Macbeth is a play which is loosely based upon actual events. The action is set in 11th century Scotland and England. The play is a psychological drama which explores the capacity of humans to be affected by external forces.
The play begins with the meeting of three witches. The "weird sisters" discuss the time and place of their next rendezvous--a meeting with Macbeth. Macbeth's army has just put down a rebellion by the Thane of Cawdor and he meets the sisters on his way to speak with Duncan, the king. The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be not only Thane of Glamis, but also Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of all Scotland. They also tell Banquo, Macbeth's comrade, that his children will be kings. When Macbeth does reach the king, Duncan names him the new Thane of Cawdor, fulfilling one of the witches' prophecies.
Macbeth, Duncan, and his party travel to Macbeth's castle at Inverness where Lady Macbeth is hoping to influence Macbeth to murder the king. That night, Macbeth does murder the king, throwing Scotland into upheaval. Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's sons, flee to England and Ireland. Their actions seem to prove their guilt, so Macbeth is named king.
Macbeth next sends three men to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. The murderers kill Banquo, but let Fleance escape. That night at dinner Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth. Meanwhile, Macduff has fled Scotland to escape the tyranny of Macbeth, who has Lady Macduff and her son killed.
While in England, Macduff asks Malcolm, the rightful king, to return to Scotland and overthrow Macbeth. Malcolm agrees to return if the people truly want him. Ross enters to inform Macduff of the deaths of his wife and son.
The next scene is the famous "sleepwalking scene" in which Lady Macbeth reveals her guilty conscience to a doctor and gentlewoman. She shortly after commits suicide.
Macbeth feels secure in his castle because the witches have said he will not be defeated until Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane hill and he cannot be killed by any man borne of a woman. When Malcolm's armies use branches from Birnam wood and Macduff reveals that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" both prophecies are fulfilled and Macbeth's fate is sealed. Scotland is left to Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne.
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair." This theme is reiterated throughout the play by Macbeth and the weird sisters.
"Blood will have blood." Macbeth attained his position by bloodshed, so it was inevitable that he should pay with his own life.
Macbeth can be viewed as a play about the capacity of humans to be affected by external forces. Macbeth was influenced by the witches only because he was a willing victim even though he saw the course of events as unavoidable. Shakespeare uses Banquo to show that yielding to temptation is not inevitable.
Duncan - He is king of Scotland, an elderly good king who is murdered by Macbeth.
Malcolm - Malcom is Duncan's older son. He is an ideal king and the rightful king.
Donalbain - He is Duncan's younger son who flees to Ireland after the murder of his father.
Macbeth - The main character is a Scottish nobleman who kills King Duncan so that he can be king. Macbeth is unique among Shakespeare's heroes because he becomes more and more evil. His tragic flaw is his vaulting ambition.
Lady Macbeth - She pushes Macbeth to murder Duncan, but her guilt drives her insane and leads her to commit suicide.
Banquo - He is a foil to Macbeth. Though he is killed by Macbeth's servants, his sons will live to be kings.
Macduff - Macduff is a Scottish nobleman who is the only man able to kill Macbeth.
Lady Macduff - She is a foil to Lady Macbeth. Her death drives Lady Macbeth to the brink of insanity.
"But screw your courage to the sticking place."
Lady Macbeth Act I scene vii
"Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care."
Macbeth Act II scene ii
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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,
Macbeth Act V scene v
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
Witches Act I scene i
"A little water clears us of this deed."
Lady Macbeth Act II scene ii
"Double, double toil and trouble:
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."
Witches Act IV scene i
"Out, damned spot!"
Lady Macbeth Act V scene i
"Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him?"
Lady Macbeth Act V scene i
"Here's the smell of blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
Lady Macbeth Act V scene i
"False face must hide what the false heart doth know."
Macbeth Act I scene vii
"I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly."
Lady Macduff Act IV scene ii
The Real Macbeth
Macbeth is based upon actual events, but only very loosely. The real Macbeth ruled as king of Scotland from 1040-1057. He did overthrow Duncan, but Duncan was a poor king to the point of being a tyrant and a military failure. After his death, Macbeth was elected as king of Scotland. The Elizabethan English could not comprehend a ruler whose power was not hereditary, so they saw Macbeth as a tyrant. Lady Macbeth, whose real name was Gruach, was a granddaughter of another king, Kenneth III. In fact, Kenneth had been murdered by Duncan's grandfather. Malcom and Donald Ban (Donalbain) were sons of Duncan and Malcom did become king after the death of Macbeth. The character of Macduff is not based on any historical person. Though Banquo is said to be the ancestor of James I, he is first introduced in the 16th century. The Earl Siward was a real person whose son died in a battle against Macbeth.
*Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy.