Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays 2: Macbeth

George Romney (1734–1802), Macbeth and the Witches (1785), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 63.3 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare’s deepest insights into the human condition come in his tragedies, and there is none deeper than his Macbeth. He is thought to have completed this in time for its first performance in 1606, after King Lear, but before Antony and Cleopatra. As with Romeo and Juliet, it has been adapted and revisited in many different media, and has one scene that has proved highly popular in paintings, particularly during the nineteenth century.

Macbeth has fascinating historical references and relevance. Shakespeare based the play on an account of Scottish history, but deviated greatly from that description. There are contemporary references too, for example to Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which suggest that Shakespeare may have been appealing to the tastes of the patron of his theatrical company, King James.

The play opens with its three witches agreeing to meet with Macbeth after the day’s fighting in the war between Scotland’s King Duncan against the rebel Macdonald. During that, Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis and one of the king’s generals, distinguishes himself by killing the rebel leader, following which he defeats the Norwegians who have been supporting the rebellion. As a result, the traitorous Thane of Cawdor is sentenced to death.

The third scene of this first act is its most famous, and most painted, in which the three witches hail Macbeth and his friend Banquo after the battle. They first name Macbeth by his present title as Thane of Glamis, then as Thane of Cawdor, and finally as the future king of Scotland. The first part of their prophecy is quickly fulfilled when Macbeth is awarded the title of Thane of Cawdor, which leads him to imagine the murder of Duncan.

John Martin (1789–1854), Macbeth (1820), oil on canvas, 86 x 65.1 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

In John Martin’s account of this meeting, three witches materialise from a swirl of mist and lightning bolts on the left, and Macbeth and Banquo appear surprised at their sudden arrival. Winding around the shores of the distant lake is the huge army, and Martin has turned the Scottish Highlands into rugged Alpine scenery of the Burkean sublime, an indication of the much greater outcome of the meeting.

Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath (1855), oil on canvas, 70 x 92 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Théodore Chassériau’s Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath (1855) is a more conventional treatment, painted in the style of Delacroix.

King Duncan declares his older son Malcolm his heir and successor, and invites himself to Macbeth’s castle in Inverness. As Macbeth hurries off to prepare for the royal visit, he realises that he now has the task of disposing of both Duncan and Malcolm if he is to take the throne himself. While the king is dining in Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth mulls over the murderous task ahead, changes his mind, then is persuaded by Lady Macbeth to press on with this plot to kill the king.

William Blake’s Pity from about 1795 is a print associated by Frederick Tatham with the following lines from the opening of Act 1 Scene 7:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. …

It’s now generally agreed that Blake’s intention was to depict Shakespeare’s two similes for pity using imagery which matched his words literally, thus to evoke the concept of pity in exactly the same terms as in Macbeth’s speech.

Pity c.1795 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), Pity (c 1795), colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 42.5 x 53.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Having made the monoprint, most probably using watercolour paints on millboard, Blake finished each by hand, using pen and ink, and watercolour paints. The upper half consists of the long image of a pair of superimposed white horses, galloping through the air with their eyelids closed, on which there are two riders. The nearer rider reaches down with both arms to raise a miniature human figure (not having the proportions of an infant), and the further figure faces away from the viewer, their arms outstretched along the length of the horses.

The lower half of the painting contains a woman lying on her back, her head at the left and thrown back. Her hands are clasped together on her chest, and from the level of her armpits down she is wrapped in a white or grey funeral shroud. Thus, Shakespeare’s “naked new-born babe” is the miniature human being raised by the nearer horserider, the “blast” is shown by the horses’ manes and tails, and the rider’s hair, “heaven’s cherubim” are the two riders on the horses, and the “sightless couriers of the air” are the horses with their eyelids closed.

This is one of the most unusual depictions of any of Shakespeare’s plays.

After midnight, Macbeth’s friend Banquo tries to discuss their prophecy, but Macbeth is evasive. Once he is alone again, Macbeth sees a vision of a dagger which becomes stained with blood, and beckons him towards King Duncan’s chamber. He enters and murders the king. When Macbeth emerges still clutching the daggers, Lady Macbeth has to take them back into the king’s chamber, then lead him away to wash the blood from his hands and change clothing.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Lady Macbeth Receives the Daggers (1812), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Fuseli’s dark and heavily stylised painting of Lady Macbeth Receives the Daggers from 1812 shows her leaning forward towards her husband, who is holding the two daggers and looking distraught.

Macduff, the Thane of Fife, then arrives to awaken the king, discovers the murder, and awakens the whole household. Macbeth enters the chamber and kills the two chamberlains inside, who he claims were the murderers. When he explains this to the others, Lady Macbeth faints, while Duncan’s son Malcolm decides to flee for his life.

Banquo suspects Macbeth of murdering Duncan; when he goes out with his son for an afternoon ride, Macbeth hires a couple of killers to murder his friend, but Banquo’s son manages to escape. At a banquet that night, to which Banquo had been invited, Macbeth is horrified to see his friend’s ghost sat in his seat.

Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Banquo’s Ghost (1854-55), oil on panel, 53.8 x 65.3 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Reims, Reims, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Chassériau is one of few painters to have depicted Banquo’s Ghost, in this work from 1854-55, which is sadly in low resolution.

Macbeth is unable to get over that, and the rest of the party are dismissed to let Lady Macbeth try to sort her husband out.

William Rimmer (1825–1892), Scene from Macbeth (c 1850), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 66 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

William Rimmer’s Scene from Macbeth from about 1850 most probably shows Act 3 Scene 5, in which the three witches are told off by the goddess Hecate for meeting with Macbeth.

Others, realising that it was Macbeth who was responsible for the deaths of Duncan and Banquo, go to the English court, where Malcolm is, to urge the King of England to intervene militarily.

Macbeth returns to the three witches, who are preparing a potion, and calls for more prophecies. They warn him to beware of Macduff, but he is shown the descendants of Banquo as Scotland’s future kings.

George Romney (1734–1802), Macbeth and the Witches (1785), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 63.3 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings of this second witches’ scene, from Act 4 Scene 1, are sometimes confused with the first. George Romney’s Macbeth and the Witches from 1785 shows Macbeth alone, without Banquo, and a vision of the future kings of Scotland.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Macbeth Consulting the Witches (1825), lithograph, 32.2 x 25.2 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix’s lithograph of Macbeth Consulting the Witches from 1825 centres on their cauldron, in which their potion is bubbling:
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Once the witches have vanished, Macbeth is told that Macduff has fled to England, so he has Macduff’s family killed immediately. Meanwhile Macduff meets Malcolm in England; when he hears of the murder of his family, he swears revenge on Macbeth.

An English army under Malcolm’s leadership reaches Birnam Wood, where it’s joined by the Scottish nobles. Macbeth learns of their approach, and realises that he might die. Lady Macbeth then dies, making his life appear even more futile.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Death of Lady Macbeth (c 1875), pencil on paper, 46.5 x 61.7 cm, Tullie House, Carlisle, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fine pencil drawing of The Death of Lady Macbeth was made in about 1875.

Macbeth then goes to face the English army, and is eventually killed by Macduff, who brings his head to Malcolm and the nobles. Malcolm is finally hailed as the King of Scotland.

With that plot, it’s unsurprising that Macbeth has a reputation in the theatre as being cursed, to the point where some won’t even mention its name, referring to it merely as ‘the Scottish play.’

Further reading

Full text at Project Gutenberg

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.