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Macbeth: Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)

Act 1, Scene 1
Amidst thunder and lightning, three witches meet to plan their encounter with Macbeth, a Scottish general and the Thane of Glamis. They agree to gather again at twilight upon a heath that Macbeth will cross on his way home from battle.

Act 1, Scene 2
King Duncan of the Scots awaits news of the battle between his men and the rebels led by the Thane of Cawdor. The King and his sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, meet a soldier who is weak and bleeding. He reports that Macbeth and Banquo have performed valiantly in the fight. His admiration of the noble yet brutal Macbeth is deep indeed:
For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage...
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements. (1.2.15-20)
King Duncan is delighted at his captains' bravery, and, when Angus and Ross arrive to tell him that the Thane of Cawdor has surrendered, Duncan gladly hands over the Thane's title and all his land to Macbeth.

Act 1, Scene 3
The Witches meet on the dark and lonely heath to await Macbeth. To pass the time they exchange boasts about their evil deeds. Macbeth and Banquo come across the Weird Sisters and we see immediately that Macbeth has a strange connection to the Witches, mimicking their famous words spoken earlier in the drama: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen"(1.3.38) . The Witches address Macbeth as Glamis, Cawdor, and King of the Scots. Macbeth is startled by what he sees clearly as a prophecy that he will be Scotland's next ruler. He is too stunned to speak and thus Banquo asks the Witches if there is any more to their premonition. They do have something to add, not about Macbeth, but about Banquo.

They talk in riddles, telling him he will be "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater" and "Not so happy, yet much happier" (1.3.65-6). They also tell Banquo that even though he will never himself be king, he will beget future kings of Scotland. Then the Witches disappear into the darkness, despite the pleadings of Macbeth, whose shock has turned to the lust for more information. Once alone, Macbeth and Banquo pretend not to believe anything the Weird Sisters have said, but in secret they cannot help thinking that there is a little truth to the Hags' words. Ross and Angus arrive and inform Macbeth that Duncan has appointed him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo are stunned by the turn of events, realizing that the Witches are right about one facet of the prophecy, and Macbeth cannot help but focus on their other, greater prediction that he will be king.

Act 1, Scene 4
Macbeth and Banquo reach King Duncan's castle and Duncan praises Macbeth for his loyalty and valor. He also embraces Banquo and thanks him for his courage during the rebellion. He announces that he has decided to visit Macbeth's castle at Iverness, and that he has chosen his son, Malcolm, to be the Prince of Cumberland and, therefore, the next king of Scotland. Macbeth proposes that he leave early for his castle to make sure everything is perfect for the King's arrival, and Duncan happily approves. But Macbeth is really only concerned with the King's choice of successor. With ambitious thoughts racing through his mind, Macbeth again finds himself lusting after the crown: "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires" (1.4.50-1).

Act 1, Scene 5
The scene opens in a room in Macbeth's castle at Iverness. Lady Macbeth is reading a letter sent by her husband, reporting all of the strange events he has witnessed. She learns of the prophecy of the Witches and that one prediction has already come true. Lady Macbeth is ecstatic and she fixes her mind on obtaining the throne for Macbeth by any means necessary. But Lady Macbeth knows that her husband has a weakness that will prevent him from taking the steps required to secure the crown. She is sure that because Macbeth is an ambitious man, he has entertained the thought of killing Duncan, no doubt several times. But she fears that he is without the wickedness that should attend those murderous thoughts. Although the unusually vicious slaying of his enemies on the battlefield have us questioning his propensity for evil, Lady Macbeth feels that he is simply "too full o' the milk of human kindness" to kill King Duncan. She, however, thinks herself not as compassionate as her husband, and when a messenger arrives with word that Duncan plans to visit Inverness, she is overjoyed that the opportunity to murder the King has presented itself so soon. She summons all the evil spirits to ensure that no pleadings of any man will come between her and her monstrous deed:

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! (1.5.40-4)
Macbeth arrives at the castle and Lady Macbeth is ready to tempt him to join her in murder. She subtly hints at her intentions: "Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under it. He that's coming/Must be provided for..." (1.5.65-7). Macbeth dodges the matter at hand and sheepishly tells her that they will speak further on the subject. Lady Macbeth confidently assures him, "Leave all the rest to me" (1.5.74).

Act 1, Scene 6
Duncan arrives at the castle with his sons, and Banquo, Lennox, Macduff, and others in his party. Ironically, Duncan and Banquo discuss the beauty of the castle while inside it reeks of moral decay. Banquo goes so far as to say that the "temple-haunting martlet" does approve of the castle and its sweet smelling fresh air. Unbeknownst to Banquo, this is a particularly inappropriate reference to the martlet, a bird known for building its nest near holy places. Lady Macbeth is the first to greet Duncan and his court. She welcomes them gracefully to her humble abode. As is the custom of the land, she tells the King that she has prepared an account of all that she owns so that Duncan may perform an inventory of his subjects' belongings. But Duncan does not want to discuss such matters. He again expresses his love for Macbeth and they all move behind the castle walls.

Act 1, Scene 7
Macbeth is alone in a dining room in the castle. His conscience is acting up, and he is particularly worried about the punishment he will receive in the afterlife. "If it were done, when 'tis done, then twere well/It were done quickly." If there were no consequences to be suffered for killing Duncan, then Macbeth would not be so reluctant. But he concludes that even if heaven were not going to judge him, he cannot bring himself to kill Duncan, whom he believes is a good man and an excellent monarch. Lady Macbeth walks in on her husband and sees the indecision on his face. Macbeth tells her that he has changed his mind: "We will proceed no further in this business" (1.7.31). Lady Macbeth, who is ruthless beyond comprehension, refuses to accept Macbeth's decision. Instead, Lady Macbeth plays upon his emotions, calling him a coward and accusing him of not loving her. Her cunning words work well on Macbeth, and she turns his mind back to thoughts of murder. However, he is still afraid and he asks her "If we should fail?" (I.vii.53). With conviction and confidence enough for both of them, Lady Macbeth responds to her husband's doubts: "We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place/And we'll not fail" (1.7.54-56). Macbeth is once and for all convinced -- they will proceed with the murder of the King.

Act 2, Scene 1
The night falls over the castle at Iverness. Banquo comments to his son, Fleance, that it is as black a night as he has seen. Banquo is having trouble sleeping, for the prophecy of the Witches is foremost on his mind. He hints that he too has been thinking ambitious thoughts and he begs the heavens for the will to suppress them: "Merciful powers/Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature/Gives way to in repose" (2.1.7-9). Banquo meets Macbeth in the courtyard and he tries to bring up the subject of the Witches but Macbeth refuses to discuss them or their predictions. He bluntly replies "I think not of them", and bids Banquo goodnight. Macbeth goes to an empty room and waits for his wife to ring the bell, signaling that Duncan's guards are in a drunken slumber. Macbeth's mind is racing with thoughts of the evil he is about to perform and he begins to hallucinate, seeing a bloody dagger appear in the air. He soliloquizes on the wickedness in the world before concluding that talking about the murder will only make the deed that much harder to complete. Suddenly, a bell rings out. Macbeth braces himself and utters these final words:
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to hell. (2.1.62-4)

Act 2, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth has drugged Duncan's guards and she waits in her chamber for Macbeth to commit the murder. She hears moans of torture coming from Duncan's quarters and she loses some of her composure. She fears that they have awoken the guards and she confesses that she would have killed the King herself if he did not resemble her own father. Macbeth returns a murderer; his hands dripping in the blood of his victims. The two whisper about the deed and Macbeth nervously recounts the cries each man made before he stabbed them. Lady Macbeth tells him to "consider it not so deeply" (2.2.30), but Macbeth can focus only on their screams and the frightening realization that, when one cried "God bless us!", he tried to say "Amen" in response, but the word stuck in his throat. Lady Macbeth pleads with her husband to put the act out of his mind but Macbeth only thinks harder upon what he has done. He hears a voice cry "Glamis hath murther'd sleep: and therefore Cawdor/Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more!" (2.2.41-3). Lady Macbeth insists that he go wash his face and hands and place the daggers that he has so carelessly brought back with him in the hands of the guards. Macbeth refuses to return to the scene of the crime and so Lady Macbeth goes instead. Alone, Macbeth stares at his blood-soaked hands:
What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes!
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.59-63)
Lady Macbeth comes back, now with hands equally bloody. They hear a knock at the castle doors and Lady Macbeth again demands that Macbeth wash up and go to bed, for they must pretend that they have been sound asleep the entire night. Macbeth's words of regret bring the scene to a close: "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself/Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" (II.ii.73-6).

Act 2, Scene 3
The knocking at the south entrance grows louder and more frequent. A porter walks slowly to open the doors, pondering what it would be like to be the door-keeper of hell. Macduff and Lennox are at the doors, arriving to visit King Duncan. Macbeth comes down to greet the two noblemen. Overnight he has fully regained his composure and pretends that their early morning knocking has awakened him. Macduff proceeds to the King's chambers while Lennox tells Macbeth about the fierce storm they encountered on their journey to Inverness. In the howling wind they heard 'strange screams of death' (2.3.46), and there were reports of the earth shaking. Macbeth's response is ironic and cruelly comical: "Twas a rough night" (2.3.47). Macduff re-enters, screaming that the King has been slain. He tells Lennox that it is a horrible and bloody sight, comparing it to Medusa herself. He rings the alarum bell while Macbeth runs to King Duncan's quarters. Macbeth reaches the guards who have been awakened by the bell. Before they can proclaim their innocence, Macbeth kills them and reports to Macduff that he has murdered Duncan's assassins in a fit of fury. Lady Macbeth pretends to collapse in a shock and, while the rest of the men tend to her, Malcolm whispers to his brother, Donalbain. The brothers are not as easily deceived as the others and they know their lives are in grave danger: "There's daggers in men's eyes" Donalbain adds, and they agree to flee Scotland. Malcolm will go to England and, to be extra cautious, Donalbain will go to Ireland.

Act 2, Scene 4
In this brief transition scene, an old man reports to Ross the strange omens that have coincided with Duncan's murder. Macduff enters and tells Ross that, since the King's two sons have fled Scotland, they are presumed to be the masterminds behind their father's murder. As a result of their treachery, their claim to the throne is forfeit, and Macbeth will be named the new King of the Scots.

Continue to the summary of Acts 3, 4 and 5

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

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