Macbeth Summary

The play Macbeth, as the name suggests, is chiefly about the title character. Macbeth is a thane of Scotland, a noble under King Duncan. When the play opens, he has just helped Duncan defeat a troublesome group of rebels. Hailing Macbeth as a hero, Duncan decides to give Macbeth the title thane of Cawdor as a reward. This is quite ironic, considering that Macbeth later becomes a traitor himself.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Macbeth encounters three witches. With him, is his friend and fellow-thane, Banquo. The witches greet Macbeth as thane of Glamis, which he already is. They then hail him as thane of Cawdor and tell him he will also be king. They also tell Banquo that his descendants will be kings. Shortly after this encounter, another thane approaches Macbeth, a messenger from Duncan. He tells Macbeth of his new title as thane of Cawdor. This is the moment at which the first seeds of corruption are planted in Macbeth. He finds himself wondering in this and subsequent scenes what it would take for him to be king. Is this something that will happen regardless of his actions? Or is this something that he must take for himself if he truly wants it?

Macbeth writes home to tell his wife that Duncan is coming to their castle to celebrate the recent victory. However, in his letter he also tells Lady Macbeth about everything that transpired with the witches. The idea of Macbeth becoming king appeals to Lady Macbeth. She gives a long speech in which she worries Macbeth is too kind and weak to take the throne for himself, and she calls upon evil spirits to fill her with cruelty so that she can undertake the task of killing Duncan. When Macbeth arrives at the castle, he admits to his wife that he is hesitant to kill his king. His wife calls him a coward and tells Macbeth to leave everything up to her.

Duncan soon arrives at the castle, and Lady Macbeth acts like the perfect hostess. Macbeth, however, is tormented and nearly changes his mind about their murder plans. Lady Macbeth convinces him to go through with it. She plans to get Duncan's guards drunk so that Macbeth can sneak in to kill them.

In the next act, Macbeth talks to Banquo about the witches' prophecy. When left alone, Macbeth hallucinates a vision of a dagger that seems to be pointing in the direction of Duncan's murder. Macbeth struggles with indecision, listing reasons why he should not kill Duncan. However, he soon hears the ringing of a bell-Lady Macbeth's signal to him-and he leaves to go through with the plan.

Lady Macbeth waits outside the door of Duncan's chambers while Macbeth carries out the murder, reflecting on how she would have killed Duncan herself if he hadn't looked like her father. Soon, Macbeth enters, covered in blood-he has successfully killed Duncan. However, he is clearly shaken by what he has done, even suggesting that he wishes he hadn't done it. Again, Lady Macbeth scolds him, especially when she sees he has brought the murder weapon from the room. She takes the weapons back into the scene of the crime herself. The two of them go to clean up as they hear a knocking at the gates of the castle.

In the next scene, a porter opens the doors to the castle to admit several lords who have come to see Duncan. At this point, Duncan's murder is discovered, and the castle is in an uproar. Malcolm and Donalbain-Duncan's sons-decide to flee in fear they may be the next victims of murder.

In Act III, Macbeth has been crowned king by the other thanes. Banquo reflects on how he fears Macbeth "played foully" to get the crown. Meanwhile, Macbeth has hired two men-who apparently have some grievance with Banquo-to kill him. Macbeth fears that the witches' prophecy about Banquo's sons might still come true, so he sends the murderers to kill both him and his son, Fleance. Though the murderers succeed in killing Banquo, Fleance escapes.

Soon after the murder, Macbeth hosts a banquet for his thanes. Here, he has another hallucination, imagining that he sees the ghost of Banquo, which is likely a manifestation of his guilt. Lady Macbeth sends the other lords away from the banquet. She and Macbeth talk about how they have heard that Macduff, another thane, is acting treasonously. Macbeth resolves to find the witches and ask for more information about his future.

The next act finds Macbeth in a cave with the witches. A series of apparitions appears, each giving Macbeth a message about his future. The first is the image of a floating head, which warns him to beware of Macduff. The second is the image of a bloody child, and it tells Macbeth that he can never be defeated by someone born of a woman. The final image is of a child wearing a crown and holding a tree branch. This final apparition tells Macbeth that he cannot be defeated until the forest moves toward the trees. At the end of this, Macbeth sees one last vision, that of a line of kings with Banquo at the end, suggesting that Banquo's descendants will still inherit the throne.

As a result of these visions, Macbeth gains new confidence, feeling as though he cannot easily be defeated. However, he still feels that he will do whatever it takes to prevent someone other than his own descendants inheriting the throne. He also resolves to prevent Macduff from becoming a problem, thereby deciding to murderer Macduff's family.

The next scene pans to Macduff's family, showing his wife and innocent child being killed by a group of murderers. Clearly, Macbeth is responsible for this. It also represents the height of his crimes because he murders an innocent woman and her children for no reason than his own greed and ambition.

The final scene shifts again, this time to Macduff. Seeking an ally, Macduff has traveled to England where Malcolm has sought refuge. Malcolm, leery of Macduff at first, tests his intentions by telling him a series of lies about his own behavior. However, Macduff passes the test and the two become allies. Additionally, at the end of this scene, Macduff learns of the death of his family and vows revenge against Macbeth.

The last act of the play is much faster-paced than the other acts. A brief scene shows that Lady Macbeth has lost herself to guilt. She sleepwalks, confessing to her crimes in her sleep, and constantly makes motions like she is attempting to wash blood from her hands. Meanwhile, Malcolm and Macduff's troops gather outside of Macbeth's castle. However, Macbeth is not worried because the visions he saw make him feel invincible. As camouflage, Malcolm's troops each cut down a branch from a tree and carry it in front of them to hide their numbers. Looking out from his castle, it appears to Macbeth that the forest has begun to move. He begins to become worried about the prophecies and the possibility for defeat.

A battle begins inside the castle and, eventually, Macbeth is pitted against Macduff. Macduff reveals that he was ripped from his mother's womb, rather than being born, and Macbeth knows he has met his match. Indeed, Macduff defeats him, taking his head to Malcolm. The play ends on this note, with Malcolm taking over as king of Scotland.

Macbeth, as with all Shakespeare plays, is a complex work. However, there are several major thematic components that are worthy of note here. One of the major ideas in the play is spoken at the beginning, when the witches utter "fair is foul and foul is fair." Throughout the play, the idea of things not being what they seem recurs in many different situations.

Another important development in the play is the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, especially their relationship with guilt. Throughout the play, they both develop into far different characters than they were at the beginning. At the start of the play, Lady Macbeth was very much in charge and rather remorseless. By the end, however, she is driven mad by guilt. Conversely, Macbeth at the beginning of the play wavers in what he wants to do but, by the end, he is callously willing to do whatever necessary to keep his position as king.

Additionally, the ideas of fates and free will are important in the play. The witches have something to do with Macbeth's future but the question is: what? On the one hand, they might be influencing Macbeth's future by simply suggesting what he could become. On the other hand, they might actually know his unchangeable fate. This calls into question how much control people actually have over their own destinies.

Related Links:

Macbeth Quotations
Macbeth Act I - Summary

Macbeth Quiz
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - Act I Quiz
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - Act II Quiz
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - Act III Quiz
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - Act IV Quiz
Macbeth by William Shakespeare - Act V Quiz

William Shakespeare Facts
Literature Summaries

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