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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1888


Summary of William Shakespeare's Macbeth: Macbeth hears that he is going to be king; he and Lady Macbeth kill people so he can become king; both of them die.

Act I

On a bleak Scottish moorland, Macbeth and Banquo, two of King Duncan's generals, discover three strange women (witches). They prophesy that Macbeth will be promoted, eventually becoming King of Scotland, while Banquo's descendants shall be kings (Banquo is not promised any kingdom himself, which isn't much fun for Banquo). The generals want to hear more, but the "weird sisters" disappear. Afterwards, King Duncan names Macbeth Thane of Cawdor (a rank of the aristocracy bestowed by grateful kings) in thanks for his success in the recent battles, which seems to support the prophecy. He then proposes to make a brief visit that night to Macbeth's castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth receives news from her husband about the prophecy and his new title, and she vows to help him become king by whatever means are necessary (*ominous music*). 

Macbeth with Henry Irving Programme, 1889
Macbeth with Henry Irving Programme, 1889

Is this a dagger which I see before me?

— Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 1

Act II

Macbeth's return is followed almost at once by Duncan's arrival and a feast is prepared. The Macbeths plot together to kill Duncan, and wait until everyone is asleep. At the appointed time, Lady Macbeth gives the guards drugged wine while Macbeth kills the King. He regrets doing so almost immediately, but is reassured by his wife. She leaves the bloody daggers by the dead king just before Macduff arrives.  When the murder is discovered, Macbeth kills the drunken guards in rage and retribution. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee, fearing for their own lives; but they are nevertheless blamed for the murder.


Macbeth is elected King of Scotland, but is plagued by feelings of insecurity. Knowing of the prophecy that Banquo's descendants will inherit the throne, he arranges for Banquo and his son Fleance to be killed. In the darkness, Banquo is murdered but the boy, his son, escapes the assassins. That night, at his state banquet, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and worries the courtiers with his mad response. Lady Macbeth, now Queen, dismisses the court and tries unsucessfully to calm her husband.

Costume for Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, 1955
Costume for Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, 1955

Act IV

Macbeth seeks out the witches and learns from them that he will be safe until a local wood marches into battle against him. He need not fear anyone born of woman (that sounds secure, no loop-holes here); but the Scottish succession will come from Banquo's son. Macbeth embarks on a reign of terror and many, including Macduff's family, are slaughtered. Macduff, pained with grief, has himself gone to seek Malcolm (one of Duncan's sons who fled) at the court of the English king. Malcolm is young and unsure of himself, but Macduff persuades him to lead an army against Macbeth.

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

— Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967 (featuring funny hats)
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967 (featuring funny hats)

Act V

Macbeth feels safe in his remote castle at Dunsinane until he is told that Birnam Wood is moving towards him--Malcolm's army is carrying branches from the forest as camouflage for their assault on the stronghold. Meanwhile, an overwrought and conscience-ridden Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep and tells her secrets to her doctor. As the final battle commences, Macbeth hears of Lady Macbeth's death and is struck with mourning.

Out, damned spot!

— Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1

In the midst of a losing battle, Macduff challenges Macbeth. On learning that his adversary is the child of a caesarean birth (loophole!), Macbeth realises that he is doomed and submits to his enemy. Macduff triumphs and brings the head of the traitor Macbeth to Malcolm, who declares peace and goes to Scone to be crowned king in his turn.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

— Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5
George Skillan as Macbeth 1920
George Skillan as Macbeth, 1920

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