Study Guide

Macbeth

Macbeth Summary

We start with some creepy witches cackling about some guy named "Macbeth," and then cut to post-battle, where we learn that this Macbeth has been kicking serious tail in battle—so much that King Duncan has decided to give him the title Thane of Cawdor.

Now it's time to meet Macbeth. He's prancing home on a dark and stormy night after defending King Duncan in battle with some skilled enemy-disemboweling. Understandably, he's feeling pretty good about himself. Just then, he and his good pal Banquo run into three bearded witches (the "weird sisters"), who rhymingly prophesy that Macbeth will be named (guess what?) Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. Just as Banquo is pouting about being left out, the witches tell him that he'll be father to a long line of future kings of Scotland.

The next thing we know, a guy named Ross shows up to say that, since the old Thane of Cawdor turned out to be a traitor and is about to have his head lopped off and displayed on a pike, Macbeth gets to take his place as Thane of Cawdor. Sweet! That takes care of the first prophecy. At this rate, the play will be over before lunch.

While Macbeth is waiting around for "chance" to come along and make him king, he starts getting restless. His ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, prods him into acting like a "man" and killing King Duncan when the poor guy comes to Macbeth's castle for a friendly visit.

When Macduff (yeah, we know, there are more "Macsomebodies" in this play than an episode of Grey's Anatomy) finds the king's dead body, Macbeth kills the guards and conveniently accuses them of murdering the king. King Duncan's kids, Donalbain and Malcolm, find out what's happened, they high tail it out of Scotland so they can't be murdered too.

Macbeth is named king and things are gravy. Prophecies fulfilled! Except, wait. Macbeth starts to worry about the witch's prophecy that Banquo's heirs will be kings. Macbeth's not about to let someone bump him off the throne so, he hires some hit-men to take care of Banquo and his son, the unfortunately named Fleance. Banquo is murdered, but Fleance escapes.

Things go downhill for Macbeth, who's more haunted than an episode of Ghost Hunters. He pops in on the Weird Sisters for another prophesy, which comes in three parts: (1) watch out for Macduff; (2) No man born of woman is going to hurt him; and (3) Don't worry until Birnam Wood (a forest) moves to Dunsinane.

Macbeth breathes a sigh of relief with #2 and #3, since those are obviously impossible situations and mean that he's effectively safe. The one about Macduff has him a little worried, though, so he kills off Macduff's family. Naturally.

By now, people are starting to get a little suspicious. Macduff and Malcolm pay a visit to the awesome English king, Edward the Confessor, and start plotting with the English soldiers how to save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny. Oh, and Lady Macbeth? She's not doing so hot. In fact, she basically dies of guilt. But Macbeth is safe, right? Not so fast. Macduff and Malcolm show up with their army and order troops to cut the branches from the trees in Birnam Wood for camouflage.

Remember what the weird sisters said about Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane? Then you know where this is headed. Macduff corners Macbeth; calls him a "hell-hound"; tells him that he, Macduff, was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, i.e. delivered via C-section rather than being "born; and then cuts off his head. So much for the phony king of Scotland.

  • Act 1, Scene 1

    • Three witches (a.k.a. the "weird sisters") meet on a foggy heath (an open plain) in Scotland, amidst thunder and lightening. It's all very dramatic and mysterious.
    • They discuss when they'll meet again, and decide to hook up "When the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won." In other words, when the fighting that's going on has ended, which apparently will be today, before sunset. Brain snack: Even though the play's speech headings and stage directions refer to these three lovely ladies as "witches," the term "witch" only shows up once in the play.
    • The sisters are, however, called "weird" six times, but not "weird" like kooky and strange; they're "weird" like "wyrd," an Old English term meaning "fate." Spooky.
    • They let the audience in on their plan to meet some dude named Macbeth. Title alert! The witches then call out to Graymalkin and Paddock, the witches' "familiars," or spirits (usually animals like cats) that serve the witches.
    • All three witches then chance, "Fair is foul and foul is fair" before going back about their supernatural business.
    • Want to see how it all goes down? Check out this video version, from the folks at This is Macbeth.
  • Act 1, Scene 2

    • Duncan (the King of Scotland), his two sons (Malcolm and Donalbain), and Lennox (a Scottish nobleman) hang out with their attendants at a military camp in Scotland.
    • Lost? Check out this nifty map of major locations in the play.
    • King Duncan's forces have been busy fighting against the King of Norway and the traitor, Macdonwald.
    • A wounded Captain arrives, fresh from the field, where he fought to help Duncan's son, Malcolm, escape capture. What's the news?
    • Well, says the Captain, the battle was going south fast until brave Macbeth fought through the "swarm" of enemy soldiers and disemboweled the traitorous Macdonwald.
    • There's some gab about Macbeth's great courage in the face of seemingly impossible adversity and the Captain continues his story: after Macbeth spilled Macdonwald's guts all over the ground, the battle flared up again when the "Norwegian Lord" brought new men to the field, but even this didn't daunt Macbeth and Banquo, who just redoubled their efforts.
    • Oh, but could someone get the Captain a surgeon? He's kind of bleeding all over the place.
    • The Thane of Ross arrives from another battle, where Macbeth was also kicking serious butt. Sweno, Norway's king, is not allowed to bury his men until he hands over ten thousand dollars to the Scots.
    • Duncan then proclaims the traitorous Thane of Cawdor will be executed, and Macbeth, responsible for the victory, shall have his title.
    • Ross is sent to announce the news to Macbeth.
  • Act 1, Scene 3

    • The three witches meet again on the heath and check in about what everyone's been up to. Oh, the usual witchy stuff: one was killing swine; another has been making some poor sailor's life miserable.
    • Her sisters are going to help her by depriving him of sleep and by "drain[ing] him dry as hay," which means the sailor's going to have some serious gastro-intestinal problems and/or that he's going to be unable to father children.
    • Brain Snack: plenty of people actually believed in witches the 16th and 17th centuries, and not the friendly pagan kind, but the ones who were in the habit of doing things like whipping up nasty storms and causing male impotence.
    • What, you want more? Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during the reign of King James I of England, who was really interested in witchcraft. He authorized the torture of witches in Scotland in 1591 and also wrote a book on the subject, Daemonologie, in 1603.
    • Witch #1 also came back with a pilot's thumb, a convenient rhyme for "Macbeth doth come," heralded by "a drum."
    • Hearing Macbeth's approach, the witches dance around in a circle to "wind up" a "charm."
    • Macbeth and Banquo show up, and Macbeth delivers his first line: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." Hmm. Where have we heard that line before?
    • Banquo notices the witches (they're kind of hard to miss) and speaks to them, using some variety of "You're not from here, are you?"
    • The witches put their fingers to their lips, but that does not deter the perceptive Banquo from noticing their beards.
    • Macbeth tells them to speak, and they hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and future King. Banquo, who apparently took over the narration for these five lines, mentions that Macbeth is "rapt," as if he's in a trance. (Get your highlighter out —this word comes up a lot in the play.)
    • Banquo asks if the witches will look into his future too. Sure: he'll be lesser and greater than Macbeth, and not too happy, but happier than Macbeth. Oh, and he'll be father to kings, though he will not be a king himself. Great, thanks for clearing that up.
    • Macbeth says he's already the Thane of Glamis but it's hard to imagine becoming Thane of Cawdor, especially because the current Thane of Cawdor is alive.
    • He demands to know where the witches got their information. The witches don't respond, but simply vanish into the foggy, filthy air.
    • Banquo suggests that maybe they're tripping on some "insane root" but conversation quickly moves on to the big news about their own fates, as promised by the witches. Ross and Angus, two noblemen sent by Duncan (the King), break up the party.
    • Ross passes on that the King is pleased with Macbeth's battle successes of the day, and announces that the King would like to see him, and also that Macbeth is the new Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth does some private ruminating.
    • On the one hand, the sisters' first prophecy that Macbeth will be named Thane of Cawdor can't be evil, since it's true. On the other hand, the witch's prophecy could be evil, especially since it's got Macbeth thinking about something naughty. This is where we get the first inkling that Macbeth might be down for a little regicide (fancy word for killing a king).
    • He says he's just had a really awful and disgusting thought about "murder" that's made him feel a little panicky.
    • While Macbeth is deep in thought, Banquo comments to Ross and Angus that Macbeth seems "rapt," in a trancelike state.
    • Macbeth concludes his dramatic musings and says that he's just going to leave things to "chance." If "chance" wants him to be king, then he will be.
    • They hasten to the King, and Macbeth and Banquo agree to talk more about everything later.
  • Act 1, Scene 4

    • Back to Duncan, who wants to know if the Thane of Cawdor is dead.
    • He is, and he confessed to being a traitor right before he died.
    • Whew. Glad that's settled.
    • Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus then meet the King. The King is grateful; Macbeth and Banquo pledge their loyalty; group hugs all around.
    • The King announces that his son Malcolm will be named Prince of Cumberland, which is the last stop before being King of Scotland.
    • They'll all celebrate the good news at Macbeth's place.
    • Macbeth trots off, thinking (well, saying, since this is a play) that Malcolm is all that stands in the way of his kingship. He's thinking naughty thoughts again and hopes nobody can tell that he's got "black and deep desires."
    • Get the scoop on this scene from its two major players in this interview with Macbeth and Duncan.
  • Act 1, Scene 5

    • Lady Macbeth receives a letter from Macbeth, calling her his "dearest partner of greatness," and telling her of the witches' prophecy.
    • Lady Macbeth says she's worried her husband's not up for killing the current king in order to fulfill the witches' prophecy. Macbeth, she says, is "too full o'th' milk of human kindness" and isn't quite wicked enough to murder Duncan. (Looks like Lady Macbeth isn't going to leave anything to "chance.")
    • Lady Macbeth says she's going to browbeat her husband into action.
    • When a messenger enters and announces that King Duncan will stay the night at Inverness as a guest of the Macbeths, Lady Macbeth tells us it'll be King Duncan's last night on earth.
    • Then Lady Macbeth delivers one of the most interesting and astonishing speeches ever. She calls on spirits to "unsex" her, "make thick [her] blood," and exchange her breast "milk for gall." Translation: Lady Macbeth calls on murderous agents to stop her menstrual flow and change her breast milk for poison (undo all the physical features that make her a reproductive woman). Basically, she suggests that being a woman and a mother could prevent her from committing a violent deed.
    • When her husband (the guy who's "too full o'th' milk of human kindness") enters the castle, Lady Macbeth tells him that King Duncan's spending the night but he won't be waking up the next morning.
    • See this scene for yourself, courtesy of the folks at This is Macbeth. And make sure you get Lady Macbeth's take on these events, too. 
  • Act 1, Scene 6

    • Duncan, his sons, Banquo, and a bevy of noblemen arrive at Glamis Castle (Inverness), complimenting the Lady Macbeth, their "honoured hostess," for her seeming hospitality.
    • Lady Macbeth is pretty charming here—she says that the Macbeths are grateful for the "honours" bestowed on Macbeth by the king and tells the men to make themselves at home.
    • There's a whole lot of very formal "You're so gracious." "No you're the one who's so gracious" talk here before Lady Macbeth finally takes the king to see her husband.
  • Act 1, Scene 7

    • Somewhere in the castle Macbeth sits alone, contemplating the murder of King Duncan. And it gets a little complicated. See, if it were simply a matter of killing the king and then moving on without consequences, it wouldn't be a big issue.
    • The problem is what happens afterward —the whole, being damned to hell thing. It's even worse, because murdering Duncan in Macbeth's own home would be a serious violation of hospitality. He's supposed to protect the king, not murder him. Plus, Duncan is a pretty good king (if not a bit "meek") and heaven is bound to frown upon murdering such a decent fellow.
    • In then end, Macbeth decides that it's probably not a good idea to commit murder. He has no justifiable cause to kill the king and he admits that he's merely ambitious.
    • And then Lady Macbeth enters.She gives him a good tongue-lashing, questions his manhood, and lays out the plan to get Duncan's guards drunk and frame them for the murder.
    • If Macbeth can't keep his vow, she says, then he isn't a man.
    • Macbeth is a little turned on by this show of strength, and he finally resolves to go through with the murder.
  • Act 2, Scene 1

    • Banquo and his son, Fleance, are at Macbeth's inner court at Glamis. They're both feeling a little twitchy.
    • Macbeth then enters with a servant, and Banquo notes that the new Thane of Cawdor (Macbeth) should be resting peacefully considering the good news he got today.
    • They reminisce about those wacky witches they met the other day, and then everyone leaves Macbeth alone on stage.
    • Just in time, too, because things are about to get real: Macbeth has a vision of a dagger that points him toward the room where Duncan sleeps. The dagger turns bloody and Macbeth says the bloody image is a natural result of his bloody thoughts.
    • A bell rings, which is Lady Macbeth's signal that it's time to rock and roll.
  • Act 2, Scene 2

    • Lady Macbeth is alone on stage. She tells us that she drugged the King's guards and would've even killed Duncan herself, if he hadn't looked so much like her father in his sleep. Apparently, she's all family values now.
    • Macbeth enters with bloody hands and a weird story: two separate people staying in the castle woke up while he was in the act. One cried, "Murder!" but they both went back to sleep after saying their prayers.
    • Macbeth is disturbed that he couldn't say "Amen" when they said, "God bless us." He could have used the blessing, given how he recently damned his soul by killing the King.Lady Macbeth is of the "If you don't think about, it will go away" school of thought, but Macbeth is still clearly disturbed at having killed a sleeping old man for his own selfish gain.
    • There's also a little problem where he heard voices saying things like "Macbeth does murder sleep!"
    • Lady Macbeth tries to get her husband to focus on the matter at hand, which is framing the King's attendants.
    • He won't do it himself, so she takes the daggers from him, smears the attendants with Duncan's blood, and plants the weapons. Come on. That would never fool CSI: Cawdor.
    • As Macbeth philosophizes about his guilty hands, Lady Macbeth comes back, having done her part.
    • She hears a knock at the door, and hurries Macbeth to bed so that (1) they don't look suspicious, and (2) they can do a little washing up before all the "Oh no! The king is dead" morning hullabaloo.
    • Macbeth regrets killing Duncan —he says he wishes that all the knocking at the door would "wake Duncan" from his eternal sleep.Sorry, dude. No take-backsies with murder.
  • Act 2, Scene 3

    • Now that Shakespeare's given us a murder and a lot of spooky crazy talk from Macbeth, we're obviously ready for a brief, comedic interlude.
    • There's a ton of knocking and the Porter (the guy who's supposed to answer the door) does a lot of joking around about what it would be like to be a porter of "hellgate."
    • Apparently, a porter in hell would be a busy guy since there are so many evil and corrupt people in the world.The Porter runs through a bunch of scenarios for who could be at the door (a farmer, a con-man, a tailor) and he has witty remarks for all of them. Things like: "I hope you brought a handkerchief—you're going to get sweaty!" and "You can heat up your iron in here!" (Ba-DUM-bum.)
    • It's Macduff and Lennox, who have come to fetch the king.
    • The laugh-a-minute Porter makes a bunch of jokes about how drinking an excessive amount of alcohol, like he's been doing, makes a man frisky —but it also detracts from his "performance" in the sack, not to mention turning his nose red and making him have to pee.
    • Enter Macbeth, the picture of sleepy innocence while he makes small talk with Lennox and sends Macduff to wake Duncan.
    • Lennox notes that some spooky things have been happening all night —he heard a bunch of screams, there was a little earthquake, and the fire in his chimney blew out.
    • Yep, says Macbeth, it was a pretty rough night. But not as rough as it was for Duncan, who Macduff has just found murdered.
    • Macduff tells Macbeth and Lennox to go see Duncan's body for themselves. It's too gruesome for him to describe, except to say that viewing the scene is like looking at a Gorgon. (Medusa was a Gorgon, and when men looked at her they turned to stone, Chamber of Secrets style.) Macduff sounds the alarm to wake the whole castle, both by yelling his head off and calling for a bell to be rung.
    • Everyone starts running around, Lady Macbeth and Banquo show up, and then Macbeth starts a way-too-eager eulogy about the King's great virtues.
    • So, who murdered the king? Lennox thinks that the drunken guards covered in the King's blood and holding their daggers are a good bet.
    • Macbeth casually announces that he killed both of the guards in a fit of pious rage, out of his love for the King.
    • Apparently, no one thinks it's weird that the guards went to sleep with the bloody daggers in hand.
    • Lady Macbeth, upon hearing that Macbeth has done this, wisely stages a diversion—or maybe she really does nearly faint in response to her husband's stupidity. In either case, she needs to be escorted out. (Taking credit for the killing of the guards was not part of her plan).
    • Donalbain and Malcolm privately decide that they probably shouldn't stay in the house where their dad was killed. Good thinking. A+ for self-preservation. The rest of the men say they suspect treason and agree to meet in the hall to discuss the situation, pronto.
    • Malcolm will go to England and Donalbain to Ireland, making it more difficult to murder them both.
    • The dead king's sons slip out, unnoticed, while everyone else gets dressed and prepares to talk this thing through.
  • Act 2, Scene 4

    • Ross chats with a conveniently placed wise old man, who is disturbed by the night's strange events—both the King's murder and the weird things going on in nature.
    • Ross says the heavens are clearly troubled by the unnatural regicide: even though it's the middle of the day, it's completely dark outside; an owl murdered a hawk; Duncan's horses ate each other. Okay, that seriously sounds like something out of The Exorcist.
    • Macduff, yet another Scottish nobleman, offers some exposition, too: he says the dead guards "were bribed" to murder the king (wrong); that Malcolm and Donalbain look pretty suspicious, having left town so quickly and all (can't argue with that, even though we know better); that Macbeth is on his way to Scone to be crowned King; and that Duncan is being put in a freshly dug grave.
    • Time for a new act.
  • Act 3, Scene 1

    • At Macbeth's new palace in Forres, Banquo, alone on stage, delivers a soliloquy: he's totally suspicious of Macbeth. But he does take the time to note that his part of the prophecy, regarding his royal seed, will also probably come true.
    • Banquo pipes down when the newly crowned Macbeth, his lovely Queen, and a posse of noblemen enter the room.
    • Macbeth sweet talks Banquo, calling him his honored guest and requesting his presence at a fancy banquet to be held that night. Banquo says he will, of course, do whatever Macbeth asks. However, he won't be around to offer any advice this afternoon as he has errands to run. 
    • Macbeth oh-so-casually asks what Banquo will be up to, and finds out that he'll be riding off somewhere before the dinner, but that he'll definitely be back in time for the feast.
    • Having obtained the information he needs, Macbeth changes the subject to the fact that the "bloody" Malcolm and Donalbain are suspiciously missing, and respectively hiding out with new friends in Ireland and England. Plus, it seems that Duncan's sons are busy "not confessing" to Duncan's murder —instead, they're spreading nasty rumors about their father's death.
    • Macbeth adds a little BTW as Banquo leaves, asking if his son, Fleance, will be riding along with him that evening. Fleance will indeed be going, and upon hearing this, Macbeth bids them farewell.
    • Everyone except for Macbeth and a servant leave the room.
    • Macbeth has the servant call in the men he has waiting at the gate.
    • Left to himself, Macbeth launches into a long speech about why it's necessary and good to kill his friend, Banquo. Uh, okay.
    • Macbeth is worried about Banquo's noble nature, wisdom, and valor. Plus, if the rest of the witches' prophecy comes true, Macbeth figures that he'll have sold his soul to the devil (by killing Duncan) only for Banquo's kids to take his crown.
    • He concludes his speech by inviting fate to wrestle with him, and says he won't give up until he's won or dead. Hm. It seems like it's getting a whole lot easier for Macbeth to think about murder, don't you think?
    • The two men at the gate are brought in, and we discover that Macbeth intends for them to murder Banquo and his son while on their ride.
    • Macbeth speechifies to the two murderers about how Banquo is their enemy and anything bad that has ever happened to them is surely Banquo's fault. Macbeth says that no turn-the-other-cheek Christianity is necessary here.
    • The murderers respond by saying that they are only "men," and then Macbeth uses the technique he learned while being berated by his own wife: he claims they're not real men if they're not brave enough to murder a man for their own good. 
    • Um...okay, say the henchmen. We'll do it. Their lives are pretty bad anyway. They're fine with taking a chance on eternal damnation.
    • Macbeth says that Banquo is his enemy, too, and he'd do the kingly thing and just have him publicly killed, except that they have a lot of mutual friends, which might make things a little awkward at parties. 
    • The murderers again say they'll do it, and Macbeth says he'll tell them where they need to be and when. Oh, and they'll have to kill the Fleance, too. Macbeth will be in touch shortly, but right now he has to go get ready for a dinner party. After they leave, Macbeth delivers a nice rhyming couplet indicating that if Banquo's soul is headed to heaven, it will arrive there tonight. 
  • Act 3, Scene 2

    • Lady Macbeth asks a servant if Banquo is already gone. When she realizes he has, she asks the servant to get Macbeth for a little chat.
    • Macbeth comes along, and Lady Macbeth tells him to look more chipper and not dwell on dark thoughts, as "what's done is done."
    • Macbeth points out they've merely scorched the snake, not killed it. Macbeth compares dead Duncan's death as a state preferable to his; at least Duncan doesn't have to worry about loose ends.
    • All right, Debbie Downer, says Lady Macbeth; just chill out there.
    • Macbeth says he will. And he tells his wife she should say a lot of really nice things about Banquo, flatter him, and maybe even flirt with him a little. That will help hide their guilt. 
    • Lady Macbeth tells him he has to stop talking about what they've done. 
    • But Macbeth says that as long as Banquo and Fleance are alive, he's going to be paranoid. He can't stop these dark thoughts and his fear of being found out, and his worries about Banquo's son getting his crown.
    • Lady Macbeth says they won't live forever, which leads Macbeth to say, "Hmm. That's true. In fact..."
    • In fact, what? Lady Macbeth wants to know what her husband is plotting. 
    • Macbeth dodges her question, saying it's better for her to "be innocent" and not know his plans until they're accomplished and she can applaud him for it. Gee. It seems like Lady Macbeth no longer gets any say in her husband's affairs.
    • Macbeth appeals to nature to let night's black agents do their thing, and then he exits with Lady Macbeth.
  • Act 3, Scene 3

    • At a park near the palace, the two murderers are joined by a third, which is a little fishy. He says Macbeth sent him, but the First and Second Murderers didn't seem to be expecting anyone else. Check out this fun blog post for some theories about who the Third Murderer may (and may not) be. 
    • Banquo and Fleance approach on horseback and dismount to walk the mile to the palace, as usual. Conveniently, they have a torch—good for seeing by.
    • Banquo starts up with a friendly "it looks like rain" conversation and is promptly stabbed.
    • While being stabbed, he denounces the treachery and encourages Fleance to run away and eventually take revenge.
    • In the meantime, the torch has gone out, and Fleance takes advantage of the darkness to escape.
    • With Banquo dead and Fleance on the run, the murderers head off to the dinner party to report the half of the job they've done.
  • Act 3, Scene 4

    • Meanwhile, back at the dinner party, the Macbeths make a big show of welcoming their guests.
    • The first murderer enters as everyone is being seated. Macbeth darts off to see the first murderer, who informs him that they've slit Banquo's throat, but that Fleance has escaped.
    • Ooh. Not good. Macbeth is pretty sure that this is really going to tick Fleance off.
    • And now the fun begins: Banquo's ghost shows up. Because the ghost is silent, he gets to creep around quite a bit before anyone notices.
    • While everyone is busy not noticing, Macbeth raises a toast and calls special attention to Banquo's absence. He hopes Banquo is just running late or being rude and that nothing horrible has happened to him. What a thoughtful guy.
    • This is particularly hilarious given the presence...Banquo's ghost.
    • Again Macbeth is invited to sit, and in the spot they've reserved for him sits…Banquo's ghost. Naturally, Macbeth goes into a fit, and the lords all take notice. Lady Macbeth, always a quick thinker, excuses her husband for these "momentary" fits he has had since childhood.
    • She urges them to keep eating, and then corners Macbeth, who is still hysterical.
    • Lady Macbeth asks if Macbeth is a man, because he's not acting like one so much as he is acting like a sissy. She tells him to get it together—there's nothing but a stool in front of him. This "ghost" business is all in his head.
    • Meanwhile, Macbeth is discoursing with the ghost that only he sees, and then it disappears. He swears to Lady Macbeth that the ghost was there, and then laments that it used to be that when you dashed a man's brains out he would die. Now, apparently, instead of dying people come back and steal your seat at the table. Sheesh. The nerve!
    • Everything is just getting back to normal when the ghost reappears. Again Macbeth calls out a toast to the missing Banquo (he's just asking for it now). When he sees that the ghost has returned, Macbeth screams at him for being so spooky. He says if Banquo were to appear in any physical form—even a Russian bear—Macbeth would take him on, no problem. The ghost leaves again and Macbeth tells everyone to stay put. 
    • Lady Macbeth lets him know that he's killed the mood. It's pretty clear the party's over. 
    • Macbeth tries to recover, and he even questions everyone else asking how they can be so calm in the face of such horrible sights. Um...what sights? they want to know.
    • Lady Macbeth tells the concerned lords to leave immediately. Pronto. NOW.
    • After they exit, Macbeth philosophizes that blood will have blood. In other words, this ain't over yet.
    • Morning is now approaching, and Macbeth points out that Macduff never showed at the party. He lets out that he has had a spy in Macduff's house. He promises to go to the witches the next day, and says that he's so far into this bloody business that there's no turning back now. 
    • Lady Macbeth suggests that maybe he just needs a good night's sleep, and so they go off to bed. Sweet dreams, you crazy kids!
  • Act 3, Scene 5

    • The witches again meet at an open place, this time with Hecate, the goddess of witches, who looks pretty angry.
    • Hecate lays into the weird sisters in a lengthy, rhyming speech that sounds a bit like a nursery rhyme.
    • She's super irritated that they were meddling in the affairs of Macbeth without consulting her first, as she could've done a better job. Also, she points out, Macbeth isn't devoted to them, only to himself.
    • But, fine, Hecate will clean up this mess. She tells them to all meet in the morning, when Macbeth will come to know his destiny, whatever that means.
    • Then there's a catchy witch song and dance, and everyone exits after Hecate.
    • FYI: Some literary critics believe that these scene is way too hokey to be Shakespeare's work, so it must have been added to the play some time between the time the play was first written (1606) and its publication in the first folio (1623), which was after Shakespeare's death (1616). A fellow playwright, Thomas Middleton, may have written the snazzy songs in this scene.
  • Act 3, Scene 6

    • Meanwhile, elsewhere in Scotland:
    • The nobleman Lennox discusses Scotland's plight with another lord. Isn't it weird that Duncan was murdered, that his run-away sons were blamed, that Banquo has now been murdered, that his run-away son (Fleance) is being blamed, and that everyone has a major case of déjà vu? Plus, the murders of Banquo and Duncan were too conveniently grieved by Macbeth, who had the most to gain from the deaths.
    • Lennox refers to Macbeth as a "tyrant," and then asks the other Lord if he knows where Macduff has gone off to. 
    • Turns out Macduff has joined Malcolm in England.
    • Malcolm and Macduff are doing a pretty good job of convincing the oh-so gracious and "pious" King Edward of England, along with some English noblemen, to help them in the fight against Macbeth, the tyrant.
    • FYI: Shakespeare's giving England and King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) some serious props here.
    • The two noblemen pray that Malcolm and Macduff might be successful and restore some order to the kingdom, even though news of the planned rebellion has reached Macbeth and he's preparing for war.
    • Sorry to say, it's not looking too good for Macbeth at this point.
  • Act 4, Scene 1

    • On a dark and stormy night, the three witches are hanging out in a cave roasting marshmallows and chanting spells around a boiling cauldron, into which they cast all sorts of nasty bits, from lizard's leg to the finger of stillborn baby. 
    • Hecate enters, pleased with the witches' more serious approach this time around. After Hecate exits, the Second With announces "something wicked this way comes." 
    • Not surprisingly, Macbeth promptly follows. (So does a Ray Bradbury novel and cinematic adaptation, but not for another few centuries.)
    • Macbeth gives the witches some props for being able to control the weather and conjure crazy winds that batter churches, cause huge ocean waves to "swallow" ships, destroy crops, topple castles, and so on. (Hmm...this reminds us of Act I, scene iii, where the witches say they're going to punish a sailor's wife by whipping up a nasty little storm for her husband, who is at sea.)
    • Macbeth says he has some more questions about his future and he wants some answers from the weird sisters, pronto.
    • The witches add some more ingredients to the cauldron, and then apparitions begin to appear, each addressing Macbeth.
    • First, an armed head warns him to beware of Macduff. 
    • The second apparition is a bloody child who says that Macbeth won't be harmed by anyone who was "of woman born." Um, well...that's pretty much everyone, right? Including Macduff. So really Macbeth figures he has nothing to fear. He welcomes this good but figures he might as well have Macduff killed anyway—you know, just to be sure.
    • The third apparition is a child wearing a crown and holding a tree in his hand. The child promises that Macbeth won't be conquered until Birnam Wood marches to Dunsinane. This seems about as unlikely as Macduff not being born of a woman.
    • Given all of this, Macbeth feels safe that he won't be conquered in the upcoming war. But again, to be on the safe side, he still asks if Banquo's children will ever rule the kingdom.
    • He is warned to ask no more questions.
    • He demands to be answered anyway.
    • Macbeth is not pleased when he's shown a line of eight kings, the last of which holds a mirror that reflects on many more such kings. One of the kings in the mirror happens to be holding two orbs.
    • Time for a History Snack: King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland) traced his lineage back to Banquo and, at his coronation ceremony in England (1603) James held two orbs (one representing England and one representing Scotland). Quite a coincidence, don't you think?
    • The apparitions disappear and the witches tease Macbeth for looking horrible when he saw his future destruction. The witches do yet another song and dance routine and they vanish.
    • Enter Lennox to find a perplexed Macbeth. Lennox tells Macbeth the news that Macduff has definitely run away to England, presumably to get some help for a rebellion.
    • Get your highlighter out because this next bit is important: Macbeth says that from now on, he's going to act immediately on whatever thought enters his mind: "From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand." In other words, no more thinking and contemplating about the pros and cons of being bad – he's just going to do whatever the heck he feels like doing.
    • Starting with… wiping out Macduff's entire family, especially his kids, since Macbeth doesn't ever want to see any little Macduffs running around.
  • Act 4, Scene 2

    • At Fife, in Macduff's castle, Lady Macduff is lamenting to Ross that her husband has run away, which, sure makes him look suspicious.
    • Also, abandoning your family with no defense is seriously uncool. It's cool, Ross says. Macduff had his reasons.
    • Lady Macduff then has a funny bit of banter with her young son about how his father is dead. He doesn't believe her, and they go on to discuss whether or not she should buy a new husband at the market as well as what happens to traitors. The kid is pretty witty. He suggests that there are enough bad men in the world to beat up the good men and hang them, so really, the traitors shouldn't be too concerned about their fates. Then he adds that he knows his dad isn't dead. If he were, Lady Macduff would be crying.
    • Lady Macduff is entertained by her son's cheekiness, but the conversation comes to an abrupt end when a messenger enters advising her to flee with her children.
    • Since she's innocent, she sees no reason to leave. Then again, she thinks, this is Earth, where sometimes people are praised for doing evil things and punished for doing good things. So being innocent may not be a good reason to stay put. 
    • Unfortunately, in the time it takes her to figure this out, the murderers have arrived. 
    • One of the murderers says they're looking for Macduff, who is a traitor.
    • Macduff's son retorts, is stabbed, and then dies, leaving the murderers to pursue mom.
  • Act 4, Scene 3

    • Near King Edward's palace in England, Malcolm and Macduff brainstorm about Scotland's plight under the tyrannous Macbeth.
    • Malcolm suggests finding a nice shady spot where they can cry their eyes out. Macduff's got a better idea: maybe they should whip out their swords and fight like "men" against the good-for-nothing Macbeth.
    • Sure, that's an okay idea, says Malcolm; but he's worried Macduff might have something to gain by turning on him, (Malcolm) and betraying him to Macbeth. Besides, Macduff doesn't seem like a loyal guy these days, having abandoned his family back in Scotland and all. No man, Macduff says; I'm totally loyal.
    • Still, Malcolm's a little paranoid so he decides to test Macduff by suggesting that even he, Malcolm, might make a poor king, were they to defeat Macbeth. Scotland would suffer, he says, under his own bad habits. What bad habits? Malcolm's got "an impossible lust" that would only get worse as he devoured all of the maidens of Scotland.
    • Macduff at first insists there are plenty of maidens in Scotland, and Malcolm would be satisfied.
    • But Malcolm won't let up talking about how bad a king he'd be, and Macduff finally gives up and admits that Scotland's pretty much doomed.
    • Once Malcolm sees that Macduff is truly devoted to Scotland rather than just a political alliance, Malcolm goes "psych!": not only is he not lustful, he's never even "known" a woman. And he's got plenty of good qualities. Boo-yah.
    • So, Macduff, Malcolm and ten thousand Englishmen at their backs get ready to take Scotland back.
    • Then a doctor shows up (rather unexpectedly) and talks about how King Edward is tending to a crew of poor souls afflicted by a nasty disease called "scrofula," which the King heals with his touch.
    • This is why it's helpful to have a genuine king: he gets his power from God and can do cool stuff like cure diseases and rule with an iron fist.
    • We interrupt this program for a History Snack: Scrofula (what we now know is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes and skin) was also called the "King's Evil" and it was thought to be cured by a little something called the "Royal Touch," a kind of laying on of hands ceremony that was performed by monarchs in France and England as far back as the middle ages.
    • The healing ceremony was supposedly started in England by King Edward the Confessor, Macbeth's ideal king. In a book called The Royal Touch, historian Marc Bloch writes that King James I (who sat on the throne when Macbeth was first written and performed) wasn't exactly thrilled about performing this ceremony —he thought it was superstitious —but he did it anyway.
    • Ross shows up and chats with Malcolm and Macduff about how Scotland is in a bad way.
    • Macduff asks after his family, and Ross says they were fine when he left them. 
    • Macduff tells Ross not to be stingy with his words. It feels like he's holding back. So Ross tells him that the rumor is that if Macduff were to return to Scotland, a whole lot of men—and women—would be willing to take up arms against Macbeth.
    • Malcolm promises when they finally arrive in Scotland, ten thousand English soldiers will come, too.
    • Ross then announces he has some bad news, actually. Macduff offers to guess at it, but before he does Ross blurts out that, oops, actually Macduff's family has been gruesomely murdered.
    • It takes a bit for this news to sink in. Macduff asks multiple times if Ross is sure that his wife and kids are all dead. 
    • Macduff blames himself for leaving, but Malcolm recommends that Macduff take his own advice and get his feelings out by murdering rather than weeping.
    • Macduff vows to slay Macbeth without further delay. He prays for heaven to put him face to face with Macbeth, STAT. Malcolm agrees with this suitably "manly" approach and tells everyone to cheer up: their day will come. 
  • Act 5, Scene 1

    • Back in Scotland, at Macbeth's castle in Dunsinane, a doctor waits with one of Lady Macbeth's gentlewomen.
    • They're keeping an eye out for Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking, which the gentlewoman reported began once Macbeth left to prepare the house for battle.


    • Seems like Lady Macbeth has been saying and doing some freaky things on these nightly strolls.Lady Macbeth shows up walking. Make that sleepwalking.
    • They proceed to watch Lady Macbeth ramble through a tortured speech, at once trying to clean her hands of an imaginary spot (try a little hydrogen peroxide) and nagging at her invisible husband.
    • All the hand wringing and her question, "Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?" leave little doubt as to what vexes the lady. (This is also where we get the famous line, "Out, damned spot!" so be sure to check out this staged version.)
    • The doctor says there's nothing he can do to help her, and BTW there are a lot of nasty little rumors floating around.
    • It sounds like Lady Macbeth probably needs help from a priest, not a doctor.
  • Act 5, Scene 2

    • A bunch of Scottish noblemen converge in the country near Dunsinane, where Macbeth keeps his castle.
    • On their heels, heading for Birnam, is the English army, led by Malcolm, Malcom's Uncle Siward, and Macduff. Oh, and a bunch of young Scottish men have taken up arms with the English army.
    • This is not looking good for Macbeth.
    • Some dude name Cathness informs the group that the tyrant King is hell-bent on protecting Dunsinane. It's pretty clear that his actions are in his own interests and not the nation's.
    • Everyone agrees that Macbeth's a lousy king and needs to go.
  • Act 5, Scene 3

    • Macbeth is pumped for battle. Thanks to the sisters' prophecies, he's pretty confident that he can't be beat.
    • Just then, a messenger enters with the doubtful and fearful news that there are ten thousand somethings marching to Dunsinane.
      Somethings? That doesn't sound good.
    • Macbeth guesses that the somethings are geese. Seriously, dude?
    • LOL, good try. Actually, they're men coming to kill you.
    • Macbeth starts to get a little worried. He's had a good run, but it's looking like he won't be relaxing in a peaceful old age.
    • Lady Macbeth isn't doing too well, either. The doctor reports she isn't sick so much as she is plagued by ill fantasies. Macbeth suggests that the doctor cure her, sooner rather than later.
    • The doctor replies that the woman's got to fix herself.
    • By the way, asks Macbeth—does the doctor have the means to purge the English from the countryside of Scotland?
    • Nope. No amount of money could convince him to stay near the madhouse of Dunsinane.
  • Act 5, Scene 4

    • More people meet, specifically Malcolm, Siward, Macduff, Menteith, Caithness, Angus, Lennox, and Ross. Does anyone have a mnemonic for that? (Here you go: My silly mother makes cakes and lemon rinds.)
    • They hatch a plan: the soldiers will cut down branches to hide themselves under during the march to Dunsinane. Hm. That sounds a lot like the woods of Birnam are about to be on the move.
    • Many of Macbeth's men have deserted him, and it's clear that those still siding with Macbeth don't believe in the cause.
    • Still, Macbeth is so set in his certainty of victory that he is willing to let them march right up to Dunsinane, thinking the castle (and he) is protected from harm by the witches' prophecy.
    • At this point, it might be wise to review that prophecy.
  • Act 5, Scene 5

    • Macbeth (still at Dunsinane) insists that banners be hung outside the castle.
    • Many of his former forces are now fighting against him on the English side, making it difficult for him to meet the army in a glorious blaze.
    • He's still feeling pretty good, since Dunsinane is so fortified that he imagines the enemy army will die of hunger and sickness before he ever even needs to leave the castle.
    • In the meantime, a shrieking of women tells Macbeth that his wife is dead—it's suicide.
    • Macbeth here launches into one of Shakespeare's (and literature's) best known and oft-quoted speeches, beginning "She should have died hereafter," meaning one of two things: she would've died eventually so she might as well have died today or, she should have died later because I'm super busy defending the castle right now.
    • He also gets to say the super famous line, "Life's but a walking shadow […] a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury," which is not only an early, maybe the earliest occurrence of Existentialist thought in literature—it's also the basis of William Faulkner's famous work, The Sound and the Fury.
    • Macbeth is quickly distracted by the news that a "grove" of trees seem to be moving towards Dunsinane, which is all around bad news, since said "grove" is likely Birnam Wood.
    • Macbeth finally realizes that the prophecy was as twisted as the prophets, but he's going to face the army anyway. If you have to go down, you might as well go down fighting.
  • Act 5, Scene 6

    • Malcolm, Siward and Macduff land their army (covered with branches from Birnam Wood) outside Dunsinane.
    • Siward will lead the battle with his son, and Malcolm and Macduff will take the rear and manage everything else.
    • The soldiers drop their "leafy screens," the alarms sound, and the battle for Scotland begins. Rumble!
  • Act 5, Scene 7

    • Macbeth appears on stage and compares himself to a bear in a bear-baiting contest (i.e. he's in a serious jam).
    • History Snack: Bear-baiting is a blood sport that involves chaining a bear to a stake and setting a pack of dogs on it.
    • Elizabethans thought this was good clean family fun. Bear-baiting arenas were located in the same neighborhoods as the theaters, just in case anyone wanted to take in a play and then top off their day of fun with a little animal cruelty.
    • Young Siward enters and...quickly dies. Macbeth talks some evil smack over the dead body, to the effect of "your swords and weapons can't touch me because you're of woman born."
    • Macduff runs on stage looking for Macbeth and screams for the evil tyrant Macbeth to come out and show his ugly face.
    • Macduff is hot to kill Macbeth with his own sword because he'll likely be haunted by the ghosts of his wife and kids if he doesn't.
    • He begs "fortune" to let him find Macbeth so he can stab him in the guts.
    • Siward and Malcolm note that Macbeth's castle has basically been surrendered without a fight. They're winning battles with little effort, mainly because the people they're fighting aren't really trying. Even Macbeth's soldiers hate him. So. Many. Enemies.
  • Act 5, Scene 8

    • Macbeth enters the stage alone and says he refuses to "play the Roman fool" (someone who would choose noble suicide in the face of defeat, like, ahem, Antony).
    • Macduff enters and calls Macbeth a "hell-hound" and Macbeth talks a little trash in return: I already killed your family so you best be steppin' back now unless you want me to have your blood on my hands, too. Macduff is having none of it.
    • They fight, and Macbeth continues to be cocky. He says Macduff hasn't got a chance since he, Macbeth, can't be killed by anyone "of woman born."
    • That's funny, says Macduff, because "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped." In other words: He was delivered, prematurely, via Cesarean section. And apparently that means he wasn't "born." Don't anyone tell Macduff's mom. Recovering from a medieval C-section was probably no fun. (Well, to be honest, she probably died, like the lady whose son, Robert II, may have been an inspiration for Macduff.)
    • Macbeth curses the "juggling fiends" and their twisted prophesy. Now that he knows he's not invulnerable, he doesn't want to fight Macduff anymore—but he also doesn't want to yield. Since he has to pick one, he decides to keep fighting...right until Macduff kills him.
    • Malcolm and Siward (the father of the young man Macbeth recently killed, so we guess "Old Siward") run across the stage looking for Macbeth.
    • Siward takes time out to exposit for the audience: there's a lot of fighting going on at the castle, the thanes are fighting exceptionally well, and Malcolm's pretty close to victory.
    • Malcolm, Siward, Ross, the thanes, and the soldiers all assess what's been going down during the battle at the castle.
    • It looks like Siward's son (Young Siward) and Macduff are missing.
    • Ross delivers the news that Young Siward was slain by Macbeth. That's okay, says Young Siward's dad; his wounds were on his front, which means he stood and fought, and that means he died honorably. You know, "like a man." 
    • Things seriously improve when Macduff shows up waving Macbeth's severed head. Everyone turns to Malcolm and yells "Hail, King of Scotland." Hmm. Isn't that how the witches greeted Macbeth back at the beginning of the play?
    • Malcolm just can't wait to be king. When he is, all the Scottish thanes will be made earls, as in the English system, making them the first earls in Scottish history. Together with Malcolm they'll call home everyone who had to flee the country because of Macbeth's tyranny and punish all of the people who helped the Macbeths. 
    • In his speech, Malcolm also suggests that Lady MacB took her own life, which we didn't really know till now.) But enough death-talk. It's time to party down at the coronation ceremony at Scone. (Mmm...scones.)
  • Act 5, Scene 9

    • Wait, isn't it over? Yes, yes it is.
    • Scene 8 of Macbeth is a little...extended. (Sorry, Big Willy—we still love you.) There's a lot of entering and exiting and other fancy stage directions, so sometimes editors break up the scene into multiple parts. 
    • If you see a Scene 9, 10, or 11—or a Scene 8, parts 1-4—that's why. The Big Guys (Folger, Oxford, Riverside, & co.) all do it with 8 scenes, so we're following suit.
  • Act 5, Scene 10

    • Click that back button above this bullet to see an explanation for why you might see a Scene 10 floating around some versions of Macbeth. The real deal ends with Scene 8.
  • Act 5, Scene 11

    • What are you still doing here? The play ends with Scene 8, so head back there for the deets.