We meet our protagonist among the rolling mists of the Scottish moors. Macbeth takes place in 11th century Scotland, based on historical events at the time. Scotland had just defeated Norwegian aggressors that were working with the traitorous Macdonwald. At this time, Scotland was still an independent country—but it was a sovereignty that balanced on the edge of a blade. 11th century Scotland was built from various clans all held together in a truce under one king.
The story of Macbeth travels across the Fife region of Scotland. The play’s acts tend to splinter into different locations, moving from the blasted heaths of Scottish battlefields, to the picturesque Dunsinane castle, ending at the fateful edges of Birnam Woods. Generally, Macbeth is set during the suspenseful twilight and dusky hours, alongside the low roll of fog and destiny.
Macbeth Plot Timeline
- Witches on the Heath. After a bloody battle, Scottish soldiers Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches. They promise Macbeth “Thane of Cawdor,” and then King. After this they imply he will be succeeded by Banquo’s children.
- A Predicted Promotion. King Duncan makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth promises him she will help him come to the throne.
- An Assassination Plot. The couple plot against and kill Duncan—cue dagger monologue. Duncan’s sons Malcom and Donalbain flee and are suspected of the murder.
- A New King. Macbeth is crowned and orders Banquo killed.
- Another Visit. The witches reassure Macbeth that he will not die unless a forest walks and that no man born of a woman can kill him.
- Reign of Terror. Macbeth orders more brutal murders. Malcom (Duncan’s son) and Macduff decide to take on the tyrannical king.
- Attack. The men use a local woods’ foliage for camouflage, and march on Macbeth’s castle.
- The End of the Macbeths. Lady Macbeth commits suicide. Macduff—handily born from a Cesarean section—steps up and lops off Macbeth’s head.
- Another Coronation. Malcom is crowned king.
Macbeth Act 1 Summary
Mist settles over the stage, and our play begins. Thunder and lightning crackle over the moor, and, as if summoned by some fateful spell, three witches emerge. They discourse on an upcoming battle, deciding when and where they will be meeting with Macbeth.
Elsewhere, a wounded captain reports to King Duncan and his attendants. He tells a tale of betrayal, broiling battlefield and bloody retribution. The Thane of Ross corroborates his tale, telling the king that Macbeth mounted the traitorous Macdonwald’s head on a pike and repelled the belligerent Norwegian aggressors. With the knowledge that the original Thane of Cawdor acted as collaborator with the Norwegians, Duncan orders his execution.
Finally arriving at their desired location, the three witches greet Macbeth and his companion, Banquo. They bestow some cryptic promises upon the two traveling warriors. Macbeth is told that he shall first become the next Thane of Cawdor, and then King. Banquo is told his sons will be king thereafter.
Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband, informing her that King Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor, fulfilling the prophecy of the three crones. She invokes the dark magics of Hecate, queen of witches, hoping to gain the ability to bring Macbeth to the crown.
Macbeth arrives back, and Lady Macbeth asks him to kill Duncan upon his arrival at their castle later. Macbeth is hesitant at first, but after Duncan’s arrival and further beguiling from Lady Macbeth, resolves to do the dastardly deed.
Macbeth Act 2 Summary
Waiting among the twilight, Macbeth briefly talks with Banquo and his son Fleance, dismissing them before he infiltrates Duncan’s chambers (which have been handily rid of guards by Lady Macbeth’s liberal application of drugged wine earlier).
Macbeth stops for a moment, considering the stark illusion of a dagger that rests in front of him. Steeling himself, he steps into the chamber. A bell rings. It is the one that tolls for an unfortunate Duncan.
Lady Macbeth helps him hide his weapons of murder, as Macbeth is hounded by the sound of knocking. In the morning, Macduff and Lennox arrive at the castle, greeted by a Porter of questionable sobriety. The pair, with Macbeth, go to visit the king – finding him slaughtered. After awaking the other gathered Scots of note, Banquo cries treason, seeing the bloodied hands of the drugged chamber guards.
Donalbain and Malcom, correctly assuming that they will be accused of their father’s murder, conspire to flee from the incensed Thanes. Malcom escapes to England, with Donalbain moving overseas to Ireland. Macduff and Ross hear of the fleeing sons first and presume their guilt in the bloody affair.
Macbeth Act 3 Summary
The witch’s prophecies hang as heavy, rolling fogs of fate in the air as Banquo tells us of Macbeth’s ascension to the throne. During Banquo’s visit to the new king’s castle, we get an insight into just how deep Macbeth’s paranoia runs. He talks of Banquo and his sons with great fear and feels deeply convinced of his need to finish them.
As such, he hires two murderers to kill Banquo and his son. They arrive back at a later banquet prepared for all the Thanes of note, and inform Macbeth that while they Banquo, his son, Fleance, fled.
During a monologue to his gathered Thanes during dinner, Macbeth sees an apparition of Banquo. The ghost sits silently in Macbeth’s chair, the king loudly despairing at this judgmental specter. Lady Macbeth tries to calm him, eventually talking him down.
In other lands far from Dunisholme, Hecat, Queen of Witches, chastises the three weird sisters for their bold temptations of Macbeth. Lennox seeks the council of other lords, where they ruminate on the recent murder of Banquo and cast aspersions as to their king’s motives.
Macbeth Act 4 Summary
As the pieces are set for our final confrontation, the Witches begin their most potent incantation. Hecate and a consortium of three other hags join the chorus, the witch-mother finally approving of the Weird Sisters’ dark sorceries. The coven is joined by a frenetic Macbeth, driven to the brink of insanity by his own creeping paranoia.
The witches reassure the megalomaniacal monarch that his position is secure with a misleading prophecy. First, they warn him to beware Macduff, Thane of Fife. Next, they tell Macbeth that he cannot be harmed by any man born from a woman, and that he will reign until Birnam Woods walks to his castle.
The Thane of Ross walks with great haste. He is trying to keep pace with the aggrieved Lady Macduff, who despairs her husband having fled to England. She is right to worry, as Macbeth’s hired murderers appear from the twilight. They slay Macduff’s son, letting the wife escape.
In England, Malcom and Macduff grieve their slain families. Ross arrives, and Malcom reveals he has been gifted ten thousand men by the king of England to restore Duncan’s lineage to the throne. The three vow to topple the malicious Macbeth.
Macbeth Act 5 Summary
Madness grips the corners of Lady Macbeth’s mind. Her doctor and gentlewoman attendant are shocked by her mental deterioration. Elsewhere, the remaining Scottish Thanes decide to march alongside the oncoming English forces, making their way to Birnam Woods to help purge the sickness that is their tyrant king.
Macbeth hears of the gathering and is much more concerned with this than the wellbeing of his wife. As his armor-bearer Seyton readies the king’s armaments, the disgruntled Scottish lords amass outside Birnam Woods. They instruct every soldier to take some of the forest’s greenery to hide themselves as they advance upon the castle.
An alien cry pierces Macbeth’s reverie, as he hears his wife’s passing. The death seems to bounce off his now hardened heart. What does enrage him, however, is the news that Birnam Woods is marching upon his castle. Now only one of the Witches’ prophecies still protects him.
Macbeth moves to meet his opponents in the fray and slays one of the English nobles who took arms against him in a matter of moments. He screams his challenge to the opposing forces, that no man born of woman can harm him.
Macduff steps up to the plate, and a vicious duel commences. The weight of his slain family and comrades behind him, Macduff seems to stand his ground against the malevolent monarch better than most. He reveals to the tyrant that he was cut prematurely from his mother’s womb, not born naturally. Macbeth laughs in the face of the witch’s prophecies having all been turned against him but is struck down by Macduff’s fated blade. “Beware Macduff” rings with a deadly irony in his ears as Macbeth is vanquished.
In a grim mockery of Macbeth’s first victory of the play, Macduff brings the betrayer-king’s head to Malcolm, and pronounces him the king of Scotland. The cry hailing the rightful ruler echoes in over ten thousand gathered men. At this resounding blend of English and Scottish voices, the rolling mists of prophecy finally dissipate from the blasted heaths of Scotland long past.