Macbeth Act V - Summary

Act V is much faster paced than any of the other acts of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and it consists of many more short scenes. However, this act serves to tie up a lot of loose ends and shows the outcome of Macbeth's actions.

The first scene focuses on Lady Macbeth. A gentlewoman, presumably one of Lady Macbeth's servants, meets with a doctor to discuss some strange behaviors Lady Macbeth has been exhibiting. The two observe Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks, making motions like she is trying to wash something off of her hands. She also talks in her sleep, alluding to the treacherous deeds that she and her husband have committed.

Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking and sleeptalking is yet another manifestation of guilt. Just as Macbeth saw the dagger and ghost of Banquo, so Lady Macbeth is tormented in her sleep. However, the difference is that while Macbeth was able to recover form his temporary insanity, Lady Macbeth seems caught in a tormented state with no way out. She seems, to those around her, to have gone completely mad. And it is the guilt that has made her so. She mentions that no amount of water can wash away her crimes, ironic considering how she told Macbeth after the murder of Duncan that a little water would erase the evidence of their deeds.

Scene two shifts to a completely different setting, showing Malcolm and a group of Scottish lords discussing their situation. Outside of Macbeth's castle, they wait for their allies-the English troops-to arrive near Birnam Wood. They plan on attacking "the tyrant" Macbeth.

The following scene moves to Macbeth, who paces the halls of the castle, feeling as though he has nothing to fear from the troops gathering outside of his doors. After all, the witches assured him that no one born from a woman could defeat him nor would his defeat come unless the forest moved. The doctor enters the scene to tell Macbeth of his wife's recent maladies. Distracted, Macbeth only orders him to cure her of her hallucinations and ravings, not going to see or comfort her. This, again, shows a development in Macbeth's character. While before Macbeth relied on his wife, he is now too distracted by his own ambitions to think much of her.

Scene four moves again to Malcolm and his troops. The army decides that, in order to disguise their numbers, they will each cut down a branch from the forest and carry it in front of them. The idea is that the enemy, Macbeth, won't be able to see how many troops they actually have. This, of course, informs the reader that the witches prophecy about the forest moving toward the castle can actually come true. As happens many times in this play, nothing is what it seems.

The next section shows an unraveling Macbeth. A woman's cry is heard, and Macbeth learns that his wife has taken her own life. Interestingly enough, Macbeth seems numb to this news, not grieving the loss of someone who was literally his partner in crime. Shortly after this, he sees the troops moving toward his castle and, to his eyes, it seems the forest is moving toward the castle. He knows now, too late, that it is possible for him to be defeated.

The next several scenes mark the battle between Macbeth's forces and those of Malcolm. Macbeth continues to hang onto his final shreds of confidence, still insisting no one born from a woman can defeat him.

Finally, Macbeth encounters Macduff and engages in combat with him. When Macbeth insists upon his invincibility once again, Macduff tells him that he was "from his mother's womb / untimely ripped." Technically, Macduff was not "born" from his mother at all. As with the forest, the reader can guess that Macbeth's time has come. After this revelation, Macduff and Macbeth exit the stage fighting.

In the final scene, Macduff exists Macbeth's castle to meet with Malcolm. He carries Macbeth's head with him, the signal to the audience that he did indeed defeat Macbeth. Ultimately, this marks Macbeth's final downfall. He has made quite a transformation in the playing, going from respected war hero, to murderer, to complete tyrant.

Interestingly, however, the final prophecy about Banquo's sons becoming king is left without a definite conclusion at the end of the play. On the one hand, Shakespeare's audience may have been familiar with a work call Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as a historical reference for the play. In Chronicles, the character whom Fleance represents did have descendants who inherited the English throne. The audience might assume, then, that Banquo's prophecy would inevitably come true.

However, it is also possible that by leaving this open-ended, Shakespeare allows the reader to continue to ask questions about the nature of fate. Because this one prophecy is left unfulfilled at the end of the play, it still begs the question whether or not the witches were showing Macbeth his actual fate all along, or whether they were manipulating him into acting based on what might be.

Related Links:

Literature Summaries
Macbeth Quotations
Macbeth Quiz

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