Macbeth Summary

Shakespeare’s Macbeth tells the story of Macbeth, a Scottish lord who receives a prophecy saying that he will become King of Scotland.

  • At his wife’s urging, Macbeth murders the current king to seize the crown and fulfill a prophecy told to him by three witches.
  • Malcolm, the son of the murdered king, and Macduff, a nobleman, plot to overthrow Macbeth, who has become a bloodthirsty tyrant. Lady Macbeth is driven to madness by her guilt.
  • Macbeth faces Macduff in battle, convinced by the witches' prophecies that he is invincible; however, Macbeth soon realizes that he has fatally misinterpreted the witches' words.

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Last Updated on September 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

At the beginning of the play, three sinister witches appear on a heath and speak about meeting Macbeth. The scene shifts to a military camp, where Duncan, the king of Scotland, and his son Malcolm hear about Macbeth and Banquo's bravery and mettle in defending Scotland against two invading forces: the Irish, led by the traitor Macdonwald, and the Norwegians, assisted by the treasonous thane of Cawdor.

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The scene shifts back to the witches, who now appear before Macbeth and Banquo as they return from battle. The witches deliver a prophecy: Macbeth will be made thane of Cawdor and will ultimately become king, while Banquo will be the ancestor of future kings. The witches disappear, leaving the two men to think about what they have heard. Macbeth, who is already thane of Glamis, wonders how he could become thane of Cawdor, a title that is currently held by another man. However, the first part of the prophecy comes true almost immediately when two of Duncan's men, Ross and Angus, appear and announce that the previous thane of Cawdor has lost his position for his treacherous assistance to Norway; in recognition of Macbeth’s bravery in battle, the king has named Macbeth the new thane of Cawdor.

Now that the first part of the prophecy has proven true, Macbeth wonders whether it’s also true that he may someday become king. Macbeth writes to his wife, Lady Macbeth, and tells her what has happened. Lady Macbeth, an ambitious and cunning woman, believes that her husband must do what it takes to fulfill his destiny and seize the crown. To accomplish this, she suggests that they murder King Duncan, who will conveniently be staying at their castle that night. Macbeth is initially hesitant, but his wife eventually convinces him to commit the murder. She devises a devious plan to make Duncan’s servants so drunk that they pass out and remember nothing; Macbeth will enter Duncan’s room while they sleep and make it look like the servants killed him.

That night, Macbeth follows through with their plan, but even after the deed is done, he is filled with anxiety and plagued by strange visions and sounds. In the morning, the king's body is discovered, and Macbeth immediately kills Duncan’s two servants, claiming that he couldn’t control his rage when he realized they must have killed the king. Macbeth's performance doesn't seem to convince everyone, but no one challenges his version of events. Certain that their father’s true killer is still free and that their lives are in grave danger, Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's sons, flee Scotland.

With the king's sons gone, Macbeth is made king. Paranoid and eager to keep his crown, Macbeth angrily recalls the witches’ prophecy that Banquo's descendants—not Macbeth’s—will be king. Interpreting this as a threat to his rule, Macbeth hires assassins to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. The murderers manage to kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes in the chaos. Later that night, Macbeth hosts a grand feast for his thanes, but Banquo's ghost appears in the middle of the festivities. Visible only to Macbeth, this apparition terrifies him, and Macbeth’s erratic behavior at dinner forces Lady Macbeth to send their guests home. Macbeth’s apparent madness only serves to further the thanes’ skepticism about his rule. 

Desperately seeking reassurance, Macbeth visits the witches in hopes that they will clarify what will happen to him. The witches give him three more prophecies: that he should fear Macduff, that no man "of woman born" will hurt him, and that Macbeth cannot be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth also sees a vision of eight kings, followed by the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth is pleased by these predictions. Reasoning that all men are born from women and forests cannot move, Macbeth believes these prophecies mean he is invincible.

His confidence restored, Macbeth is determined to eliminate Macduff, a lord whom Macbeth suspects of disloyalty. When Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England and joined Duncan’s son Malcolm, he regrets not having taken action sooner. Cruelly, though he knows Macduff isn’t there, Macbeth orders his murderers to attack Macduff’s castle and kill everyone inside, including Lady Macduff and her young son. 

Macduff meets Malcolm in England, where Malcolm has been raising an army to take back the Scottish throne. Macduff is enraged by the news of his family’s death and vows to get his revenge upon Macbeth. They agree to head back to Scotland, where an additional ten thousand men are gathering to take on Macbeth, who is considered a cruel tyrant by his subjects. As Macbeth prepares to defend his rule, Lady Macbeth begins to lose her sanity, apparently unable to cope with her role in murdering Duncan and the atrocities her husband has committed since. She sleepwalks around the castle trying to clean her hands, which she imagines are permanently stained with blood. As the armies approach the Dunsinane Castle to do battle, Macbeth is informed that his wife has killed herself.

Shocked by his wife’s death, Macbeth briefly despairs, commenting on the futility and meaninglessness of life. Even in this despondent state, Macbeth remains confident in the witches’ prophecies and is convinced that he cannot be defeated. His confidence is shaken, however, when a messenger tells Macbeth that Birnam Wood is moving toward his castle. Malcolm has told his men to cover themselves with branches as they march to prevent Macbeth from gauging the size of their forces. This tactic creates an illusion that the forest is creeping closer.

Macbeth throws himself into battle, where he fights fiercely, even as his forces are overwhelmed by Malcom’s army. Macduff spots Macbeth and attacks him, determined to seek his revenge. When Macbeth tells Macduff that no man born of a woman can kill him, Macduff reveals that his mother gave birth to him through a cesarean section—meaning he wasn't technically born of a woman but rather taken from her womb. Despite realizing that the witches have tricked him, Macbeth continues to fight. In the end, Macduff proves victorious and beheads Macbeth. With the battle over and the tyrant king slain, Malcolm takes his place as the rightful king of Scotland.

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