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Plot

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Plot

ACT ONE

Scene one

The play opens with the witches, suggesting that evil and the supernatural will be major concerns of the play. They inform the audience that a battle is taking place and that they intend to meet with Macbeth. The cryptic line "Fair is foul and foul is fair" introduces the notion that people's characters cannot be judged by their outward appearance, one of the key themes of the play.

Scene two

To get over the practical difficulties of showing a large scale battle on the confines of a stage, Shakespeare employs the device of a character (in this case the Captain) delivering a report of the action. The hero of the day is Macbeth, who saves Scotland from both the external (Norwegian invaders) and internal threat (the traitor Cawdor). He receives lavish praise from Duncan, the king and is rewarded with the title of Thane of Cawdor.

Scene three

The witches meet with Macbeth and his friend Banquo. Macbeth's line "so foul and fair a day I have not seen" echoes the words of the witches in scene one and implies that he already has a connection with them. The witches hail Macbeth as thane of Glamis (his existing title), thane of Cawdor and "king hereafter". For his part, Banquo is told that he will be the father of kings but will not sit on the throne himself.

Banquo's comment "Why do you start; and seem to fear/ Things that do sound so fair?" again highlights the "foul/fair" contrast. Macbeth considers that "to be king/Stands not within the prospect of belief" but soon afterwards Ross announces to him that he is to receive the title of Thane of Cawdor. This seems to endorse the accuracy of the witches' prophecies, a fact that Macbeth acknowledges when he says "Glamis and Thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind."

By contrast, Banquo is aware that just because the witches spoke the truth they are not necessarily to be trusted, as "oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths". Already, the 'thought' of murdering the Duncan crosses Macbeth's mind, though at this stage he dismisses the notion, believing that "If chance will have me king/Why, chance may crown me/Without my stir."

Scene four

Duncan praises Macbeth again, and promises him further rewards. No doubt Macbeth thinks Duncan intends to name him his heir, but the public announcement that his son, Malcolm, will receive the title of Prince of Cumberland and inherit the throne brings Macbeth's greed for power to the surface as he now sees Malcolm as an obstacle in his way. Earlier the thought of killing Duncan was merely 'fantastical', now Macbeth is struggling to hold back his "black and deep desires".

Scene five

Macbeth writes a letter to his wife with an account of what has happened, showing the close relationship between them. He describes her as "my dearest partner of greatness". They are clearly on the same wavelength - when he arrives back he only needs to say "My dearest love, Duncan comes here tonight" for her to realise what he is hinting at. Earlier, however, Lady Macbeth had expressed doubt as to whether her husband was ruthless enough to seize the opportunity to kill the king, saying that he was "too full o' the milk of human kindness." She resolves to "chastise [him] with the valour of her tongue" – in other words, to put pressure on him. She tells him that he should "put/This night's great business into my dispatch", a euphemism meaning that she will make the necessary arrangements for the murder of Duncan.

Scene six

An apparently relaxed scene where Duncan is warmly welcomed to Macbeth's home and says "This castle hath a pleasant seat". All this, however, is dramatic irony, as the audience knows that the castle will be the scene of Duncan's death. Once again, "fair is foul and foul is fair", appearances cannot be trusted.

Scene seven

Macbeth's soliloquy outlines all the reasons why he should not murder Duncan.

  • Even if he got away with it, such an action could have consequences in the afterlife
  • The deed might backfire on him in this life too - if he could kill Duncan and seize the throne, someone else could do the same to him
  • Macbeth was Duncan's relative, subject and host – all reasons why he should protect the king rather than kill him
  • Duncan was a good king, which would make the deed all the more heinous

Reason tells Macbeth he is doing wrong, but emotion pulls him in the other direction and his "vaulting ambition" outweighs all his rational objections. The speech shows that Macbeth is not simply a villain - he has a conscience and a moral sense and knows the difference between right and wrong.

He tells his wife that "we will proceed no further in this business", some 50 lines later, he says "I am settled" and agrees to kill the king. In between, Lady Macbeth has employed a series of persuasive approaches.

  • She makes the murder a test of his love for her
  • She accuses him of cowardice
  • She shows she would go to any lengths necessary if she had vowed to do such a deed – even it meant murdering her own child
  • She comes up with details of a practical plan to shift the guilt to Duncan's bodyguards

Interpretations of this scene vary - is Lady Macbeth persuading her husband or has he already made his decision?

Even at the end of the scene, when he says he will carry out the murder, he adds that "False face must hide what the false heart doth know." This again reinforces the theme of appearance versus reality and shows that Macbeth is going ahead in the full knowledge that he is doing something that is morally wrong.

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