Macbeth by William Shakespeare is considered to be a masterpiece that presents a compelling exploration of one man’s relentless and criminal pursuit of evil for the sake of power and the guilt that tears him apart in the process.
In Act I the scene is set for action to begin, characters are introduced and the plot is set in motion. Shakespeare skillfully catches the attention of the audience by introducing the supernatural element of the three witches in the very first scene.
The opening scene is set on a thundering night in a dark and foreboding landscape amidst which the three witches plan to meet Macbeth. The following scene is at the camp of the King of Scotland, Duncan, who is in the middle of a war with the King of Norway. The camp scene progresses as an unnamed captain praises Macbeth for his bravery and valour as he fought against Macdonwald and defeated the Norwegian King Sweno. Shortly after, the Thane of Ross appears with news informing King Duncan that the Thane of Cawdor has betrayed them and become a traitor by joining the Norwegian army. The treacherous Thane of Cawdor is then arrested. As the news of Macbeth’s victory in the battle against Macdonwald reaches King Duncan, he decides to honour the bravery of Macbeth by giving him the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is being presented here as a brave general who has valiantly fought for his King and come home victorious.
The next scene again shows the three witches in a dismal heath brewing potions and dancing around by joining hands. Meanwhile, as Macbeth and Banquo are met by the three witches who prophesies that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland, and to Banquo, they predict that he will become the father of kings. Having said that the witches vanish. Macbeth and Banquo are left baffled and puzzled over the strange encounter. Two noblemen Ross and Angus arrive bearing the news of Macbeth becoming the Thane of Cawdor. Both Macbeth and Banquo are surprised and shocked by the news and start wondering if the witches are speaking the truth. On Macbeth’s enquiry Angus explains about the treacherousness of the former Thane of Cawdor and his impending execution.
Macbeth ponders about his new title and starts contemplating the realisation of the witches’ second prophecy. Ambition begins to raise its head and he says to himself: “Glamis, and thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind.” It is evident that he has started contemplating the idea of becoming King:
I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?
A little later he muses:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not.
When Malcolm is declared heir to the throne, Macbeth immediately begins to consider him an obstacle in his way of becoming King:
The prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
These ‘asides’ have been placed quite strategically by Shakespeare to make it clear to his audience/readers that even at this early stage Macbeth has begun contemplating the idea of becoming King. He is losing all restraint as far as his ambition is concerned. He is also well aware of the evil nature of his thoughts.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband informing her about the two prophecies of the witches and the subsequent realisation of one of them whereby he has become the new Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth is equally ambitious and gets excited at the prospect of Macbeth becoming King of Scotland and herself the queen. She begins to contemplate the King’s murder and invokes supernatural powers to strip her of all vestiges of feminine weakness in preparation for a deadly plan that would ensure the throne for Macbeth:
Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty.
When Macbeth arrives, she greets him as King with the phrase “all hail hereafter” and tells him about the plan to murder King Duncan. She warns him not to let any kind-hearted weakness show on his face and thereby hinder the plan to get the throne. It may seem that it is Lady Macbeth who is goading her husband to commit the crime but Shakespeare has already given us enough evidence that Macbeth himself harbours the dark desire to be king and has even contemplated murder. He admits that it is his “vaulting ambition” that is egging him on towards such a horrendous task. He, however, battles with his conscience and is anxious about the consequences of such an act.
Lady Macbeth attacks his masculinity by taunting him to become a man. She calls him a coward and belittles his reluctance to act for his own good. She then lays out the plan to kill the King and explains how the blame would be put on the King’s two guards who would be drunk. Macbeth pushes aside his fear and anxiety and agrees to the plan.
The plan that was made in the previous Act comes to its ugly fruition in this one. King Duncan is murdered by Macbeth and this bloody act only leads to more bloodshed. However, the third prophecy of the witches is seen to come true in this Act when Macbeth is chosen to become the King of Scotland.
The Act begins with a brief meeting between Banquo and Macbeth. Expressing his gratitude for his hospitality Banquo presents Macbeth with a diamond as a token of thanks from the King and while talking he abruptly brings up their encounter with the three witches and their prophecies. Macbeth dismisses the topic saying that he has not thought about it at all, but he ends the conversation by suggesting that they will discuss it at a later time. Banquo then calls it a night and departs for his bed, leaving Macbeth alone who then hallucinates. He sees a vision of a dagger dripping in blood. He realises that it is a vision of the murderous act that he is about to commit.
Macbeth kills the King according to plan and comes out looking extremely distressed and visibly shaken. The burden of guilt begins to set in. Realizing the enormity of his crime Macbeth knows he will now never be able to experience the soothing and relaxing sleep that rejuvenates people’s lives:
Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
This Act is important from the point of view of Lady Macbeth’s character too. The manner in which she plans and carries out Duncan’s murder reveals her ambitious and ruthless nature. While Macbeth is disoriented by the magnitude of his crime and is haunted by guilt, Lady Macbeth in a cool and calculating manner controls the situation. She chastises her husband for cowardly anxiety and on his refusal she goes ahead and plants the dagger on the guards herself.
The dead King is discovered by Macduff who raises an alarm. A scene of chaos unfolds. Lady Macbeth appears and acts surprised and horrified by the murder. Macbeth makes a strong and eloquent expression of his grief and sorrow. At this point, Malcolm and Donalbain also enter and learn about their father’s murder. The bodyguards with the bloody dagger are blamed and Macbeth, claiming to take revenge, immediately kills them. To divert attention, Lady Macbeth pretends to faint. Banquo calls a meeting to bring some order amidst the chaos. Fearing for their lives Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland, respectively. Later they are suspected of having a hand in the King’s murder.
In the absence of King Duncan’s sons, Macbeth is chosen to be King and his coronation ceremony is to take place at Scone.
Act III shows how Macbeth’s thirst for power drags him deeper into more bloodshed and cruelty. To keep and preserve the power that he has gained through violence he is drawn into a vicious circle of more violence. In this Act we also witness how Macbeth’s horrific crime has begun to affect him psychologically.
The first scene of Act III is set in the royal palace at Forres. Banquo has begun to have suspicions about the foul play of Macbeth. As he waits for the King and the other men he begins wondering about the three witches and their prophecies. His thoughts are interrupted as the newly crowned King Macbeth and his queen Lady Macbeth enter, followed by Lennox, Ross and other ladies, lords and attendants. King Macbeth greets Banquo and invites him to the banquet that is scheduled to be held that evening at the royal palace. He then talks to him for a while enquiring about his plans for the rest of day. Shortly when everyone leaves we hear Macbeth soliloquizing. In this soliloquy he talks about the necessity and importance of safety for a King. He also contemplates about the prediction that the three witches have made for Banquo that he would be father of Kings. He fears that if the two prophecies made by the three witches for him are already fulfilled, then the one made for Banquo will also eventually come true. He fears that the witches have placed “a fruitless crown” upon his head “And put a barren sceptre in [his] grip.” (Act 3, Scene 1, lines 64-65). He feels jealous of Banquo and his son Fleance. At the end of the soliloquy Macbeth decides that he has no choice but to kill both Banquo and his son Fleance. Macbeth calls for two common murderers and fabricates a story to persuade them to kill Banquo and Fleance. He instructs them to maintain caution and avoid discovery at all cost. The murder is planned for that very night somewhere away from the palace.
Meanwhile, a concerned Lady Macbeth is worried about her husband’s constant doubtful and anxiety ridden behaviour. Macbeth however is gripped by the fear of retribution, and says that he would rather be dead than go through the constant mental torture brought on by their criminal act. Lady Macbeth responds by acknowledging his fears, but she gently reminds him of the evening banquet and the need to keep a brave and happy face in front of the guests. Macbeth mentions a “deed of dreadful note” that is yet to be done and without involving Lady Macbeth he takes complete charge of the task. In the next scene, the two murderers kill Banquo but Fleance manages to escape.
At the Banquet, King Macbeth confidently hides his real feelings but is visibly shaken to learn from one of the murderers that Fleance has escaped. Lady Macbeth admonishes him for neglecting his duty towards his guests. Macbeth tries to bring back his composure and raises his glass for a toast but again loses his control on seeing Banquo’s ghost sitting at the table. His crime has begun to affect his mind and cause psychological disturbances. The sudden change in his behaviour confuses the guests and they become suspicious of him thinking that he has gone mad. Lady Macbeth tries to control the situation but the ghost’s reappearance drives Macbeth insane and finally she has to ask the guests to leave.
The exchange between Macbeth and his wife reveals how heavy the burden of guilt has become for him. Yet his ambition is driving him on towards more crime. There seems to be no return possible:
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
The crimes he commits only make him suffer as he now feels that all threats to his throne and power should be eliminated. Macbeth plans to meet with the three witches again hoping that they will let him know about his fate. Lady Macbeth sympathises with her husband and asks him to go to bed for the night, weakly assuring him that sleep will cure him.
In the following scene, in the heath the three witches are confronted by their queen, Hecate, the Goddess of witchcraft. She expresses her dislike and disapproval for Macbeth and instructs the three witches to be prepared with spells to “draw him on to his confusion” as he will continue to “spurn fate” and “scorn death”.
The next scene focuses on the misgivings that people have started having about Macbeth. The strangeness of the recent events makes them question the same. The suspicion is that Malcolm, Donalbain and Fleance are being wrongly accused. There is talk about Macduff trying to restore peace to Scotland with help from the King of England.
Two significant developments take place in Act IV. On the one hand Macbeth remorselessly goes ahead securing his Kingship by eliminating all his rivals. He reaches the nadir of his bestiality when he does not even spare Macduff’s wife and children. On the other hand we are shown that plans are afoot to overthrow Macbeth and put an end to his reign of terror.
The Act begins with the three witches chanting their spells around a boiling cauldron in a cavern. Macbeth enters and demands answers from them about his future and the witches agree to let him know. They conjure up spirits and apparitions to help Macbeth. One of the apparitions advises him to beware of Macduff. The next apparition reiterates the witches’ original advice, that is:
“Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.”
Macbeth feels extremely relieved and delighted to know that no one (born of woman) can ever kill him. As the feeling of invincibility dawns upon him, his first thought is to spare Macduff’s life, but he decides to kill him nevertheless. The third apparition foretells Macbeth’s replacement by another king who will restore calm and order into all the chaos that he has created. Macbeth feels visibly threatened, but he is soon reassured by the next and the final counsel. The next apparition is a riddle that tells Macbeth not to worry about conspirators:
“Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.”
In response to Macbeth’s adamant demand to know if Banquo’s issue would ever reign in this kingdom, the witches show him a procession of eight shadowy figures of kings. Macbeth realises that each king has a resemblance to Banquo. The witches disappear along with their trappings, leaving Macbeth in despair and in fear of his worst fears.
Lennox comes in and informs him that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth is filled with rage after hearing this news and vows to retaliate by attacking Macduff’s castle. In his rage, he expresses his intention to kill Macduff’s wife, children and all other relatives. His growing insecurity makes him resolve that he would take down each threat that he perceives.
The scene at Macduff’s castle in Fife, underlines the innocence of Macbeth’s next victims. Lady Macduff feels lonely and afraid due to her husband’s sudden flight from the country. With her young son by her side she talks to noblemen Ross. She expresses her sadness to Ross, saying that Macduff may have succumbed to madness. Ross disagrees with her and says that the times they are living in are fearful and treacherous. He suggests to her that Macduff’s decision to flee the country might in fact have been an act of wisdom. But he fails to persuade Lady Macduff who remains unconvinced by Ross’s words. After a while Ross leaves the castle feeling emotionally exhausted. Lady Macduff then expresses her fear to her young son that Macduff might have been dead. Her son however refuses to believe that as true. At this point, they are abruptly interrupted by a messenger who informs that danger is approaching towards them and further suggests that she should take the children and flee right away.
Lady Macduff becomes numb and does not know to act as the astonishment and disbelief of the news gradually turns into fear and mortal terror. There is however no time for escape since the murderers are already at the door. They break into the castle and demand to know where Macduff is. The young son shows commendable courage and bravely defies them, but the murderers quickly stab him and then move towards Lady Macduff.
In England at the palace of King Edward, Macduff and Malcolm are discussing the situation in Scotland. The gloomy conditions the dreadful political tyranny under the rule of Macbeth deeply disturb both the men. Macduff suggests that they should join hands and take up arms against Macbeth and declare war on him. However, Malcolm finds it difficult to trust Macduff and his intentions despite assurances. He asks why a man will flee to England and leave behind his wife and children in distress if he does not have any evil at his heart. To this Macduff respond by saying that he has lost all hopes and that is why he had decided to leave suddenly. Showing his unease, Malcolm expresses that he is still worried about his own safety and fearful that his life might be under danger.
Feeling the distrust of the prince, Macduff impatiently cries out that there is no hope for Scotland unless the two of them join hands by trusting each other as he believes that nothing else can take Macbeth down. He is about to leave but Malcolm delays him by continuing to speak. Malcolm says that even if they manage to overthrow Macbeth he will not be replaced by a worthy king. He projects himself as being far worse than Macbeth who is bloody, avaricious, deceitful and malicious. He is convinced that he does not possess any of the royal qualities that a worthy king should have. He tells Macduff that Scotland will surely suffer even under the next king (referring to himself) and says that when compared to him Macbeth would probably seem as pure as snow. To this, Macduff responds by saying that he doubts hell could produce any one worse than Macbeth and that Macbeth’s evil is such that it can have no competition. But Malcolm refuses to get convinced and insistently continues to elaborate on his bad characteristics.
Macduff feels tired and finally, believing that Malcolm is perhaps not fit to govern his country or even himself, gives up the hope of fighting for Scotland. He decides to leave and bids farewell to Prince Malcolm. But Malcolm once again stops him from leaving and reveals that he had only been testing his integrity and commends his noble passion to fight for his country. He then confesses to Macduff that the character assassination that he did of himself was in fact a tactic to test the honesty and loyalty of Macduff. He says that it was a ploy to test Macduff’s trustworthiness and profess his own virtue and promises and pledges to help Macduff overthrow the rule of Macbeth. Malcolm further reveals that they already have an army consisting of Siward and ten thousand English soldiers who are at their command. Macduff is surprised by this revelation and realises that he had been unable to interpret events that have at the same time appeared both as benign and malignant.
They are then interrupted by a doctor who enters to announce that the King is coming. Before exiting, the doctor also describes the King’s extraordinary power of healing. Malcolm explains to Macduff that the honourable King possesses the noble gift of prophecy and that he can predict the future turn of events. At this point, nobleman Ross enters and joins the two men. He has just arrived from Scotland. Macduff immediately starts asking questions to Ross about the state of affairs in Scotland and asks to know how his wife and children are doing. At first, Ross tries to avoid the questions about Macduff’s wife and children as he does not know how to give him the news of their murder. He then learns that Macduff and Malcolm are planning to launch an attack to overthrow Macbeth. Ross feels that this is probably the right moment to let Macduff know about his family. He reports to them that Macbeth’s most recent act of brutality was the heart-breaking slaughter of Macduff’s family. Macduff becomes engulfed with profound grief and sorrow at the news of his family’s death. More than that, he feels guilty and blames himself for leaving behind his family without any defence or protection. After he has vented his shock and grief, Malcolm sympathetically encourages him to put aside his sorrow and turn his grief into a powerful weapon against Macbeth. Macduff agrees with him and composes himself to take charge of his emotions. They then set off to meet with King Edward and prepare for the upcoming battle to overthrow Macbeth and save Scotland.
In the last Act of the play we see things moving towards a just retribution. Lady Macbeth is driven to suicide by her guilt ridden conscience. Macbeth fights till his last breath only to realize that he is not invincible and meets his end at the hands of one he had wronged the most.
The Act opens with a scene at the Dunsinane Castle. An unnamed lady consults with a physician who is there for Lady Macbeth. This lady reports to the physician about Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking but refuses to answer further questions thinking that no one would believe her. At this point, Lady Macbeth enters a trance and begins to rub her hands as if to rub off some stubborn stain that would not come off. She then begins to talk and speaks in a way as if Macbeth were present there. While still rubbing her hands, she says “yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him”. She further asserts in her sleep that nothing can make them accountable for their crimes if her husband’s power is secure. In her trance, she incriminates both herself as well as Macbeth in the death of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family. At last, she returns to bed, leaving the physician shocked at the spectacle he has just witnessed. The physician suggests that Lady Macbeth is more in need of a priest and not a physician. The scene gives us an insight into Lady Macbeth’s tormented mind. She is so wracked with guilt that she walks in her sleep bearing the burden of her crime.
In the next scene, the Scottish lords Menteith, Caithness, Angus, and Lennox are discussing the plans for the battle. They are somewhere in the open country near Dunsinane. The air is filled with anticipation for the imminent battle as Scottish soldiers gather amidst beating drums and flying flags. The English army, being led by Malcolm, Macduff and Siward is approaching their country and the battle is about to begin.
Angus announces that they have arranged to meet near Birnam Wood, the place that was mentioned in the last prophecy of the three witches. The conversation further reveals that Malcolm’s brother, Donalbain, has not joined the English forces yet. The lords also discuss about Macbeth and his beleaguered state of mind. Macbeth has fortified the palace due to the fear of the forthcoming attack. It is widely and generally believed among the people of Scotland that Macbeth has lost his self-control and has gone mad, and as such, he does not have many supporters. The scene closes as the lords and the soldiers leave for Birnam Wood where the battle for Scotland is about to take place.
Macbeth is afraid of the army which is moving towards him. To keep himself calm he reminds himself of the witches’ prophecy that no man born of woman can kill him and surely Macduff is born of a woman. Just then a worried and fearful servant enters to inform him that the English army is now approaching towards Dunsinane. Macbeth dismisses him not wanting to hear more of it. He then returns to his thoughts and determines to fight the battle till the last of his flesh leaves the bones.
As he puts on his armour in anticipation of the approaching army, he asks the doctor about his wife’s health and requests him to cure her. The physician reports that she had been “troubled by thick-coming fancies”. Macbeth begs the doctor to restore his wife’s health. The doctor responds by saying that the only possible cure is that the patient should help and heal herself. The doctor is thus referring to the things that both Macbeth and wife have refused to acknowledge. The scene ends with the doctor wishing to go away from the castle and never to come back to the place no matter the amount of money he is offered.
In the country near Birnam Wood, the Scottish rebel soldiers abandon Macbeth’s side and join forces with Malcolm. Before beginning the march towards the castle, Malcolm finally advises his soldiers to camouflage themselves with boughs of trees. As they set off for war, the soldiers seem eager and hopeful as they now have a purpose to fight for. The leadership and encouragement of Malcolm gives them a direction. More importantly, Malcolm’s leadership gives them a sense of calm and order which has been missing from Scotland ever since Macbeth took the throne.
At the Dunsinane castle, Macbeth is discussing the safety of his castle with Seyton and his soldiers. His state of mind suggests the graveness of the situation. He believes that the strength of their castle will put the approaching army to shame.
Just then the jarring sound of wailing women interrupts his empty words. Macbeth learns that they are grieving at the death of his queen. He does not express grief at the death of his wife as the weight of the emptiness in his life has become too heavy to bear. He gives his most famous soliloquy “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, … Signifying nothing.”
Macbeth realises and expresses how blind and greedy he has been in his pursuit of the throne. He has been living an empty life that had no meaning or purpose. The death of his wife and the realisation of the forthcoming doom of his power have completely undone Macbeth. He has succumbed to deep levels of pessimism.
Macbeth’s thoughts are interrupted by a messenger who claims that Birnam Wood is in fact approaching Dunsinane. Dramatic irony comes into play here because the audience is already aware that what looks like the woods moving is in fact soldiers from Malcolm’s army who have used branches of trees to camouflage themselves. Macbeth remembers the prophecy of the three witches. Gripped by a mortal fear, he knows he is doomed if the Birnam Woods is truly approaching Dunsinane. Setting aside his fears he mkes a death wish “I ’gin to be a weary of the sun”. As he begins to accept and realise that this might be the end for him, he decides to abandon his fears and fight and die like a man.
In the next scene, the prophecy of the three witches that Birnam Woods will come to Dunsinane stands fulfilled. The army led by Malcolm has successfully reached the castle gate at Dunsinane under the camouflage of woods and tress. Malcolm displays the character of a true leader by taking charge of the battle and keeping the spirits of his soldiers high.
The following scene consists of elaborate war scenario, chaotic battles and military actions. As Macbeth enters the battlefield his mind begins to think about the witches’ prophecy that said no man born of woman can kill him. He begins to wonder what sort of man will not be born of woman. He defeats and kills young Siward and proceeds to another part of the battlefield. Meanwhile, Macduff enters searching for Macbeth. He is determined to kill him and take vengeance for his family’s brutal slaughter. As he continues his search for Macbeth, Siward enters and informs him that it looks like the battle is over. He explains that the castle has already surrendered without any struggle. Many of Macbeth’s men have deserted him and left him to fight his own battle.
Meanwhile, Macbeth is considering falling on his sword in order to end the torture of his mind. But as he admits this he also decides to fight till his last breath. He is then spotted by Macduff who calls out to his enemy thus: “turn, hell-hound, turn!” Macbeth remembers his own crimes against the man’s wife and children, and he is gripped by a pang of guilt. Troubled by his deeds and the thoughts in his mind, he tells Macduff to retreat and save himself. Macduff ignores this warning as he can see nothing but the murderer of his family. He advances towards Macbeth and challenges him to a fight. As they begin the fight, Macbeth brags that he is invincible. He boasts that he has a gifted life that cannot be taken by any man born of a woman. To this, Macduff reveals his own truth that shocks the king. Macduff says that he was not born from a woman but he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” Macbeth gasps as he realises the witches’ trickery and play of words. The fact of his doom dawns upon him. He still decides to fight with Macduff because surrendering without a fight will mean loss of honour. He resolves to rather die like a man than a coward. The vestiges of the heroic warrior that Macbeth once was, are still reflected through his acts in his last moments. He raises his shield and sword and the combat begins.
Macduff appears with the severed head of Macbeth. He salutes Malcolm and shouts “Hail, King! for so thou art” as the others join him in the acclaim. The sounds of drums and trumpets fill the scene as they rejoice at their great victory. As Malcolm addresses the crowd, he immediately elevates the Thanes to Earls. He announces that they should call for all their friends who were exiled and bring them back home. The turmoil and fear that Macbeth had unleashed upon their country is over now. There are new hopes as they have saved their country from madness and have brought back sanity. They hope that Scotland will once again live the dream of peace and order.