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Macbeth acts summaries

Read our detailed act by act analysis to get an understanding of the plot, then use our handpicked essays to help you form your own ideas and opinions.

Act one

One of the most famous openings in Drama sees the three witches gathered in thunder and lightning, planning to meet Macbeth “when the battle’s lost, and won.” They speak only thirteen lines but “strike the keynote of the character of the whole drama” [in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 19th century poet and critic]. The link with Macbeth himself is established, when they mention his name in line 8; as well as morality questioned – “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” The “fog and filthy air” sets the play’s atmosphere.

Meanwhile Duncan, king of Scotland, hears news of the battle mentioned by the witches. Macbeth, one of Duncan’s lords, distinguished himself by personally killing the rebel Macdonald. Banquo too has fought bravely. Duncan learns that the Thane of Cawdor betrayed him. He orders Cawdor’s execution, and awards his title to Macbeth. Macbeth has yet to learn of this.

The witches await Macbeth, knowing he will meet them. Macbeth’s first utterance – “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” – echoes the witches’ words, as if they and Macbeth share a secret understanding before they’ve even met. He and Banquo are returning from the battle. Seeing the witches, Banquo questions them and they respond with a series of greetings directed at Macbeth. They greet him as Thane of Glamis, which he already is; as Thane of Cawdor, which he could never expect to be, but has become; and finally as “king hereafter”, which “stands not within the prospect of belief.” They greet Banquo with a series of paradoxes, such as “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.”

When Macbeth soon learns he has become Thane of Cawdor, it is evident that the witches’ predictions have set Macbeth’s mind working towards “horrible imaginings”, despite Banquo’s warning about “the instruments of darkness.”

Cawdor dies bravely, causing Duncan to reflect upon how hard it is “to find the mind’s construction in the face.” When Duncan names Malcolm as his successor, Macbeth hides his disappointment, but sees this as another obstacle to his ambition. Lady Macbeth is informed by letter what has befallen her husband. Her comments show her to be even more ambitious than him; indeed she fears his “nature...is too full of the milk of human kindness.” Learning that Duncan is coming to their castle, she appeals to the spirits to “unsex” her, filling her with “direst cruelty”; and once her husband appears it’s obvious she plans that Duncan will never leave their castle alive. At this point it is Lady Macbeth who is the dominant partner.

Duncan arrives, unsuspecting. Macbeth speaks his misgivings aloud, horrified at the thought of murdering a king, a kinsman, while acting as his host. Finding that her husband is wavering, she taunts him, attacking his masculinity – “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” She promises to drug Duncan’s attendants; and Macbeth will smear them with Duncan’s blood, so that they’ll be blamed. “False face must hide what the false heart doth know,” Macbeth says, of the path upon which he is now set.

Act two

On his way to commit the murder, Macbeth runs into Banquo, who has been dreaming of “the three weird sisters.” Macbeth promises to discuss this with him later. In a state of extreme tension, Macbeth hallucinates the dagger with which he is about to murder Duncan.

Shakespeare normally broke the classical rules which said you show no action on stage, but here he changes tack, and we do not see the actual murder. Instead, in a scene of palpable horror, Lady Macbeth waits for her husband’s return. He appears with the two bloody daggers still in his hands. She tells him to “wash this filthy witness from [his] hand,” and since he lacks the courage to return to the place of murder, she takes the daggers to “smear/The sleepy grooms with blood.” Hearing a sudden knocking at the gate, she reassures Macbeth that “a little water clears us of this deed,” but he fears that “Macbeth will sleep no more.”

The Porter, in the only comic scene in the play, answers the door to Macduff and Lennox. The latter says “the night has been unruly” and “strange screams of death” have been heard. Macduff re-enters, having found the murdered king. The castle is roused; Macbeth and his wife play innocent. She pretends to faint at a key moment when suspicions are raised by Macbeth’s admission that he has killed the grooms, two potential witnesses. But Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing for their own lives, flee Scotland.

An unnatural darkness covers the land; the natural order has been upset. Suspicion has fallen on Duncan’s absent sons, and Macbeth will be crowned.

Act three

Banquo suspects Macbeth “played most foully,” and recalls the predictions the witches made for him as well. The newly crowned Macbeth tells Banquo there will be a feast tonight, having learnt that Banquo plans to ride far.

Macbeth remembers the prophecy that Banquo’s children will be kings. “To be thus is nothing,” he thinks, and determines to have Banquo and his son, Fleance, ambushed and killed. To this end he has employed two murderers. Now the balance of the play is shifting, and Lady Macbeth is no longer making the running; she is not even in her husband’s confidence. The murderers succeed in killing Banquo, but Fleance escapes.

As the banquet assembles, Macbeth receives this news. When he goes to sit in his place, he sees Banquo’s ghost, covered in blood. No one else sees it; Lady Macbeth tries to cover for her husband, reminding him, privately, of previous hallucinations. When the ghost “goes”, Macbeth recovers, but its reappearance is so disturbing, the feast is brought to a premature end.

Macbeth has spies in Macduff’s house. He is concerned that Macduff has stayed away, and determines to visit the witches again. We learn that both Macduff and Duncans’s sons have fled to England to seek help. No one now believes Macbeth is innocent.

Act four

We see the witches mixing noxious potions. They become aware that “something wicked this way comes,” anticipating the arrival of Macbeth. He asks to speak with their “masters”, and witnesses a series of apparitions. The first is “an armed head” [possibly Macbeth’s own since he is decapitated at the end of the play] which warns him to “beware Macduff”, confirming Macbeth’s suspicions. The second is “a bloody child” which tells him that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.” Despite this reassurance Macbeth determines to have Macduff killed. The third is a child crowned “with a tree in his hand,” which says “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him.” Macbeth takes all these signs as rendering him invulnerable, but he still demands to know if, as originally prophesied “Banquo’s issue” [Fleance and his descendants] will ever “reign in this kingdom.” He sees then a line of kings, the last of whom is Banquo’s ghost, as seen at the feast. So the prophecies do not indicate a happy outcome after all.

His worst fears are confirmed when, immediately afterwards, he learns that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth decides to have his family murdered in retribution.

Lady Macduff, with her son, is horrified to learn that her husband has abandoned them. An unnamed messenger tells her to flee, but it’s too late. Macbeth’s men arrive and slaughter the family.

Scene Three of Act Four is long and often cut or omitted entirely in performance. In it Malcolm, Duncan’s elder son, tests Macduff’s loyalty, fearful that Macduff wants the throne for himself. The scene is set in England, and news soon comes of “the sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air” in Scotland. Macduff also learns of the massacre of his family. Malcolm tries to comfort Macduff, telling him “our power is ready,” to return to Scotland, and take the kingdom back from Macbeth.

Act five

It is some time since Lady Macbeth has been seen. Her appearance here is shocking - deranged, obsessively washing her hands, muttering cryptic comments which the audience understand to be related to Duncan and Banquo’s murders. The doctor admits “this disease is beyond my practice.”

As the opposing forces approach Macbeth’s castle, they also march towards Birnam, echoing the words of the witches.

Macbeth, aware of the proximity of his enemies, is increasingly desperate and isolated. Donning his armour, he asks the doctor if he can treat his wife – “canst thou not minister to a mind diseased ...?” He even asks the doctor if he can find the “disease” that afflicts the kingdom – but that disease is centred upon him.

Malcolm instructs his soldiers to cut wood from the forest of Birnam to camouflage his forces. Birnam Wood begins to move to Dunsinane, where Macbeth has his castle.

Macbeth remains in command of his forces, but he is shaken by news of his wife’s death. His famous speech is the ultimate expression of despair and futility, that life “is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” Hearing that Birnam Wood has begun “to move”, he asserts, “At least we’ll die with harness [armour] on our back.”

Faced with doom, Macbeth fights bravely, disdaining suicide. Even when he hears that Macduff “was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped,” [and therefore technically was not “born of woman”] he “will not yield/To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet.”

Macbeth is killed by Macduff who comes on stage, carrying the tyrant’s head. The play ends with Malcolm acclaimed as king of Scotland.