Macbeth Book summary

William Shakespeare



Macbeth is believed to have been written by the bard in 1606 during the reign of King James. Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and features some of his most compelling female characters. Despite the array of interesting and well-developed characters, Macbeth is often described as being especially misogynistic. This is felt because all of the conflicts that exist in the play can be traced back to women, either Lady Macbeth or the three witches. The play examines various themes but its most poignant theme is that of the corruption that ambition can breed. Many scholars argue that Shakespeare had written this deliberately to affect King James, and they do so because of the play's setting in Scotland and the inclusion of a character called Banquo. King James had an ancestor with a similar name and had written a document defending the rule of even tyrannical kings.


Plot Summary

Macbeth begins as three witches meet on the stormy Scottish moors, and they resolve to reconvene after the conclusion of a battle as they hope to meet Macbeth there. The King of Scotland, Duncan, receives a report from a mortally wounded soldier that Macbeth had outmatched the rebel Macdonald and had mounted his skull on the battlements. However, this victory was short-lived as Macbeth and Banquo were then beset by an attack from a Norweigan army. Duncan learns from the thane of Ross that Macbeth had managed to repel the second attack as well and that the thane of Cawdor had betrayed the kingdom by aiding the attackers. Duncan orders the death of the thane of Cawdor and awards the title to Macbeth. He sends Ross to tell Macbeth of his new title and to escort him to the king.

Macbeth and Banquo come upon the three witches, and the witches hail Macbeth as the thane of Glanis, Cawdor, and the future king. They also tell Banquo that he will be greater and happier than Macbeth but not as happy or as great and also that he would father a line of kings. The witches depart before either Banquo or Macbeth can question them any further. Macbeth's ambition is roused by the prophecy and he begins to consider dark actions that would lead him to the throne. He learns of his elevation to the thane of Cawdor from Ross and follows him to the king along with Banquo. The king showers Macbeth with gratitude and formally names him the thane of Cawdor. In the same breath, the king declares that his eldest son, Malcolm, would be the prince and heir to his kingdom. The king tells Macbeth that he will dine at his castle that night, so Macbeth departs to ready the king's welcome. Lady Macbeth receives a short missive informing her of the prophecy and his elevation to the new title. Lady Macbeth laments her husband's inability to perform the difficult tasks needed to realize his ambitions and receives news about the king's imminent visit. She prays to the devils around to grant her the cruelty to perform the actions that her husband has been unable to perform. Macbeth arrives, and Lady Macbeth tells him that they shouldn't allow the king to leave their castle alive. The King arrives with his retinue and is graciously welcomed, but before the act can proceed Macbeth begins to doubt his intention to steal the throne. Lady Macbeth then serves as the will of the deed as she provokes Macbeth by questioning his manhood, and offers him a means to kill the king without suspicion.

Macbeth agrees, and later that night he sees a phantom dagger splattered with blood floating before him. He kills the king, while his wife drugs the chamberlains. However, Macbeth is horrified by the murder, and Lady Macbeth is forced to return the murder weapons and smear the chamberlains with the blood of the king. They retreat to their rooms, and Macbeth then cleverly causes Macduff to discover the body of the king. He also kills the chamberlains in a 'fit of anger' before they can be questioned by anyone else. The blame for the murder falls on Duncan's children as they both flee Scotland without talking to anyone since they are afraid they too will be assassinated. Macbeth is crowned the King of Scotland, but he begins to fear the threat Banquo presents to him since the witches had claimed that Banquo would father a line of kings. Macbeth's first action of business is to hire murderers to assassinate Banquo and his son Fleance. The murderers manage to kill Banquo, but Fleance manages to escape the attack.

Macbeth receives the news of Banquo's death just as he is beginning a feast with his noblemen, who remark upon the absence of Macduff and Banquo. Macbeth begins to see the ghost of Banquo and violently shouts at it. This causes the noblemen great alarm, but Lady Macbeth dismisses them all while making an excuse about Macbeth's health. Lady Macbeth takes him to bed, while he talks about his plans to deal with Macduff and visit the witches to gain answers to his question. The Goddess of Witchcraft, Hecate, admonishes the witches for using her power on Macbeth without her permission. She informs them that Macbeth intends to visit them tomorrow and so they should prepare their magic for him. The thanes of Scotland lament the sad state of the kingdom under the rule of a tyrant and discuss the fate of Malcolm who has found shelter in the royal court of England. They believe that Macduff has followed Malcolm to England.

Macbeth visits the witches and they summon apparitions for him. The first apparition tells Macbeth that he should be wary of Macduff, the second tells him that he cannot be killed by anyone who is born from a woman, and the last apparition tells him that his rule will not end until Brinam forest marches to Dunisnane hill. The witches also show him a long line of kings descended from Banquo, and disappear before answering any of his questions. Macbeth hears a report that Macduff has escaped to England, orders an attack on his home and the murder of his family. Lady Macduff and her children are murdered by Macbeth's men even though they receive prior warning of an attack.

Macduff entreats Malcolm to return to Scotland to reclaim his rightful throne, but Malcolm is wary that Macduff is an agent of Macbeth. Malcolm, therefore, tests Macduff's loyalty to Scotland. He then reveals that his uncle Siward is bringing him an army of ten thousand English soldiers, and he plans to march it to Scotland soon. They are then joined by the thane of Ross who gives Macduff the news of his family's death. Macduff mourns his family and vows to avenge them along with Malcolm and Ross.

Lady Macbeth's servant brings along a doctor to observe her sleepwalking and they both witness Lady Macbeth attempting to wash her hands clean of blood. She then talks about Banquo's murder and the death of Macduff's family, which leaves both the listeners shocked and terrified. The thanes of Scotland decide to usurp Macbeth and side with Malcolm's approaching army. Macbeth is angry to learn about the betrayal of the thanes but continues to believe that he is invincible. He learns from the doctor that his wife's health has deteriorated because she has been unable to sleep. Macbeth orders the soldiers to prepare for a siege and to kill any of the common folk that talk of fear. Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut branches from the Brinam Forest and hold them up as they march so that Macbeth fails to get an accurate estimation of his soldiers. A horrified Macbeth hears one of his lookouts claim that he saw Brinam forest move, and learns of his wife's death. He decides to meet the opposing force in combat, given his invulnerability to those born from a woman. He manages to kill all those that oppose him in combat until he meets the vengeful Macduff. He explains that he was not born but rather surgically removed from his mother's womb. Macbeth's soldiers surrender and Macduff presents Macbeth's severed head to the King of Scotland.

  • Author(s)

    William Shakespeare
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