'Macbeth' Summary

A Tragedy in Five Acts on Ambition and Claims to the Throne

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes place in Scotland in the 11th century AD, and it tells the story of Macbeth, thane of Glamis, and of his ambition to become king. This Shakespearian tragedy is loosely based on historical sources, namely Holinshed’s Chronicles, and there is historical documentation on several characters, including Macbeth, Duncan, and Malcolm. It’s unclear whether the character of Banquo really existed. While the Chronicles depict him as an accomplice to Macbeth’s murderous actions, Shakespeare portrays him as an innocent character. Overall, Macbeth is not known for its historical accuracy, but for the portrayal of the effects of blind ambition in people.

Act I

Scottish generals Macbeth and Banquo have just defeated the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, which were led by the traitorous Macdonwald. As Macbeth and Banquo wander onto a heath, they are greeted by the Three Witches, who offer them prophecies. Banquo challenges them first, so they address Macbeth: they hail him as "Thane of Glamis,” his current title and then "Thane of Cawdor," adding that he will also be king. Banquo then asks of his own fortunes, the witches respond enigmatically, saying that he will be less than Macbeth, yet happier, less successful, yet more. Most importantly, they tell him that he will father a line of kings, though he himself will not be one.

The witches vanish soon after, and the two men wonder at these pronouncements. Then, however, another thane, Ross, arrives and informs Macbeth that he has been bestowed the title of Thane of Cawdor. This means that the first prophecy is fulfilled, and Macbeth’s initial skepticism turns into ambition.

King Duncan welcomes and praises Macbeth and Banquo, and declares that he will spend the night at Macbeth's castle at Inverness; he also names his son Malcolm as his heir. Macbeth sends a message ahead to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her about the witches' prophecies. Lady Macbeth unwaveringly wishes for her husband to murder the king so he can usurp the throne, to the point that she answers his objections by casting doubts on his manhood. Eventually, she manages to convince him to kill the king that same night. The two get Duncan's two chamberlains drunk so that the next morning they can easily blame the chamberlains for the murder.  

 Act II 

Still plagued by doubts and by hallucinations, including a bloody dagger, Macbeth stabs King Duncan in his sleep. He is so upset that Lady Macbeth has to take charge, and frames Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by placing bloody daggers on them. The following morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive at Inverness, and Macduff is the one who discovers Duncan's body. Macbeth murders the guards so they cannot profess their innocence, but claims he did so in a fit of anger over their misdeeds. Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland, respectively, fearing they might be targets too, but their flight frames them as suspects. As a consequence, Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman of the dead king. On this occasion, Banquo recalls the witches' prophecy about how his own descendants would inherit the throne. This makes him suspicious of Macbeth. 


Meanwhile Macbeth, who remembers the prophecy concerning Banquo, remains uneasy, so he invites him to a royal banquet, where he discovers that Banquo and his young son, Fleance, will be riding out that night. Suspecting Banquo of being suspicious of him, Macbeth arranges to have him and Fleance murdered by hiring assassins, who succeed in killing Banquo, but not Fleance. This enrages Macbeth, as he fears that his power won’t be safe as long as a heir of Banquo lives. At a banquet, Macbeth is visited by Banquo's ghost who sits in Macbeth's place. Macbeth’s reaction startles the guests, as the ghost is only visible to him: they see their king panicking at an empty chair. Lady Macbeth has to tell them that her husband is merely afflicted with a familiar and harmless malady. The ghost departs and returns once more, causing the same riotous anger and fear in Macbeth. This time, Lady Macbeth tells the lords to leave, and they do so. 

Act IV 

Macbeth pays visits to the witches again in order to learn the truth of their prophecies to him. In response to that, they conjure horrible apparitions: an armored head, which tells him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child telling him that no one born of a woman will be able to harm him; next, a crowned child holding a tree stating that Macbeth will be safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Since all men are born from women and forests cannot move, Macbeth is initially relieved.

Macbeth also asks whether Banquo's sons will ever reign in Scotland. The witches conjure a procession of eight crowned kings, all similar in appearance to Banquo, the last one carrying a mirror reflecting even more kings: they are all Banquo's descendants having acquired kingship in numerous countries. After the witches leave, Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England, and so Macbeth orders Macduff's castle be seized, and also sends murderers to slaughter Macduff and his family. Although Macduff is no longer there, Lady Macduff and his family are murdered  

Act V 

Lady Macbeth becomes overcome with guilt for the crimes she and her husband committed. She has taken to sleepwalking, and after entering the stage holding a candle, she laments the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff, while also trying to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands.

In England, Macduff learns of the slaughtering of his own family, and, stricken with grief, vows revenge. Together with Prince Malcolm, Duncan's son, who raised an army in England, he rides to Scotland to challenge Macbeth's forces against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers. Part of the witches’ prophecy comes true. Before Macbeth's opponents arrive, he learns that Lady Macbeth has killed herself, causing him to sink into despair.

He eventually faces Macduff, initially without fear, since he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (V 8.15–16). The second prophecy is thus fulfilled, and Macbeth is eventually killed and beheaded by Macduff. The order is restored and Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland. As for the Witches’ prophecy concerning Banquo’s descendants, it is true in that James I of England, previously James VI of Scotland, descended from Banquo. 

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Frey, Angelica. "'Macbeth' Summary." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/macbeth-summary-4581244. Frey, Angelica. (2020, January 29). 'Macbeth' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/macbeth-summary-4581244 Frey, Angelica. "'Macbeth' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/macbeth-summary-4581244 (accessed June 3, 2023).