John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Synopsis
Act I, Scene 1
The play opens with thunder and lightening, then the entrance of three witches. With incantatory verses, they allude to a recent battle and plan to meet later in the day. One witch claims to hear the call of a cat (“Graymalkin,” presumably her familiar), another the call of a toad (“Paddock,” presumably her familiar), which calls lead all three to depart. Their final words in unison set the scene as foggy and announce a central theme of the play: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”
Act I, Scene 2
King Duncan of Scotland, together with his two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, and attendants, hears from a bleeding captain the details of a recent battle against Norwegian forces. The captain tells of Macbeth’s heroism in battle (and also Banquo’s). The captain leaves to have his wounds tended to, and noblemen Ross and Angus enter. Ross tells the King of the Thane of Cawdor’s treasonous support of Norway and of Macbeth’s defeat of Cawdor and the Scottish victory in battle. The King sentences the Thane of Cawdor to death and gives Cawdor’s title to Macbeth.
Act I, Scene 3
The three witches enter to thunder, discussing various of their evil deeds. They describe themselves as “the weird sisters,” and claim their “charm” (the magical verse we have heard) is now ready to have its effect, at which point Macbeth and Banquo enter. The witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter. Banquo asks them to tell his fortune as well, and is told that while he will not be King his descendents will be. Macbeth, troubled by the prophecies, tells Banquo that they should talk more later.
Act I, Scene 4
Malcolm tells his father King Duncan of the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo enter and Duncan thanks them for their battlefield heroism. Duncan announces he is making Malcolm Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth is troubled by this development but says nothing about it.
Act I, Scene 5
At Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband telling about the witches’ prophecy. She worries that her husband, though ambitious, is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” to do what he needs to do to make himself king. A messenger arrives to tell her the King will be spending the night at the Macbeths’ castle, after which Lady Macbeth wishes to lose her femaleness and replace it with cruelty. Macbeth arrives and Lady Macbeth tells him that the King will not live to leave the castle and that she will take charge of things.
Act I, Scene 6
Lady Macbeth courteously greets the king’s party as it arrives at the castle.
Act I, Scene 7
Macbeth in soliloquy rehearses the various reasons why he should not assassinate his guest the King. Lady Macbeth enters, and Macbeth tells her they will not proceed with the assassination. Lady Macbeth upbraids him for his lack of masculinity, then tells him of her plan to get the King’s guards drunk, then after the King is killed to plant the bloody knives on these same guards, who will then be blamed for the murder. Macbeth is convinced.
Act II, Scene 1
At a court within the castle, sometime after midnight, Banquo and his son Fleance are approached by Macbeth and a servant with a torch. Banquo says that he has dreamt of the weird sisters, but in response Macbeth denies even thinking of them. Banquo, Fleance, and the servant leave, and Macbeth in soliloquy says that he thinks he sees a dagger before him, and soon in his vision he even sees blood stains on this dagger. As he decides to sop talking and start acting he hears a bell, which he takes to be a knell marking King Duncan’s immanent death.
Act II, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth in soliloquy tells how she has drugged the drinks of the king’s now sleeping guards and left their daggers for Macbeth to use. Macbeth enters saying that he has done the deed. Macbeth is upset that one of the grooms in his sleep cried “God bless us,” and the other said “Amen,” but Macbeth found himself unable to say “Amen” as well. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth not to think so much about these things, but Macbeth goes on to lament that he heard a voice saying that he would no more be able to sleep. Lady Macbeth tells him to go wash his hands while she puts the guards’ daggers (which Macbeth has mistakenly carried with him) back at the murder scene and smears the guards with blood. Lady Macbeth leaves, Macbeth wonders if his hands will ever be clean, then Lady Macbeth reenters, now with bloody hands too. They hear a knocking and leave to wash and put on their nightclothes.
Act II, Scene 3
A porter enters in order to open the gates to those knocking. He pretends to be porter of Hell Gate, admitting various sinners into hell, then he opens to door to Scottish nobles Macduff and Lenox. After some trivial joking, Macbeth enters, and MacDuff leaves to get the King, while Lenox tells Macbeth of the strangeness of the night (with portents such as screams of death). Macduff reenters, excitedly announcing the king’s murder. Macbeth and Lenox run off, Lady Macbeth enters, is told of the murder, and laments that it has happened in her house. Lenox and Macbeth reenter, and Macbeth says he regrets that in his rage he killed the king’s guards/grooms, since the evidence plainly showed they had killed the king. Lady Macbeth faints and is carried out. All except the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, leave to put on day clothes and arms. The king’s sons, fearing for their own safety, resolve to flee, one to Ireland, one to England.
Act II, Scene 4
Outside the castle an old man and Scottish nobleman Rosse talk about how even though it is by the clock now daytime, nonetheless it is still dark, and how the previous night things were so strange that an owl killed a falcon and Duncan’s horses ate each other. Then Macduff enters to tell them about the king’s murder, how the king’s sons have fled (presumably because they were guilty of the murder) and how Macbeth is to become the new king.
Act III, Scene 1
In the palace, Banquo voices his suspicion of Macbeth. Then Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and their attendants enter and Macbeth announces a feast in honor of Banquo that evening. Banquo announces that he and his son Fleance are going riding that afternoon but will be back for the feast. All leave, except for Macbeth and a servant, who is sent to bring Macbeth certain men. In soliloquy, Macbeth talks about his fear of Banquo, whose descendents according to the witches will be kings. Two men enter, and Macbeth reminds them of the various harms Banquo has done to them. They agree to kill Banquo and Fleance while they are out riding. Macbeth explains that because he and Banquo have mutual friends he as king cannot be officially involved.
Act III, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to stop worrying and looking so worried. Macbeth agrees and hints that he will take care of Banquo and Fleance but not share the details with his wife.
Act III, Scene 3
The two murderers hired by Macbeth are surprised to find a third murder has joined them. They insist Macbeth could have trusted them. Banquo and Fleance enter, with Banquo killed and Fleance escaping (urged by his dying father to seek revenge).
Act III, Scene 4
Back at the palace, a banquet has been prepared. The Macbeths greet their guests, then Macbeth goes to the door to talk to one of the murderers, who informs him that Banquo is indeed dead but that Fleance has escaped. Soon after Macbeth returns to the table, Banquo’s ghost (visible only to Macbeth and the audience) enters and sits in Macbeth’s seat. Macbeth’s guest cannot understand the frenzy Macbeth is suddenly in, but Lady Macbeth makes an excuse, claiming that Macbeth frequently has such spells. In an aside she tells Macbeth to act more like a man, but Macbeth continues to be freaked out by the ghost. The ghost leaves and Macbeth calms himself, excusing his strange sickness to his guests. But then the ghost reenters, and Macbeth freaks out again, telling the ghost that he would not fear it in any other shape at all. Everyone is befuddled, and Lady Macbeth asks them all to leave. Then Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that the ghost demanded blood. Macbeth comments on how Macduff has not come to Macbeth as he was commanded and then says he will take care of this problem soon, that there are many more bloody actions to come.
Act III, Scene 5
To thunder, the three witches meet Hecate, who criticizes them for aiding Macbeth when Macbeth doesn’t love them for themselves (evil) but for what they promise him. But she assures the witches that she shall entrap Macbeth because of the weakness he has in common with all people: too much desire for security.
Act III, Scene 6
Lenox tells a Lord about the recent events, ironically talking as if Macbeth were innocent. The Lord tells Lennox that the Kings’ son Malcolm and Macduff have fled to the English court, and they both agree that they pray for Scotland’s rescue to come from England.
Act IV, Scene 1
To thunder, over a boiling cauldron, the witches chant an incantation (“Double Double, toil and trouble”) while throwing in magical offerings (newt’s eye, dog’s tongue, etc.). Macbeth enters and demands they answer his questions. The first, an apparition of an armed head, tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff, the Thane of Fife. The second, a bloody child, assures Macbeth that none of woman born can harm him. The third, a crowned child carrying a tree, assures Macbeth he will never be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth then asks if Banquo’s descendents will ever rule in this kingdom. There appears a succession of eight kings, the last with a mirror in his hand, and Banquo following. The vision vanishes, and Macbeth is not pleased. Lenox enters to tell Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth vows that from now on he will act immediately upon his feelings and thus decides to go attack Macduff’s castle, killing his wife and children.
Act IV, Scene 2
At Macduff’s castle, with Lady Macduff, her son, and the nobleman Ross, Lady Macduff complains about Macduff having left them, but Ross defends Macduff, then leaves. Lady Macduff and her son have an extended charming conversation, in which the son makes several precociously cute remarks. A messenger enters telling Lady Macduff to fly, but she replies that she has nowhere to go. Murderers enter, kill the son and chase Lady Macduff offstage.
Act IV, Scene 3
At the English court, Malcolm asks Macduff why he abandoned his wife and children, and Macduff, insulted, offers to leave if Malcolm really thinks him a villain. Malcolm then proceeds to tell Macduff in detail how he, Malcolm, is actually more evil than Macbeth. Macduff, shocked and dressed to hear Malcolm’s litany of vices, abandons all hope and says good-bye to Malcolm. At this Malcolm knows Macduff is not one of Macbeth’s many spies and insists he himself is indeed a paragon of virtues. A doctor enters and tells how the English King cures “the Evil” (a name for scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis) with his touch. Then Ross enters and after some hesitation tells Macduff that Macbeth has killed Macduff’s wife and children. After showing his grief, Macduff promises revenge.
Act V, Scene 1
A doctor and a gentleman talk about Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, then Lady Macbeth enters candle in hand, sleepwalking, and continually acting as if she is washing her hands. Her seemingly irrational utterances suggest at the source of her disturbance: “Out, Damned spot!” “The Thane of Fife had a Wife.” The doctor suggests that her problems are more religious than medical.
Act V, Scene 2
Menteith, Cathness, Angus, Lenox, and soldiers are near Dunsinane on their way to Birnam Wood to meet Malcolm, Macduff, Siward, and the allied English forces. They discuss Macbeth evil rule and pledge to cure their country of the disease that Macbeth’s rule represents.
Act V, Scene 3
Macbeth asserts that he is unafraid since Birnam wood could never some to Dunsinane. A servant reports the approach of 10,000 English soldiers, and Macbeth tells him to leave. Macbeth calls for his attendant Seyton to bring him his arms, and then asks a doctor about his patient, Lady Macbeth. Being told that a doctor cannot cure mental problems, Macbeth rejects medicine, wishing only that the doctor might prescribe something to purge the British from the land. Macbeth announces again that he is not afraid, and the doctor wishes he were away from the castle.
Act V, Scene 4
In front of Birnam wood, Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut branches to hold before them in order to camouflage their movements.
Act V, Scene 5
Macbeth is ready for battle when he hears women crying and Seyton enters to tell him that his wife is dead. Macbeth meditates on the meaninglessness of life (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”), then a messenger enters claiming to have seen Birnam wood moving. Macbeth starts to despair at this bad sign, but resolves to do battle anyway.
Act V, Scene 6
Malcolm gives orders for the soldiers to throw down their ”leafy screens,” and he Macduff, and Siward resolve to do battle.
Act V, Scene 7
In battle, Macbeth kills young Siward, gloats how none born of woman can harm him, and exits. Macduff enters looking for Macbeth. Malcolm and Siward resolve to enter Macbeth’s castle.
Act V, Scene 8
Macbeth rejects the alternative of suicide, then Macduff enters and they fight. Macbeth taunts Macduff, telling him that none born of woman can harm him. Macduff responds by saying he came into the world via the Caesarian section surgical procedure and thus (technically) was not “born.” Macbeth laments the ambiguous way his fortune was told and says he refuses to fight. Macduff then demands Macbeth yield, but Macbeth instead resolves to fight and is killed.
Act V, Scene 9
Malcom, Rosse, old Siward, and others enter discussing the battle; Old Siward expresses thanks that his son has died as a soldier. Macduff enters carrying Macbeth’s head, and they all hail Malcolm as King of Scotland. He makes what were formerly called Thanes into Earls, says that Lady Macbeth actually seems to have killed herself, then invites all to see him crowned King of Scotland at Scone.