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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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The three witches that Macbeth and Banquo meet are also called the "weird sisters." In Old English wyrd meant "fate." And it is part of their role in the play to act as the forces of fate.

But "fate" in what sense? Do they cause Macbeth's actions? What powers do they have, and what are the limits of their powers? In other words, do they dictate what will happen?

They certainly know things that no mortal could know. Even a person who knew that the Thane of Cawdor was a traitor would be awfully shrewd to guess that Macbeth would be given his title. And who without supernatural powers could have known that Macbeth would only be defeated when Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane?

The witches have other supernatural powers. They can cause storms, and they appear and disappear at will.

But their powers are limited. Look at Act I, Scene iii. The First Witch has been insulted by a sailor's wife. When the witch asked the woman for a chestnut, the woman says, "Aroint thee, witch!" In other words, "Get lost!" The witch doesn't seem to be able to harm the woman directly. Instead, she sends a storm to disturb the sailor's ship. Even at that, her powers are limited: "...his bark cannot be lost...", the witch says.

These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Their predictions are temptations. They never lie, they never tell Macbeth he has to do anything, they just give the trick answers. In that sense they are agents of the devil, out for his soul; they trick him into damning himself.

But it is clear that the responsibility for the crimes is Macbeth's. Nothing the witches did forced him to commit them. He was wrong to hear their words as an invitation to murder the King. Still, you wonder if Macbeth would have murdered anybody if he had not met the witches. And you can argue that either way.


Malcolm represents the rightful order that Macbeth disturbs. Duncan, who is a good and wise king, names his son the Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne.

Will Malcolm make a good king? Clearly, Shakespeare wants us to believe he will. Though Malcolm is young, he is already wise. He and his brother Donalbain are smart enough to get away from Macbeth's castle as soon as possible after their father's murder. After safely reaching England, Malcolm does not rashly try to reclaim the throne. Instead, he waits until the time is right.

In his scene with Macduff, Malcolm displays cleverness and verbal skill. He manipulates Macduff, testing his loyalty, but he does it only for the good of his people and his country.

In the final speech of the play, Malcolm demonstrates his fitness for kingship. Macbeth has been killed, and Malcolm is about to be crowned. Like his father, in Act I, Malcolm's first concern is to reward those who have helped him. The speech is full of images of divine grace and natural order.


The King makes his final exit before the end of Act I, and he is murdered offstage early in Act II. Not having a lot of time to develop Duncan's character, Shakespeare works in broad, clear strokes.

Duncan is "a most sainted king" (Act IV, Scene iii, line 109), as Macduff calls him. His murder is a crime that has no justification. Even Macbeth calls him "the gracious Duncan" (Act III, Scene i, line 66).

We know that Duncan is old-otherwise he would be in combat with his army. Owing to his age, he has to anxiously await word from the field.

His generosity is clearly demonstrated by the way he treats Macbeth. He rewards the noble Macbeth immediately after hearing about his bravery.

Duncan is also gracious to Lady Macbeth. Even though he is actually honoring Macbeth and his wife by spending the night at their castle, he behaves as if they were doing him a favor.

The person who best sums up Duncan's nature is his murderer- Macbeth:

"...this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels..." (Act I, Scene vii, lines 16-19).


Macduff is Macbeth's major adversary. Malcolm is the rightful king and leads the forces to overthrow the tyrant, but Macduff is a thorn in Macbeth's side from the beginning. In the end, he kills Macbeth.

Until the murder of his wife and children, Macduff has not been hurt personally by Macbeth. He opposes Macbeth because he knows right from wrong. He never wants the crown for himself. His desire is to see the rightful king on the throne.

He refuses to play games. He will not attend Macbeth's crowning or put in an appearance at the tyrant's feast just to keep up appearances.

Macduff is not clever with words. He voices his disapproval of Macbeth not by statements but by his absence. Macduff's simple honesty is revealed when he is tested by Malcolm in Act IV, Scene iii. In a play like Macbeth, in which many people and things are not what they appear to be, Macduff is like a breath of fresh air.

Maturity is another trait of Macduff's. He takes the news of his wife and children's murder like a blow squarely on the chin. By having the courage to feel his grief, he is able to convert his pain into a burning desire for righteous revenge.

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