William Shakespeare
Contributed by Sharon Fleming
Plot Summary

Macbeth narrates the titular protagonist’s tragic downfall after his bloody ascent to power. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth has served as the leader of King Duncan’s army, within which he worked hard as a warrior and developed undeniable military skill. He maintains such an impressive reputation that enemies tremble at the mention of his name.

However, things change when three witches appear and inform Macbeth that he will take King Duncan’s place. The witches also disclose that future Scottish kings will come from the lineage of another soldier — Banquo — instead of Macbeth. When King Duncan selects his son — Malcolm — as his heir to the throne, Macbeth panics. King Duncan’s selection threatens Macbeth’s plans to become king. As a result, he feels compelled to fight for what he believes is his rightful place in society.

At his castle, Macbeth meets his wife — Lady Macbeth — and explains the situation to her. Lady Macbeth, in whom Macbeth places his trust, tells him that murdering King Duncan is the safest and surest way to ascend to the throne. Thinking that murder will ultimately bring judgment upon him, either on Earth or in Heaven, Macbeth hesitates to carry out this heinous crime. Yet, although he initially opposes the idea, he ultimately submits to his wife’s demands. As fate would have it, King Duncan crosses Macbeth’s path during a royal visit. While King Duncan sleeps, Lady Macbeth drugs his servants and tells Macbeth to attack him. Macbeth murders King Duncan. Although Macbeth expresses remorse and regret for killing the king, his death empowers Lady Macbeth. She scolds him for feeling bad about the murder.

As soon as Macbeth is proclaimed the king of Scotland, he focuses on preventing the witches’ second prophecy from coming to fruition. Macbeth hires people to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Although the assassins manage to kill Banquo, they accidentally let Fleance escape. On the night of Banquo’s death, Macbeth throws a party, presumably to celebrate. At the party’s peak, Banquo’s ghost appears before Macbeth, who responds with horror. Although Macbeth is terrified, Lady Macbeth comforts him. Nonetheless, at this point, it is apparent that Macbeth’s murderous path to power is catching up with him.

The next day, Macbeth returns to the witches, who confirm that Banquo’s descendants will occupy the Scottish throne. Then they add another detail to their original prophecy by telling Macbeth he will remain invincible until certain events come to pass. One of the conditions for Macbeth’s downfall, they say, is that an enemy not born of a vaginal delivery will invade and end Macbeth’s reign. He responds by taking their prophecy seriously and preparing for the inevitable intrusion.

As madness descends upon Macbeth, Macduff deserts him and goes to England. Macbeth believes his actions are spiteful and unacceptable, so he destroys everything of Macduff that remains, including his wife and children. In England, Macduff pledges his allegiance to Malcolm before learning what Macbeth has done to his family. Malcolm advises Macduff to avenge the murder of his wife and children.

Back in Scotland, life is not going well for Macbeth, despite his assumption of power. Lady Macbeth has become ill, traumatized by memories of the murders she helped orchestrate. Since she serves as a chief administrator in Macbeth’s reign, her illness could not have come at a worse moment.

At this point, events progress rapidly. Malcolm’s army advances upon Scotland, and Macbeth hastens to battle. Malcolm’s troops use tree branches to disguise themselves, causing Macbeth to confuse them for a forest advancing into his territory. When Macbeth and Macduff meet on the battlefield, Macduff reveals he was born via cesarean section. When Macbeth realizes Macduff’s admission fulfills the witches’ prophecy, he becomes enraged. He launches an attack on Macduff but dies during it. In the final scene, Malcolm becomes king of Scotland, and everyone celebrates.


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