Macbeth: Summary & Analysis
Act 1, Scene 1
On a heath in Scotland, three witches, the Fates, wait to satisfy Macbeth amidst thunder and lightning. Their conversation is crammed with paradox and equivocation: they assert that they’re going to meet Macbeth “when the battle’s lost and won” and when “fair is foul and foul is fair” (10).
Act 1, Scene 2
The Scottish army is at war with the Norwegian army. Duncan, king of Scotland, meets a captain coming back from battle. The captain informs them of Macbeth and Banquo’s bravery in battle. He also describes Macbeth’s attack on the castle of the treacherous Macdonald, during which Macbeth triumphed and planted Macdonald’s head on the battlements of the castle. The Thanes of Ross and Angus enter with the news that the Thane of Cawdor has sided with Norway. Duncan decides to execute the disloyal thane and provides the title of Cawdor to Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 3
The Fates meet on the heath and await Macbeth. He arrives with Banquo, repeating the witches’ paradoxical phrase by stating “So foul and fair each day I even have not seen” (36). The witches hail him as “Thane of Glamis” (his present title), “Thane of Cawdor” (the title he will soon receive officially), and “king hereafter” (46-48). Their greeting startles and seems to frighten Macbeth. When Banquo questions the witches on who they’re, they greet him with the phrases “Lesser than Macbeth and greater,” “Not so happy, yet much happier,” and a person who “shall get kings, though [he] be none” (63-65).
When Macbeth questions them further, the witches vanish into nothingness. Almost as soon as they disappear, Ross and Angus appear with the news that the king has granted Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo step aside to debate this news; Banquo thinks that the title of Thane of Cawdor might “enkindle” Macbeth to hunt the crown also (119). Macbeth questions why such happy news causes his “seated heart [to] knock at [his] ribs / Against the utilization of nature,” and his thoughts turn immediately and with terror to murdering the king to satisfy the witches’ second prophesy (135-36). When Ross and Angus notice Macbeth’s distraught state, Banquo dismisses it as Macbeth’s unfamiliarity together with his new title.
Act 1, Scene 4
Duncan demands to understand whether the previous Thane of Cawdor has been executed. His son Malcolm assures him that he has witnessed the previous Thane’s becoming death. While Duncan muses about the very fact that he placed “absolute trust” within the treacherous Thane, Macbeth enters. Duncan thanks Macbeth and Banquo for his or her loyalty and bravado. He consequently announces his decision to form his son Malcolm the heir to the throne of Scotland (something that might not have happened automatically, since his position was elected and not inherited). Duncan then states that he plans to go to Macbeth at his range in Inverness. Macbeth leaves to organize his home for the royal visit, pondering the obstacle of Malcolm that now hinders his ascension to the throne. The king follows with Banquo.
Act 1, Scene 5
At Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth that describes his meeting with the witches. She fears that his nature isn’t ruthless enough– he’s “too full o’ the’ milk of human kindness” (15)—to murder Duncan and assure the completion of the witches’ prophesy. He has ambition enough, she claims but lacks the gumption to act thereon. She then implores him to hurry home so that she will “pour [her] spirits in [his] ear” (24)—in other words, goad him on to the murder he must commit. When a messenger arrives with the news that Duncan is coming, Lady Macbeth calls on the heavenly powers to “unsex me here” and fill her with cruelty, taking from her all-natural womanly compassion (39). When Macbeth arrives, she greets him as Glamis and Cawdor and urges him to “look just like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under” (63-64). She then says that she is going to make all the preparations for the king’s visit and subsequent murder.
Act 1, Scene 6
Duncan arrives at Inverness with Banquo and exchanges pleasantries with Lady Macbeth. The king inquires after Macbeth’s whereabouts and she or he offers to bring him to where Macbeth awaits.
Act 1, Scene 7
Alone on stage, Macbeth agonizes over whether to kill Duncan, recognizing the act of murdering the king as a terrible sin. He struggles especially with the thought of murdering a man—a relative, no less—who trusts and loves him. He would like the king’s murder to be over and regrets the very fact that he possesses “vaulting ambition” without the ruthlessness to make sure the attainment of his goals (27).
As Lady Macbeth enters, Macbeth tells her that he “will proceed no further during this business” (31). But Lady Macbeth taunts him for his fears and ambivalence, telling him he will only be a person when he carries out the murder. She states that she would go thus far on take her nursing baby and dash its brains if necessary. She counsels him to “screw [his] courage to the sticking place” and details the way they’re going to murder the king (60). they’re going to wait until he falls asleep, she says, and thereafter intoxicate his bodyguards with the drink. this may allow them to murder Duncan and lay the blame on the 2 drunken bodyguards. Macbeth is astonished by her cruelty but resigns to follow-through together with her plans.
Fate, Prophecy, and Equivocation
Just as the Porter in Act 2 extemporizes about the sin of equivocation, the play figures equivocation together of its most vital themes. ranging from the Weird Sisters’ first words that open the play, audiences quickly ascertain that things aren’t what they appear. consistent with the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “equivocation” has two different meanings—both of which apply to the present play. the primary is:
“The using (a word) in additional than one sense; ambiguity or uncertainty of meaning in words; also . . . misapprehension arising from the anomaly of terms.”
This definition as simple verbal ambiguity is that the one that audiences are most familiar with—and one that plays a crucial role within the play. Porter’s speech on equivocation in Act 2, however, refers to a more active sort of equivocation. The second definition within the OED: reads:
The use of words or expressions that are susceptible to a double signification, to mislead; esp. the expression of a virtual falsehood within the sort of a proposition which (to satisfy the speaker’s conscience) is verbally true.
This kind of equivocation is analogous to lying; it’s intentionally designed to mislead and confuse.
The intentional ambiguity of terms is what we see within the prophecies of the Fates. Their speech is filled with paradox and confusion, starting with their first assertion that “fair is foul and foul is fair” (II 10). The witches’ prophesies are intentionally ambiguous. The alliteration and rhymed couplets during which they speak also contributes to the effect of instability and confusion in their words. for several readers, quite one reading is required to understand a way of what the witches mean. it’s not surprising, therefore, that these “imperfect speakers” can easily bedazzle and confuse Macbeth throughout the play (I iii 68).
Just as their words are confusing, it’s unclear whether the witches merely predict or affect the longer term. Banquo fears, for instance, that the witches’ words will “enkindle [Macbeth] unto the crown”—in other words, that they’re going to awaken in Macbeth an ambition that’s already latent in him (I iii 119). His fears seem well-founded: as soon because the witches mention the crown, Macbeth’s thoughts address murder. The witches’ power is thus one among prophecy, but prophecy through suggestion. For Macbeth, the witches are often understood as representing the ultimate impetus that drives him to his pre-determined end. The prophecy is during this sense of self-fulfilling.
The oracular sisters are connected etymologically to Fates of Greek mythology. The word “weird” derives from the Old English word “wyrd,” meaning “fate.” And not all fate is self-fulfilling. In Banquo’s case, in contrast to Macbeth’s, the witches seem only to predict the longer term. For, unlike Macbeth, Banquo doesn’t act on the witches’ prediction that he will father kings—and yet the witches’ prophesy still comes true. The role of the Fates within the story, therefore, is difficult to define or determine. Are they agents of fate or an interesting force? And why do they suddenly disappear from the play within the third act?
The ambiguity of the Fates reflects a greater theme of doubling, mirrors, and schism between inner and outer worlds that permeates the work as an entire. Throughout the play, characters, scenes, and concepts are doubled. As Duncan muses about the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor at the start of the play, for instance, Macbeth enters the scene:
KING DUNCAN: there is no art
To find the mind’s construction within the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
Enter MACBETH, BANQUO, ROSS, and ANGUS.
To MACBETH: O worthiest cousin,
The sin of my ingratitude even now
It was heavy on me! (I iv 11-16)
The irony of Duncan’s trust is realized only later within the play. Similarly, the captain in Scene 2 makes a battle report that becomes in effect a prophecy:
For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name!—
Disdaining fortune, together with his brandished steel
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion
Carved out his passage until he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him
Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (I i16-23)
The passage is often interpreted as follows: Macbeth “disdains fortune” by disregarding the natural course of action and becomes king through a “bloody execution” of Duncan; Macduff, who was born from a Caesarian section (his mother being “unseamed. . . from the nave to the chops”) and who “ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell” decapitates Macbeth and hangs his head publicly.
As altogether Shakespearean plays, mirroring among characters serves to heighten their differences. Thus Macbeth, the young, valiant, cruel traitor/king features a foil in Duncan, the old, venerable, peaceable, and trusting king. Lady Macbeth, who casts off her femininity and claims to feel no qualms about killing her own children, is doubled in Lady Macduff, who may be a model of an honest mother and wife. Banquo’s failure to act on the witches’ prophesy is mirrored in Macbeth’s drive to understand all that the witches foresee.
Similarly, much of the play is additionally concerned with the relation between contrasting inner and outer worlds. Beginning with the equivocal prophecies of the Fates, appearances seldom align with reality. Lady Macbeth, for instance, tells her husband to “look just like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under” (63-64). Macbeth appears to be a loyal Thane but secretly plans revenge. Lady Macbeth appears to be a mild woman but vows to be “unsexed” and swears on committing bloody deeds. Macbeth is additionally a play about the inner world of human psychology, as are going to be illustrated in later acts through nightmares and guilt-ridden hallucinations. Such a contrast between “being” and “seeming” is another illustration of equivocation.
The Macbeths and therefore the Corruption of Nature
One of the foremost ambiguous aspects of the play is the character of Macbeth himself. Unlike other Shakespearean villains like Iago or Richard III, Macbeth isn’t entirely committed to his evil actions. When he swears to kill, he must overcome a huge resistance from his conscience. At an equivalent time, he sees as his own biggest flaw not a scarcity of ethical values but rather a scarcity of motivation to hold out his diabolical schemes. during this he resembles Hamlet, who soliloquizes numerous times about his inaction. But unlike Hamlet, Macbeth doesn’t have an honest reason to kill, neither is the person he kills evil—far from it. and eventually, while Macbeth becomes increasingly dedicated to murderous actions, his soliloquies are so filled with eloquent speech and pathos that it’s not difficult to feel for him. Thus at the guts of the play lies a drag of uncertainty.
If Macbeth is indecisive, Lady Macbeth is simply the opposite—a character with such one vision and drive for advancement that she brings about her demise. And yet her very ruthlessness brings about another sort of ambiguity, for in swearing to assist Macbeth to realize the Weird Sisters’ prophecy, she must remove her femininity. during a speech at the start of Scene 5, she calls on the spirits of the air to require away her womanhood:
Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep the peace between
The effect and it. (I v 38-45)
Lady Macbeth sees “remorse” together of the names for feminine compassion—of which she must rid herself. Thus she must be “unsexed.” This doesn’t mean, however, that in rejecting her femininity she becomes manly. Instead, she becomes a lady barren of the sexual characteristics and sentimentality that make her a lady. She becomes entirely unnatural and inhuman. just like the supernatural Fates with their beards, Lady Macbeth becomes something that doesn’t fit into the wildlife.
The corruption of nature may be a theme that surfaces and resurfaces within the same act. When Duncan greets Macbeth, for instance, he states that he has “begun to plant thee and can labor / to form thee filled with growing” (I iv 28-29). Following the metaphor of the longer term as lying within the “seeds of your time,” Macbeth is compared to a plant that Duncan will take care of (I iii 56). By murdering Duncan, then, Macbeth perverts nature by severing himself effectively from the very “root” that feeds him. For this reason, perhaps, the thought of murdering Duncan causes Macbeth’s heart to “knock at [his] ribs / Against the utilization of nature” (I iii 135-36). even as the Fates pervert the traditional course of nature by telling their prophecy, Macbeth upsets the course of nature by his regicide.
Reflecting on the disruption of nature, the dialogue between Macbeth and woman within the scene following the murder becomes heavy, graceless, and almost syncopated. Lady Macbeth, for instance, says:
What thou wouldst highly,
What wouldst thou holily; wouldst not bamboozle
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’d’ st have, great Glamis,
That which cries “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it,
And that which rather thou dost fear to try to,
Than wishest should be undone. (I v 28-23).
The repetition of the phrase “thou wouldst,” altogether its permutations, confounds the flow of speech. The speech is clotted with accents, tangling meter and scansion, and therefore the alliteration is nearly tongue-twisting, slowing the rhythm of the words. even as Macbeth and woman Macbeth have corrupted nature, the language Shakespeare uses in these scenes disrupts the flow of his usually smoothly iambic meter.
Yet another a part of the theme of corruption of nature lies within the compression of your time that happens throughout the act. When Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter, she states: Th[ese] letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and that I feel now / the longer term within the instant” (I v 54-56). By telling the longer term to Macbeth and Banquo, the Fates upset the natural course of your time and convey the longer term to this. Thus when Macbeth vacillates over whether or to not kill Duncan, he wants to leap into the future: “If it were done when ‘tis did, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly” (I vii 1-2). He wants the murder to be over quickly—indeed so quickly that it’s over before the audience even registers it. even as equivocation twists the meaning of words, Macbeth’s murderous desires twist the meaning of your time.
Thus beginning with the Fates, equivocation altogether its permutations are threaded throughout the material of the primary act. Throughout the play, the breach between the worlds of reality and illusion that’s the core of equivocation grows ever wider.