach, near Cordelia’s camp and, with Kent’s aid, Lear is rescued and re-united with Cordelia. Gloucester, although reconciled with Edgar, dies alone. The French forces are defeated by Albany’s army led by Edmund, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Goneril has poisoned Regan in jealous rivalry for Edmund’s attention but Edgar, disguised now as a loyal knight, challenges Edmund to a duel and wounds him mortally.
Seeing no way out, Goneril kills herself. The dying Edmund confesses his crimes, but it is too late to save Cordelia from the hangman. Lear’s heart breaks as he carries the body of his beloved daughter in his arms, and Albany and Edgar are left to re-organise the kingdom. Hamlet Play: Overview & Resources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet Shakespeare sets his Hamlet play in the cold, dark isolation of Elsinor a bleak, snow-covered region of Denmark. It’s the royal court of the King of Denmark. The atmosphere is established on the cold, windy battlements of the castle.
Most of the action takes place in theinterior rooms and corridors of the castle and one scene is set in a nearby cemetery. Date written: 1601 Genre classification: Hamlet is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Main characters in Hamlet: Hamlet, the son of the recently murdered King is the heir to the throne. Hehas had the crown stolen from him by his father’s villainous brother, Claudius whom thelate king’s widow, Gertrude – Hamlet’s mother – has married. Hamlet’s father’s ghost tellshim on the battlements that Claudius murdered him.
Hamlet is continuously spied on by Polonius, the garrulous Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. His eavesdropping results in his being accidentally killed by Hamlet. Ophelia is Polonius’ daughter. Led on to a possible relationship by Hamlet, then rejected, she commits suicide by drowning. Her brother, Laertesseeks revenge by plotting with Claudius to kill Hamlet. Other characters are Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, in whom he confides, Rosencranz and Guidenstern, Hamlet’s fellow university students, who spy on Hamlet for Claudius, a troupe of strolling actors and a pair of gravediggers.
See a full list of characters in Hamlet. Hamlet Themes: The play falls into the genre of the Revenge Tragedy, which was very popular in the Jacobean era with its taste for violence and intrigue. Revenge is the most obvious, and one of the main, themes of the play. Although explorations of the idea of appearance and reality are present in all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s more fully developed in Hamlet, with all it’s plotting, intrigues, deceit and hypocrisy. Other themes are the question of what a human being is; death and mortality and suicide.
In common with several other Shakespeare plays, there is a clear Christian parallel. Hamlet Plot Summary Prince Hamlet’s student friend, Horatio, goes to the battlements of Denmark’s Elsinore castle late at night to meet the guards. They tell him about a ghost they have seen that resembles the late king, Hamlet. It reappears and they decide to tell the prince. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, having become king, has now married Hamlet’s widowed mother, Gertrude. In the court, after envoys are sent to Norway, the prince is dissuaded from returning to university.
Hamlet still mourns his father’s death and hearing of the ghost from Horatio he determines to see it for himself. Laertes, son of the courtier, Polonius, departs for France, warning his sister, Ophelia, against thinking too much of Hamlet’s attentions. The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. The prince swears vengeance and his friends are sworn to secrecy as Hamlet decides to feign madness while he tests the truth of the ghost’s allegations. He rejects Ophelia, as Claudius and Polonius spy on him seeking to find a reason for his sudden strange behaviour.
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, former student friends of Hamlet, are summoned by Claudius and their arrival coincides with that of a group of travelling actors. The prince knows these players well and they rehearse together before arranging to present Hamlet’s choice of play before the king and queen, which will include scenes close to the circumstances of the old king’s death.
At the performance Hamlet watches closely as Claudius is provoked into interrupting the play and storming out, resolving to send the prince away to England. Hamlet is summoned by his distressed mother and, on the way he spares Claudius whom he sees kneeling, attempting to pray.
To kill him while he is praying would send his soul to heaven rather than to the hell he deserves. Polonius hides in Gertrude’s room to listen to the conversation, but Hamlet detects movement as he upbraids his mother. He stabs the concealing tapestry and so kills the old man. The ghost reappears, warning his son not to delay revenge, nor to upset his mother. As the army of Norway’s King Fortinbras crosses Denmark to attack Poland, Hamlet is sent to England, ostensibly as an ambassador, but he discovers Claudius’s plan to have him killed.
Outwitting this plot Hamlet returns alone, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his stead. During Hamlet’s absence Ophelia goes mad as a result of her father’s death and she is drowned. Hamlet returns and meets Horatio in the graveyard. With the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral Hamlet confronts Laertes who, after attempting a revolt against Claudius, has taken his father’s place at the court. A duel is arranged between Hamlet and Laertes at which Claudius has plotted for Hamlet to die either on a poisoned rapier, or from poisoned wine.
The plans go wrong and both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded, while Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the poisoned cup. Hamlet, in his death throes, kills Claudius, and Horatio is left to explain the truth to the new king, Fortinbras, who returns, victorious, from the Polish wars. Macbeth Play: Overview & Resources The main source for Shakespeare’s Macbeth play was Holinshed’s Chronicles. Holinshed in turn took the account from a Scottish history, Scotorum Historiae, written in 1527 by Hector Boece. Shakespeare, flattering James 1, referred to the king’s own books, Discovery of Witchcraft and Daemonologie, written in 1599.
Some of the main ideas of Macbeth are Nature, Manhood and Light versus Dark. In Macbeth, the murder of a king by one of his subjects is seen as unnatural and the images ofthe play reflect this theme, with disruptions of nature, like storms – and events such as where the horses turn on their grooms and bite them. In Macbeth Shakespeareexplores what it is to be a man. Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of being unmanly because of his hesitation in killing Duncan, but Macbeth says that it’s unmanly for a man to kill his king. Shakespeare plays with that paradox.
Duncan is a good king and a good man, and he is surrounded by images of light. Macbethand Lady Macbeth turn their surroundings into a picture of hell, blanketed in darkness. Those images of light and dark interact throughout the play. Traditionally, there is a curse on Macbeth. Actors and productioncrews perpetuate the superstition by avoiding using the play’s title, Macbeth, which is considered bad luck. It has to be referred to as “The Scottish Play”. Date written: 1605 Read the full Macbeth text Genre classification: Macbeth is regarded as a tragedy.
Macbeth Characters: The hero, Macbeth, the Thane of Glamys and later Thane of Cawdor, murders the king, Duncan, and is elected as king in his place. Lady Macbeth, his wife, is his co-conspirator in the murder. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalblain, themselves in danger, flee. Banquo, Macbeth’s friend, is also murdered by Macbeth. Macduff, the Thane of Fife, suspects Macbeth and his whole family is massacred. Macduff is the man who finally kills Macbeth. There are three witches, who plant the idea of murdering Duncan in Macbeth’s mind, and they lead him on to his destruction.
Their queen is Hecate. Other characters are the Scottlish noblemen, Lennox and Ross, and the English general, Siward and his son, Young Siward. See a full list of Macbeth characters. Themes in Macbeth: The main themes in Macbeth are ambition and guilt. Macbeth’s ‘overweening ambition leads him to kill Duncan and from then on until the end of the play he suffers unendurable guilt. Another theme is that of appearance and reality. Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Macbeth has the most difficulty in distinguishing between what is real and what is not.
Macbeth Plot Summary King Duncan’s generals, Macbeth and Banquo, encounter three strange women on a bleak Scottish moorland on their way home from quelling a rebellion. The women prophesy that Macbeth will be given the title of Thane of Cawdor and then become King of Scotland, while Banquo’s heirs shall be kings. The generals want to hear more but the weird sisters disappear. Duncan creates Macbeth Thane of Cawdor in thanks for his success in the recent battles and then proposes to make a brief visit to Macbeth’s castle.
Lady Macbeth receives news from her husband of the prophecy and his new title and she vows to help him become king by any means she can. Macbeth’s return is followed almost at once by Duncan’s arrival. The Macbeths plot together and later that night, while all are sleeping and after his wife has given the guards drugged wine, Macbeth kills the King and his guards. Lady Macbeth leaves the bloody daggers beside the dead king. Macduff arrives and when the murder is discovered Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, fearing for their lives, but they are nevertheless blamed for the murder.
Macbeth is elected King of Scotland, but is plagued by feelings of guilt and insecurity. He arranges for Banquo and his son, Fleance to be killed, but the boy escapes the murderers. At a celebratory banquet Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and disconcerts the courtiers with his strange manner. Lady Macbeth tries to calm him but is rejected. Macbeth seeks out the witches and learns from them that he will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to his castle, Dunsinane. They tell him that he need fear no-one born of woman, but also that the Scottish succession will come from Banquo’s son.
Macbeth embarks on a reign of terror and many, including Macduff’s family are murdered, while Macduff himself has gone to join Malcolm at the court of the English king, Edward. Malcolm and Macduff decide to lead an army against Macbeth. Macbeth feels safe in his remote castle at Dunsinane until he is told that Birnam Wood is moving towards him. The situation is that Malcolm’s army is carrying branches from the forest as camouflage for their assault on the castle. Meanwhile Lady Macbeth, paralysed with guilt, walks in her sleep and gives away her secrets to a listening doctor.
She kills herself as the final battle commences. Macduff challenges Macbeth who, on learning his adversary is the child of a Ceasarian birth, realises he is doomed. Macduff triumphs and brings the head of the traitor to Malcolm who declares peace and is crowned king. Othello Play: Overview & Resources The Othello play begins in Venice where there is a wealthy, well ordered, well behaved community, controlled by strong laws and established conventions.