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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

ACT I, SCENE I

Imagine that you are sitting in a theater waiting to see a play about a man named Macbeth. As the play begins lightning flashes, and instead of seeing this Macbeth, you see three weird- looking women. They must be witches; they are chanting spells. After making plans to meet Macbeth, they leave.

That's the whole scene-ten lines! Look at what Shakespeare accomplishes with this opening. By beginning the play with the witches instead of starting with Macbeth, he makes it clear that something wicked is going to happen. When we hear more about Macbeth and finally see him, we have to wonder why the three witches have business with him. So this scene establishes the mood of the play.

NOTE:

Always read a scene in Shakespeare first to find out what happens and what the characters say to each other. Then read it again to see what you can learn not from what they say but how they say it. In other words, examine Shakespeare's use of language. For example: The witches say "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (line 10). That line is like a riddle; it seems like nonsense but you can see it means something. Different versions of the same idea turn up all through the play. One thing the line is saying is that nothing in the play will be what it seems to be. And it is also letting you know, right away, that in Macbeth's Scotland everything is going to be confused and perverted.


ACT I, SCENE II

Lightning, thunder, and witches give way in this scene to blood, soldiers, and fighting. We still do not meet Macbeth, but we learn more about him.

What happens is simple: King Duncan, too old to fight, wants to know how his army is doing. A wounded soldier tells him. We learn that the Scottish soldiers are fighting two enemies at once: rebels from their own country and invaders from Norway.

The main thing we learn from this "bloody captain" is that Macbeth is a hero. The battle was awful but Macbeth was fearless, fighting his way through the enemy and literally cutting the rebel leader in half. King Duncan is suitably impressed. We also hear for the first time about Macbeth's fellow-captain, Banquo, who is described as being just as brave as Macbeth.

The Thane of Ross arrives with a new report: the Thane of Cawdor is a traitor, but King Duncan's army has won. Duncan is upset that the Thane of Cawdor, whom he trusted, is a traitor. At the same time, he is very moved by Macbeth's bravery. He orders Cawdor's execution and rewards Macbeth by making him the new Thane of Cawdor. The Thanes of Ross and Angus leave to tell Macbeth.

NOTE:

A lot of what you find out in this scene is "exposition"- information you have to have so you will know who people are and what has been happening before the play starts. Have you ever seen a play or movie in which somebody comes on and, for no apparent reason, starts telling who is who and what is going on? That is bad exposition. Look how skillfully Shakespeare gets his information across. By bringing on a bloody soldier, he dramatizes the offstage battle. Even without the words, you can tell how bad the fighting must have been. By keeping Duncan in the dark, Shakespeare justifies having the soldier give his report.

The theme of honor is introduced in this scene. Duncan says the bloody soldier's words and wounds both "smack of honor" (line 45). Macbeth is described as "brave" and "worthy," and he gets his reward. You can see that honor is very important to these people.

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