Summary Plot Overview
The play opens with a brief appearance by a trio of witches. It then moves to a military base, where the Scottish King Duncan learns that Macbeth and Banquo have defeated two invading armies. One from Ireland, led rebel Macdonwald, while one from Norway. After their pitched battle against these enemy forces Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches while crossing a moor. The witches predict that Macbeth (a rank of Scottish nobility), will become Thane of Cawdor, and ultimately King of Scotland. They prophesy that Macbeth will be accompanied by Banquo who will produce a line Scottish kings. Banquo will not be king.
The witches vanish and Macbeth, Banquo and Macbeth treat their prophecies skeptically. King Duncan’s men then come to thank King Duncan and Macbeth for their victories and to inform Macbeth that they have indeed been named thanes of Cawdor. Duncan has sentenced the previous thane to death for having fought for the Norwegians, and he betrayed Scotland. Macbeth is curious about the possibility that the rest of the witches’ prophecy, which says he will be crowned King, might be true. However, he is not sure what to expect. King Duncan visits him, and they plan on dining together at Inverness (Macbeth’s castle) that night. Macbeth wrote to Lady Macbeth in advance, telling her everything that had happened.
Lady Macbeth is not affected by her husband’s uncertainty. She wants Duncan to be crowned king and she is determined to get it. Macbeth arrives in Inverness and she overcomes all her husband’s objections. She persuades the king to kill him that night. He and Lady Macbeth will get Duncan’s chamberlains drunk to make them black out. The next day they will blame the chamberlains for the murder, which will leave them defenseless as they won’t remember anything. Macbeth stabbing Duncan while he is asleep, despite his doubts. He also experiences a variety of supernatural portents including the vision of a bloody knife. When Duncan’s death is discovered the next morning, Macbeth kills the chamberlains–ostensibly out of rage at their crime–and easily assumes the kingship. Duncan’s sons Malcolm, and Donalbain, flee to England, and Ireland respectively, in fear that Duncan may also be killed.
Macbeth, fearful of Banquo’s heirs’ prophecy that they would seize the throne from the witches, hires a team of murderers to kill Banquo. They set out to ambush Banquo as he travels to a royal feast. However, they failed to kill Fleance who fled into the night. Macbeth is furious. As long as Fleance lives, his power will not be lost. Banquo’s ghost visits Macbeth at the feast that night. Macbeth, who has seen the ghost before, rails fearfully when he sees it. This startles his guests, which include the majority of the great Scottish nobility. Lady Macbeth attempts to mitigate the damage but Macbeth’s kingship causes more resistance from his nobles.
Macbeth is scared and goes to the cavern of the witches. They show Macbeth a series of spirits and demons, and they warn him about Macduff, the Scottish nobleman who opposed Macbeth’s accession to throne. He is also warned that Macduff can harm any man born to a woman, and that he will be safe until Birnam Wood arrives at Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth feels relieved and secure because he knows all men are born from women and that forests can’t move. Macbeth learns Macduff fled to England to join Malcolm and orders the seizure of Macduff’s castle and the execution of Lady Macduff with her children.
Macduff is devastated by the news that his family has been executed and vows to take revenge. Duncan’s son Prince Malcolm has raised an army in England. Macduff rides with him to Scotland to confront Macbeth. The Scottish nobles support the invasion, which is a result of Macbeth’s brutal and tyrannical behavior. Lady Macbeth suffers from sleepwalking fits and bemoans the bloodstains on her hands. Macbeth is informed by his opponents that Lady Macbeth has committed suicide, which causes him to feel a deep, pessimistic despair. He still awaits the English and fortifies Dunsinane. However, he is certain that the witches’ prophecies will guarantee his invincibility. However, he is overcome with fear when he discovers that the English army is approaching Dunsinane, shielded by boughs from Birnam Wood. Birnam Wood is actually coming to Dunsinane fulfilling half the prophecy of the witches.
Macbeth fights violently in battle but his army and castle are overwhelmed by the English forces. Macbeth meets Macduff on the battlefield. He claims that he wasn’t “of woman birth” but was “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb” (what we now refer to as “birth by cesarean section”). Macbeth fights until Macduff kills him and beheads Macbeth, even though he knows he is doomed. Malcolm, now King of Scotland, announces his good intentions for the country, and invites everyone to witness him being crowned at Scone.