The Tragedy of Macbeth highlights the Scottish nobleman’s quest to become king, with the aid of his wife Lady Macbeth, and the consequences that come from unbridled ambition and the murder of the king.
Macbeth, a victorious general, receives a prophecy from three witches that he will eventually become king. His friend Banquo also receives a prophecy that he will father a line of kings. He is initially skeptical, but he soon begins to entertain aspirations of becoming king. Lady Macbeth is even more ambitious than Macbeth, and through manipulation, mockery, and persuasion, she eventually convinces him that he should kill King Duncan when he comes to stay at their castle that night.
Macbeth is so frightened and guilt-ridden by the idea of killing the king that he experiences hallucinations and doubts, but he is pushed on by his wife. He stabs King Duncan in his sleep and frames his two guards, who are so drunk that they are passed out and have no memory of the night’s events. Lady Macbeth plants bloody daggers on them. Because Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee the country in fear for their own lives, Macbeth, as kin of the king, is crowned.
While Macbeth ascends to the throne, he is consumed by his guilt and becomes suspicious and tyrannical. He hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son Fleance in order to prevent his prophecy of fathering a line of kings from coming true. Banquo is murdered, but Fleance escapes, and Macbeth begins to see the ghost of Banquo. He seeks out the help of the witches from the heath, and receives three prophecies: beware of Macduff; no man born of a woman can harm him; and his safety will be held until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth takes comfort in the fact that every man is born of a woman, and woods cannot travel. Macbeth kills everyone in Macduff’s castle, but Macduff himself is not there.
Lady Macbeth begins manifesting her guilt through nightly sleepwalking and hallucinations of blood on her hands which never washes off. She eventually kills herself. Macduff joins forces with Duncan’s son Malcolm, and cutting down the trees from Birnam Wood and using them as camouflage, their forces descend on Macbeth, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy. In his final battle with Macduff, Macbeth discovers that Macduff was cut from his mother’s womb, not “born”, and he realizes the witches were right again. Macduff kills Macbeth and cuts off his head. Banquo’s descendants became kings through James I in 1603.
Check out our lesson plans for Macbeth!
Date Published: 1606
Major Themes: Ambition; fate vs. free will; true leadership vs. tyranny; gender issues
Famous Quote: “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, signifying nothing.”