Summary of Macbeth: Acts 1-4, Plus the Curse of Macbeth

Summary of Macbeth: Acts 1-4, Plus the Curse of Macbeth
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Act I

Scene 1: Three witches plan to meet Macbeth on a Scottish moor.

Scene 2: King Duncan receives news of Macbeth and Banquo’s heroic deeds on the battlefield. He learns the rebellious thane of Cawdor has been defeated. Duncan announces Macbeth will be named the new thane of Cawdor.

Scene 3: Macbeth approaches the three witches who hail him as thane of Glamis (his known title) and thane of Cawdor (unknown to Macbeth). The witches proclaim that Macbeth will be crowned king and that Banquo’s descendants will gain the throne. Ross and Angus arrive and inform Macbeth, already in deep thought over the witches' prophecy, he has been named thane of Cawdor. Macbeth wonders whether the throne will come to him through natural events or if he must commit dark deeds to obtain it.

Scene 4: Duncan announces Malcolm as the heir to his throne. Macbeth immediately considers Malcolm an obstacle. Duncan plans to dine at Macbeth’s castle that evening. Macbeth leaves early to inform his wife and prepare for the king’s arrival.

Scene 5: Lady Macbeth reads aloud a letter from her husband. She fears, however, that Macbeth’s ambition is too much tempered by his kindness. She resolves, therefore, to convince her husband to follow his ambition and puts her femine gentleness aside and vows to have Duncan killed before he leaves Inverness (Macbeth’s castle).

Scene 6: Duncan arrives and praises Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Scene 7: Macbeth ponders the situation but finds no reason to slay the king other than his own ambition, which undoubtedly will bring unforetold evils upon himself. Macbeth informs his wife that he has changed his mind about assassinating the king. Lady Macbeth chastises her husband for his weakness.

Brief Analysis: The play’s beginning forebodes ill and establishes a dark mood for the entire play. Act I is full of contrasts where “fair is foul and foul is fair,” none more glaring than Macbeth, who is brave and loyal on the battlefield and ambitious and disloyal off it. Macbeth’s decision, influenced greatly by his wife, to kill Duncan violates three principles:

(1) Duncan is a benevolent and good king;

(2) Macbeth is a subject to the king and has vowed loyalty;

(3) Duncan is a guest in Macbeth’s home and is, therefore, accorded the rights of hospitality.

Act II

Thomas Keene in Macbeth 1884 (Public Domain)

Scene 1: After a late night discussion with Banquo and his son Fleance, Macbeth sees a vision of a dagger floating in the hall. He attempts to grab the dagger but fails. He sees blood on the blade and decides the vision is a result of his uneasiness. Macbeth hears the bell toll and approaches Duncan’s bedroom, resolved to carry out the treasonous murder.

Scene 2: Lady Macbeth hears Macbeth shout and fears the plan has failed.Macbeth enters, unsteady. Lady Macbeth attempts to calm her husband but becomes angry when she realizes he has forgotten to leave the daggers. Macbeth refuses to return and Lady Macbeth returns them herself.

Scene 3: A porter knocks at the castle door. After a humorous interlude, Duncan appears and requests the presence of the king. Macduff is led to the king’s room and is shocked by the appearance of the bloody king. Macbeth’s sons are also present and are told the king’s servants have been found with the bloody daggers and that Macbeth killed them in rage. Macduff suspects treachery. Malcolm and Donalbain realize they are not safe and flee.

Scene 4: Ross, another thane, appears and is informed by Macduff that Macbeth has been crowned king. Malcolm and Donalbain are suspected as a result of their flight from Inverness.

Brief Analysis: Macbeth hesitates to commit the murder and immediately regrets it. He undergoes a change, however, once Duncan’s body is discovered, focusing on what needs to be done for him to take the throne. Despite the appearance of the chamberlains' guilt, Banquo suspects Macbeth’s involvement.


Scene 1: Macbeth soliloquizes that Banquo is his only threat. Two murderers enter. Macbeth entreats them to murder Banquo and Fleance.

Scene 2: Macbeth informs Lady Macbeth of his plan to kill Banquo and Fleance and urges her to show great kindness to them in order to create a false sense of security.

Scene 3: Three murderers attack Banquo and Fleance. Banquo is murdered. Fleance flees.

Scene 4: One of the murderers informs Macbeth that Duncan has been killed and Fleance has survived. Macbeth returns to his dinner and sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair. Lady Macbeth tells the dinner guests not to worry and that Macbeth’s short spell will end. It does…until the ghost reappears. Lady Macbeth sends the guests out of the room and the ghost vanishes. Macbeth informs his wife that Macduff refuses to appear in court.

Scene 5: The three witches discuss Macbeth. Hecate appears and chastises the three for not including her in the prophecies. Knowing Macbeth will arrive the next day, they plan to give him a false sense of security about his fate.

Scene 6: Banquo’s murder has been blamed on his son Fleance, but many noblemen suspect Macbeth. Macduff has gone to England and Macbeth is preparing for war.

Brief Analysis: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth learn that becoming king and queen has not brought them the happiness they had envisioned. The two reverse roles in scenes 1-3 with Macbeth becoming the devious murderer and his wife becoming the one needing urged. In scene 4, Lady Macbeth reasserts herself as Macbeth seems to be crazy. Macduff establishes further himself as Macbeth’s main rival. The theme that things are not as they seem reappears with the false sense of security given to Banquo, the same false sense of security the witches give Macbeth in Act IV.

Act IV

Macbeth with the Weird Sisters

Scene 1: The witches dance around a cauldron, chanting. Macbeth appears and is given his prophecy: (1) beware Macduff; (2) none of woman born shall harm Macbeth; (3) Macbeth is safe until “Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill”; (4) Banquo appears at the end of a long line of kings, but the witches refuse to explain the last vision. Macbeth sends murderers to Macduff’s castle.

Scene 2: Lady Macduff and Ross converse. Lady Macduff criticizes her husband for abandoning her. Ross assures her that Macduff has acted wisely. Ross leaves. Lady Macduff tells her son that her father is dead. Her son argues otherwise. A messenger warns Lady Macduff to flee. She refuses. A murderer enters, stabs Macduff’s son and kills Macduff’s family.

Scene 3: Malcolm and Macduff meet in England. Malcolm expresses distrust over Macbeth’s abandonment of his home, fearing he is in league with Macbeth. Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty by denouncing himself as unworth to become king. Macduff passes the test by telling Malcolm he is unworthy if he possesses such traits as he claims. Malcolm retracts his statements and recognizes Macduff as a loyal assistant. Ross enters and lies to Macduff that his family is safe. Malcolm receives 10,000 soldiers from England to attack Macbeth. Ross tells Macduff the truth, that his family is murdered. Malcolm urges Macduff to transform his grief to anger.

Brief Analysis: The Weird sisters continue their advising of Macbeth, giving him a false sense of security and fueling his paranoia. It is unclear whether the Weird sisters control the characters' fate or spur them into action by suggesting what could happen. Macbeth has evolved into a ruthless murderer, striking down Macduff’s entire family.

Act V

Scene 1: A doctor and a woman discuss Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth arrives and laments the murder of Banquo and Macduff’s family. She scrubs her hands and claims nothing will remove the blood from them. The two observers discuss Lady Macbeth’s madness.

Scene 2: Scottish lords discuss the military situation. Macbeth is secure in the king’s castle. Malcolm and Macduff have gathered their 10,000 troops near Birnam Wood.

Scene 3: Macbeth strolls throughout his castle, overconfident in his safety on account of the Weird sisters prophecies.

Scene 4: Malcolm and the English commander order their troops to pluck a bough from Birnam wood and cover themselves as they march.

Scene 5: Macbeth, still overconfident, orders banners to be hung from his castle. He is informed that Lady Macbeth is dead. He is informed that Birnam Wood is marching on the castle. Macbeth remembers the prophecy and prepares to fight.

Scene 6: The battle begins outside the castle.

Scene 7: Macbeth strikes down several soldiers, still confident that no man born of woman can harm him.

Scene 8: Macduff emerges from battle and searches for Macbeth. The battle resumes.

Scene 9: Malcolm and Siward enter the castle.

Scene 10: Macduff finds Macbeth. They argue. Macbeth shares the prophecy about not being killed by a man born of woman. Macduff informs Macbeth that he was not born of woman but ripped from his mother’s womb.

Scene 11: Macduff strolls in with Macbeth’s head and declares Malcolm king. Malcom promotes all thanes to Earl.

Brief Analysis: The Weird sisters' prophecies come true, exactly in the manner they foretold them. Macbeth has a false sense of security. He dies the day Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane, and he is killed by a man not born of woman. It is left unclear just how Banquo’s descendants will become kings, but we know it will happen.

The Curse of Macbeth

Macbeth consulting the witches

Here’s a brief rundown of the Curse of Macbeth.

Macbeth was written in between 1604 and 1606 and performed for King James I and his brother-in-law, the King of Denmark. Because James had just written a book on how to detect witches, Shakespeare included the witch ritual in Act IV. The witches of England, not pleased by Shakespeare’s public portrayal of their ceremonies, cast a spell on the play that, according to some, exists to this day.

According to the curse, pronouncing the word “Macbeth” in a theater brings bad luck to the play and anyone in it, unless it is pronounced as a line in the play. Anyone uttering the word must reverse the curse by stepping outside the theater while spinning around three times and uttering a profanity.

Whether it’s true or not is debatable. Whether or not uttering profanity while spinning around three times outside a theater is fun is not.

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This post is part of the series: Macbeth Study Guide

Avoid the toil and trouble by preparing with this Macbeth Study Guide.

  1. Summary of Macbeth
  2. Famous Quotes from Macbeth
  3. Macbeth Characters: Analysis
  4. Themes in Macbeth
  5. Macbeth Study Guide: Symbols