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Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Plot Summary

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth plot summary of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth.

Macbeth | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Set in medieval Scotland, Macbeth traces the rise and fall of the title character as he gains and loses the throne of Scotland. As the play opens, Macbeth is described as the Thane of Glamis, indicating that he is a Scottish nobleman. (The title of thane was awarded to men favored by the king who were also given land, usually for proven loyalty. Military service to the king was expected of thanes.)

The play's action begins when King Duncan's forces engage in a battle to defeat a rebellion started by a lord named Macdonwald, who enlists the help of the King of Norway. Macbeth, duty-bound to defend his king, fights honorably in this battle and captures another supporter of the rebellion, the Thane of Cawdor. As Macbeth and his friend Banquo travel home from the battle, they meet three witches. These women predict Macbeth will be the next Thane of Cawdor and that he will become king of Scotland. In addition, they prophesy that Banquo's descendants will inherit the throne in years to come.

After the king executes the Thane of Cawdor for treason, he gives the thane's title and lands to Macbeth, which leads Macbeth to believe the witches' predictions. He sends word of these developments to his wife, and Lady Macbeth immediately begins plotting Duncan's demise, which is made easier when Duncan comes to visit Macbeth's castle. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth then start scheming in earnest against Duncan.

While Duncan dines at their castle, Macbeth confers with his wife and raises objections to the murder; his wife dismisses them with scorn. By conversation's end, Macbeth is ready to kill the king. Lady Macbeth takes the lead in plotting the murder. She gets Duncan's guards drunk, and they are unconscious when Macbeth enters Duncan's chamber and kills him. He returns to his own rooms with the daggers in his blood-stained hands. Lady Macbeth goes back to plant the weapons and frame the guards. The following morning, Duncan's body is discovered, and the lords are thrown into an uproar. Macbeth kills the guards before they can speak. He claims to have done this in his rage at Duncan's death. Fearing for their own safety, Duncan's sons flee the country, so Macbeth implicates them in Duncan's murder as well. Macbeth is crowned king of Scotland, while the other thanes speculate about strange events and dark times.

Meanwhile, remembering the witches' predictions, Banquo grows suspicious of Macbeth. Recognizing that Banquo knows he had motive to kill Duncan, and vexed by the thought that Banquo's descendants will reign after him, Macbeth hires murderers to assassinate Banquo and his son Fleance. At a banquet the same night, Macbeth has a vision of Banquo's ghost, and the other lords are alarmed by his erratic behavior. Lady Macbeth makes excuses for her husband as best she can, but the seeds of suspicion are sown. Macbeth seeks another meeting with the witches to plan his next move.

At Macbeth's second meeting with the witches, they make three predictions about his future. First, they tell him to beware of Macduff, who has been suspicious of Macbeth since Duncan was killed. Second, they tell him that no man born of woman shall harm him. Third, they say he will be secure until Great Birnam Wood, a nearby forest, comes to Macbeth's castle at Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth, believing the last two predictions are impossible, assumes he is safe. In the meantime, Macduff travels to England to find Malcolm, Duncan's oldest son, and convince him to head back to Scotland to fight for his rightful throne. Macbeth takes this opportunity to send assassins to Fife, where they murder Macduff's wife and son. Macduff is successful in his mission, though, and Malcolm agrees to return to Scotland with an English army of 10,000 men.

Around the time Macbeth begins losing his grip on power, Lady Macbeth loses her grip on reality. She is under a doctor's care because of persistent sleepwalking and hallucinations brought about by her memories of Duncan's murder. The Scottish lords and thanes have united against Macbeth, calling him a tyrant; they are prepared to join with Malcolm's army when it arrives. The Scottish and English armies meet at Great Birnam Wood and use tree branches as camouflage to approach Dunsinane Hill. While Macbeth prepares for the onslaught at Dunsinane, he learns his wife has died. One of his servants then tells him Birnam Wood appears to be moving toward them. This rattles Macbeth because it fulfills one of the witches' prophecies. Still, he engages in battle, relying on the witches' assurance that no man born of woman will cause him harm. When he meets Macduff on the field, however, he learns Macduff was delivered by surgery, rather than by conventional birth. Macduff kills Macbeth, and Malcolm claims his throne.

Macbeth Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Witches say Macbeth and Banquo's sons will be kings.

Rising Action

2 Macbeth, Lady Macbeth kill Duncan; Macbeth becomes king.

3 Seeing Banquo as a threat, Macbeth has him killed.

4 Witches' additional prophesies make Macbeth feel invincible.

5 Macduff induces Duncan's son Malcolm to fight for Scotland.

6 Lady Macbeth loses her mind and dies.


7 Malcolm leads troops into battle against Macbeth.

Falling Action

8 Macduff kills Macbeth on the battlefield.


9 Malcolm takes his place as rightful King of Scotland.

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