Macbeth

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Summary

Macbeth

​​In a nutshell

The main character in this Shakespeare play, Macbeth, is an ambitious and brave warrior who has his future foretold by witches: he will become King. Here you will learn how his ambition and his knowledge of his own destiny lead to his downfall.



Plot summary

Act I

We are introduced to Three Witches, who talk about meeting Macbeth. Then, we are introduced to Macbeth and Banquo, Thanes (Scottish lords) who were very brave and helped win a battle. The witches appear and prophecise their futures (Scene 3): 

  • To Macbeth, they call him first Thane of Glamis (which he is), then Thane of Cawdor, and then King.
  • To Banquo, they predict that his children will be kings, but he will not.

When the witches leave, Macbeth is told that he is to become Thane of Cawdor and realises that their prophecy is becoming true. But to be King, he may have to kill King Duncan and his heir. 

Macbeth is not too sure about this; his wife Lady Macbeth, however, is. She wants Macbeth to be King, and she sees an opportunity in the King sleeping at their castle, so she plans Duncan's death: she will drug the King's guards (so they fall asleep), and, after Macbeth kills Duncan, they will frame those guards for the King's murder.


Act II

Macbeth follows Lady Macbeth's plan and murders Duncan in Scene 2. But he is alarmed by a noise and goes back to Lady Macbeth with the guards' daggers, so she has to go back to the crime scene to set them up. She comes back with bloody hands. 

Macduff, the Thane of Fife, arrives. The murder is uncovered, and a few things happen: Macbeth blames and kills the guards, the Prince, heir to the throne, runs away (afraid that he too will be murdered), and the other Thanes decide Macbeth should be King. A banquet to honour his coronation is planned.


Act III

Banquo suspects Macbeth may have killed Duncan, and Macbeth fears Banquo's children will be future kings, so he sends assassins after them: Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes (Scene 3). At the banquet, Macbeth keeps seeing Banquo's ghost and acts mad (Scene 4). Nonetheless, he is now King, and by the end of this act we see some Thanes suspecting he is not a good one. Macduff goes to England to seek help from the rightful prince in overthrowing Macbeth, who he calls a "tyrant".


Act IV

The witches come back to confuse Macbeth further by showing him three apparitions:

  • ​An armed head and the message to beware Macduff
  • A bloody child and the message that no man born of woman shall harm him
  • A crowned child holding a tree and the message that he will not be defeated until Birnam Wood moves toward Dunsinane Hill.

This calms Macbeth down, for he feels invincible. But when he asks if Banquo's children will reign, they show him another apparition of kings following Banquo's ghost. Very angry, he has Macduff's family murdered because he can't kill Macduff himself, who is in England (Scene 2).

Meanwhile, Macduff convinces the Prince to come back to Scotland to fight, and when he hears about his family's death, he decides to avenge them and kill Macbeth himself. 


Act V

Lady Macbeth walks and talks in her sleep, and she doesn't seem to be okay. She talks about blood in her hands and repeats things she said to Macbeth about the murders. 

Meanwhile, the English forces, led by the Prince and Macduff, approach. They decide to use branches of Birnam Wood as camouflage: Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane Hill. 

Macbeth realises the prophecy is coming true, and is also told that Lady Macbeth is dead. He is desperate, but doesn't lose hope because nobody "born of a woman" could defeat him, right? Well... In Scene 8, Macduff reveals that he was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, that is, born by Caesarean section. He then kills Macbeth, making the prophecy come true. Duncan's heir becomes the new King of Scotland. 



Characters


MACBETH

We meet him as Thane of Glamis, a brave and successful man in King Duncan's army. He is ambitious, but it is his wife who persuades him to kill for the throne. Once he is King, he keeps murdering people and being tormented by ghosts and dreams. 

LADY MACBETH

She is married to Macbeth and loves him very much. But she is also very ambitious and encourages him to kill the King. In the end, the guilt seems to be too much for her: she sleepwalks and re-enacts those horrible deeds. She kills herself.

THE WITCHES

They are bringers of chaos. They serve Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Their prophecies are told in a way that confuse Macbeth and end up bringing him his death.

MACDUFF

The Thane of Fife, a good man, loyal to King Duncan and Scotland. He ends up being the one who defeats Macbeth in revenge for the death of his own family.



Relationships​

Macbeth \leftrightarrow Lady Macbeth

They have no children, but are clearly in love. Macbeth trusts Lady Macbeth, and calls her "my dearest love" (Act 1, Scene 5). Lady Macbeth knows she has a lot of influence over her husband, and uses this to plan the King's death and have him execute it. They are both ambitious.


Macbeth \leftrightarrow The Witches

The witches meddle in Macbeth's life, for without their prophecies he would not have felt the need to murder anybody. But once he starts, he doesn't stop, and so they answer his call and show him more of the future. 

Macbeth \leftrightarrow Banquo

Banquo is a friend of Macbeth, and he is also there when the witches prophecise the future. He is the first to suspect Macbeth of evil deeds, and for this, he ends up dead. As a ghost, Banquo is the one who haunts Macbeth


Macbeth \leftrightarrow Macduff

Macduff also suspects Macbeth for killing the king and helps the prince to overthrow him. When Macbeth has his wife and children killed, Macduff, who loved them very much, vows revenge. Macduff is then revealed to be the only one who can defeat Macbeth because he was born by Caesarean section. 

Themes

Ambition and power

Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth want power, and the way they react to the witches' prophecies reveals their ambition. To get that power, they plan to murder the king, and keep getting corrupted more and more, as we can see when Macbeth, already on the throne, kills those that are suspicious of him, like Banquo. Macbeth's ambition, in the end, leads to his downfall.


Witchcraft

This theme is obvious: the witches, the "three weird sisters", are characters in the play. In Shakespeare's time, people really believed in witchcraft, including King James I who wrote a book about it, Demonology.

 

Appearance and reality

In this play, things are often not what they seem. Appearances can be deceptive. We see this through apparitions, dreams, fake hospitality (Lady Macbeth being called "honoured hostess" by the very same man she has planned to kill), ghosts, etc.



Key quotations

​​Act/Scene

Quotation

Theme

Act 1, Scene 4
MACBETH: "The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o'erleap"
Ambition and power
Here, Macbeth talks about Duncan's heir. If he wants to become king, he deliberates, he must also kill the Prince.
Act 1, Scene 3
FIRST WITCH: "All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis."
SECOND WITCH: "All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Cawdor."
THIRD WITCH: "All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter."​
Witchcraft
The three witches each greet Macbeth and let him know of his future: first, as Thane of Cawdor, and then as King of Scotland. Here we see how the use of repetition emphasises the unnatural tone of the witches. 
Act 5, Scene 1
LADY MACBETH: "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave."​
Appearance and reality
This quote may not seem out of place, but this is Lady Macbeth speaking in dreams. She is replaying over and over the scene that happened after the King's and Banquo's murders. 


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FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions

What do the witches tell Macbeth and Banquo?

What is a Thane?

Who is Lady Macbeth?

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