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Macbeth: Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)

Act 3, Scene 1
The act opens at the royal castle on the day of a great feast to celebrate Macbeth's coronation. Banquo is the first to enter the great dining hall. The prophecy of the Witches races through his mind, and he begins to believe that Macbeth himself was responsible for the fulfillment of the Hags' prediction. He thinks upon his own destiny as foretold by the Witches. If Macbeth is now king, Banquo is sure to father future kings. A trumpet sounds and King Macbeth and his Queen enter the hall with Lennox, Ross, and a long parade of servants. Macbeth is very concerned with Banquo's activities for the day, and asks him where he plans to go before dinner begins. Banquo tells him that he and his son, Fleance, are going to ride on the vast castle grounds in the afternoon, but he assures Macbeth he will not miss the feast. Macbeth orders everyone to take the afternoon for himself and be 'the master of his time' until seven that evening, when the banquet will commence. Everyone rushes off, except Macbeth and a servant. He asks the servant to bring in two men that have been waiting at the palace gate. Alone for a brief moment, Macbeth reveals his plan to have Banquo and Fleance murdered while they are out riding. Killing now comes easier to Macbeth and he will gladly slay his friend and his child if it means securing the throne for his own lineage. The servant returns with the men whom Macbeth has commissioned to kill Banquo and Fleance. Macbeth gives them some final instructions and sends them on their way. As the scene comes to a close, we see Macbeth's transformation into a evil villain now complete: "It is concluded: Banquo, thy soul's flight/If it find heaven, must find it out to-night." (3.1.140-141).

Act 3, Scene 2
In another room in the castle, Lady Macbeth orders a servant to find her husband. Lady Macbeth is not as happy as she thought she would be as Queen of Scotland, and, although she hides it better than Macbeth, the murder is all that she can think about. Despite the fact that they now have exactly what they desired, Lady Macbeth confesses that they have gained nothing and lost everything by killing Duncan: 'Nought's had, all's spent' (3.2.4). Macbeth enters and he too admits to consuming feelings of guilt and fear. He laments 'In the affliction of these terrible dreams/That shake us nightly: better be with the dead' (3.2.18-9). Lady Macbeth wants to think of other, more pleasant things, and she tells her husband to be happy and enjoy his feast. Macbeth informs her that he has decided to kill Banquo and Fleance. She asks for details but, to save her from further guilt, Macbeth will not tell her any more: 'Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck' (3.2.44-6).

Act 3, Scene 3
The two murderers set out to find Banquo and Fleance, riding on the palace grounds. A third murderer joins them, sent by Macbeth to ensure the killing is carried out according to plan. They hear horses approach. It is Banquo and his son, walking toward the stables, talking about the fun of the day. Night has fallen early and they carry a lit torch. The First Murderer attacks Banquo but before he dies he cries out to Fleance to run away as fast as he can. In the scuffle the torch goes out and Fleance successfully escapes into the dark countryside. The murderers know that they have left incomplete the more important task of killing Banquo's son, but they nonetheless head to the castle to report Banquo's death to Macbeth.

Act 3, Scene 4
The banquet is underway in the great hall of the royal palace. Amidst the revelers, Macbeth sees the First Murderer and, as inconspicuously as possible, he walks over to speak with him. The First Murderer tells him that the blood Macbeth sees upon his face is Banquo's and that Fleance has escaped. Macbeth is unhappy with the news that Fleance remains alive, but he focuses on the good news of Banquo's death and decides to take his place at the dinner table. But Macbeth's seat is already occupied. It is Banquo's ghost, and Macbeth is horrified. Before his stunned guests he begins to speak to what they believe is an empty chair: "Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo! how say you?/Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too" (3.4.68-70). Lady Macbeth tells the guests that Macbeth is suffering from stress, and, when the ghost disappears, Macbeth regains his composure. He says that he has a "strange infirmity" and quickly calls for more wine and toasts the "general joy of the whole table."

Unfortunately, Macbeth decides to mention Banquo specifically in the toast, which prompts the re-appearance of Banquo's ghost. Macbeth again reacts to the spirit, much to the bewilderment of his guests. Lady Macbeth, afraid her husband is losing his mind and will reveal their crimes, bids the guests an abrupt goodnight and shuffles them out of the hall. When they are alone, Lady Macbeth, who is baffled by Macbeth's behavior, tells him that his lack of sleep is causing him to hallucinate. Macbeth insists that he must consult the three Weird Sisters to find out what dangers lie in wait. Macbeth and his Lady retire to bed and the scene ends with Macbeth's final thought that, because he is new to such heinous crime, his conscience is overactive, but he will improve with time. As he tells Lady Macbeth: "We are yet but young in deed" (3.4.146).

Act 3, Scene 5
Thunder crashes overtop a lonely heath where the Witches are gathered. Heccate, the goddess of witchcraft, scolds the Hags for not including her in their meetings with Macbeth. Heccate tells them that they must reassure Macbeth when he comes to visit, for she knows that security "Is mortals' chiefest enemy" (3.5.34).

Act 3, Scene 6
In a room in the palace, Lennox and another lord discuss the deaths of Duncan and Banquo. Lennox now suspects Macbeth has committed the murders and subtly reveals his thoughts in an exceptional speech, noted for its sustained irony. The lord also suspects Macbeth, and he tells Lennox that Malcolm has the support of Edward, King of England, and that Macduff has since sided with Malcolm and is gathering an army as they speak. They hope Malcolm and his troops return as soon as possible to help the Scottish rebels overthrow Macbeth.

Act 4, Scene 1
The act opens in a dark cave. In the center of the cave a cauldron boils, and around it the Witches gather. They cast spells in anticipation of Macbeth's arrival. Macbeth enters and the Witches agree to show him what the future has in store. Amidst crashes of thunder, three apparitions appear. The first is an armed head, summoned to warn Macbeth that Macduff is coming back to Scotland to ruin him. The second apparition is a bloody child and it tells Macbeth that no man born of a woman can do him harm. This gives Macbeth great confidence: "Then live Macduff: what need I fear of thee?" (4.1.78-80). The third apparition is that of a child wearing a crown and holding a tree. It tells Macbeth that: "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him" (4.1.87-90). Macbeth is secure that the third apparition's prophecy will never be, for 'who can impress the forest?' or 'bid the tree unfix his earth-bound roots?' (4.1.91-3). Macbeth's confidence is restored, but one question remains: what of Banquo's prophecy? He asks the Witches if Banquo's descendants will still rule Scotland, and in response they summon a vision of eight kings. The kings pass over the stage in order; the last holding a glass. Banquo's ghost follows behind them, and Macbeth flies into a rage at the Witches who have revealed his worst fear. They dance and cackle and vanish into the darkness. Lennox enters the cave and Macbeth is worried that he has seen the Witches. But Lennox has seen nothing. He tells Macbeth that there are horsemen outside, come to report that Macduff has sided with Malcolm who is gathering an army of English soldiers. Macbeth decides that he must kill Macduff and his whole family as punishment for his betrayal.

Act 4, Scene 2
The scene turns to Macduff's castle where Lady Macduff is livid because her husband has left her and their son to go to England. Ross tells her to remain calm, reminding her that Macduff is wise and noble, and would not leave lest it was of utmost importance. Ross leaves and, in her anger, Lady Macduff tells her son that Macduff is dead. But her son is sharp like his father and he challenges her, prompting humorous banter between the two. A knock at the door interrupts their conversation. It is a messenger who has somehow learned of Macbeth's plan to have Lady Macduff and her son murdered. He begs her to flee at once and he runs from the castle in terror. Lady Macduff, sure she has done nothing wrong, hesitates to leave. This delay is costly indeed, for the murderers arrive and burst through the heavy wooden doors. They tell her that her husband is a traitor and one of the murderers grabs her son and stabs him, killing him instantly. Lady Macduff runs screaming from the castle, but the murderers chase her down and slay her.

Act 4, Scene 3
Macduff has arrived at King Edward's palace in England. Malcolm, however, is distrusting of Macbeth because he feels that Macbeth, who was himself once noble and trustworthy, has corrupted everyone around him. Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty to him and Scotland by pretending to be a greedy and base prince who will 'cut off the noble's from their land' when he gains the Scottish crown. When Macduff morns openly for his country that has one evil ruler and another in wait, Malcolm confesses that his words were only to test Macduff's commitment to him and Scotland. Ross comes from Scotland with the horrible news that Macbeth has murdered Macduff's family. Macduff, utterly destroyed by the foulness of the deed, cannot believe it, and must ask repeatedly if his wife and child are really dead. Malcolm implores Macduff to turn his anguish into anger: "be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief/Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it" (4.3.211-13). Macduff vows revenge and they leave to gather their troops and head for Scotland.

Act 5, Scene 1
With Macbeth busy assembling his men to fight Malcolm, Lady Macbeth is left alone in the castle at Dunsinane. When the two were together they could feed off each other's strength and prevent one another from dwelling on their crimes. But Macbeth is gone and Lady Macbeth is left to brood over the atrocities Macbeth has committed at her command. Her guilt and fear follow her even in dreams, and she begins to walk in her sleep. Her Gentlewoman has seen her several times rise from her bed. The Gentlewoman calls for a doctor who watches for two nights but does not see Lady Macbeth come out of her chamber. But, on the third night, he observes Lady Macbeth walk down the hall with a lantern, rubbing her hands violently. She reveals the events of that gruesome night and utters one of the most famous line in all of literature: "Out, damned spot! out, I say!" (5.1.37). The murder of Macduff's family and Banquo also weigh heavy on her mind: "The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean?" (5.1.44-5). The Doctor is horrified to know the truth and he refuses to report to anyone what he has just seen and heard for fear that his own life will be in jeopardy. He leaves the castle, knowing that no doctor can cure what ails Lady Macbeth: "More needs she the divine than the physician" (5.1.77).

Act 5, Scene 2
The action moves to the countryside near Dunsaine where the rebels, led by Lennox and Angus, await the English army that will soon arrive. They make plans to meet at Birnam Wood and Cathiness, one of the soldiers, tells the others that Macbeth is hold up in the royal castle preparing for the attack.

Act 5, Scene 3
Macbeth is in his war room awaiting Malcolm and his troops. Because of the three apparitions, Macbeth is confident that he will be victorious, and he refuses to hear the reports from his generals. The Doctor comes in and Macbeth asks anxiously about his wife. The Doctor tells him that she seems troubled and cannot rest. Macbeth orders the Doctor to cure her: "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased/Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?" (5.3.40-1). Quite courageously, the Doctor replies, "Therein the patient/Must minister to himself" (5.3.45-6). Macbeth rejects his useless answer and angrily calls for his armour. Although we can see Macbeth starting to crumble under the mounting pressure, he convinces himself that he is still not afraid of defeat "Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane" (5.3.59-60).

Act 5, Scene 4
Malcolm orders his men to each cut a branch from a tree from Birnam forest to provide camouflage as they attack the castle. Malcolm's command to carry the boughs signals the true end of Macbeth, for Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane.

Act 5, Scene 5
On the castle walls Macbeth waits, sure that Macduff and Malcolm will die of famine before they can penetrate his defense. Suddenly a cry is heard from within the castle. Seyton goes to investigate and, when he returns, he tells Macbeth that his wife is dead. With the news that he has lost his precious lady, Macbeth resigns himself to the futility of life. A messenger enters and reports that he has seen an amazing sight -- the woods are moving toward the castle. Macbeth is at first unbelieving and slaps the messenger, calling him a 'liar and slave!'. But Macbeth cannot deceive himself any longer and he vows that, if he must die, he will die a valiant soldier in battle:

If this which he avouches does appear,
There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I'gin to be a-weary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind! come wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.

Act 5, Scene 6
In this very short scene we see Malcolm, Siward, and Macduff gathered with their troops on the plain before Macbeth's castle. They throw down their 'leafy screens', sound the trumpets, and wage their assault on the royal palace.

Act 5, Scene 7
Macbeth has left the castle to fight Malcolm's army on the battlefield. Although he has resigned himself to defeat, he remembers the second apparition. Still convinced that he will never meet a man not born from a woman, he regains the hope that it is yet possible for him to escape. He meets young Siward who calls him a liar and challenges him to fight. Macbeth gladly obliges and, with his skill as a great warrior, easily kills the young man. But the noise of the fight attracts Macduff and he runs to confront Macbeth.

Act 5, Scene 8
Macbeth, with his newfound hope and determination, continues to fight Malcolm's army. Macduff comes up behind him, demanding that the "hell hound turn" (5.8.3) and fight. Macbeth tells him to leave, for he does not want the blood of another Macduff on his hands. Macduff refuses and charges at Macbeth. They fight, and Macbeth boasts that he is indestructible: "I bear a charmed life, which must not yield/To one of woman born" (5.8.1203). Macduff reveals that he was not of woman born, but 'untimely ripped' from his mother's womb. Macbeth realizes that the Witches, in their evil trickery, have only helped in his destruction, and he resigns himself to death. Not far away, the victorious Malcolm rallies his soldiers. Macduff joins them, carrying the head of Macbeth. He hails the new King Malcolm and the King's promise of restoration brings the play to a close:
We shall not spend a large expense of time
Before we reckon with your several loves,
And make us even with you. My thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour named. What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time and place:
So, thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone. (5.8.60-75)
Back to Acts 1 and 2 Summary

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Macbeth: Plot Summary. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < >.

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