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William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

AMONG the tragedies of Shakespeare, “Macbeth” is noted for the exceptional simplicity of the plot and the directness of the action. Here is no underplot to complicate or enrich, hardly more than a glimpse of humor to relieve the dark picture of criminal ambition, only the steady march toward an inevitable catastrophe.

The story belongs to the half-legendary history of Scotland, and was drawn by Shakespeare from the “Chronicles of Holinshed.” For the most part, he follows the historian with considerable fidelity, but details such as the drugging of the grooms by Lady Macbeth, the portents described in the fourth scene of the second act, and the voice that called, “Sleep no more!” were suggested by other parts of the “Chronicle” than that dealing with the reigns of Duncan and Macbeth.

Even the witches occur in Holinshed, who says: “The common opinion was that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, indued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science.” While keeping this aspect of these figures as Fates, Shakespeare added details from the witch lore of his time, and made them capable of a symbolical and spiritual signification that brought them into vital relation with the change in the character of Macbeth.

This tragedy illustrates in its close the conventional poetic justice that demands the triumph of the righteous cause and the downfall of the wicked. But there is not lacking that more subtle justice, so impressive in “Lear” because unaccompanied by the temporal reward of the good, which reveals itself in the subduing of character to what it works in. Far more terrible than the defeat and death of Macbeth is the picture of the degradation of his nature, when he appears in the scene before the battle like a beast at bay.