William Shakespeare’s shortest, bloodiest tragedy, Macbeth is a good starting point for those who are unfamiliar with the Bard’s works. It follows the hero of the title, a Scottish general, as he schemes to become King of Scotland – at the encouragement of his wife, the manipulative Lady Macbeth. The play is not an easy ride: it is relentlessly dark, packing murder, madness and marital breakdown into its compact size. Yet it is one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, as the new film adaptation (starring Michael Fassbender) attests.


The play traces the Macbeths’ attempts to claim the Scottish throne. Controversially, it attributes most of the ambition – and the ruthlessness needed to achieve it – to Lady Macbeth. Here, ambition leads to tragedy; but can it be a good thing?


Over the course of the play the Macbeths gradually lose their sanity, but in different ways. Macbeth slips into a depression, while his wife falls prey to terrifying hallucinations. Today, mental health is more hotly debated than ever. How much do we know about it?


In the play, the Macbeths are childless, but there is an ongoing debate over whether they had an infant who died. The text hints that they did, and the resulting grief could explain Lady Macbeth’s crazed behaviour. The death of a child is the saddest kind of tragedy – but why?

Free will

Early on, the Three Witches tell Macbeth there is a prophecy that he will claim the throne. When this eventually happens, the question remains: did he choose to become king, or was he always fated to do so? Are we free to act as we wish?


The play’s setting in Scotland is no accident. It ends with the crowning of a supposed ancestor of King James I, who ruled over a unified Scotland, England and Ireland. This conclusion must have pleased the king. But four centuries later, the relationship between Scotland and England is more fraught than ever…