Act 5 Summary
Lady Macbeth appears, seemingly sleepwalking, before her doctor and her lady-in-waiting. Macbeth's wife then begins what her "gentlewoman" describes as an "accustomed habit with her": going through the motions of washing her hands, though no water is to be found. As Lady Macbeth speaks, the audience realizes that her strange behavior is borne of her guilt for her complicity in her husband's treacherous and violent rise to the throne. After "washing" her hands, she says that "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this hand," figuratively stained with the blood of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff's family. It is clear that the once fearsome Lady Macbeth, having goaded her husband into action, has been driven mad by guilt.
It is revealed that a Scottish army is joining the English one led by Malcolm. The two armies will meet near Birnham Wood and advance together to attack Macbeth at his castle in Dunsinane.
As Macbeth learns of the approaching armies from a terrified servant, he is without fear, fortified by the witches' prophecy that "no man that's born of woman" can kill him. Even though a reported ten thousand men are advancing on the castle, Macbeth determines that he will defend it to the death.
The leaders of the Scottish rebels join with Malcolm, who orders them to cut limbs off of the trees in Birnam Wood, the forest surrounding the castle. Malcolm notes that holding the boughs above their heads will keep Macbeth from knowing how many of them there are. Siward tells the group that Macbeth, the "confident tyrant," is barricaded in his castle—and so their armies will go to Dunsinane.
Macbeth, preparing to meet the onslaught, learns that his wife has committed suicide. He ponders the meaninglessness of his life and his ambitions in a remarkably bleak soliloquy that characterizes life as a "tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing." As he ponders his wife's death, he receives a disturbing report from a messenger who tells him that Birnam Wood is beginning to move toward them. He has witnessed the attackers, bearing boughs from the trees, advancing up the hill. Crucially, this fulfills the one part of the witches' prophecy—namely, that he cannot lose his throne until Birnam Wood marches on Dunsinane.
(The entire section is 592 words.)