By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, so we’ll keep the ensuing plot summary fairly brief, too, summarising the main plot points and keeping an eye on how they all fit together. Some critics and editors believe that Macbeth, the play as we have it, is a drastically edited-down or cut version of a longer play which would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time.
If this is true, we’re unlikely ever to read the longer version, as it has not survived: the only copy of Macbeth that has survived is the one that was published in the First Folio in 1623. It’s a sobering thought that, if Heminges and Condell had not taken the trouble to assembled the First Folio, Macbeth would have been lost to us forever.
Three Witches tell Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, that he is to be made Thane of Cawdor and will be King. They also tell Macbeth’s friend, Banquo, that he will sire kings, although he will never be King himself.
Meanwhile, Duncan, the King of Scotland, hears of Macbeth’s bravery in putting down a rebellion against the King, led by the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. Duncan thanks Macbeth for his courage and names him the new Thane of Cawdor.
Duncan also proclaims his son, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, meaning Malcolm will be Duncan’s successor as King. Macbeth, emboldened by the words of the Witches, decides that if he is going to see the prophecy fulfilled and himself on the throne, he will have to take matters into his own hands.
Macbeth then heads to his castle at Inverness, where he and his wife will welcome Duncan as their guest. When Macbeth arrives home, his wife, Lady Macbeth – who has already heard of the Witches’ prophecy via a letter Macbeth sent home ahead of him – persuades Macbeth to kill the King when he arrives, so that Macbeth can seize the throne for himself.
Macbeth murders Duncan as the King sleeps, a guest under Macbeth’s own roof. He then murders Duncan’s personal attendants, so that it will look as though he caught them in the act of murder and killed them for it. Two noblemen, Macduff and Lenox, arrive at the castle to see the King, and Macduff discovers that Duncan has been murdered.
Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan’s two sons, fear that whoever killed their father may lie in wait to murder them too, so they flee the castle – thus attracting suspicion that they are the murderers. In their absence, and with suspicion hanging over them, Macbeth is crowned the new king.
Macbeth, worried about the Witches’ prophecy that states Banquo’s descendants will be king, sends two murderers to track down Banquo and his son Fleance and murder them. However, although the men succeed in killing Banquo, Fleance escapes. That night, at Macbeth’s banquet at the castle, the ghost of Banquo appears to him and accuses him of murder. Nobody else can see the ghost, but Macbeth is visibly shaken.
A couple of lords discuss the murder of Banquo, and think Fleance, in fleeing the scene, was responsible for his father’s death (mirroring the response to Malcolm and Donalbain’s hasty exit from the castle following their father’s murder). Meanwhile, Macbeth meets with the three Witches again, who summon a series of apparitions which tell him that no man ‘of woman born’ can harm him.
Macbeth, fearing Macduff, initially decides that Macduff is no threat and so he can let him live; but to ‘make assurance doubly sure’, he then decides to kill Macduff to remove the fear of threat altogether. The apparitions also tell him that he will not be defeated until ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.’
Macbeth decides that this is an impossibility – another way of saying ‘you’ll never be defeated’. Macbeth then sees a vision of Banquo’s descendants, in a line of mirrors, stretching into the future.
Macduff flees to England, and murderers dispatched by Macbeth arrive at his castle and murder his wife and children. In England, Malcolm and Macduff join forces against Macbeth, and Macduff receives news from Scotland that Macbeth has had his wife and children killed. They vow to travel to Scotland and kill Macbeth.
In Scotland, Lady Macbeth has taken to sleepwalking at night and displaying signs of a guilty conscience over the murder of Duncan, miming the washing of her hands as if to clean them of imaginary blood. The lords, led by Macduff, move against Macbeth.
So they can move closer to Dunsinane without Macbeth suspecting, the soldiers use twigs and leaves from the local Birnam wood as camouflage as they march, recalling the prophecy from the Witches’ apparitions. Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth is dead, and he is defeated in combat against Macduff shortly after. Malcolm is proclaimed the new King.
That concludes a brief summary of the plot of Macbeth, but we’ll offer some thoughts on the play on Thursday.