Macbeth and Banquo, Scottish captains journeying homeward after defeating the Norse invaders in battle, are accosted on the heath by three witches. The hags hail Macbeth, first by his present title, thane of Glamis, then as thane of Cawdor, a higher rank, and lastly as one "that shalt be king hereafter." Banquo they greet as "lesser than Macbeth, and greater: not so happy, yet much happier; thou shall get kings, though thou be none." The witches vanish when Macbeth calls upon them to prophesy further.
Ross and Angus, of the court of Duncan, King of Scotland, arrive to welcome the returning warriors. They reveal the truth of the witches' first prediction: the King has elevated Macbeth, for his valor in battle, to be thane of Cawdor. Lust for power now swells in Macbeth, and he reflects:
- "Two truths are told
- As happy prologues to the swelling act
- Of the imperial theme...
- Why do I yield to that suggestion
- Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
- And make my seated heart knock at my ribs?...
- My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
- Shakes so my single state of man that function
- Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
- But what is not."
His envious ambition is further heightened when the King's eldest son, Malcolm, as Prince of Cumberland, is named heir to the crown. Macbeth, marking Malcolm as an obstacle in his path to the throne of Scotland, hastens to his castle at Inverness where his wife, already informed by letter of the witches' prophecy and Macbeth's new honor, is scheming to goad Macbeth to quick action toward becoming King.
Duncan, with his sons, Malcolm and Donaldbain, and a train of courtiers, arrive at Inverness to spend the night. Lady Macbeth, realizing their immediate opportunity, taunts her husband, now wavering in his intention to do away with the King, into agreeing to murder Duncan that very night as he lies asleep in the castle. Lady Macbeth carefully plans their course of action: she stupefies Duncan's guards with drugged wine, laying their daggers ready for Macbeth to stab the King. She herself refrains from committing the deed only because Duncan reminds her of her own father.
Macbeth, in terrible fear and apprehension, slays the sleeping Duncan, and returns to his wife in a state of horror and foreboding. Lady Macbeth completes the grisly task by placing blood-stained daggers near the guards and smearing their faces with blood. In the morning, the murder is discovered by Macduff, a member of Duncan's court. The Macbeths join loudly in the lamentations for the dead King. Macbeth righteously announces that he has killed the guards whose guilt seems evident. The King's sons, fearing further violence, decide to flee, Malcolm to England and Donaldbain to Ireland. Suspicion of the murder now falls upon them, and Macbeth succeeds Duncan to the throne of Scotland.
Macbeth's purpose has now been accomplished, but he lives in fear of Banquo who appears to have a suspicion of the truth. Also, he resents the witches' prophecy that Banquo, not he, is to beget a line of kings. Macbeth, tortured almost nightly by "terrible dreams" and fear of exposure, hires murderers to do away with Banquo and his son, Fleance. They succeed in killing Banquo, but Fleance escapes. Now, even with the death of Banquo, there is no peace for Macbeth. At a court dinner, Banquo's ghost appears to him, "shakes his gory locks" and glares at him with blank eyes. Lady Macbeth tries to explain away her husband's evident terror and his strange behavior as an old and recurrent ailment, but the feast is spoiled and she dismisses their guests.
Meanwhile, Macduff has fled to the royal court in England where Malcolm is a fugitive, to implore help in overthrowing Macbeth whose tyrannies by now are oppressing all Scotland.
Macbeth's fears drive him to return to the heath to again consult the witches. They warn him to beware Macduff, but assure him that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," and that he "shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him." Macbeth asks if Banquo's issue shall ever reign upon the Scottish throne. In answer, the witches conjure forth a ghastly procession of kings who all look alike, followed by the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth is transfixed in terror as he realizes the meaning of the prophecy. Macbeth immediately sends murderers to Fife, the home of Macduff, and Macduff's wife, children and all of his line are brutally murdered.
In England, Malcolm tests the loyalty of Macduff and, finding him true, tells him that he has obtained an army to return to Scotland to overthrow Macbeth. A Scottish nobleman now comes with the tidings of the murders at Fife, and the bereaved Macduff vows to kill Macbeth with his own hands.
Now, at last, Lady Macbeth has fallen prey to her own conscience. She has taken to walking in her sleep. An alarmed lady-in-waiting summons a doctor to watch her. Lady Macbeth enters bearing a lighted candle, her eyes closed. She sets the taper down, begins to rub her hands, as though washing them, and speaks:
"Yet here's a spot. Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two, why then 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier and afeared? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?--Yet who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him? The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?--what, will these hands ne'er be clean?"
Lady Macbeth dies soon after, reportedly a suicide. Macbeth, taking heart from the witches' assurance that he is invulnerable, prepares to fight the approaching army of Malcolm.
But Malcolm has directed his men to bear before them branches from the trees in Birnam wood, in order to conceal their numbers, as they march upon Dunsinane Hill to besiege Macbeth. Macbeth, in overwhelming fear, recalls the witches' words: "Macbeth shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him," but he goes out to battle, reassured by the witches' last pledge that "none of woman born" can harm him.
In the struggle, he finds himself face to face with Macduff. As they cross swords, Macbeth boasts of his invulnerability, but Macduff tells him: "... let the angel whom thou still has served tell thee Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd."
Macbeth, realizing all is lost, his offer to surrender scorned, cries:
- "Yet I will try the last. Before my body
- I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
- And damn'd be he that first cries 'Hold, enough!'"
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