Plot Summary

Act 1

The play opens with three witches grouped around a fire chanting. They represent the evil that will lead to Macbeth’s undoing. However, they also represent the fact that evil cannot act without will: they are bent, frail and old. Macbeth is the instrument through which they work their evil. They do, however, need his complicity. Duncan hears of Macbeth’s victory in defeating Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor in battle. They are returning home victorious and encounter the witches on the heath. These "imperfect speakers" predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and later King of Scotland. They tell Banquo that his descendants will be kings, but that he himself will not. Messengers from the King arrive and Macbeth is astonished to be greeted as the Thane of Cawdor. This is a title that has indeed been newly granted him by the King in recognition of his bravery. Malcolm, Duncan’s son, has been appointed Prince of Cumberland, heir to the throne. In an aside, Macbeth’s ambition shows itself:

"The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step

On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,

For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,

Let not light see my black and deep desires."

The witches have put the thought into Macbeth’s mind and he here first entertains the possibility of murdering the king. When Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth about his plan, still unsure as to how to act, she takes it up with vigor:

"Only look up clear;

To alter favour ever is to fear.

Leave all the rest to me.’

Act II

Banquo, in contrast to Macbeth, prays that he might not realize the witches’ prophecy at any cost to others:

"Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose."

We are unsure at this point whether his reticence is from honor or fear. His words are in stark contrast to the bravado of Macbeth. Macbeth feigns allegiance to the king in his conversations with Banquo. In Scene One, the infamous dagger soliloquy appears. Macbeth is steeling himself to kill the sleeping Duncan. We can see the working of Macbeth’s mind, and the key to the play as a whole in this scene. Macbeth suppresses reflection in favor of action: will is central to Macbeth’s deeds. If he thinks too long he will not act (we recall Hamlet’s dilemma as he his instructed by the supernatural in the form of his father’s ghost).

The dagger represents the things in the play which are out of sight: the supernatural powers which influence the characters at every step. It also represents the dark side of Macbeth’s mind. The thought of murder has been suggested and his evil side overpowers his good side by proposing murder with the appearance of the dagger. After Lady Macbeth ahs drugged the King’s servants, and rung a bell to alert Macbeth to the fact, he stabs Duncan.

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