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MACBETH AS A TRAGEDY

ENGLISH

Submitted by:
Siddhant Mathur
(SM0118052)

Faculty in charge:
Mrs. Aprajita Hazarika

NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY AND JUDICIAL ACADEMY, ASSAM

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CONTENT

1. Introduction……………………………………………………………...…………3
1.1 Objectives….…………………………………………………………………...4
1.2 Review of Literature……...………………………………...………………….4
1.3 Research Questions………………………....……………….……………...….5
1.4 Research Method……………………………………………………………….6
2. Macbeth: A Study………………………………………….………………………7
3. Lady Macbeth…………………………………………………………………….11
4. Macbeth as A Tragic Shakespearean Hero………………………………..............14
5. Conclusion…...……………………………………………………………………16
6. Bibliography………...……………………………………………………….…....17

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CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION

In literature, tragedy is said to be a play that consists of deplorable events that lead to an
unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. It is a
dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or sombre theme, typically
involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction, as through a
character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or an unyielding society.

William Shakespeare, born on 26th April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, was an English poet
and playwright, widely regarded as the world’s greatest writer in the English language. He is
often called England’s national poet and nicknamed the “Bard of Avon”. Out of the plethora
of Shakespeare’s works, thirty - eight are plays.

Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were
mainly comedies and histories and these works remain regarded as some of the best work
produced in these genres. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608,
including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in
the English language. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and
collaborated with other playwrights.1

Ten of these thirty-eight plays are tragedies. Having had the strong urge to write tragic prose
that have a clear-cut climax, Shakespeare wrote such literature in order to attract the audience
with a well-structured, refreshing genre of prose. This type of plays went on to become the
most popular of all time. His plays have been translated into every major living language and
are performed and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

One of the finest tragedies written by Shakespeare is Macbeth, in 1606. This play revolves
around Macbeth, who is not only the protagonist, but also the inspiration for the title of the
play. “Macbeth” highlights the negative side of humanity, portraying the protagonist as an
overambitious, treacherous man with the capability of taking drastic measures like murdering
his best friend Banquo due to the sheer greed for power. Lady Macbeth, the wife of the
protagonist, is portrayed as an outspoken woman, who has an immensely narrow perspective
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on life, focused on making her husband king even if it requires them to be devious or
inhuman. Her power of manipulation and obstinacy leads to a stark change in Macbeth,
enabling him to unleash his savage, power hungry behaviour. After achieving his long-
standing ambition instigated by the prophetic witches, his selfish and greedy side drives him
to insanity and utmost insecurity.

Through Macbeth, Shakespeare was successfully able to highlight the transition of a brave
and noble man into a monstrous beast lacking any sort of human emotion, just for the sake of
receiving the power that was supposedly destined to him. The brutal reality of the dark side
of human beings has been brought out by him through this play.

The basic aspects of the tragedy, as stated above, have been discussed in detail in this project.

1.1 Objectives
The scope of the research is limited to the study of the play, the female lead, and the
comparison of its hero i.e., Macbeth with other Shakespearean tragic heroes.

The objectives of this research are-

1. To critically analyse the famous Shakespearean play Macbeth.


2. To understand the role of Lady Macbeth in the tragic end of Macbeth.

1.2 Review of Literature

1. Joseph Papp. Shakespeare: Four Tragedies: Hamlet/ Othello/ King Lear/


Macbeth (Bantam Classics). Library Binding Edition by Penguin. 1988
This book discusses in brief the four important Shakespearean tragedies of all
time i.e., Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. All the four tragedies are
discussed separately and are edited by four different people. The best part about
this edition of the book is that notes are also provided at the end of each
play. This volume of the four major tragic plays provides commentary by David
Bevington which is insightful and accessible; it also gives photographs of

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performances and stagings by the New York Shakespeare Festivals, modernised
spelling and concordance listings of major passages. This particular book has
helped the researcher in getting a good insight into the characters of all
Shakespearean tragic heroes for comparison.

2. O.W. Firkins. The Character of Macbeth, The John Hopkins University Press.
October 1910
This article has helped the researcher a lot in understanding the character of
Macbeth. The character of Macbeth is very complex as in most of the places his
action doesn’t match with his conventional personality. To understand the prime
reasons behind his moves, a closer look into his personality is required which is
provided in this article. This article has also helped the researcher in
distinguishing the various attributes of Macbeth’s character that are typical of a
Shakespearean tragic hero and the traits which are characteristic to him and
determines his personality.

1.3 Research Questions

 What is the plot and theme of the Shakespearean play Macbeth?


 What is the role of Lady Macbeth in the play?
 What characteristics make Macbeth a tragic hero? What are the traits which sets him
apart from other typical Shakespearean tragic heroes?

1.4 Research Methodology

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The methodology used for this research is exploratory and descriptive as sources collected
were library based. Secondary data in the form of articles, web excerpts, and available books
were heavily relied upon in an attempt to arrive at plausible, explanatory answers. Primary
data was not collected. This paper can be used as a future reference and is binding and
complete in that regard.

CHAPTER 2
MACBETH : A STUDY
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The play begins with the brief appearance of three witches and then shifts to a military camp,
where the Scottish King Duncan is made aware of the news that his generals, Macbeth and
Banquo, have defeated two separate invading armies—one from Ireland, led by the rebel
Macdonwald, and the other from Norway. Following their intense battle with these enemy
forces, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the trio of witches as they cross a moor.
The witches predict that Macbeth will be made thane of Cowdor, which is a rank of Scottish
nobility, and will ultimately become the King of Scotland. They also predict that Macbeth’s
companion, Banquo’s children will become Scottish kings in the future, although Banquo
will never get the opportunity of being king himself. The witches then disappear without
providing any explanations, and Macbeth and Banquo think over their prophecies in doubt.
Banquo however, does not seem as concerned about the prophesy, unlike Macbeth.
Soon, some of King Duncan’s men come to thank the two generals for their victories in battle
and to tell Macbeth that he has indeed been named thane of Cawdor. The previous thane
betrayed Scotland by fighting for the Norwegians. Duncan had thus condemned him to death
as a punishment of his treason. Macbeth is intrigued by the possibility that the remainder of
the witches’ prophecy, that he will be crowned king, might turn into reality, but he is
uncertain what to expect. He visits with King Duncan, and they plan to dine together at
Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, that night. Macbeth, through a letter informs his wife, Lady
Macbeth, of all the recent happenings.
Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, is extremely certain and confident of the prophecy. Being
a power obsessive person, she desires kingship for Macbeth and wants him to murder Duncan
in order to obtain it. When Macbeth arrives at Inverness, she overrides all of her husband’s
objections and persuades him to kill the king that very night. Thus, they plan to get Duncan’s
two chamberlains drunk so that they have a blackout; the next morning they would blame the
murder on the chamberlains, who will be defenceless, as they would remember nothing.
While Duncan is asleep, Macbeth stabs him, despite his doubts and a number of supernatural
portents, including a vision of a bloody dagger. When Duncan’s death is discovered the next
morning, Macbeth kills the chamberlains, ostensibly out of rage at their crime, and easily
assumes the kingship. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland,
respectively, fearing that whoever killed Duncan desires their demise as well.

Fearful of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s heirs will seize the throne, Macbeth hires a
group of murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. They ambush Banquo on his way to a

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royal feast, but they fail to kill Fleance, who escapes into the night. Macbeth becomes furious
because, according to him, as long as Fleance is alive, his power remains insecure. At the
feast that night, Banquo’s ghost visits Macbeth. When he sees the ghost, Macbeth raves
fearfully, startling his guests, who include most of the great Scottish nobility. Lady Macbeth
tries to neutralize the damage, but Macbeth’s kingship incites increasing resistance from his
nobles and subjects. Frightened, Macbeth goes to visit the witches in their cavern. There, they
show him a sequence of demons and spirits who present him with further prophecies: he must
beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman who opposed Macbeth’s accession to the throne; he
is incapable of being harmed by any man born of woman; and he will be safe until Birnam
Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth is relieved and feels secure, because he knows
that all men are born of women and that forests cannot move. When he learns that Macduff
has fled to England to join Malcolm, Macbeth orders that Macduff’s castle be seized and,
most cruelly, that Lady Macduff and her children be murdered.2

When news of his family’s execution reaches Macduff in England, he is stricken with grief
and vows revenge. Prince Malcolm, Duncan’s son, has succeeded in raising an army in
England, and Macduff joins him as he rides to Scotland to challenge Macbeth’s forces. The
invasion has the support of the Scottish nobles, who are appalled and frightened by
Macbeth’s tyrannical and murderous behaviour. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, becomes plagued
with fits of sleepwalking in which she bemoans what she believes to be bloodstains on her
hands. Before Macbeth’s opponents arrive, Macbeth receives news that she has killed herself,
causing him to sink into a deep and pessimistic despair. Nevertheless, he awaits the English
and fortifies Dunsinane, to which he seems to have withdrawn in order to defend himself,
certain that the witches’ prophecies guarantee his invincibility. He is struck numb with fear,
however, when he learns that the English army is advancing on Dunsinane shielded with
boughs cut from Birnam Wood. Birnam Wood is indeed coming to Dunsinane, fulfilling half
of the witches’ prophecy. At the crisis of his fate, when the crown and the head under it are
both at stake, he arraigns life on the ground, not that it is cruel or terrible, but that it is petty
and meaning less.3

In the battle, Macbeth hews violently, but the English forces gradually overwhelm his army
and castle. On the battlefield, Macbeth encounters the vengeful Macduff, who declares that
2
www.cliffsnotes.com
3
Firkins, O.W., The Character of Macbeth, The John Hopkins University Press, October 1910, The Sewanee
Review.

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he was not “of woman born” but was instead “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb
(what we now call birth by caesarean section). Though he realizes that he is doomed,
Macbeth continues to fight until Macduff kills and beheads him. Malcolm, now the King of
Scotland, declares his benevolent intentions for the country and invites all to see him
crowned at Scone.

On studying Macbeth, various themes are prominent. Shakespeare's Macbeth dramatizes the


battle between good and evil, exploring the psychological effects of King Duncan's murder in
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth's conflicting feelings of guilt and ambition embody
this timeless battle of good versus evil.

Shakespeare uses psychological realism to develop the theme of guilt. Macbeth's remorse
causes him to lose his grip on reality and lash out at those who would remind him of his evil
deeds. In the end, Lady Macbeth's guilt over the murder drives her to suicide.

Supernatural forces are at work in Macbeth. William Shakespeare introduces this theme in
Act I, Scene I, when the trio of witches predict their first meeting with Macbeth. Their
presence in the play raises the question of fate vs. free will. Would Macbeth have killed King
Duncan, for instance, if the witches had not told him he would become king? Shakespeare
leaves this open to interpretation.4

The main theme of Macbeth—the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by
moral constraints—finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters.
Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds,
yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment
and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind
of frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater
determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts.
One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband
mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is
eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her
conscience. In each case, ambition—helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the
witches—is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play
suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is
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difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne—Banquo, Fleance, Macduff
—and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them. If the witches’ prophecy
is understood to be imposing a supernatural order on the natural order of things, the natural
order can also be understood as responding with tempestuous signs. Following Duncan’s
death, Lennox describes the “unruly” night in some detail. Similarly, Ross notes that “the
heavens, as troubled with man’s act, Threatens his bloody stage”. In the same scene, the Old
Man and Ross both agree that they saw horses eat each other. Even the events leading to the
conclusion of the play can be understood as a negotiation of the natural and supernatural.
Whereas Macbeth believes that he will live the “lease of nature”—since Birnam Wood
cannot possible come to Dunsinane Hill—the forest is literally uprooted by the English army
in accordance with the prophecy. The contrast between the natural and the supernatural forms
a backdrop that suggests the epic proportions of the struggle over the Scottish crown.5

CHAPTER 3

LADY MACBETH

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous and frightening female characters. She
plots Duncan’s murder, and she is stronger, more ruthless, and more ambitious than her
husband. She seems fully aware of this and knows that she will have to push Macbeth into
committing murder. At one point, she wishes that she were not a woman so that she could do
it herself. This theme of the relationship between gender and power is key to Lady Macbeth’s
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character: her husband implies that she is a masculine soul inhabiting a female body, which
seems to link masculinity to ambition and violence. Shakespeare, however, seems to use her,
and the witches, to undercut Macbeth’s idea that “undaunted mettle should compose /
Nothing but males”. These crafty women use female methods of achieving power—that is,
manipulation—to further their supposedly male ambitions. Women, the play implies, can be
as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these
ambitions on their own.

Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with remarkable effectiveness, overriding all his
objections; when he hesitates to murder, she repeatedly questions his manhood until he feels
that he must commit murder to prove himself. Lady Macbeth’s remarkable strength of will
persists through the murder of the king—it is she who steadies her husband’s nerves
immediately after the crime has been perpetrated. Afterward, however, she begins a slow
slide into madness—just as ambition affects her more strongly than Macbeth before the
crime, so does guilt plague her more strongly afterward. By the close of the play, she has
been reduced to sleepwalking through the castle, desperately trying to wash away an invisible
bloodstain. Once the sense of guilt comes home to roost, Lady Macbeth’s sensitivity becomes
a weakness, and she is unable to cope. Significantly, she (apparently) kills herself, signaling
her total inability to deal with the legacy of their crimes.

Macbeth and his wife had a complicated relationship, based on political triumphs, not love.
Lady Macbeth has just as much ambition as her husband and she does contribute to his
downfall as well as her own. Macbeth is ambitious. He wants to be king; he must have
wanted to be king even before the witches' predictions or their naming him king would not
have had such an immediate effect. While he doubts the witches at first, it does not take long
for him to believe they were speaking the truth because it suited his own wishes so
well. However, Macbeth is without his wife’s cruel and uncompassionate attitude towards
life. Lady Macbeth is aware that her husband is genuinely a gentle person. However, she is
able to manipulate Macbeth into committing evil deeds in order to achieve her desires.

Lady Macbeth often accuses her husband of talking but not carrying through his ambitions.
Although, she often talks about becoming queen of Scotland and murdering Duncan, she
never does anything to help this cause. The qualities that it takes to murder a king are not
present in Lady Macbeth. She recognizes this, and convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan so she
can achieve her dreams. Macbeth’s reign as king of Scotland will be short, yet she will enjoy

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royal luxuries long after her husband is dead.  Lady Macbeth is only concerned with the
advantages she can have by being married to Macbeth. If Macbeth becomes king by
murdering many people, she can reap the benefits of his killing without doing anything.6 

Everything happens pretty quickly, but one of the first things he does is write to his wife to
tell her that she will one day be queen and that Duncan is coming to their house for a visit.
Her immediate response is to remark that Duncan will die under her roof; her next lines are
chilling in their intensity:

...Come, you spirits


That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! 

When Macbeth appears, she immediately wants to plan Duncan's murder, but now it is
Macbeth who demurs and is uncertain that this is a wise thing to do.7

We will proceed no further in this business:


He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

His wife taunts and scorns him, saying:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;


And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
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They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.

Finally, the plan is hatched--Lady Macbeth's plan—and she is the one who commits to killing
Duncan; however, she cannot do it because he reminds her of her father. This is the moment
when Macbeth has to take responsibility for his own actions without blaming anyone else,
and he goes and does the deed. Everything that happens to Macbeth from this point on,
including his death, is his own fault.

While Lady Macbeth goaded and shamed her husband into the plan, he is the one who
voluntarily carried it out. They may have been partners in this crime, but they were not equal
partners.

She continues with this heartless attitude and mocks her husband when he seems weak. 
While he feels guilty about the blood on his hands, she says "a little water clears us of this
deed."

But later in Act Five, the guilt and remorse come to haunt her.  She is sleep walking and
muttering about the horrible act of killing Duncan. She literally goes crazy with guilt.  Her
comments about the blood come back in this scene where she is making a washing motion
with her hands and saying "Out damn spot."

CHAPTER 4

MACBETH AS A TRAGIC SHAKESPEARAN HERO

Macbeth is a tragic hero in the true sense as his own traits lead to his ultimate downfall. The
play opens with Macbeth portraying a picture of a loyal and hard-working nobleman. Soon,
we see the obsession for power in him unveil due to the instigation of the prominent female

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characters, namely the witches and his wife. His own pathetic moves result in his ruin at the
end of the play, highlighting the tragic nature of the play and fate of the protagonist.

All the Shakespearean tragic heroes have some attributes that are common in all of them but
that does not mean that they all are identical. All the heroes i.e., Hamlet, Othello, King Lear
and Macbeth have some individual features peculiar to themselves. They are the stars of the
greatest tragedies that Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare produced them all in one period of his
life, in a steady outpouring of tragic eloquence: Hamlet (by 1601), Othello (c. 1603- 1604),
King Lear (c. 1605), and Macbeth (1606- 1607).

All of the four heroes i.e., Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth belong to noble families.
They all had a rich background and were financially established. One of the most important
unvaried traits they had was that they all were themselves responsible for their downfall.

Another common feature is that all of them are somewhat insecure deep down which is the
root cause of all of their problems. All of the four tragedies confront the nature of evil, as
Shakespeare’s classical tragedies generally do not. Human failure is often measured in terms
of good and evil. Claudius, in Hamlet, confesses in soliloquy to being guilty of “the primal
eldest curse” of having killed his own brother 8. Othello realizes too late what he has done in
killing his innocent wife and begs divine punishment. The appalling evil manifested in King
Lear by Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and others obliges Albany to question what will become of
the human race if some restraint is not found. Macbeth is painfully aware that every decent
consideration argues against the murder he is contemplating.

These four plays centre on crimes that strike at everything civilization holds most dear:
murder of a brother, usurpation of a crown, murder to obtain one’s brother’s wife, murder of
a wife, abandonment of a parent to life-threatening circumstances, adultery, conspiracy
against a brother and a father, murder of one’s king and one’s guest.

One reason why we can relate to Shakespeare’s great tragedies and find them so moving is
that they embody with such fearful clarity the struggles and rivalries within the family group.

The most remarkable similarities found in all Shakespearean heroes are their refined
character. They were all strong and powerful men. Also, all of them were puppets of their
destinies and at some time were completely ruled by them.

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Each and every Shakespearean tragic hero has some differences along with the evident
similarities. The theme of the great Shakespearean tragedies is the fall from grace of a great
man due to a flaw in his nature. These flaws were different in all the different heroes.

Macbeth suffered because of his ruthless ambition. He believed in the witches’ predictions
and killed Duncan to claim the throne. This ambition leads to his demise. In the case of
Hamlet, his irresolution became the reason for his fate. He sees his father’s ghost which tells
him that he was killed by his own brother i.e., Hamlet’s Uncle. After that, all the decisions of
his life revolve around his revenge. For King Lear, his foolishness became the reason behind
his death.9 He disowns Cordelia, his favourite daughter for a petty reason and trusts the
wrong people to satisfy his ego. Ultimately, this becomes the reason of his eternal rest. As in
the instance of Othello, it was his suspicion and insecurity that took away his life. Due to
unfounded jealousy, love turned bad and Othello killed his beloved wife. When he comes
across the truth, he could not bear it and killed himself.

This is the comparison of protagonist of the play Macbeth and the other protagonists of
Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Despite various similarities, the rationality behind everyone’s actions is disparate. This is also
an insight into Shakespeare’s style of writing.

CHAPTER 5

CONCLUSION

Macbeth is one of the most famous tragic plays written by Shakespeare. The speciality of this
play resides in the dark plot of the play. The play is a thriller with an uncertain ending and a
clever manner of unfolding the depth in the personalities of each character, especially that the

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Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It highlights the numerous themes of prophecy, greed,
uncertainty, etc.

The reasons behind the downfall of Macbeth are infinite but some factors have contributed
majorly. One of the main reasons behind the downfall of Macbeth is Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
himself and his destiny. Lady Macbeth was the first person who made Macbeth realise that he
should overthrow King Duncan’s throne by killing him. Macbeth himself was also
responsible for his downfall as he blindly believed in the prophecies of the three witches and
Lady Macbeth. He also acted on his instincts and lost his brains after getting into power.

The character of Macbeth can be called as a typical Shakespearean hero as he is ultimately a


puppet of fate. He was a born noble and was ultimately spoilt by the fever of power.

Initially, he was a very determined follower and a much respected noble. Then, he killed
King Duncan which brought into his descent. The attribute of his personality which was
different from other Shakespearean heroes lies in his utmost ambitions. He became too
ambitious and too insecure to keep his mind sane. After that, each and every step that he took
led to his deterioration. Therefore, Macbeth was a very interesting as well as a pitiable
character.

CHAPTER 6

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 Papp, Joseph, Shakespeare: Four Tragedies: Hamlet/ Othello/ King Lear/ Macbeth
(Bantam Classics), Library Binding Edition by Penguin, 1988

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 Firkins, O.W., The Character of Macbeth, The John Hopkins University Press,
October 1910, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 414-430
 www.sparknotes.com
 www.myenglishpages.com
 www.cliffsnotes.com
 www.schoolhelper.net
 www.enotes.com
 www.gradesaver.com
 https://letterpile.com

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