In the middle of a war, Duncan, King of Scotland, hears the news that his generals, Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated two invading armies. On their way back from victory, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches who prophesy that Macbeth, now Thane of Glamis, will be made Thane of Cawdor, and eventually King of Scotland. They also prophesy that Banquo will father a line of kings, although never king himself. The witches vanish, and Macbeth and Banquo are surprised when Scottish lords arrive with the news that Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor, replacing a traitor. Macbeth is fascinated by the possibility that he will be crowned king. Duncan announces that he will visit Macbeth’s castle and Macbeth writes ahead to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her all that has happened.
Lady Macbeth suffers none of her husband’s uncertainty: he must murder Duncan and become king. When Macbeth arrives, she overrides all of her husband’s objections. The two make Duncan’s servants drunk and, while Duncan is asleep, Macbeth stabs him, overcoming his own doubts and a supernatural vision. When Duncan’s death is discovered the next morning, Macbeth kills the servants – ostensibly out of rage at their crime – and easily assumes the kingship. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland, respectively, fearing that whoever killed Duncan desires their deaths as well.
Fearful of the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s heirs will succeed him, Macbeth hires men to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. They ambush and murder Banquo but they fail to kill Fleance, who escapes. Macbeth is furious: as long as Fleance is alive, his power remains insecure. At a feast that night, Banquo’s ghost appears and terrifies Macbeth who alone can see it. Worried, Macbeth goes to visit the witches. They show him apparitions who present him with further prophecies: he must beware of Macduff; he cannot be harmed by any man born of woman; and he will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth feels secure. When he learns that Macduff has fled to England to join Malcolm, Macbeth orders that Lady Macduff and her children be murdered.
News of his family’s slaughter reaches Macduff in England; grief-stricken he vows revenge. Malcolm has succeeded in raising an army in England and Macduff joins him to make war on Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, walks in her sleep, reliving her guilty secrets, and kills herself. Macbeth awaits the English and fortifies Dunsinane, certain that the witches’ prophecies guarantee his invincibility. But the apparitions’ prophecies come true, Macbeth is killed by Macduff, and Malcolm is acclaimed as the new King of Scotland.
- Peter Holland (McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies, University of Notre Dame)