Macbeth is nobleman and a Scottish general in the king’s army. At the beginning of the play, he has gained recognition for himself through his defeat of the king of Norway and the rebellious Macdonwald. Shortly after the battle, Macbeth and another of the king’s general’s, Banquo, encounter three witches (or weird sisters) who greet Macbeth as thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor, and future king. Macbeth, unaware that King Duncan has bestowed upon him the title thane of Cawdor, appears to be startled by these prophesies. As soon as the witches finish addressing Macbeth, Banquo asks him, “why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” (I.iii.51-52). The witches vanish after telling Banquo that he will father kings. Shortly thereafter, Rosse and Angus arrive to tell Macbeth that the title of thane of Cawdor has been transferred to him. Upon hearing this, he says to himself that the greatest title, that of king, is yet to come. When Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will be next in line for the throne, Macbeth acknowledges the prince as an obstacle which will either trip him up or one which he must overcome.
After Macbeth sends words to his wife about the witches prophesies, Lady Macbeth hears that the king will be coming to stay at the castle. She then decides that the king will die there. When Macbeth arrives at Inverness, Lady Macbeth discusses with her husband her intentions. Soon after, he reviews in his own mind the reasons for not killing the king. He has many, including his obligations to the king as a kinsman, a loyal subject, and a host. Other reasons listed by Macbeth include the goodness of the king and the general lack of any reason other than ambition. However, when his wife argues with him, attacking his manhood, Macbeth resolves to follow through with the murder.
The extent of Lady Macbeth’s power over her husband is debated. Some critics blame Lady Macbeth for precipitating Macbeth’s moral decline and ultimate downfall. Others argue that, while Lady Macbeth appears to be increasingly guilt-ridden as the play progresses as evidenced by her sleepwalking episodes, Macbeth becomes increasingly murderous.
After murdering Duncan, then framing and murdering Duncan’s attendants, Macbeth, disturbed by the witches’ prophesy about Banquo’s descendants, orders the murder of Banquo and Banquo’s son, Fleance. The son escapes, but Banquo is slain, as the murderers report to Macbeth at the banquet in III.iv. Upon hearing this news, Macbeth is haunted throughout the banquet by Banquo’s ghost, who no one else can see. As the scene ends, Macbeth vows to visit the weird sisters again, which he does in IV.i. During this visit, Macbeth receives three messages from apparitions conjured by the witches. The first apparition warns Macbeth to beware the thane of Fife; the second tells him that he cannot be harmed by anyone born of a woman; the third states that Macbeth will not be vanquished until “Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill” rise against him (IV.i.93-4). Next, Macbeth asks whether or not Banquo’s descendants will ever rule Scotland, and the witches show him a vision of Banquo, followed by eight kings. The vision and the weird sisters disappear as Lennox arrives with the information that Macduff has gone to England and that Malcolm is there as well. At this point, Macbeth decides to have Macduff’s family murdered.
As Act V opens, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is revealed, Malcolm and Macduff have gathered an army against Macbeth, and many of Macbeth’s own thanes have deserted him. But Macbeth seems to rely on his belief in his interpretation of the witches’ prophesies, which he reviews in V.iii. He vows that his heart and mind will not “shake with fear” (V.iii.10). After learning of the his wife’s death, however, Macbeth in a famous speech (V.v.16-28) expresses his weariness with life.
Clinging to the witches’ words about his not being harmed by any one “of woman born” (IV.ii.80), Macbeth tells Macduff that his life is charmed, only to learn that his opponent was delivered via cesarean birth (“from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d” [V.viii.15-16]). Offstage, Macduff kills Macbeth and returns with his severed head.
Overall assessment of Macbeth’s character varies. Some view him as a tragic hero who held every potential for being a good man but was overcome by the evil forces in his world. Others argue that Macbeth completely lacked any moral integrity. Finally, he is viewed most harshly by some who see him as a Satanic figure, in that he knowingly chooses evil and unleashes it upon the world.