Macbeth is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare, set in Scotland. Although a tragedy the main character becomes a usurper, who at the end of the play is deposed. This play is thought to have been written around 1606.
The play opens with the defeat of the rebel Macdonwald, thane of cawdor to Macbeth. Shortly after, three witches meet Macbeth and another general, Banquo, predicting Macbeth would be the new thane of cawdor, and then the King. Later, King Duncan meets Macbeth and makes him thane of cawdor, but declares his son, Malcolm, his heir. Macbeth returns to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who learns of the prophecy by the witches. When the King comes for a feast in Macbeth's castle, Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to murder the King. Macbeth, reluctantly drawn forward by ambition, murders the King. When the death of the King is discovered, Malcolm is suspicious and flees for his life in England. Macbeth's way to the throne is cleared. As King, he brings desolation to Scotland. He kills and butchers anyone in his way. He murders Banquo, because of a prophecy by the witches that Banquo's descendants will become King. Macbeth also is wary of Macduff, and murders Macduff's household. However, Malcolm soon returns to Scotland with an army. Macduff kills Macbeth and Malcolm is made King of Scotland.
Macbeth: A General in King Duncan's army. He is persuaded by his wife to murder Duncan, King of Scotland. He in effect becomes King, however it is a hollow victory. He soon loses any friends (who he didn't murder) and a rebellion is raised against him. He dies at the hands of MacDuff during a sword fight.
Lady Macbeth: The ambitious wife of Macbeth. She convinces Macbeth to murder King Duncan. During the play she grows more and more guilty, eventually going insane. She dies of guilt.
The Witches: Three Witches (as their name implies) who tell Macbeth that he will become King. They also tell him of his fall.
Banquo: A noble general in the Army serving with Macbeth. Macbeth murders him in fear of revolt. Banquo appears several times after as a ghost.
King Duncan: The King of Scotland. He lodges at Macbeth's castle and is murdered there.
Malcolm: The son of King Duncan. When his father dies, he goes to England for refuge. He returns later on with an army that defeats Macbeth's forces.
Macduff: A Lord loyal to Malcolm. His family is slaughtered while he is away becomes bereaved. He goes to Macbeth and kills him before declaring Malcolm King.
Plot in Detail
A few witches gather in the cover a thunderstorm and mutter their eerier chants.
|“||Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and the filthy air||”|
Graymalkin, one calls another. They plan to gather again in another storm, with the intent of meeting with Macbeth.
In the royal hall of Scotland, King Duncan is attended by his son Malcolm, as well as Donalbain and Lennox among other attendants. They meet a bleeding man called Captain, introduced by Malcolm as his rescuer. Malcolm asks the Captain to recount a battle for Duncan, and he informs Duncan that MacDonwald, the Thane of Cawdor, has proven himself a traitor to the Norwegians, and has caused a lot of bloodshed among the Scots. As the Captain is escorted off, Lennox notices the Thane of Ross, called Ross, who informs the king that the army has defeated the traitor MacDonwald. The King decides, "No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive / Our bosom interest. Go, pronounce his present death / And with his former title greet Macbeth." (73-75)
Again, it thunders in Scotland, and the witches meet. They ask each other where they have been. One has been killing swine. Another met a sailor's wife, who was eating chestnuts. She had asked the sailor's wife for some, but the woman denied her. The witch knew that her husband was bound for Aleppo aboard a ship called the Tiger, and cursed that sailor to become tempest-tossed and dried, and reduced to a thumb, which the first witch now carries with her. As she finishes her story, a drum sounds, and Macbeth has arrived with his friend, Banquo.
He observes, "so foul and fair a day I have not seen." Banquo notices the witches and asks what they are - they do not seem to be anything familiar, and they could be woman, except they are bearded. The witches only reply to hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King of Scotland, though he is only aware that he is Thane of Glamis. Banquo, confused, asks them what he is, and they hail him: "Lesser than Macbeth and greater," the first says. "Not so happy, yet much happier," the second says. "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none. So all hail Macbeth and Banquo!" proclaims the third. Macbeth asks them how he could be Thane of Cawdor when the Thane is a living and worthy gentleman, but the witches disappear like bubbles.
Ross and Angus arrive to inform him that he is now the Thane of Cawdor, as the former was a traitor to Norway, and Macbeth muses upon the prophecy of the witches: it cannot be ill; nor can it be good.
Back in the Royal Hall of Scotland, Malcolm informs King Duncan that Macdonwald has confessed his treason. When Macbeth and Banquo arrives, the king declares his respect, and says it is less than Macbeth deserves to be the Thane of Cawdor as well. He proclaims Malcolm to be Prince of Cumberland, and the apparent heir.
Lady Macbeth waits at her house, reading a letter from Macbeth explaining the Weïrd Sisters and his being Thane of Cawdor though not yet king. Lady Macbeth worries that Macbeth cannot be king; for he is "too full of the milk of human kindness." A messenger later informs her that King Duncan will be visiting the Macbeths, and she, realizing her mission to murder the king, declares:
|“||Fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood. Stop up th'access and passage to remorse, / that no compunctious visitngs of nature / shake my fell nor keep peace between / th'effect and it||”|
|“||Bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent flower, / but be the serpent under 't.||”|
There are hautboys and torches at the castle of Macbeth, and many guests: Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain, Banquo, Lennox, Macduff, Ross, Angus, and many attendants. Duncan and Banquo compliment the castle and are clearly enjoying themselves. Yet, Duncan wonders, and inquires to Lady Macbeth, where is the Thane of Cawdor, their host, whom they wanted to meet that night?
Macbeth is in a place where there are hautboys and torches, and a sewer (butler) and servants with dishes. He is talking to himself regarding the approaching assassination. It would be the most scarring thing in his life, and it would be known to everyone what had happened. It could not be secret. It would be such a betrayal, Macbeth as the trusted gentleman he is.
Lady Macbeth arrives and tells him that Duncan requests his presence. They converse over the murder. Macbeth at first refuses, but she says he is weak, and she should be the man and him the woman, if he has such a fear of failure. He must be courageous. By the end of the first act, he is prepared for the terrible feat.
Banquo is with his torch-bearing son, Fleance, in the night. Banquo observes that heaven's candles - the stars - are not visible. He is having trouble sleeping, as some heavy summons disturbs him. When Macbeth and a servant arrive, he notes that Macbeth has not yet gone to bed, while King Duncan has. He gives Macbeth a diamond, courtesy of King Duncan. They remark about the witches, Banquo having thought of them, and Macbeth denying having thought of them.
Macbeth requests a drink from a servant and encouraged Banquo to sleep. When the servants, Banquo, and Fleance have left, Macbeth spies a dagger, and famously asks,
|“||Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. / Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but / A dagger of the mind, a false creation / proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?||”|
Lady Macbeth has been drinking, to make herself stronger and braver, and drugged several of the king's guards so that they will be unaware and unalarmed of what is to come. She is disturbed by the shrieking of an owl and hears the chirp of crickets. When Macbeth enters, he says that the irreversible deed is done. Two people woke up, laughing, but prayed to themselves and returned to sleep. Macbeth found that he could not, in response to the prayers, say "Amen," and instead heard a voice say, "Sleep no more! Macbeth has murdered sleep." (47-48)
Lady Macbeth assures him that the voice, as it continued on, was a hallucination, and meant nothing, as she turns to cover the guards' daggers with blood and make them appear guilty. Macbeth believes that the blood which remains on his hands from the deed will never be removed, while Lady Macbeth states that a little water will do so.
The morning comes, and Macduff is awakened by a porter knocking at the door. He enters, and they speak, first of how drink fills one with lecherous desires but abates lecherous abilities, and then of Macbeth, who awakes, and then of how Macduff was ordered to wake the king. Lennox waits for him, noticing how rough the night was, how feverous the earth was, and how there never was a worse night in his life.
When Macduff returns, he shouts in horror, for the king has been murdered. They wake Lady Macbeth, then Banquo, then Malcolm and Donalbain (the two who had laughed during the night). Lennox assumed that the guards had killed him in their drunkenness, but Macbeth confesses to the deed. He continues emotionally of what brought him to it, but to distract the people, Lady Macbeth turns faint. All but Malcolm and Donalbain leave to attend to her, while those two plot to leave to England.
The Thane of Ross and and old man are talking about the night - how the sun was not risen though it was late in the day by the clock, and how a falcon was killed by an owl, how a king's horses had broken their stables and fled. Macduff arrives, and informs them that the king has been murdered, and that though Macbeth confessed, it is suspicious that Malcolm and Donalbain fled to England. In turn, Ross flees to Scone, and Macduff to Fife. The old man whispers a few wise words:
|“||God's benison go with you and with those / that would make good of bad and friends with foes||”|
Banquo, alone, voices congratulations to Macbeth, for he is Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and king, and wonders if the witches' prophecy will prove well for him as well. When Macbeth and his lady arrive, he acts loyal yet speaks tersely. Macbeth requests his presence at a supper that night, and he accepts, though he will be riding away on his horse that night. Macbeth gleans that Fleance will be leaving with him, and that they will be gone for a long time. When Banquo and Fleance have gone, Macbeth orders a servant to follow them, for there is none other whom he fears more than the man who was told to beget a line of kings.
Another servant arrives with some murderers. Macbeths speaks to these murderers - they are barely men, like a mongrel is a dog; they are evil and corrupt beyond return; and thus they are perfect his task. They must eliminate Banquo and Fleance by that night.
Lady Macbeth begins to worry, observing that "Naught's had, all's spent, / where our desire is got without content / 'tis safer to be that which we destroy / than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy." She knows that Macbeth, having killed his way into the role of king, is not safe. She requests to speak with Macbeth. Macbeth tells her that while Duncan is dead, he is still afraid. She encourages him to be happy, at least in the presence of company that night, yet his mind is full of scorpions, and he fears that Fleance is alive.
The three murderers appear. A third one, not present before, is in fact sent by Macbeth to join them. They stand together, and spy horses. Banquo and Fleance are passing by, holding a light, and noticing the sky, Banquo observes, "It will be rain tonight."
"Let it come down!" shouts a murderer, and they attack. Banquo cries and dies, yet Fleance escapes and extinguishes his light so he cannot be seen. The murderers have half failed Macbeth, yet return to report that they have half succeeded.
Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Ross, Lennox, other lords, and the ubiquitous attendants attend a banquet prepared at Macbeth's. He welcomes them all, and excuses himself to answer the door, where he greets a blood-stained murderer. The murderer tells him that it is Banquo's blood, for Banquo was killed, which relieves Macbeth; then he explains that Fleance has escaped, which ruins his mood. Macbeth ensured that Banquo is dead ("Safe in a ditch he lies / with twenty trenchèd gashes on his head / the least a death to nature.") (28-30) Macbeth figures that he has killed a father snake, and is waiting for its child to grow teeth to kill him.
Lady Macbeth returns his attention to the banquet and bids him to sit. He, and only he, sees an apparition in his chair: the ghost of Banquo. He does not sit as Lennox instructs, but rather yells at the ghost. The ghost does not speak, and the guests think Macbeth is sick and try to leave. Lady Macbeth bids them to stay. Macbeth tries to show her the ghost, but neither can see it. Yet after he sits, he sees it again, and it terrifies him. He bids it take any shape but that of Banquo, and threatens to draw his sword. Lady Macbeth allows Ross, Lennox, and others to leave while Macbeth babbles of blood and insomnia.
The witches meet Hecate, goddess of magic and patron of witches. She congratulates the witches on their progress with Macbeth, and tells them to meet her again, while the witches sing, "Come away! Come away!"
Lennox counsels with another Lord, and they speak in fear of Macbeth. They decide, in the end, that Macbeth is in need of their prayers.
The witches meet once again in thunder, adding ingredients to a large cauldron pot, including various organs of various animals. Hecate appears, to commend them, and orders them to sing to enchant the mixture. Hecate disappears, and they immediately see Macbeth, who asks them what they're doing. "A deed without a name," they reply.
He tells them that despite all the supernatural disasters that have been observed, they must not disappear and they must answer him. They comply, and ask if he'd rather hear it from them or from their masters. He requests the masters, and is greeted by an apparition of an armed head. As Macbeth starts to speak, a witch tells him that the head knows his thoughts, and the head shouts: "Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff! / Beware the Thane of Fife! Dismiss me. Enough."
He asks for more, but the head is gone, and the witches show him another spirit, a bloody child, who states: "Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn / the power of man, for none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth."
He is glad to hear that he will not be harmed, and decides that perhaps Macduff may live, but then spies a third apparition, a crowned child, to whom Macbeth may not speak. The child states:
|“||Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care / who chafes, or frets, or where conspirers are. / Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / shall come against him.||”|
Lennox arrives. After Macbeth's confirming that Lennox did not see the witches (and cursing the witches), Lennox informs him that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth decides he will have the castle on Fife of his own, and kill Macduff's wife and family.
Ross explains to Lady Macduff and her son why Macduff fled to England - because he would safer, and he was the only one of interest to Macbeth. Both Lady Macduff and Ross think that Macduff is a traitor, though for different reasons. Lady Macduff believes he is a traitor to the family. The son is more cynical in his definition of a traitor. A messenger then arrives to warn them, but Lady Macduff does not understand, and murderers soon arrive in search of Macduff. They ask where he is - Lady Macduff says he is gone, while the son still speaks of how everyone is really a traitor to something, and the son is killed while Lady Macduff flees.
Malcolm and Macduff meet each other in the court at England. Malcolm assumes that Macduff was sent to take Malcolm back to England, where Macbeth will kill him, so when Macduff says that Scotland needs a new ruler, he is reluctant. He says he would be a worse ruler than Macbeth, no matter how evil and sinful Macbeth is. Malcolm says that he is too lustful and too greedy; Macduff says a kingly position would offer many opportunities to satisfy both desires. Eventually Macduff decides Malcolm is in fact worse, and decides to stay loyal to Macbeth, at which point Malcolm decides Macduff has no desire whatsoever to become an unlawful king.
Malcolm reveals that the King of England, King Edward, has prepared an army of 10,000 and the commander, Siward, to invade Scotland. Macduff is satisfied, until Ross arrives to inform him that his son has been killed, an immediately he seeks revenge upon Macbeth. Prince Malcolm leads them back to England, stating,
|“||Come, go we to the King. Our power is ready; / Our lack is nothing but our leave. Macbeth / is ripe for shaking and the powers above / put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may / the night is long that never finds the day.||”|
A gentlewoman who once attended Lady Macbeth is meeting with a Physic (doctor), and she introduces the new Lady Macbeth, a woman who is asleep and appearing to mime the act of washing her hands - "Why, here's a spot!" she notes. From there, the doctor writes everything she says in her sleep.
|“||Fie, my / lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear / who knows it, when one can call our power to / account? Yet who would have thought the old man / to have had so much blood in him? ... The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is / she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No / more o' that, my lord, no more o' that. You mar / all with this starting. ... Here's the smell of blood still. All / the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little / hand. O, O, O!||”|
|“||Foul whisp'rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds / do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds / to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. / More needs she the divine than the physician. / God, God forgive us all. Look after her. / Remove from her the means of all annoyance / and still keep eyes upon her. So, good night. / My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight. / I think but dare not speak.||”|
Menteith, Caithness, Ross, Angus, and drums and flags gather in Birnam Wood to meet the English army. They converse to reveal to the audience the further actions of Macbeth: he fortifies a castle at Dunsinane. He has gone mad, and his murders gather in his mind. His subjects move on command, not loyalty. They must move to restore the country.
A tyrannical Macbeth demands no more reports from a servant about the army gathering, for Malcolm was born of woman and thus cannot harm him. He curses out the servant and calls for Seyton, who confirms the report and prepares him for battle. A doctor informs Macbeth of Lady Macbeth's strange illness. Macbeth says she is overstating the impact of the murder, as she told him that night, and sends away the doctor and all medicine. The doctor decides never to return to Dunsinane.
Two commanders, Malcolm and Siward, meet each other at Birnam Wood, join forces, and develop a plan: each man will take some branches from the forest with which to conceal himself, and they will march to Dunsinane.
Macbeth scoffs at the invading forces, figuring they will die waiting to enter the castle. A women's cry fails to grab his attention, only his curiosity, though it is his wife's cry. She is dead. Macbeth becomes his most dramatic here, saying about himself,
|“||I have almost forgot the taste of fears. / The time has been my senses would have cooled / to hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair / would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir / as life were in 't. I have supped full with horrors. / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, / cannot once start me. ... (upon the death of the Queen) She should have died hereafter. / There would have been time for such a word. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time, / and all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.||”|
A messenger timidly arrives to tell him that he thought he saw the woods move, and Macbeth threatens to kill him if this is false.
Malcolm, Siward, Macduff, and the army proceed. Malcolm bids them to set down their camouflage.
Macbeth, believing himself invincible against human warriors, meets the young Siward, who finds there is no more despicable name than Macbeth. The two fight, and young Siward is killed. Macduff then arrives, seeking Macbeth, and Malcolm and Siward follow.
Macduff finally meets his enemy, an indifferent Macbeth who is galvanized by a single remark: "Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped." He realizes he must fight or be captured and held in spectacle, and does fight. Macduff is victorious.
Meanwhile, Ross informs Siward that his son has died. Siward is proud to have a son who died in glory. Macduff then arrives with the head of Macbeth, and hails Malcolm as the King of Scotland. Malcolm invites all who are present to Scone for the decisions of royal titles.
Lines and Quotes
"Is this a dagger which I see before me,"
- Act II, Scene 1
"Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble"
-The Witches (Act IV, Scene 1)
"Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
-Act V, Scene 5
Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow'r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?
- Act VI, Scene 1
Macbeth has been adapted to the opera stage four times, most famously by Giuseppe Verdi in 1847. There have been no fewer than 17 film adaptations, the first being Stuart Blackton's 1908 silent film, and also include Orson Welles' 1948 version and Roman Polanski's from 1971. Akira Kurosawa changed the setting to feudal Japan in his 1957 film Throne of Blood, often considered one of his greatest works.
- The lines of the witches may have been written by playwright James Middleton in the 17th century.
- They sing "Black Spirits," from a play by Middleton, leading some to suggest that Middleton wrote these lines.
- It is most likely that this means a helmeted head.