Study Guide

Macbeth

by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Summary

Introduction

Macbeth

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.

Macbeth Synopsis

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.

Macbeth Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 dead king’s sons flee—Malcolm to England and Donalbain to Ireland—and when Macbeth is proclaimed king, Macduff, a nobleman who had been Duncan’s close friend, suspects him of the bloody killing.

Macbeth begins to have horrible dreams; his mind is never free from fear. Often he thinks of the witches’ second prophecy, that Banquo’s heirs will hold the throne, and the prediction torments him. Macbeth is so determined that Banquo should never share in his own hard-earned glory that he resolves to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance.

Lady Macbeth and her husband give a great banquet for the noble thanes of Scotland. At the same time, Macbeth sends murderers to waylay Banquo and his son before they can reach the palace. Banquo is slain in the scuffle, but Fleance escapes. Meanwhile, in the large banquet hall, Macbeth pretends great sorrow that Banquo is not present. Banquo is present in spirit, however, and his ghost majestically appears in Macbeth’s own seat. The startled king is so frightened that he almost betrays his guilt when he sees the apparition, but he is the only one to see it. Lady Macbeth quickly leads him away and dismisses the guests.

More frightened than ever at the thought of Banquo’s ghost having returned to haunt him and of Fleance who had escaped but who one day could claim the throne, Macbeth determines to seek solace from the witches on the dismal heath. They assure Macbeth that he will not be overcome by man born of woman, nor until the forest of Birnam comes to Dunsinane Hill. They also warn him to beware of Macduff. When Macbeth asks if Banquo’s children will reign over the kingdom, the witches disappear. The news they gave him had brought him cheer, however. Macbeth now feels he needs fear no man, since all were born of women, and certainly the great Birnam forest cannot be moved by human power.

Macbeth hears that Macduff is gathering a hostile army in England that is to be led by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who is determined to avenge his father’s murder. So terrified is Macbeth that he resolves to murder Macduff’s wife and children to bring the rebel to submission. After this slaughter, however, Macbeth is more than ever tormented by fear; his twisted mind has almost reached the breaking point, and he longs for death to release him from his nightmarish existence.

Before long, Lady Macbeth’s strong will breaks as well. Dark dreams of murder and violence drive her to madness. The horror of her crimes and the agony of being hated and feared by all of Macbeth’s subjects make her so ill that her death seems imminent.

On the eve of Macduff’s attack on Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth dies, depriving her husband of all the support and courage she had been able to give him in the past. Rallying, Macbeth summons strength to meet his enemy. However, Birnam wood is moving, for Malcolm’s soldiers are hidden behind cut green boughs, which from a distance appear to be a moving forest. Macduff, enraged by the slaughter of his innocent family, is determined to meet Macbeth in hand-to-hand conflict.

Macbeth goes to battle filled with the false courage given him by the witches’ prophecy that no man born of woman would overthrow him. Meeting Macduff, Macbeth begins to fight him, but when he finds out that Macduff had been ripped alive from his mother’s womb, Macbeth fights with waning strength, all hope of victory gone. With a flourish, Macduff severs the head of the bloody king of Scotland. The prophecy is fulfilled.

Macbeth Act Summary and Analysis

Act I Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Summary

Scene 1
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,”...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

Act II Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Fleance: Banquo’s son

Porter: doorman for Macbeth

Macduff: nobleman of Scotland

Donalbain: Duncan’s younger son

Summary

Scene 1
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

New Characters
Murderers: hired killers

Hecate: a Witch

Summary

Scene 1

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

New Characters
Apparitions: visions created by the Witches

Lady Macduff: Macduff’s distraught wife

Son: Macduff’s child

Summary

Scene 1
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

New Characters:
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

Summary

Scene 1
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.)