Macbeth is among the best known of William Shakespeare's plays, as
well as his shortest surviving tragedy. It is frequently performed
at professional and community theatres around the world. The play,
loosely based upon the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland
by Raphael Holinshed and the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece, is
often seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power
and betrayal of friends.
The play opens amid thunder and lightning, with three Witches—the
Weird Sisters—deciding that their next meeting shall be with
a certain Macbeth. In the following scene, a wounded sergeant reports
to King Duncan of Scotland that his generals, Macbeth (who is the Thane
of Glamis) and Banquo, have just defeated an invasion by the allied
forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald. Macbeth,
the King's kinsman, is particularly praised for his bravery, and fighting
The scene changes. Macbeth and Banquo enter in conversation, remarking
on the weather and their win ("So foul and fair a day I have not
seen"). While they wander into a heath, the three Witches who
have been waiting greet them with prophecies. Even though it is Banquo
who first challenges them, they address Macbeth. The first hails Macbeth
as "Thane of Glamis", the second as "Thane of Cawdor",
while the third proclaims that he shall "be King hereafter".
Macbeth appears stunned into silence, so again Banquo challenges them.
The Witches inform Banquo he shall father a line of kings. While the
two men wonder at these pronouncements, the Witches vanish, and another
Thane, Ross, a messenger from the King, soon arrives and informs Macbeth
of his newly-bestowed title—Thane of Cawdor. The first prophecy
is thus fulfilled. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions
of becoming king.
Macbeth writes to his wife about the Witches' prophecies. When Duncan
decides to stay at the Macbeth's castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth
hatches a plan to murder him and secure the throne for her husband.
Macbeth raises valid concerns about the regicide, but Lady Macbeth
eventually persuades him to comply with their plan.
In the night of the visit, Macbeth kills Duncan - the deed is not
seen by the audience, but it leaves Macbeth so shaken that Lady Macbeth
(herself very jumpy) has to take charge - as per her plan, she frames
Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by planting their bloody
daggers on them. Early the next morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman,
and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. The porter opens the
gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers
Duncan's corpse. In a sham fit of fury, Macbeth murders the servants
before they can protest their innocence. Macduff is immediately suspicious
of Macbeth, but does not disclose his suspicions publicly. Fearing
for their lives, Duncan's sons flee, Malcolm to England and his brother
Donalbain to Ireland. The rightful heirs' flight makes them suspect,
and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman
to the dead king.
Despite his success, Macbeth remains uneasy regarding the prophecy
that Banquo would be the progenitor of kings. Hence Macbeth invites
Banquo to a royal banquet and discovers that Banquo and his young son,
Fleance, will be riding that night. He hires two men to kill Banquo
and Fleance (The third murderer mysteriously appears in the park before
the murder). While the assassins succeed in murdering Banquo, Fleance
is able to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in
Macbeth's place. Only Macbeth can see the ghost; the rest of the guests
begin to panic at what they see as Macbeth raging at an empty chair,
until a desperate Lady Macbeth orders them to leave. Disturbed, Macbeth
goes to the Witches once more. They conjure up three spirits with three
further warnings and prophecies, which tell him to "beware Macduff",
but also that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and
he will "never vanquish'd be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane
Hill shall come against him". Since Macduff is in exile in England
(he meets with Malcolm and together they begin to raise an army), he
is safe, so Macbeth massacres everyone in Macduff's castle, including
Macduff's wife and their young children.
Lady Macbeth eventually becomes racked with guilt from the crimes
she and her husband have committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks
and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands, all the while
speaking of the terrible things she knows.
In England, Malcolm and Macduff plan the invasion of Scotland. Macbeth,
now identified as a tyrant, sees many of his thanes defecting. Malcolm
leads an army, along with Macduff and Englishmen Siward (the Elder),
the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in
Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs
to camouflage their numbers, thus fulfilling the Witches' second prophecy.
Meanwhile, Macbeth delivers a famous nihilistic soliloquy ("Tomorrow,
and tomorrow, and tomorrow") upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death
(the cause is undisclosed, but it is assumed by some that she committed
suicide, as the Malcolm's final reference to her reveals "'tis
thought, by self and violent hands/took off her life").
A battle ensues, culminating in the slaying of the young Siward and
Macduff's confrontation with Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no
reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman.
Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb
untimely ripp'd" (i.e., born by Caesarean section before his mother's
actual delivery)—and was therefore not "of woman born".
Too late, Macbeth realises the Witches have misled him. A fight ensues,
which ends with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling
the last of the prophecies.
In the final scene, Malcolm is crowned as the rightful King of Scotland,
suggesting that peace has been restored to the kingdom. However, the
witches' prophecy concerning Banquo, "Thou shalt [be]get kings",
was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true, as James
I of England was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.