Detailed Synopsis for ‘Macbeth’

Act One: Three witches are in an open place, discussing how they’ll meet again before the sun sets, after Scotland wins a war they’re waging against Norway and Ireland, when they’ll meet Macbeth.  (See first quote from my ‘Analysis of Macbeth’.)

King Duncan, his sons, and some Scottish nobles discuss the outcome of the war with a wounded soldier, who praises Macbeth’s valour; he mentions how Macbeth confronted the enemy and killed him with his sword–he “unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chaps.” The king has the soldier taken away to be treated for his wounds.

The Thane of Ross discusses Scotland’s victory against Norway and Ireland, the heroism of ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’ (Macbeth), and the traitor Macdonwald, Thane of Cawdor, who has been captured and will be executed.  Duncan tells Ross and the other nobles to confer on Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor.

The three witches meet again on a blasted heath, waiting for Macbeth to appear.  One speaks of a woman who munched on some nuts.  When the witch asked for some, the woman shouted at her to go away, calling her a witch.  The witch will have her revenge on the woman by causing her husband to suffer in a tempest at sea.

Macbeth and Banquo walk together towards where the witches are.  (See second quote of my ‘Analysis’.)  The witches accost them, each greeting Macbeth with the titles ‘Thane of Glamis‘ (his original title), ‘Thane of Cawdor’, and ‘king hereafter’.  He is shocked, even frightened, by such a ‘prophetic greeting’.  Banquo asks of his future; the witches predict that he will beget a line of kings, though he himself will be none.  The men demand that the witches explain their meaning more clearly, but the three mysteriously vanish.

The Scottish nobles greet Macbeth with the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’, thus confirming one of the witches’ predictions.  Macbeth is dazed with his growing ambition to be king, and his fear of it.  (Quote 3)  The nobles explain that Macdonwald, the original Thane of Cawdor, gave aid of some sort to the enemy, thus deserving execution for treason, and making Macbeth his replacement.  They leave to meet the king.

With the king now, Macbeth and Banquo are honoured for their valour during the war.  Malcolm, Duncan’s son, tells of the execution of Macdonwald.  Malcolm is made Prince of Cumberland: Macbeth knows this appointment is an obstacle to his becoming king.  They will go to Macbeth’s castle to celebrate the victory and stay the night.

At his castle, a letter he’s written is being read by his wife, Lady Macbeth.  She reads of one of the witches’ prophecies coming true, thus making that of his becoming king also quite possibly true.  Now her ambition has been fired up; but she knows her husband is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way”, so she must be especially ruthless to compensate for his weakness.  She calls on devils to fill her “from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty.”

Macbeth arrives at his castle, greeted by Lady Macbeth as “Great Glamis!  Worthy Cawdor!”  They plan to kill Duncan that night in Macbeth’s castle.  This is too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

When Duncan arrives, he says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat.”  Lady Macbeth cordially greets him, and a feast is prepared.  During the banquet, Macbeth goes off alone, and in a soliloquy expresses his doubts and fears.  He notes the kindness of the king, who’ll plead for mercy like angels if Macbeth cruelly kills him.  He realizes that only his ambition pushes him to want to kill Duncan. (See fourth quote.)  He resolves not to do it.

Lady Macbeth finds him and asks him why he isn’t with the others.  When he remorsefully says he won’t kill Duncan, she questions his manhood and reassures him that they can succeed.  The men guarding Duncan’s prepared room for the night will be given drugged wine, which will knock them unconscious when Macbeth is to kill Duncan; Macbeth is to put the bloody daggers in the sleeping guards’ hands to incriminate them.  Macbeth is turned back toward the plan.

Act Two: There is a brief scene between Banquo and his son Fleance; then Banquo and Macbeth chat about the witches.  Banquo speaks of dreaming about them, while Macbeth lies that he doesn’t even think about them.  Banquo and Fleance leave to go to sleep.

Macbeth is alone, about to go to Duncan’s room.  He hallucinates, seeing a dagger hovering in front of him.  (See fifth quote.)  It seems as real as the daggers he has to kill Duncan with, but it seems to be “a dagger of the mind”, a product of his stress and fear.

As he continues on to Duncan’s room, Lady Macbeth is emboldened by the wine she’s drunk, though an owl’s hoot briefly frightens her.  Nonetheless, all is ready: Duncan’s guards have drunk the drugged wine, and they’re unconscious.

Macbeth returns with bloody daggers, shaking after having murdered Duncan.  (See sixth quote.)  Lady Macbeth tries to calm him, but is shocked to see the daggers in his hands.  He doesn’t dare return to the murder scene, so Lady Macbeth takes the daggers from him and puts them in the hands of the sleeping guards.  Now her hands are as bloody as Macbeth’s.  They hear a knocking on the front door of the castle, so they must quickly wash the blood off their hands and remove all evidence linking them to the murder.  Still, Macbeth is too scared to move, the loud knocking continues, and Lady Macbeth must push him to action.

A porter goes to answer the knocking.  His scene is one of comic relief.  He jokes about being porter to the gates of Hell, and speaks of a damned ‘equivocator’, among other unrepentant sinners.  He opens the door and in come Macduff and Lennox who, needing to speak with the king, ask why the porter is so slow to answer the door.  The porter explains how everyone in the castle was drinking wine and celebrating till late; then he jokes about how wine equivocates by provoking sexual desire, but taking away the male ability to perform sexually.  Macbeth appears, and takes Macduff to Duncan’s room.

Horrified to see the king murdered, Macduff shouts and wakes everyone up.  Lady Macbeth feigns fainting to hear the news, and Macbeth confesses to having killed the guards out of a fit of passion (actually, to silence them).  Now plans must be made to learn who “suborn’d” the guards, and to crown Duncan’s successor.  (Speaking of whom, the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, plan to flee immediately to England and Ireland respectively, for fear of their lives.  Later this will cause them to be suspected of plotting their father’s murder.  The way is clear for Macbeth to be the next king.)

Act Three: Macbeth is now king.  Banquo is impressed with the accuracy of the witches’ predictions, but he wonders if Macbeth “play’dst most most foully for’t.”  He also remembers the prophecy that his descendants would be kings.  He tells Macbeth he has urgent business to attend to, and will be late for a banquet Macbeth has invited all the nobles to that night.  Banquo leaves.

Macbeth also remembers the witches’ prophecy about Banquo, and he fears the future of his own rule.    Macbeth hires two murderers who, hating Banquo for past injuries he’s done them, are to kill him and his son Fleance when they approach Macbeth’s castle that night.  Lady Macbeth worries about how Macbeth has changed from a good man into a power-obsessed ruler.

That evening, Banquo and Fleance are nearing the castle while the murderers, suddenly and awkwardly joined by a third, lie in wait.  The three murderers surprise Banquo and Fleance, killing the father while the son escapes.

One of the murderers tells Macbeth at the banquet that Banquo’s ‘throat is cut’ (which the reporting murderer himself did), “With twenty trenched gashes on his head”, but Fleance escaped.  Macbeth is not pleased with the latter news.  He joins his guests and drinks a toast to Banquo, who he says sadly isn’t with them.

The Thane of Ross asks Macbeth to sit with them, but Macbeth sees someone sitting at the chair Lennox gestures to.  No one else sees anyone sitting there, but Macbeth insists the chair isn’t vacant.  He looks closer, and is shocked to see Banquo’s ghost.  Everyone is surprised at Macbeth’s wildly fearful reaction, since only he sees the ghost.

Lady Macbeth takes him aside, demanding that he control himself.  She makes up an excuse to their guests that Macbeth has suffered a psychological condition from childhood, causing momentary fits that will soon pass.

The ghost disappears, and Macbeth is calm again.  He confirms Lady Macbeth’s excuse about his ‘infirmity’, then he drinks another toast to absent Banquo, whose ghost suddenly reappears.  Macbeth’s manic reaction shocks everyone so much that Lady Macbeth tells everyone to leave.  The guests wish good health on the king before leaving.

As Macbeth is calming down (the ghost is gone), he wonders why Macduff never attended the banquet.  Macbeth also says he wants to visit the witches again.

(An apocryphal scene has the goddess Hecate reprimanding the three witches for using their art on Macbeth without involving her.)

Lennox and a lord discuss the current, wretched state of Scotland: word is out that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England to raise up an army to invade Scotland, kill the increasingly suspect King Macbeth, and give Malcolm the crown.

Act Four:  The witches prepare a spell, throwing such ingredients as ‘Eye of newt’, ‘Nose of Turk’, and ‘Liver of blaspheming Jew’ into the cauldron (Seventh quote.).  One of the witches says, “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”  “Open locks, whoever knocks,” when Macbeth arrives.

He asks them of his fate.  Their ‘masters’ tell Macbeth, in visions, three prophecies: beware Macduff, the Thane of Fife; none of woman born will ever kill Macbeth; and he won’t fall until Birnham forest moves to high Dunsinane hill, where his castle is.  The second two prophecies give him a false self-confidence, since he imagines it impossible for them ever to be manifested.

Then he asks of Banquo’s future.  The witches reluctantly show him a vision of Banquo’s descendants, a long line of kings that seems to stretch out till the end of time.  This upsets Macbeth terribly.

He learns, from Lennox, of Macduff joining Malcolm in England: this makes Macduff a traitor.  Macbeth would have Macduff’s castle surprised, and his family slain.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has informed Lady Macduff of her husband’s flight to England.  She is upset that Macduff could abandon his whole family so suddenly.  Ross leaves.   She talks with her son about Macduff.  The boy’s clever remarks about traitors are touching to hear; this makes the coming tragedy all the more heartbreaking.

A messenger warns her of hired murderers coming to kill them; he leaves, making her wonder where she could go.  She imagines that, being innocent, she needn’t fear danger; but in this corrupt world, it is often the innocent who are harmed, while the guilty prosper.

The murderers arrive and call Macduff a traitor.  The boy angrily calls his father’s accuser a ‘shag-ear’d villain’, and is stabbed.  Then they kill Lady Macduff.

In England, Macduff tries to convince Malcolm to fight for his right to the crown.  Malcolm, testing Macduff’s loyalty, pretends to be unworthy of being king.  He claims his lust and greed are limitless; then Macduff says they can find plenty of willing women and gold to satisfy Malcolm’s thirst for them.  Malcolm then insists that he has no virtues to compensate for his vices.  Macduff despairingly laments the dismal fate of the country he’s exiled himself from.

Satisfied that Macduff has proven his loyalty, Malcolm disavows all the vices he’s claimed to have had.  Macduff, surprised, finds it difficult to reconcile these opposing self-characterizations.

Ross arrives with bad news from Scotland, still mired in Macbeth’s tyranny.  When Macduff realizes evil has come to his family, he demands Ross tell him quickly.  Ross delays as best he can, then finally tells Macduff his whole family has been “savagely slaughter’d”.  Malcolm tries to comfort Macduff, who in his shock at first can’t seem to believe what he’s heard.  Malcolm advises him to “let grief/ Convert to anger”.  They all resolve to raise an army to invade Scotland.

Act Five: At night, a doctor has been asked by a gentlewoman to watch Lady Macbeth, who has been sleepwalking and confessing her and Macbeth’s crimes.  The doctor and the lady watch sleepwalking Lady Macbeth enter the room; she seems to be washing her hands in imaginary water.  Her eyes are open, but she sees only her dream.  Guilt is overwhelming her.

She despairs that she can never get the blood off her hands (8th quote).  The doctor and lady are shocked to hear Lady Macbeth confess to the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff.  Lady Macbeth imagines she’s hurrying Macbeth out of the room, as she had on the night he’d killed Duncan.

Lennox and other nobles have shifted their loyalty away from ‘the tyrant’ and towards “Malcolm,/ His uncle Siward, and the good Macduff” in England.  They know that Macbeth’s men obey him only from fear, not from love.  They plan to meet the English army at Birhnam wood, and join them in the invasion of Scotland.

In his castle, Macbeth receives messages of the army from England coming to challenge him.  Macbeth is still overconfident, remembering the second and third prophecies of his fate.  He asks the doctor why he can’t cure Lady Macbeth of her “mind diseas’d”.  The doctor says only she can do that for herself.  Macbeth curses medicine as useless.

Malcolm leads the English army to Birnham wood, where he tells them to cut off branches of the trees, and carry them to Dunsinane, to hide their soldiers’ numbers.  The men do so.

As Macbeth and the men in his castle prepare for war with the English, the cry of  women is heard.  Seyton goes to find out what’s happened.  He returns, telling Macbeth, “The queen, my lord, is dead.”

Macbeth gives a speech on the meaninglessness of life (9th quote).  A watchman calls out that he sees trees from Birnham forest moving as a group toward the castle.  Macbeth threatens to kill him if he’s lying.  Now he begins to see the worthlessness of the witches’ equivocal prophecies.  He tells his men to prepare for battle, knowing that at least they’ll die bravely.

Malcolm, Macduff, and the English soldiers arrive at Dunsinane.  Malcolm tells them to throw away their branches.

The battle begins.  Macbeth, though fighting fiercely, wonders in frustration who wasn’t born of woman.  Macbeth fights young Siward, who, fighting bravely, is soon killed by Macbeth.  The king says, “Thou wast born of woman.”

It’s clear that all is lost for Macbeth.  Macduff, knowing the ghosts of his family will haunt him forever if he doesn’t avenge them, frantically searches for Macbeth.  They find each other.

Macbeth remembers he must beware Macduff, and after fighting awhile, Macbeth proudly says he bears “a charmed life, which must not yield/ To one of woman born.”  Macduff tells him to despair of his charm, for Macduff was born of Caesarean section.  Macbeth now is too afraid to fight.  Macduff says Macbeth will thus be publicly shamed as a coward before the rabble.

Now Macbeth’s pride is piqued, and he’ll “try the last”, that is, fight to the death, preferring that to dishonour.  They fight, and Macduff kills him.

In the final scene, Macduff brings the severed head of Macbeth to Malcolm and the others to see.  They note that Lady Macbeth is also dead, a presumed suicide.  Sympathy is shown to old Siward for the slaying of his son; the father, however, is comforted knowing young Siward fought bravely.  Malcolm will be crowned king at Scone.

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Analysis of ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written between 1603 and 1607.  The play’s Scottish war hero turned tyrannical king  is based on, but bears little actual resemblance to, King Macbeth of Scotland (reigning from 1040 until his death in 1057); the historical king is believed to have actually been a good and able king.

The play includes many magical incantations thought to have been taken from real witches without their permission, angering them and causing them to curse the play in revenge.  For this reason, the play is considered unlucky.  Accordingly, when actors are rehearsing the play, referring to it or the title character by name is taboo.  Instead, one calls it ‘the Scottish play’, ‘MacBee’, etc.  If one accidentally says ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre, there are cleansing rituals that can be done to avert disaster, one example being spinning around three times as fast as possible, spitting over one’s shoulder, and uttering an obscenity.  Disastrous performances from the play’s history have contributed to the superstition.  The BBC comedy ‘Blackadder the Third’ did a hilarious sendup of this superstition in the episode, ‘Sense and Senility’.–HR7PWfp0

Macbeth is the shortest Shakespeare tragedy, with a quick-moving first act and, apart from the title character himself, minimal character development, causing some scholars to believe we don’t have a complete copy of the play.  Banquo’s son Fleance is supposed to have begot a line of kings leading up to James I, the (as of the writing of the play) new king of both Scotland and England, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I: this long lineal connection to Fleance is thought to be a politically-movitated praising of the new king.

Here are some famous quotes:

‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair;/Hover through the fog and filthy air.’ –3 Witches, I, i, lines 10-11

‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ –Macbeth, I, iii, line 38

‘Two truths are told/As happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme.’ –Macbeth, I, iii, lines 127-129

‘I have no spur/To prick the sides of my intent, but only/Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on the other.’ –Macbeth, I, vii, lines 25-28

‘Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee.’ –Macbeth, II, i, lines 33-34

‘Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!/  Macbeth does murder sleep.‘ –Macbeth, II, ii, lines 35-36

‘Double, double, toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’ –3 Witches, IV, i, lines 10-11

‘Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!’ –Lady Macbeth, V, i, about line 34

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.  It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.’ –Macbeth, V, v, lines 19-28

Three prophecies for Macbeth’s fate:

I) Beware Macduff, beware the Thane of Fife.

II) None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.

III) Macbeth shall never fall till great Birnham wood come to high Dunsinane hill.

One important theme in Macbeth is that of fertility versus infertility, or of life versus death.  Banquo’s fertility allows him to begin a line of kings that continues right up to the reign of King James, almost six centuries later, and during Shakespeare’s time.  Macduff, the one eventually to kill Macbeth, has several children, ‘all [his] pretty chickens’, whom Macbeth has had killed.  Macduff observes that Macbeth, however, ‘has no children’.

Macbeth is defeated when Birnham wood comes to Dunsinane; all those tree branches, symbols of life and fertility, coming to Macbeth, symbol of death and infertility, to end his reign of terror.

The most important theme of Macbeth, however, is that of equivocation, perfectly embodied in the quote, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’  These opposites appear several times throughout the play, as in the second quote above.

Other examples include when Banquo asks why, upon hearing the witches prophesy of Macbeth being Thane of Cawdor and the future king of Scotland, Macbeth starts in fear on hearing of things ‘so fair’.  Later, when Macbeth has been crowned king (having murdered Duncan, the previous king, to get the throne), Banquo correctly suspects that Macbeth ‘play’dst most foully for’t.’

The beginning of the play is ‘So foul and fair a day’, for it is foul with the smell of the blood of war, and yet fair with Scotland’s victory over Norway and Ireland, thanks to Macbeth’s valour.

Macbeth says the witches’ prophecies ‘Cannot be ill; cannot be good’; for if bad, how do they result in good for him, making him Thane of Cawdor?  If good, why do the prophecies frighten him with the firing up of his murderous ambition?  Macbeth shudders over the ‘fair’ prophecies of his being Thane of Cawdor and the future king, for these spur his ‘Vaulting ambition’, his tragic flaw, which will change him from the fair war hero at the play’s beginning to the foul tyrant who must be killed at the play’s end.  Indeed, even though the play ends happily with Macbeth killed and Scotland restored, it is still a tragedy in how a good man is turned into a bad man, who ultimately must be destroyed.

Banquo’s prophecies are also foul and fair.  He is, according to the witches, ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater’; ‘Not so happy, yet much happier’.  For though Banquo won’t be a king himself, his descendants will be, right up to King James, and as Macbeth imagines, possibly ‘to th’ crack of doom’.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch the roles of foul and fair midway into the play, when he is crowned king.  Before that, he is still somewhat good in his feelings of guilt and fear over the plotting of King Duncan’s murder; Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, relishes in her wickedness, even calling on evil spirits to keep her constant in her ambition.  After he’s crowned, however, it is Lady Macbeth who is fearful and remorseful, while he is grinning in his machinations.  He frowns only from his fears of losing his power; he never repents.  Though Banquo’s ghost frightens him, the witches’ prophecy–that ‘none of woman born’ will kill him–gives him a false ‘fair is foul’ kind of confidence.  (More on that later.)

Lady Macbeth, after disposing of the bloody daggers her husband has used on King Duncan, says ‘How easy is it’ to wash the blood off; later, during the sleepwalking scene, the imaginary blood she has on her hands is impossible to remove, as is the erasing of her guilt.  The fair of easy becomes the foul of impossible.

Even the porter speaks of equivocation in bawdy humour.  Wine’s effect on a man ‘provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance…makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep,…’ etc.

Finally, the second two prophecies of Macbeth’s ultimate fate are equivocal in his destiny being both foul and fair at the same time.  That he will never lose his power till the forest of Birnham moves to his castle sounds as though he’ll be king forever…fair.  How can the trees be uprooted and made to move up to Dunsinane hill?  Macbeth doesn’t consider, however, that the English army, led by Duncan’s son Malcolm, will cut off branches from the Birnham trees and carry them to Dunsinane, to hide their numbers.  Within the time frame of this play, these branch-carrying usurpers of Macbeth seem to come very soon, too…foul.  When Macbeth learns the truth of this, he begins ‘To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’

Furthermore, the cocky self-confidence Macbeth gains from the prophecy ‘none of woman born’ will kill him (that is, none born by going through his mother’s birth canal) makes him forget all too easily the first prophecy, ‘Beware Macduff’, who wasn’t born of woman, but ‘was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripp’d’, that is, born by Caesarian section.  Again, what makes Macbeth feel invincible–fair–should actually make him feel most vulnerable–foul.