William Shakespeare


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Macbeth Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 35-page guide for “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 28 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Ambition and Corruption and Violence Begets Violence.

Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays. Classified as a tragedy and thought to be performed for the first time in 1606, it tells the story of a Scottish nobleman who becomes obsessed with power and is driven mad by guilt.

Plot Summary 

The play opens with three witches, who make plans to meet again. In a military camp, King Duncan of Scotland hears the news of his generals’ success. Macbeth and Banquo have defeated two invading armies (one from Ireland, one from Norway). After their battle, Macbeth and Banquo stumble upon the witches, who prophesize that Macbeth will one day become a thane and King of Scotland, while Banquo will father a dynasty of Scottish kings (without ever being king himself). When the witches vanish, the two men are skeptical. But when Duncan’s men arrive to tell Macbeth that his success has led to the king granting him the title of Thane, Macbeth is intrigued and writes ahead to Lady Macbeth to let her know what has taken place and that King Duncan plans to dine at Macbeth’s castle the following night.

Back in their castle, Lady Macbeth lacks her husband’s skepticism. She hopes that he will kill Duncan and take the throne. When Macbeth returns, she persuades him that he needs to assassinate Duncan, overcoming Macbeth’s hesitation. Following their plan, Lady Macbeth drugs the King’s chamberlains, and then, while Duncan sleeps, Macbeth breaks the laws of guest right and stabs the king. When the body is discovered the next day, Macbeth quickly blames the King’s passed out chamberlains, pretends to be in a blind rage, and kills them. Suspicious, Duncan’s sons flee the country, allowing Macbeth to declare himself king in their absence.

Macbeth, remembering the witches’ words about Banquo and his heirs, hires assassins to kill his fellow general. These men ambush Banquo and his son Fleance but only succeed in killing Banquo. Fleance escapes, which worries Macbeth—and fulfills the witches’ prophecy, since his children will eventually rule Scotland. That night, the ghost of Banquo appears at a feast held in Macbeth’s honor, but Macbeth can see it. The specter terrifies Macbeth, whose crazed ramblings perturb his fellow guests. Though Lady Macbeth tries her best to address the court’s concerns, many question Macbeth’s legitimacy as King. Now scared, Macbeth seeks out the witches. They deliver a series of additional prophecies. One prophecy warns Macbeth to be wary of Macduff (a nobleman dubious of Macbeth’s kingship). Two others reassure Macbeth: No man born of a woman can harm him, and he will remain safe until the moment when Birnam Wood (a forest) comes to Dunsinane Castle. The witches’ words ease Macbeth’s fears, as the latter two parts of the prophecy seem impossible. He discovers that Macduff has fled the country, and orders the seizure of all of Macduff’s possessions and property. Furthermore, he orders Macduff’s wife and children executed. 

In England, Macduff hears that his family is dead. He is distraught and swears revenge against Macbeth. He joins one of Duncan’s sons, who has raised an army, and they ride north together, ready to challenge Macbeth. The Scottish court, appalled by Macbeth, is ready to ally with them as well.

In the meantime, bouts of guilt-ridden sleepwalking plague Lady Macbeth, who has visions of indelible bloodstains on her hands.

As he prepares to meet his enemies behind his castle walls, Macbeth learns that his wife has killed herself. This sends Macbeth into an even deeper despair. But he remains focused and fortifies his castle, still convinced that the witches’ prophecy means that he is practically invincible. But the double talk of the prophecies soon comes to light: The opposing army are carrying camouflage from Birnam Wood trees to hide their numbers. 

Though Macbeth and his forces fight valiantly, the other side eventually overwhelms them. Macduff finds Macbeth on the battlefield; Macduff tells Macbeth that he was not born of a woman in the traditional sense but was instead born via cesarean section. Even though he realizes that he is doomed, Macbeth fights on. Macduff eventually vanquishes Macbeth and, in a rage, cuts off his head. After the battle, Duncan’s son Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland. He announces that he will govern in a benevolent fashion and invites everyone to his coronation.

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Act 1