Probably composed in late 1606 or early 1607, Macbeth is the last of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, the others being Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. It is a relatively short play without a major subplot, and it is considered by many scholars to be Shakespeare's darkest work. Lear is an utter tragedy in which the natural world is amorally indifferent toward mankind, but in Macbeth, Shakespeare adds a supernatural dimension that purposively conspires against Macbeth and his kingdom. In the tragedy of Lear, the distraught king summons the goddess of Chaos, Hecht; in Macbeth, Hecate appears as an actual character.
On the level of human evil, Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy is about Macbeth's bloody rise to power, including the murder of the Scottish king, Duncan, and the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds generating still more evil deeds. As an integral part of this thematic web is the play's most memorable character, Lady Macbeth. Like her husband, Lady Macbeth's ambition for power leads her into an unnatural, phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft, insomnia and madness. But while Macbeth responds to the prophecies of the play's famous trio of witches, Lady Macbeth goes even further by figuratively transforming herself into an unnatural, desexualized evil spirit. The current trend of critical opinion is toward an upward reevaluation of Lady Macbeth, who is said to be rehumanized by her insanity and her suicide. Much of this reappraisal of Lady Macbeth has taken place in discussions of her ironically strong marriage to Macbeth, a union that rests on loving bonds but undergoes disintegration as the tragedy unfolds.
Summary of the Play
The play begins on an open stretch of land in medieval Scotland. Three Witches enter and give the prophecy that the civil war will end that day and that at sunset they will meet Macbeth. The Witches are summoned to leave, but they do not leave without stating that what is normally “fair” will be “foul,” and what is “foul” will be “fair.”
King Duncan learns that Macbeth has been victorious and has defeated Macdonwald. The Thane of Cawdor has betrayed Duncan and is accused of being a traitor. Duncan orders the Thane of Cawdor’s execution and announces that Macbeth will receive the title of Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth and Banquo leave the battlefield and meet the Witches. The Witches state the prophecy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and king and that Banquo will be the father of kings, but not king himself. Macbeth has been victorious on the battlefield and the war is at an end—to what greatness should he now aspire?
The Witches spark the ambitious nature in Macbeth, as he knows his rise to power would greatly be enhanced by being named Thane of Cawdor. After the Witches vanish, Ross and Angus arrive and announce that Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor. Banquo is skeptical of the Witches, but Macbeth, driven by a desire for power, considers killing Duncan to gain the crown. Macbeth is overwhelmed by the image, yet his desire for power is still present, as stated in a letter he sends to Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to act on his thoughts, telling him that she will guide and support his plan to kill King Duncan. While Duncan is visiting Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth kills Duncan as he sleeps. After the murder is discovered, Macbeth kills the servants, whom he accuses of Duncan’s murder. Duncan’s sons, fearing for their own lives, flee Scotland. Macbeth is crowned king.
Banquo raises suspicions that Macbeth killed Duncan. Macbeth hires two men to kill Banquo and his son Fleance, whom Macbeth fears will become king, as the Witches foretold. Banquo is killed, but Fleance escapes.
The Witches conjure a spell, and Apparitions reveal to Macbeth three prophecies that will affect his future. He is told to beware of Macduff, that no man born of woman can harm him, and he will not be conquered until the forest at Birnam marches to Dunsinane. Macbeth is also shown a procession of kings with the last king looking in a mirror—the reflection is that of Banquo.
Macbeth orders Macduff’s family to be murdered and leaves for England to confront Macduff. When Macduff hears of the massacre of his family, he vows to seek revenge on Macbeth. He joins Malcolm in his quest to depose Macbeth.
The army proceeds in camouflage by carrying a branch from Birnam Wood into battle. Alarmed by this, Macbeth fears the Witches’ prophecy will come true. Macbeth is told of Lady Macbeth’s death by her own hands, and he laments the nature of his life.
Macbeth fights Macduff, and Macbeth boasts that he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff informs Macbeth that he was surgically removed from his mother’s womb and thus was not born of woman. Macduff kills Macbeth in battle and hails Malcolm as King of Scotland. Malcolm vows to restore Scotland to a peaceful country.
Estimated Reading Time
The time needed to read Macbeth depends on the familiarity of the reader with the language of the Elizabethan Era. The notes and glossary of the text being used should serve as a guide to the reader. A recorded version of the play would serve as a source for pronunciation and aid the reader with inflection and intent of the words.
Since Shakespeare wrote in blank verse, a form of unrhymed poetry, there is a rhythm to the reading that becomes easier to follow as the reader moves through the play. The estimated reading time is approximately 12 to 14 hours.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
On a lonely heath in Scotland, three weird witches sing their riddling runes and say that soon they will meet Macbeth. Macbeth, the noble thane of Glamis, had recently been victorious in a great battle against Vikings and Scottish rebels. For his brave deeds, King Duncan decides to confer upon him the lands of the rebellious thane of Cawdor.
On his way to see the king, Macbeth and his friend, Banquo, meet the three witches on the dark moor. The wild and frightful women greet Macbeth by first calling him thane of Glamis, then thane of Cawdor, and finally, king of Scotland. Finally, they prophesy that Banquo’s heirs will reign in Scotland in years to come. When Macbeth tries to question the three women, they vanish.
Macbeth thinks very little about the strange prophecy until he meets one of Duncan’s messengers, who tells him that he is now thane of Cawdor. This piece of news stuns Macbeth, but Banquo thinks the witches’ prophecy is an evil ruse to whet Macbeth’s ambition and trick him into fulfilling the prophecy. Macbeth does not heed Banquo’s warning; hearing the witches call him king has gone deep into his soul. He ponders the possibility of becoming a monarch and sets his whole heart on the attainment of this goal. If he could be thane of Cawdor, perhaps he could rule all of Scotland as well. As it is now, Duncan is king, and he has two sons who will rule after him. The problem is great. Macbeth shakes off his dreams and accompanies Banquo to greet Duncan.
Duncan is a kind, majestic, gentle, and strong ruler; Macbeth is fond of him. When Duncan, however, mentions that his son, Malcolm, will succeed him on the throne, Macbeth sees the boy as an obstacle in his own path; he hardly dares admit to himself how this impediment disturbs him. Duncan announces that he will spend one night of a royal procession at Macbeth’s castle. Lady Macbeth, who is even more ambitious than her husband, sees Duncan’s visit as a perfect opportunity for Macbeth to become king. She determines that he should murder Duncan and usurp the throne.
That night there is much feasting in the castle. After everyone is asleep, Lady Macbeth tells her husband of her plan for the king’s murder. Horrified, Macbeth at first refuses to do the deed, but when his wife accuses him of cowardice and dangles bright prospects of his future before his eyes, Macbeth finally succumbs. He sneaks into the sleeping king’s chamber and plunges a knife into his heart.
The murder is blamed on two grooms whom Lady Macbeth had smeared with Duncan’s blood while they were asleep. Suspicions, however, are aroused in the castle. The...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
Act Summary and Analysis
Act I Summary and Analysis
Three Witches: evil prophets; also known as the Weird Sisters
Duncan: King of Scotland
Malcolm: Duncan’s son
Captain: a wounded Scottish-soldier
Lennox: nobleman of Scotland
Ross: nobleman of Scotland
Macbeth: Duncan’s cousin and General in the military
Banquo: soldier and Macbeth’s friend
Angus: nobleman of Scotland
Lady Macbeth: Macbeth’s wife
The play opens on a bleak and lonely stretch of land in Scotland. Three Witches report that the battle Macbeth is fighting will be over by sunset; they plan to meet with Macbeth on the barren battlefield, or “heath,” at that time. The setting is enhanced by an approaching thunder storm and three Witches foretelling of the evil they foresee for the future: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” what is good will be bad and what is bad will be good.
The king of Scotland, Duncan, learns of the events of the battle from the wounded Captain that has just returned from the battlefield. The Captain informs Duncan that Macbeth has defeated Macdonwald, the Norwegian army, and the Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is reported to be brave and fearless. The Captain states the conflict was resolved by Macbeth. The King orders the immediate execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor and names Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor. Duncan sends Ross to announce this to Macbeth on the battlefield.
The Witches are on the battlefield discussing the evil and disruptive deeds they have been doing. The First Witch had a disagreement with a sailor’s wife because the wife would not give her any of the chestnuts she was eating. This angers the Witches and they decide to torture the woman’s husband by creating a windstorm that will blow his ship to all points on the compass. The storm will be so intense he will not be able to rest. The first Witch says, “I’ll drain him dry as hay.” She then brags about the “pilot’s thumb,” or small bone, she has as a charm. The Witches hear a drum and the approach of Macbeth.
Macbeth and Banquo enter and are unaware of the Witches at first. Macbeth’s first line in the play, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” alludes to the initial prophecy of the Three Witches. Banquo then spies the Witches, but he is unable to determine if they are men or women: “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” The Witches then greet Macbeth with his current title, Thane of Glamis, and two titles he is yet to have, Thane of Cawdor and King. Macbeth is perplexed by their greeting because he knows that both the Thane of Cawdor and King are still alive.
Banquo, hearing such a good fortune for this friend, inquires as to his own fate. He is told that he will be lesser and greater than Macbeth; even though he will never be king, his sons will. The Witches then dissolve into the air, leaving Banquo to wonder if they were real or just an hallucination.
Ross and Angus greet them with the news that Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor by Duncan. Banquo and Macbeth are surprised and contemplate the evil nature of the Witches. Macbeth is eager for power; however, Banquo warns him of the evil nature of the Witches and that the outcome of his actions could be disastrous to him.
Duncan inquires if the Thane of Cawdor has been executed and expresses regret as to giving the order to have him killed. Macbeth enters and they exchange accolades. Duncan names his own son, Malcolm to succeed him as king. This creates a conflict for Macbeth as Malcolm is another obstacle to overcome toward his goal to succeed Duncan as king.
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 no light see my black and deep desires.
Duncan plans to visit Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, and the scene ends with Macbeth leaving to prepare for Duncan’s visit.
Lady Macbeth has received a letter from Macbeth stating that he has been named Thane of Cawdor. The letter reveals his ambition to be king and the prophecy given by the Witches. Lady Macbeth discloses her ambitious nature and vows to help Macbeth succeed...
(The entire section is 1807 words.)
Act II Summary and Analysis
Fleance: Banquo’s son
Porter: doorman for Macbeth
Macduff: nobleman of Scotland
Donalbain: Duncan’s younger son
There is something in the air that disturbs Banquo and Fleance and they cannot sleep. As they discuss the reasons for their inability to sleep, Macbeth joins them. Banquo confesses that he has been dreaming about the prophecy the Witches told them and he is concerned about the evil nature of the Witches. Macbeth responds by saying, “I think not of them.” Both agree to discuss the matter at a later date. Banquo and Fleance retire to their chambers to sleep.
As Macbeth, alone in the...
(The entire section is 1981 words.)
Act III Summary and Analysis
Murderers: hired killers
Hecate: a Witch
Banquo says that the prophecy has come true for Macbeth. He would like the prophecy the Witches made about his sons to come true also. Banquo feels that he must appear loyal to Macbeth, yet he does not trust him.
Macbeth questions Banquo as to his schedule for the day and says to Banquo to be sure and join them at the banquet that evening. Banquo and his son plan to go out riding for the day. Macbeth is worried that the prophecy of Banquo’s sons being kings will come true. His reign will be barren if his sons do not succeed him. Macbeth hires two men to murder Banquo and Fleance....
(The entire section is 1206 words.)
Act IV Summary and Analysis
Apparitions: visions created by the Witches
Lady Macduff: Macduff’s distraught wife
Son: Macduff’s child
The Witches are preparing a magic potion and casting a spell. They chant incantations three times to make sure the charm’s power will be strong. Macbeth greets the Witches and demands that they give him information about the future. The Witches call upon Apparitions to inform Macbeth of his future.
The first Apparition is that of an armed head saying he should beware of Macduff. The second Apparition is that of a bloody child and it states that no man born of woman will harm Macbeth. The third...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
Act V Summary and Analysis
Gentlewoman: a woman attending Lady Macbeth
Doctor: the physician in the castle
Carthness and Menteith: nobleman of Scotland in Malcolm’s English Army
Seyton: an Officer in Macbeth’s army
Siward: general in the English army fighting with Malcolm
Young Siward: Siward’s son in the English army with Malcolm
The Gentlewoman reports to the Doctor that Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and her behavior is very strange. The Gentlewoman says that Lady Macbeth gets out of bed, puts on a nightgown, unlocks her closet, writes on a piece of paper, seals the letter and returns to bed.
(The entire section is 1474 words.)