home contact

Macbeth: Stages of Plot Development

Wilbur Lucius Cross. New York: Globe School Book Co.

The various literary forms whose subject-matter is fictitious incident, differ from one another in the manner of presentation. The epic poem was originally a piece to be recited; it implied a rhapsodist and an audience. The novel is addressed to the silent reader. In the drama, a story is unfolded before our eyes: events, though really of the past, are represented as taking place now, and the characters become the actors whom we see. From these different ways of telling a story follow certain corollaries in respect to plot. Slight inconsistencies in structure are not easily discernible in the epic and in the novel; for when the end is reached, we have forgotten the numerous details of the beginning. But in the drama, which we follow scene by scene on the stage, anything awry is detected at once, and almost as easily as a defect in the figure or in the reasoning of a geometrical proposition, which we grasp at a glance.

Though you have read Macbeth much as you would read any other piece of literature, — for the habit of reading has confounded all forms, — you have probably kept in imagination the stage and the actors coming and going. How carefully the play is put together you cannot fail to notice, if you think of it in contrast with some of the novels with which you are familiar. The sequence of its incidents possesses the rigidity of logic. 1

Moreover, the plot of a drama is simpler than that of other literary kinds. The dramatist, in the two or three hours granted him, must select the most important incidents — called dramatic moments — in the career of his hero and bring them to the front, leaving to his audience to fill in by his suggestions what takes place in the intervals. Thus the reign of Macbeth, according to the chronology followed by Shakespeare, covered seventeen years. Shakespeare, in making a drama out of it, brushed aside many events, confining himself to those which bore some relation to the assassination of Duncan; and even of these, he could not present all. The main dramatic moments of the play are Macbeth's temptation by the witches, his subsequent meeting with his wife, the murder of Duncan, the murder of Ban quo, the appearance of the ghost, the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son, and the death grapple between Macbeth and Macduff. What comes between them is in the way of explaining how these events happen.

The simpler the plot, the more effective it is on the stage. It was Shakespeare's custom, as in The Merchant of Venice, to weave together deftly two or more stories, and to carry along with them scenes of low comedy to please the rabble in the yard. Macbeth here differs from the rest. It has but one plot, and interest is focused on a few characters. It contains but one comic scene — the Porter at the gate. For introducing this scene, Shakespeare has often been praised, on the ground that it furnishes a relief to the horror of the assassination. This is undoubtedly its effect on critics and philosophers; and yet it is, I think, nothing more than the vulgar interlude demanded by the Elizabethan audience. But for it, the drama preserves throughout perfect unity of tone. Without it, the knocking would be equally impressive.

Because of this simplicity and unity of plot, the play is, of all Shakespeare's tragedies, the most rapid in its movement. Macbeth is tempted to the murder of Duncan, and with a bound Shakespeare brings him to the deed. Banquo must be put out of the way; the hint is followed by the plan and its execution. Macbeth is told that the thane of Fife has fled to England; and he at once resolves on the murder of Macduff's kin.

In the next scene, the assassins are on the stage. The retribution is equally swift. Macbeth has no sooner gained the throne than he is afflicted with terrible dreams that shake him nightly. He is soon besieged in his castle, and a few minutes later Macduff enters, bearing the head of the usurper. The drama is the work of genius at a white heat, and as such it should be compared with the subtle elaboration of Hamlet.

For studying more in detail the action of a play, it is convenient to divide it into five logical sections, which do not correspond to the five acts; namely, the introduction, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the catastrophe.

The introduction explains the situation. In Macbeth it consists of the first two scenes. The first scene brings us at once into the mystical atmosphere which is to pervade the entire play. The second scene describes the brave deeds of Macbeth, the man who is to yield to supernatural solicitings.

The rising action begins with the next scene and extends to the third scene of the third act. Macbeth, returning from his victories, is tempted to try for the throne, and in the attainment of this aim he is spurred on by the witches and Lady Macbeth. At length he accomplishes his main purpose.

The climax is the turning point in the play; that is, the place where the reaction sets in against the hero. It is sometimes called "the dramatic center." In this play it occurs in the third scene of the third act, where Fleance escapes. Macbeth has thus not fully gained what he was striving for. Distracted by fears and hallucinations, he loses (III, iv) his self-control; and at this point we know he is doomed. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

The falling action runs with little interruption from the banquet to the end of the play. Characters that in the first scenes were kept in the background, now come to the front, — Malcolm and Macduff, in whom is embodied the retribution.

One of the most noticeable things about the falling action in Macbeth is Shakespeare's careful preparation for it. Many a drama and many a novel have been utterly spoiled by improbable or impossible occurrences. But says Schiller, "A dexterous use of accident in art, as well as in life, often brings about what is excellent." So skillfully has Shakespeare employed chance in the first half of the play, that perhaps we did not notice the incidents.

Macbeth murders Duncan. What more natural than that Malcolm should flee to England for protection and aid? Banquo is killed. What more natural than that one of the murderers in his fright should put out the torch, and that Fleance, from whom is to proceed a line of kings, should conceal himself in the darkness? The first accident prepares the way for the English invasion; the second frustrates all of Macbeth's plans for holding the throne. The one works outwardly: the other inwardly and psychologically; and both together make for Macbeth's ruin.

The catastrophe is the tragic end. Macbeth, like Romeo and Juliet, has a double catastrophe, — the death of Lady Macbeth and the fall of Macbeth. In the former case there is no violence. The woman who planned the murder of Duncan, breaks down under the strain of remorse, walks in her sleep, and dies. Macbeth falls in mortal combat with Macduff, the man whom he has most nearly wronged. The drama has now played itself nearly out. Malcolm is proclaimed king, and Scotland is once more in repose.

The structure thus outlined may be represented by diagram : —

1 And yet this is not true of every detail. What scenes or parts of scenes contribute nothing to the action ? Why, then, are they introduced? Perhaps, too, there are real inconsistencies in the statements of different characters. — See I, ii, 52-66; I, iii, 72-75 and 108-ll6.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Wilbur Lucius Cross. New York: Globe School Book Co., 1900. Shakespeare Online. 30 Sept. 2010. < >.


More Resources

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

More to Explore

 Macbeth: The Complete Play with Annotations and Commentary
 Macbeth Character Introduction
 Metaphors in Macbeth (Biblical)
 Figures of Speech in Macbeth

 The Three Apparitions in Macbeth
 Supernatural Solicitings in Shakespeare
 Shakespeare on Omens

 Macbeth, Duncan and Shakespeare's Changes
 King James I and Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth
 Contemporary References to King James I in Macbeth
 The Royal Patent that Changed Shakespeare's Life

 Soliloquy Analysis: If it were done when 'tis done (1.7.1-29)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Is this a dagger (2.1.33-61)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be thus is nothing (3.1.47-71)
 Soliloquy Analysis: She should have died hereafter (5.5.17-28)

 Explanatory Notes for Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy (1.5)
 The Psychoanalysis of Lady Macbeth (Sleepwalking Scene)
 Is Lady Macbeth's Swoon Real?

 Explanatory Notes for the Witches' Chants (4.1)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)
 How to Stage a Production of Macbeth (Scene Suggestions)

 A Comparison of Macbeth and Hamlet
 The Effect of Lady Macbeth's Death on Macbeth
 The Curse of Macbeth
 On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

 Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth
 Macbeth Q & A
 Essay Topics on Macbeth
 Aesthetic Examination Questions on Macbeth
 What is Tragic Irony?

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Time Analysis of the Action in Macbeth
 Macbeth Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Quotations from Macbeth (Full)
 Top 10 Quotations from Macbeth

 Shakespeare's Workmanship: Crafting a Sympathetic Macbeth
 Origin of the Weird Sisters
 Temptation, Sin, Retribution: Lecture Notes on Macbeth
 Settings of Shakespeare's Plays by Location

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers