The play takes place in Scotland. Duncan, the king of Scotland, is at war with the king of Norway. As the play opens, he learns of Macbeth's bravery in a victorious battle against Macdonald—a Scot who sided with the Norwegians. At the same time, news arrives concerning the arrest of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor. Duncan decides to give the title of Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth.
As Macbeth and Banquo return home from battle, they meet three witches. The witches predict that Macbeth will be thane of Cawdor and king of Scotland, and that Banquo will be the father of kings. After the witches disappear, Macbeth and Banquo meet two noblemen Ross and Angus, who announce Macbeth's new title as thane of Cawdor. Upon hearing this, Macbeth begins to contemplate the murder of Duncan in order to realize the witches' second prophecy.
Macbeth and Banquo meet with Duncan, who announces that he is going to pay Macbeth a visit at his castle. Macbeth rides ahead to prepare his household. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth receives a letter from Macbeth informing her of the witches' prophesy and its subsequent realization. A servant appears to inform her of Duncan's approach. Energized by the news, Lady Macbeth invokes supernatural powers to strip her of feminine softness and thus prepare her for the murder of Duncan. When Macbeth arrives, Lady Macbeth tells him that she will plot Duncan's murder.
When Duncan arrives at the castle, Lady Macbeth greets him alone. When Macbeth fails to appear, Lady Macbeth finds him is in his room, contemplating the weighty and evil decision to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth taunts him by telling him that he will only be a man if he kills Duncan. She then tells him her plan for the murder, which Macbeth accepts: they will kill him while his drunken bodyguards sleep, then plant incriminating evidence on the bodyguards.
Macbeth sees a vision of a bloody dagger floating before him, leading him to Duncan's room. When he hears Lady Macbeth ring the bell to signal the completion of her preparations, Macbeth sets out to complete his part in the murderous plan.
Lady Macbeth waits for Macbeth to finish the act of regicide. Macbeth enters, still carrying the bloody daggers. Lady Macbeth again chastises him for his weak-mindedness and plants the daggers on the bodyguards herself. While she does so, Macbeth imagines that he hears a haunting voice saying that he shall sleep no more. Lady Macbeth returns and assures Macbeth that "a little water clears us of this deed" (II ii 65).
As the thanes Macduff and Lennox arrive, the porter pretends that he is guarding the gate to hell. Immediately thereafter, Macduff discovers Duncan’s dead body. Macbeth kills the two bodyguards, claiming that he was overcome with a fit of grief and rage when he saw them with the bloody daggers. Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing their lives to be in danger, flee to England and Ireland. Their flight brings them under suspicion of conspiring against Duncan. Macbeth is thus crowned king of Scotland.
In an attempt to thwart the witches' prophesy that Banquo will father kings, Macbeth hires two murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. Lady Macbeth is left uninformed of these plans. A third murderer joins the other two on the heath and the three men kill Banquo. Fleance, however, manages to escape.
Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth as he sits down to a celebratory banquet, sending him into a frenzy of terror. Lady Macbeth attempts to cover up for his odd behavior but the banquet comes to a premature end as the thanes begin to question Macbeth's sanity. Macbeth decides that he must revisit the witches to look into the future once more.
Meanwhile, Macbeth's thanes begin to turn against him. Macduff meets Malcolm in England to prepare an army to march on Scotland.
The witches show Macbeth three apparitions. The first warns him against Macduff, the second tells him to fear no man born of woman, and the third prophesizes that he will fall only when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane castle. Macbeth takes this as a prophecy that he is infallible. When he asks the witches if their prophesy about Banquo will come true, they show him a procession of eight kings, all of whom look like Banquo.
Meanwhile in England, Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty by pretending to confess to multiple sins and malicious ambitions. When Macduff proves his loyalty to Scotland, the two strategize for their offensive against Macbeth. Back in Scotland, Macbeth has Macduff’s wife and children murdered.
Lady Macbeth suffers from bouts of sleepwalking. To a doctor who observes her symptoms, she unwittingly reveals her guilt as she pronounces that she cannot wash her hands clean of bloodstains. Macbeth is too preoccupied with battle preparations to pay much heed to her dreams and expresses anger when the doctor says he cannot cure her. Just as the English army led by Malcolm, Macduff, Siward approaches, Lady Macbeth’s cry of death is heard in the castle. When Macbeth hears of her death, he comments that she should have died at a future date and muses on the meaninglessness of life.
Taking the witches’ second prophecies in good faith, Macbeth still believes that he is impregnable to the approaching army. But Malcolm has instructed each man in the English army to cut a tree branch from Birnam Wood and hold it up to disguise the army’s total numbers. As a result, Macbeth's servant reports that he has seen a seemingly impossible sight: Birnam Wood seems to be moving toward the castle. Macbeth is shaken but still engages the oncoming army.
In battle, Macbeth kills Young Siward, the English general's brave son. Macduff then challenges Macbeth. As they fight, Macduff reveals that he was not "of woman born" but was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb (V x 13-16). Macbeth is stunned but refuses to yield to Macduff. Macduff kills him and decapitates him. At the end of the play, Malcolm is proclaimed the new king of Scotland.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays there exists relationships between characters; these relationships in many cases influence the direction in which the play goes. For example, in the “The Merchant Of Venice” the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica is what triggers Shylock’s rage and blind desire for revenge, which sets the stage and the necessary atmosphere that is required for the climax in the court scene. Likewise in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” the everlasting relationship between Macbeth and the three witches is the foundation of the entire plot. When Macbeth meets the witches he views them as honest and believes on them quickly. The witches having established contact with the protagonist, indirectly affect and transform his beloved wife. Towards his demise Macbeth finally realizes how the witches have heinously betrayed him.
From the very start of the play the witches establish how important Macbeth is to their evil scheme: “There to meet with Macbeth”. It is from this moment that a permanent link is established between Macbeth and the witches. “A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”. The witches use extraordinary equivocatory language when speaking: “hail to thee Thane Glamis/ hail to thee thane of Cawdor/ All hail Macbeth that shalt be king hereafter”. Macbeth is confused, he is the thane of Glamis but not of Cawdor, and he is not the king. When Macbeth receives news of his promotion he immediately believes in the witches’ prophecies: “The greatest is behind-Thanks for your pains”.
Macbeth is also very fond of the witches as they awaken in him his dormant vaulting ambition to be king. He cannot forget the meeting that he had with them: “My thought, whose murder is yet but fantastical, shakes so my very single state of man that function is smothered in surmise, and is but what is not”. Macbeth very quickly believes whole heartily without any shred of proof , it is unimaginable how the witches could manipulate one who is supposed to be “Valliant”. Macbeth trusts in the witches to an extent that he stars to suspect people who are close to him, even his brother in arms: “We would spend it in some words upon that business, if you would grant the time”. It is quite clear that Macbeth has become increasingly paranoid due to his evolving relationship with the three weird sisters.
Throughout the whole play the witches are in Macbeth’s mind corrupting him even further. Lady Macbeth is no exception: “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top full direst cruelty.”. Notice how Lady Macbeth uses the word crown, this shows that the witches, in form of spirits, have filled lady Macbeth with ambition more vaulting than Macbeth’s one. Under the influence the witches she is driven to extreme measures: “Come thick night and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell”. One would not have imagined that the witches’ power would have extended to influence humans to bow to the devil indirectly.
The witches may also appear in many different forms, this has already been witnessed by the audience: “I come, Graymalkin”/ “Paddock calls”. When Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle the witches are present in a way. They are present in Lady Macbeth’s fake attitude towards the King: “Your majesty loads our house: for those of old, and the late dignities heap’d up to them, we rest your hermits.”. It is noticeable that Lady Macbeth speaks somewhat like the witches in rhyme this shows the extent of the power of the three weird sisters and how solid their relationship is with the Macbeths.
The power of the witches does not cease to guide Macbeth further along the path of hell:“Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.”. A deadly illusion is created before Macbeth in order to make sure that he does not sway from his hell-bound vaulting ambition to become king. This is the most solid proof yet that the relationship between Macbeth and the witches is the triggers the most important events in the play: the murder of the gracious king Duncan.
Having fully fulfilled the prophecy of the witches, the relationship between Macbeth and these ministers of evil continues to grow evermore leading Macbeth even closer to his demise: “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?”. Notice the normal, familiar, even demanding tone that Macbeth uses with the witches this emphasizes how close Macbeth and the witches are, or so does Macbeth think. The witches corrupt Macbeth even further by showing him three apparitions: “Come high or low: thyself and office deftly show”.
The apparitions were the cornerstone of the witches’ evil scheme; they further trick and blind Macbeth from the truth making him think that he is invincible, and hence deceiving him: “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”/ “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him”. It is here where we see the true face of the relationship between the witches and Macbeth as it really is: a deceptive, manipulating and equivocating one. This is never seen by Macbeth himself, which influences the story even more.
To show the audience how the relationship between Macbeth and the witches is important to the plot of the play he breaks down their relationship at the climax of the play: “I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought the wood began to move”. The first brutal betrayal by the witches came at a time when Macbeth was already in turmoil due to the death of his partner in greatness. It is at this moment when an epiphany strikes Macbeth and shows him the true nature of the witches in which he placed so much of his trust: “I pull in resolution, and begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth”.
Even at when he is so near to his moment of death Macbeth still carries little belief of what the witches had previously told him: “Thou wast born of woman; but swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn brandished by man that’s of woman born”. This proves how intact the relationship between Macbeth and the weird sisters was; even after discovering that they betrayed him Macbeth still clings to the one prophecy that he hopes to be true. This fool’s hope is ripped away by Macduff: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”. The solid, seemingly unbreakable relationship between Macbeth and the witches has finally broken down completely proving that it was futile from the start.
This play is no exception to the fact that relationships are important and affect the story of Shakespeare’s plays. If it was not for the doomed relationship between the witches and Macbeth the play might not have been a tragedy at all. This bond between Macbeth and these minsters of evil serves as the cornerstone of the entire play and a crucial catalyst to the plot. It could be said that the relationship was forged before the fatal meeting and started to decide the fate of the plot and of Macbeth.