|Cover of Updated Edition
|Folger Shakespeare Library
The play opens with Macbeth and Banquo, two of the Scottish King Duncan’s generals, returning from battle when they encounter three witches in the woods. The witches tell Macbeth of how he will become the Thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland. For Banquo, they prophesize that he will beget the line of Scottish Kings, though he will never become king himself. Macbeth and Banquo are sufficiently skeptical and continue their journey home.
However, when the two come closer to the encampment, they are presented with a messenger from King Duncan who announces that Macbeth has been made the Thane of Cawdor, immediately putting the prophecy into action and making Macbeth wonder how he might become king. He invites Duncan to dine at his castle that evening and goes ahead to tell his wife of the day’s events.
Unlike Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is very sure of her husband’s future, desiring the throne and telling him that they must murder Duncan to ensure Macbeth's ascension. Immediately upon returning to his castle, Lady Macbeth is able to convince her husband to take initiative and murder Duncan that very night.
The two plan to get Duncan’s chamberlains drunk enough that they will not remember the evening and blame the poor chamberlains for the murder. When the body of Duncan is discovered in the morning, Macbeth quickly kills the “culprits” and assumes the kingship. All the while, Duncan’s sons flee the country, afraid for their own lives.
Immediately, Macbeth’s misgivings and trust in the prophecies force his hand in the murder of Banquo and his son Fleance as well, afraid that his heirs will seize the throne. Successfully killing Banquo, the murderers fail to kill Fleance.
The night of his murder, Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth and sends him into hysteria, scaring his guests and angering his wife. His very presence as the king of Scotland has angered the other nobles and further incites Macbeth’s misgivings and paranoia.
To ease his fears, Macbeth visits the witches again and they offer to him more prophecies. Macbeth must beware of Macduff, a chief opponent to his taking the throne. Macbeth also cannot be harmed by any man born of woman and he is safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth returns home and finds that Macduff has fled to England to join Malcom. In fear, Macbeth seizes Macduff’s castle and orders the murder of Macduff's wife and children, inciting Macduff to further rage. With Malcom, the two raise an army and ride to Scotland to take on Macbeth with the support of the Scottish nobles who fear Macbeth’s tyranny and murderous ways.
While Macbeth awaits his opponents, Lady Macbeth is in the process of going mad, unable to wash the blood from her hands. The news of her suicide reaches Macbeth directly before the arrival of the English forces and sends him into an even deeper despair. He awaits confidently as the prophecy foretold his invulnerability. However, Macduff’s forces arrive under the cover of boughs cut from Birnam wood. When Macbeth is finally confronted by Macduff after his forces have been overwhelmed, Macduff announces that he was “ripped from his mother’s womb” not born, and ultimately defeats and beheads Macbeth, handing the crown back to Malcolm, the rightful heir.
As one of King Duncan’s chief generals and closest military advisers, Macbeth is led to perform wicked deeds by the prophecies of three witches and the machinations of his wife. When he is pronounced Thane of Cawdor for his military victories – a prophecy come true before his ascension to the kingship – he is tempted into murder to fulfill the second prophecy. Once he is crowned king, his brutal plans are made all the easier as he begins killing indiscriminately to ensure his throne. He is not subtle, nor effective, as he riles the entire Scottish nobility against his tyrannous ways and ultimately falls before the combined might of his own psychological pressure and the strength of his opposition.
As Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth is the early instigator of the atrocious plans that lead to Macbeth’s Kingship. She is ambitious and power hungry and her machinations are as cold and vicious as her husband’s actions. However, after the bloodshed begins she is incapable of bearing the weight of what she has done and soon falls victim to her guilt, eventually going mad and committing suicide. Despite the horrible nature of her and her husband’s crimes, the two are a very close couple very much in love.
There are three witches, plotting mischief against Macbeth through their prophecy and spells. Their predictions are responsible for prompting Macbeth to murder Duncan and Banquo, and give him cause to believe his is invincible later on. There are no details as to the origin or nature of the witches, other than that they serve Hecate. Numerous similarities between them and mythological beings have been drawn, but none are of clear relation.
A second of Duncan’s generals, he is with Macbeth when the witches tell their first prophecy, foretelling that his children will inherit the throne. Banquo is equally ambitious as Macbeth, but does not take the action that his friend does in securing his ambitions. Rather, he is the path not chosen, that of inaction and decency. His ghost later haunts Macbeth accordingly for his murder, reminding Macbeth of the choices he has made.
Duncan is presented as the antithesis to Macbeth in terms of rulers. He is kind, virtuous, and a brilliant leader. His death at Macbeth’s hands throws the nation into disarray until the throne can be rightfully returned to his family.
A nobleman who right away opposes Macbeth’s ascension to the throne. After fleeing Scotland to find Malcolm, Macbeth murders his wife and son, creating a personal reason for revenge. He is a principle figure in removing Macbeth from the throne and giving it back to Malcolm and is the only man who can kill Macbeth.
The eldest of Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm immediately flees Scotland after the murder of his father. With Macduff’s help however, he is able to muster the forces he needs to take on Macbeth and regain the throne, thus restoring the order to Scotland that was lost when Duncan was murdered.
Important because of his role in the prophecy of the three witches, Fleance survives the murder of his father and attempted murder of himself by Macbeth and goes on to disappear through the play’s ending.
A Scottish nobleman.
A Scottish nobleman.
The men hired by Macbeth to murder both Banquo and his son and Macduff’s family. They fail to kill Fleance.
The drunken doorman of Macbeth’s castle.
Macduff’s wife and victim of yet another of Macbeth’s atrocities. Her household is shown in sharp contrast to that of Lady Macbeth’s, much more tranquil and less violent.
Duncan’s son and Malcolm’s younger brother.
Quickly and without much ado, the three witches appear on a Scottish moor during a thunder and lightening storm and make plans to meet again after the battle to deal with Macbeth. They quickly disappear.
King Duncan is attended by a captain recently wounded while saving Duncan’s son Malcolm from capture by the Irish. He tells Duncan of how Macbeth and Banquo, the two generals, have defeated the Irish and Norwegian armies and how Macbeth has vanquished and killed the traitor Macdonald.
The Thane of Ross soon enters and tells Duncan of how the Thane of Cawdor defected and joined the Norwegian forces to fight against the Scottish. Duncan announces that Macbeth shall take the role of Thane of Cawdor as a reward for having led the victorious army in battle. Ross departs to share the news with Macbeth.
The witches reappear on the moor, discussing their powers and the recent vile acts they’ve managed to complete, one describing her killing swine and another who has planned revenge upon a sailor whose wife did not properly share chestnuts.
Macbeth and Banquo soon appear and are addressed by the three witches. They address Macbeth at first as the Thane of Glamis and then as the Thane of Cawdor. Puzzled by their statements, Macbeth is further confused when they announce that he will one day be the King of Scotland. As a third prophecy, they announce that Banquo is at the same time lesser and greater than Macbeth and that his sons will sit on the throne but that he himself will not.
Macbeth and Banquo discuss the prophecies with each other, confused by the encounter until Ross arrives to bring them to the king. He announces to Macbeth that he has been made Thane of Cawdor. Immediately Macbeth begins musing on how the first prophecy came true, asking of Banquo if he would enjoy his sons as kings. Banquo’s response is tempered more than Macbeth’s, saying that these things are often only half truths. Macbeth begins to ponder exactly what the prophecy might mean and whether he could one day be king.
Duncan hears the news of the Thane of Cawdor’s execution, of how he repented his crimes and died a noble death. When Macbeth and Banquo finally return, Duncan greets them as heroes and declares to Macbeth the reward for his deeds. He also announces that his son Malcolm shall be made heir to the throne, to which Macbeth notes that only Malcolm is in his way of the throne now.
Plans are made for Duncan to dine at Macbeth’s castle that night and Macbeth goes ahead of everyone to inform his wife of the impending arrival of the king and what has transpired that day.
Back at Inverness, Macbeth’s castle and home, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband describing the events that occurred during the day, immediately believing and recognizing the potential of the prophecies. She decides that certain things must be done to make the rest of the prophecy come true and goes on to describe the weakness of her husband. She decides immediately that King Duncan must be murdered and when Macbeth arrives back home she goes about describing to him what they must do to ensure he never leaves Inverness Castle.
Duncan and the other Scottish nobility arrive at Inverness castle where he comments on how pleasant the castle and its surrounding environments are. Lady Macbeth comes out to greet him and tells him of how it is her duty to be hospitable and welcome the king to her home. Duncan then asks to be brought to Macbeth.
Macbeth goes about pondering the act that he has nearly decided to do. He thinks on the nature of the deed, wondering if it’s right to kill a man who is his king and his guest. He thinks on how popular the king is and how virtuous he is and eventually decides that the only reason to kill the king is to serve his own ambitions.
When Lady Macbeth reenters the room Macbeth announces that he’s decided against killing the King, to which she immediately attacks him and his manhood. He asks of the consequences and she declares that they will be fine so long as they remain resolute in their determination.
Her plan is to bribe the King’s chamberlains with drink and get them drunk enough that they forget themselves and give up easy access to the King’s chambers. After the chamberlains are sufficiently drunk, she and Macbeth will sneak in and kill the king, then smear the blood on the drunken chamberlains so as to lay the blame at someone else’s feet. Finally, Macbeth consents, remarking that he hopes their children are male, lest another female such as Lady Macbeth with her “undaunted mettle” is born.
Macbeth is on his way to the King’s chambers and along the way is confronted by Banquo and his son Fleance. The two are up late, unable to sleep, and Banquo explains to Macbeth that his dreams are plagued by the witches and their prophecies. The two discuss the sisters and when Banquo asks if they have revealed some “truth” to Macbeth, Macbeth replies that he has not thought on their words at all. They once again agree to talk on the matter later and they part ways.
Macbeth proceeds carefully and immediately sees a dagger floating in the air pointing towards Duncan’s bed chambers. The dagger appears to have blood on it and when Macbeth grasps at it, he cannot take hold. He decides that it must be a manifestation of his unease over killing the King and realizes how dark and foreboding the night around him is. Finally, he hears the bell rung by Lady Macbeth signaling that the Chamberlains are sufficiently drunk.
Lady Macbeth appears after Macbeth has left and comments on how clever she is. She ponders Macbeth’s cry in the dark and the fact that he could easily have made a mistake. She muses on how she could have killed the King herself when preparing the daggers for the chamberlains, but could not because he looked so much like her father sleeping.
When finally Macbeth returns, his hands are bloodied and he is visibly shaken. He notes how he heard the chamberlains wake and say a prayer, unable himself to say Amen to that prayer. He also notes how he believed he heard a voice invoke his crime after he had killed the king.
At first Lady Macbeth tries to soothe her husband but soon becomes angry after realizing that he failed to leave the daggers on the chamberlains to frame them for the murder. He refuses to go back to the room again, forcing her to plant the daggers herself. He begins to hear knocking on the doors, sure that he’s been found out and begins worrying of his horrible deed. She finally returns and takes him to wash the blood from his hands, stating ironically that a simple wash of the hands clears them of the deed.
The porter of the castle allows the knocking to continue for some time longer, musing on how he would porter the gates of hell and who he would let in. He finally opens the door to let in Lennox and Macduff, having arrived to prepare the King for departure. Macbeth is one of the few people in the castle still awake and leads the two men to the king’s bed chambers where they discover that the King has been murdered and the news spreads quickly. Everyone arrives, including Lady Macbeth, Duncan’s sons, and the other nobles and chaos ensues. Finally Macbeth arrives again and declares that he has killed the two chamberlains who are responsible in his rage.
Macduff declares his own wariness of the two new deaths, while Macbeth professes his fury at the death of his king as motivation for their execution. Lady Macbeth faints suddenly and is rushed off of the stage. Malcolm and Donalbian whisper to each other that they must flee to stay safe from the murderer as who ever killed their father will likely desire their deaths as well. Banquo and Macbeth gather the nobles and prepare to meet and discuss the matter of Duncan’s death.
Ross, the thane from early in the play, and an old man walk outside discussing the matters of the last few days. He describes the owl that killed the falcon and the king’s well-trained horses eating each other. The day itself is dark and the two are properly quieted by the mood. Macduff soon enters the scene and tells Ross that Macbeth has been made King and that he will soon ride to Scone to be crowned.
Because of the departure of the sons so soon after the king’s murder there is suspicion that they may have paid off the chamberlains to kill the king. Macduff announces that he will return to his home in Fife and Ross sets out for Scone to see to the coronation.
Banquo enters and muses on the prophecies of the three witches. The first two have come true now and so he wonders if the third might be a possibility and that his sons will some day sit on the throne. The stir of ambition begins to appear for Banquo as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their royal attire appear, inviting Banquo to the feast for the evening. Banquo accepts and tells Macbeth of the ride he plans to go on later that day. Macbeth mentions to Banquo that they must discuss the matter of Duncan’s sons who have fled and are likely plotting against the crown.
Banquo leaves the room and Macbeth discusses a few smaller matters of state with his servant before he departs as well. At this point, Macbeth begins a soliloquy on the matter of Banquo and the succession. He worries that he will not produce an heir and that Banquo’s sons will overthrow him later, taking the throne as the witches foresaw.
Macbeth’s servant reenters with the murderers he has hired, reminding them of the “wrongs” committed against them by Banquo. They agree once more to kill Macbeth’s former comrade. He reminds them to also kill Fleance, Banquo’s son and they depart.
Lady Macbeth is full of unrest and calls for Macbeth to attend to her. He announces his own misgivings and upon doing so, declares that he has arranged for yet another horrible deed to be undertaken to ensure the throne, and that there are too many more threats to the throne that must be dealt with. He asks his wife to be happier and kind to Banquo at dinner so as the he will be unsuspecting and that he will successfully be dealt with and eliminated as a threat to the throne.
The murderers await Banquo and Fleance in the woods outside the castle. When the two arrive and light a torch after dismounting the murderers attack. They quickly kill Banquo who urges Fleance to run and save himself, to avenge his death. After the torch is extinguished, Fleance flees and the murderers move to return to Macbeth with Banquo’s body in tow.
Back at the castle, Macbeth and his wife welcome the Scottish noble persons to the feast. Directly before the feast, Macbeth is approached by the murderers and told of what has happened with Banquo and his son. He recomposes himself and returns to the feast where he raises an imaginary toast to his friend.
Macbeth then sees the ghost of Banquo and much like with the visage of the dagger, he starts to feel the pressure of the acts he has performed and their relevant effects on his life. He is at alternating times courageous and depressed, unsure of himself and losing his tenuous grip on reality. Lady Macbeth attempts to sooth him, sending away the noblemen and trying to calm him.
Macbeth however is already planning to murder Macduff and declares his intentions to go and see the three witches once more for advice and prophecies. He decides that Macduff’s actions border on treason as he plans to stay away from court and keep his own counsel.
The witches appear on yet another stormy set, this time with the Goddess Hecate among them, scolding them for taking on Macbeth without her leave. She decides she will take over matters with Macbeth and tells the three witches to bring to Macbeth visions that will offer him a false sense of security when he visits them the next day.
Elsewhere in Scotland Lennox discusses matters with an unnamed lord, commenting on the murder of Banquo. The official position is that Fleance murdered his father and fled. However, the two men suspect Macbeth is the culprit and refer to him as a tyrant. The lord announces that Macduff has fled to England where he has joined forces with Malcolm in trying to convince England to offer aid against Macbeth. Macbeth for his part has raised his forces in preparation for war with Malcolm.
Upon his return to the three witches, Macbeth demands a series of apparitions to help him discern his future. The witches comply by offering him three such visions. The first is a disembodied head, bloodied and reminding Macbeth of Macduff, warning Macbeth to beware the fled nobleman. The second is a blood-soaked child who comforts Macbeth that he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. The final apparition is a child wearing a crown who says Macbeth will be king until the Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
Macbeth is encouraged and lightened by this news and asks whether Banquo’s sons will succeed him. The witches respond with an apparition of the procession of kings, with the final king carrying a mirror and the procession ended with Banquo’s ghost. The witches then vanish and Lennox enters with news that Macduff has fled for England. Macbeth decides that he will capture Macduff’s castle and kill his family.
In Macduff’s castle, Lady Macduff questions Ross as to why her husband has fled. He tries to reaffirm for her that she must trust her husband. She tells her son that Macduff has died, though he does not quite believe her.
When a messenger arrives afterward, telling her she is in danger and warning her to flee, she argues that she has done nothing to deserve such danger. The murderers arrive afterwards and denounce Macduff. When his son calls them liars, they stab him and chase after Lady Macduff, assumedly to murder her as well.
Macduff and Malcolm stand outside of Edward’s castle in England and Malcolm decides he must test Macduff to see if he is loyal to the crown and to him. He begins to declare how he is unfit for the crown, listing his vices and his issues with leadership. Macduff eventually breaks down and announces that Malcolm is indeed unfit to rule the country, proving that he is loyal. Malcolm then announces that he was lying to Macduff and that the latter has proven himself.
Soon afterward, Ross arrives and tells the two that everything is well with Macduff’s family and that they should return to Scotland to see to the country since it has gone into such disarray with Macbeth as the king. When Malcolm announces that he will only return with 10,000 English troops, Ross breaks down and admits that Macduff’s family has been murdered. Macduff, crushed with grief, is urged by Malcolm to turn his grief to anger and unleash it upon Macbeth.
A doctor and a waiting-gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth’s recent habit of sleepwalking. She enters in yet another bemoaned state and begins to wail about the deaths of Banquo and Lady Macduff. She claims there is blood on her hands and that she cannot wash it free. As she walks away, the doctor and waiting-woman discuss Lady Macbeth's descent into madness.
Beyond the castle gates, the Scottish lords are discussing the approaching English forces. The Scottish forces themselves will meet up with Malcolm and Macduff at the Birnam Wood. Macbeth, the tyrant as they refer to him, has gone into a rage, fortifying the castle at Dunsinane.
Macbeth appears with his doctor in tow, claiming he cannot die because no man born of woman can kill him and he cannot lose because the Birnam Wood cannot physically move. He insists on wearing his armor hours before the battle and raves madly at his servants when they announce the arrival of 10,000 English troops. When the doctor announces that Lady Macbeth is struck with delusions, Macbeth tells him to cure her of them.
In the Birnam Wood, Malcolm discusses the fortifications Macbeth has established at the castle. They decide that they should prepare for the battle by cutting boughs from the forest to disguise their numbers as they march on the castle.
While Macbeth is declaring the impenetrability of his fortress and preparing for the coming onslaught with banners and whatnot, an attendant arrives and declares that Queen is dead. Following a sudden depression and quietness on his part another attendant arrives and declares that the Birnam Wood is marching on Dunsinane. Macbeth recalls the prophecy about the wood and readies for the fight, preparing to die.
Malcolm orders the English men to throw down their boughs and the fight commences outside the castle.
Macbeth fights vigorously, pompous in the knowledge no man born of woman can kill him. He slays a lord’s son and disappears into the fray.
Macduff appears from the battle, searching frantically for Macbeth, wanting to personally see to his death. He then disappears back into the battle.
Malcolm and Siward arrive again and enter the castle.
Macbeth and Macduff finally confront each other and fight. Macbeth announces that no man born of a woman's womb can kill him. However, Macduff announces that he was torn from his mother’s womb (through surgery) and Macbeth immediately fears for his life, but will not surrender to Macduff. The two exit the stage fighting.
Malcolm and Siward enter the castle after conquering it and confront Ross with the news that Macbeth has killed Siward’s son. Macduff soon after arrives with Macbeth’s head on a pole and declares Malcolm King of Scotland. Honoring the English system of nobility, Malcolm names all of his Thanes as Earls and curses Macbeth and his queen. He then calls for all of his subjects to attend him at the coronation at Scone and the plays ends.