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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THE PLAY

THE PLOT - SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

On a deserted field, with lightning and thunder overhead, we see three eerie witches. They chant spells, make plans to meet someone named Macbeth, and vanish into thin air.

In a military camp not far away are King Duncan of Scotland and some of his followers. A battle is raging nearby. We learn there is a rebellion against the King. He is too old to fight himself, and wants to know how his army is doing.

A badly wounded soldier reports that the battle was horribly bloody but the brave Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, saved the day, fighting fearlessly and killing the rebels' leader. (Thanes were Scottish noblemen.) Duncan is moved by Macbeth's courage.

The Thane of Ross arrives with more news: the Thane of Cawdor, one of Duncan's trusted captains, is a traitor. When Duncan learns that his army has won, he orders the Thane of Cawdor executed and indicates that Macbeth inherit his title.

Before Duncan's men can reach Macbeth to tell him the good news, Macbeth and Banquo, who have led Duncan's army together, come upon the three witches. Banquo thinks the three weird women are bizarre and funny, but Macbeth is strangely fascinated by them. They greet Macbeth with two predictions: that he will be Thane of Cawdor and that he will be king. Then they prophesy that though Banquo will never be a king, his children will be kings. And then the witches vanish.

Macbeth and Banquo cannot believe their eyes. As they joke uneasily about the predictions, they are interrupted by Duncan's messengers, who announce that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. Suddenly, the witches are no laughing matter. Macbeth's mind is racing. Could he actually become king someday? King Duncan personally thanks Macbeth for his bravery in the following scene, at his palace. But at the same time Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will inherit the throne. That is not good news for Macbeth. You can see already that he wants to wear the crown himself.


At Macbeth's castle, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband telling her about the witches. It is clear that she will be willing to do anything to see Macbeth king. When the news arrives that Duncan will spend the night at her castle, she's amazed at his stupidity-or his innocence-and thrilled to have the chance to murder him.

That night, as the royal party is being entertained, Duncan's hosts secretly plot his death. Macbeth is scared of what he is about to do, and wants to back out, but his wife makes it clear that if he doesn't kill Duncan, she won't consider him a man. Macbeth commits the murder, but he is appalled by his deed.

When the King's body is discovered the next morning, nobody seems more shocked or surprised than Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth blames Duncan's servants and kills them-pretending he is so enraged he cannot stop himself. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, sense treason and treachery and decide to run away, afraid that they will be killed, too. Macbeth has himself crowned king. The witches' predictions have come true, and Macbeth seems to have all he wants.

But Macbeth is not happy. He's afraid that some of the thanes suspect Duncan was not really killed by his servants. Worse, Macbeth's friend Banquo was told by the witches that he would father kings. To prevent that, Macbeth decides, he must also murder Banquo. This time without Lady Macbeth's help, Macbeth sends three men to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Banquo's throat is slit, but Fleance manages to escape.

On the night of his friend's murder Macbeth holds a great feast. But the merrymaking is spoiled by the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Macbeth is the only person there who can see him, and it makes him rave like a madman.

Terrified now of losing the crown, Macbeth goes back to the witches. They tell him three things: first, that he should fear Macduff, the Thane of Fife; second, that Macbeth will never be harmed by any man born of woman; and third, that he will never be defeated until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Two out of three of the predictions sound comforting, but the witches go on to show Macbeth a vision of Banquo as father to a line of kings. The vision makes Macbeth furious, but the predictions make him even more ruthless.

Macbeth soon learns that the witches gave him good advice about fearing Macduff. The Thane of Fife has gone to England to meet with Malcolm, the rightful king, and plan a revolt. In his rage, Macbeth has Macduff's wife and children murdered.

When Macduff hears the news, his grief makes him even more determined to overthrow the tyrant Macbeth. He and Malcolm set out from England with ten thousand men.

In Scotland, Macbeth's world is falling apart. His followers are deserting him; his wife has lost her mind. Only his pride and his confidence in the witches' predictions keep him going.

As Malcolm is approaching Macbeth's castle at Dunsinane, he orders his troops to cut branches from trees in nearby Birnam Wood and carry them as disguises.

Macbeth at Dunsinane is waiting for the attackers when he's told that his wife is dead; she has killed herself. He barely has time to react before a report arrives that Birnam Wood seems to be moving-toward the castle! Furious, frightened, and desperate, Macbeth calls out his troops.

Malcolm's army throw down the branches and the battle begins. Macbeth's men hardly put up a fight, but Macbeth battles like a trapped animal.

Finally, Macbeth comes face to face with Macduff, who has been looking for him in the battlefield. Macbeth warns his enemy that no man born of woman can harm him. Macduff isn't frightened-he was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. (Today we would call it a cesarean section.) Though he knows the end has come, Macbeth fights on and is killed. In triumph, Macduff carries Macbeth's severed head out to the people, who turn to Malcolm as their rightful king.

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