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Shakespeare's Macbeth - Summary and Documentary

Updated on November 23, 2013
Macbeth Consulting the Vision...
Macbeth Consulting the Vision... | Source

Opening Scenes

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 and it is a play about Scotland in the eleventh century. It is very dramatic and its theme is the havoc that a man’s overzealous ambition can wreak on his life and the lives of his countrymen. Bloodshed, scheming, murder and magic are prevalent, making it a gruesome and gripping spectacle.

As the play begins, the scene is ominous, with thunder, gloom and three scheming witches. The focus then shifts to the king of Scotland, named Duncan, who is fighting a bloody battle against the Norwegians. He hears that two of his generals, Banquo and Macbeth have been fighting courageously and that Macbeth has slain the treacherous Macdonwald of Ireland. In addition, the thane of Cawdor, who had turned traitor, has now been arrested. King Duncan is very proud of Macbeth and decides that he will make Macbeth the new thane of Cawdor.


Banquo and Macbeth have not yet heard this news and begin to make their way home after the battle. The ugly, conniving witches suddenly meet them along the way and begin to foretell the future. They tell Macbeth he will be made the thane of Cawdor and will eventually become the King of Scotland. Then they tell Banquo that his sons will become kings but he will not be a king. They vanish before the two men can ask them any questions, leaving them wondering if the words are true. The men decide that they do not really trust these witches.

Just then, the nobleman Ross and his friend Angus find Macbeth and Banquo and give Macbeth the news that he has been appointed thane of Cawdor by King Duncan. Surprised that a part of the witches’ prophecy had come to pass, Macbeth begins to think that he will indeed also become king. But since there is already a king, he begins to consider the prospect of murdering the king in order to take the throne. It is interesting to note how quickly this noble hero’s thoughts turn to treason when his own success is in view. Shakespeare certainly had a keen understanding of human nature.

A Turning Point

When Macbeth and Banquo meet with Duncan, Macbeth expresses his gratitude to the king for his new title. As they talk, Duncan reveals that he will be appointing his son, Malcom to be the prince of Cumberland. Macbeth’s ambitious internal struggle turns deadly when he hears this news. He decides that killing Duncan may just be the best way to see the witches’ prophesy fulfilled. The men talk and it is agreed that everyone will go to dinner at Macbeth’s castle that evening.

In the meantime, Lady Macbeth, who received a letter from her husband about the prophetic words of the witches, has been planning and scheming herself. While Macbeth has been pondering and wavering about his decision to kill King Duncan, Lady Macbeth has fully committed herself to the idea. When she learns that the king will be coming over for a visit, she sees it as the perfect opportunity for her husband to rise to power. It is remarkable that this female character is seemingly more ambitious and immoral than her husband. This generates a foreboding feeling that things have been turned upside down and no one can be trusted. It seems a shame that the good king, who feels he has freed himself of one traitor has unwittingly appointed someone even more treacherous to a position of power. It is as though he has written his own death sentence.

Macbeth has a vision of a bloody dagger and is shaken, feeling guilty for planning such an evil deed. After dinner, Lady Macbeth convinces him to follow through with their plan, calling him a coward for his reluctance. Finally, he kills him and they make it look like his drunken bodyguards are guilty by planting evidence on them. While Macbeth is horrified, Lady Macbeth seems flippant and remorseless, telling him all they need is a little water to wash away their guilt.

Scotland in Tatters

The nobleman Macduff then arrives at the castle and comes upon Duncan’s dead body. In order to appear righteous, Macbeth kills the two guards in an angry rage. The king’s sons, Malcom and Donalbain are afraid that they will be next and run to England and Ireland to hide. Macbeth succeeds in taking the throne and there is a ceremony. But Macduff is not interested in seeing Macbeth become king and does not attend the coronation.

Just when it seems that Macbeth should be content, with the throne secured, his thoughts turn to the prophecies concerning Banquo. It is as if the murder of the king caused Macbeth to cross over to the dark side and there will be no end to his bloodlust. He sends men to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance but the men are only successful in killing Banquo. With Fleance having escaped, Macbeth is left in turmoil.

In spite of how out of control it seems Macbeth has gotten, it also appears he is still struggling with his conscience. At a banquet, he sees an apparition of Banquo and shouts in terror, making the other Scottish noblemen think that he is losing his mind. Macbeth wants to get a grip on himself, so he decides he must go to see the witches.

Before the witches see him, they are already conspiring to cause him to fail. When he arrives, they conjure up three ghosts who tell Macbeth things that seem to him to be impossible. The first says that he should be wary of Macduff, but he does not see Macduff as much of a threat. Second, he is told that no one can kill him unless they are not “born of woman” and third, he hears that only when the woods of Birnam move to Dunsinane hill can he be defeated. He leaves feeling invincible because everyone is born of a woman and forests cannot go anywhere.

Macbeth sends men to kill Macduff but he has fled to England, so Macbeth has Macduff’s family murdered. In England, Macduff and the late King Duncan’s son, Malcom have a meeting. Malcom tricks Macduff into demonstrating his loyalty to Scotland. Once Macduff has proven himself, the two men agree to gather together an army to defeat Macbeth and rescue Scotland from despair.

Hope Remains

In the final act, as Macbeth is sprucing up the castle in preparation for his victory over Macduff, Lady Macbeth is being attended to by a doctor for sleepwalking. She is miserable and sleepless because of her part in the murder of King Duncan. She cries out about blood being on her hands and subsequently kills herself. Macbeth begins to think that life has no meaning but is determined that he will not go down without a fight.

When Malcom and Macduff march on the castle, they bring with them logs from the Birnam forest, fulfilling one of the witches prophesies. Still, Macbeth does not give up because only someone who is not born of a woman can kill him. He fights viciously. Macduff finds him and they engage in combat, Macbeth declaring the prophecy and eluding to his certain victory. Then Macduff tells him that he was not born but was cut from his mother’s womb. Macduff slays Macbeth and cuts off his head, then appoints Malcom, son of Duncan and rightful heir to the throne, as king. By the time of his demise, Macbeth has become so disgusting that it is a great relief to see him finally brought to justice. The play ends with a feeling of hope that order has been restored and Scotland will recover.

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