By William Shakespeare

Plot Summary

Act 1

The play opens with three witches grouped around a fire chanting. They represent the evil that will lead to Macbeth's undoing. However, they also represent the fact that evil cannot act without will: they are bent, frail and old. Macbeth is the instrument through which they work their evil. They do, however, need his complicity. Duncan hears of Macbeth's victory in defeating Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor in battle. They are returning home victorious and encounter the witches on the heath. These "imperfect speakers" predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and later King of Scotland. They tell Banquo that his descendants will be kings, but that he himself will not. Messengers from the King arrive and Macbeth is astonished to be greeted as the Thane of Cawdor. This is a title that has indeed been newly granted him by the King in recognition of his bravery. Malcolm, Duncan's son, has been appointed Prince of Cumberland, heir to the throne. In an aside, Macbeth's ambition shows itself:

"The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step

On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,

For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,

Let not light see my black and deep desires."

The witches have put the thought into Macbeth's mind and he here first entertains the possibility of murdering the king. When Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth about his plan, still unsure as to how to act, she takes it up with vigor:

"Only look up clear;

To alter favour ever is to fear.

Leave all the rest to me.'

Act II

Banquo, in contrast to Macbeth, prays that he might not realize the witches' prophecy at any cost to others:

"Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose."

We are unsure at this point whether his reticence is from honor or fear. His words are in stark contrast to the bravado of Macbeth. Macbeth feigns allegiance to the king in his conversations with Banquo. In Scene One, the infamous dagger soliloquy appears. Macbeth is steeling himself to kill the sleeping Duncan. We can see the working of Macbeth's mind, and the key to the play as a whole in this scene. Macbeth suppresses reflection in favor of action: will is central to Macbeth's deeds. If he thinks too long he will not act (we recall Hamlet's dilemma as he his instructed by the supernatural in the form of his father's ghost).

The dagger represents the things in the play which are out of sight: the supernatural powers which influence the characters at every step. It also represents the dark side of Macbeth's mind. The thought of murder has been suggested and his evil side overpowers his good side by proposing murder with the appearance of the dagger. After Lady Macbeth ahs drugged the King's servants, and rung a bell to alert Macbeth to the fact, he stabs Duncan.

The porter is a comic figure and his appearance is timed to lighten the atmosphere after such dark deeds, although his topic of drunkenness only stresses further man's depravity in weakened states. Implicating them in Duncan's death, Macbeth kills the porters in feigned fury at the King's death. Fearing a similar fate to their father, Malcolm flees to England and Donalbain to Ireland.

Ross and Macduff, two Thanes of Scotland, discuss the King's death. Ross immediately guesses the reason for the murder:

p>"Thriftless ambition that will raven up

Thine own life's means!"


Banquo, in soliloquy, accuses Macbeth of murdering Duncan:

"…and I fear

Thou playedst most foully for't."

However, we see that Banquo still trusts his friend, or harbors some ambitions of his own, because he accepts an invitation to feast with the newly crowned Thane of Cawdor, referring to Macbeth as "your highness".

Macbeth is worried that Banquo knows of his evil deed: "Our fears in Banquo / Stick deep". Macbeth enlists the help of two villainous murderers, who undertake to kill Banquo and his son Fleance whilst they are out riding. With great loquaciousness Macbeth persuades the murderers, and himself, of why Banquo must die. Lady Macbeth is versed in many of the tricks of manipulation that Macbeth has not considered. Before the feast, she says to him:

"Come on,

Gentle my lord, sleek o'er your rugged looks,

Be bright and jovial among your guests tonight."

The murderers kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes.

During the feast, Macbeth praises Banquo, trying to remain nonchalant. The arrival of Banquo's ghost spoils the charade. It sits in Macbeth's place and Macbeth becomes hysterical when none of the other guests can see it. Lady Macbeth, acting deceptively and opportunistically as ever, sends the guests away before they become even more suspicious of her husband's behavior, explaining away his actions as the result of a childhood affliction:

"My lord is often thus;

And hath been from his youth."

We are introduced to Hecate, the leader of the witches, who briefs the three 'wierd sisters' in the correct manner in which to bring about Macbeth's downfall. Meanwhile, Malcolm (Duncan's son) has joined with Macduff against Macbeth. They have allied with the powerful English county of Northumberland.

Act IV

The witches cast spells, tolling the refrain:

"Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble."

They add a variety of hideous ingredients to their boiling pot and various apparitions warn Macbeth of three things: to beware of Macduff; that he will not be harmed by any man who is born of woman; and that Macbeth will never be vanquished "until Great Birnan Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him". Macbeth is relieved, since the thought of a wood moving to a hill is patently ridiculous. The final apparition is a line of eight kings followed by the ghost of Banquo. Here Macbeth realizes that Banquo's children will all be kings, just as the witches prophesied. Banquo is shown as a saintly figure, holding a glass to remind us that he was on his way to feast with Macbeth when he was murdered.

Lennox appears, apparently oblivious to the witches. He tells Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. In revenge, Macbeth sends a murderer to kill Macduff's wife and son.

Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty in the war against Macbeth through a series of probing questions. Satisfied in his devotion, they resort to stop at nothing in order to overthrow Macbeth. Ross enters and, in one of the most touching passages in any of Shakespeare's plays, tells Macduff of the death of his family:

"They were well at peace when I did leave them…

I have words

That would be howled out in the desert air,

Where hearing should not latch them."

Macduff resolves to kill Macbeth himself:

"Within my sword's length set him; if he scape,

Heaven forgive him too."

Act V

Lady Macbeth is going mad. She has begun to sleepwalk, washing her hands furiously of the blood that she feels is upon them. Although the image has become a cliché now, it is still a powerful scene. In classic Freudian style, Lady Macbeth is vocalizing her guilt through her subconscious because her conscious mind will not let her speak it. Macbeth is concerned about her, but has to prepare to defend himself against the approaching forces led by Malcolm and Macduff. Malcolm disguises his army as they advance with bushes cut from Birnum Wood. In this way they fulfill the prophecy, since as they approach it seems as if the forest itself moves. Macbeth hears of the death of Lady Macbeth and we see the remnants of his valor in the stoical way in which he accepts the news. When Macbeth meets with Macduff, the latter confides in him:

"Despair thy charm,

And let the angel whom thou still hast served

Tell thee Macduff was from his mother's womb

Untimely ripped."

Now Macbeth knows that Macduff was not "of woman born" but was delivered by Caesarian section. Macduff beheads Macbeth and brings it to Malcolm, who is crowned king of Scotland as the play ends.