Book Review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Macbeth is a play by Shakespeare about a brave general who meets three witches that predict he will become king of Scotland. His wife, Lady Macbeth, pushes him to pursue this prophecy, and they both descend into madness and murder to fulfill their ambition.

This tragic tale serves as a warning against seeking power for its own sake. If you’re considering reading this classic work, this review will give you all the information you need to decide if it’s worth your time. So, let’s dive in!

Plot Summary

A Scottish general’s ambition to be king plunges him into murder, villainy, and catastrophe.

ACT 1 

Scotland, under the leadership of King Duncan, has just repelled an invasion by the Norwegian army. At Duncan’s camp, a bleeding Sergeant reports to the king that Macbeth has heroically slain the rebel Macdonwald and that the Thane of Cawdor has betrayed the country (thanes were feudal lords).

Duncan sentences Cawdor to death for treason, and orders that his title be given to Macbeth. Returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo, generals of Duncan’s army, pass a heath on which three Witches (Weird Sisters) are involved in some eerie rituals and chants. 

The Witches hail Macbeth with “Thane of Glamis!” “Thane of Cawdor!” “that shalt be King hereafter.” They predict that Banquo will not be king, but that his heirs will be kings. Macbeth, who is already Thane of Glamis, is startled by the prophecy, and all the more so when messengers from the king arrive to inform Macbeth of his new title, Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is disturbed by the fulfillment of this prophecy and suddenly fears the ambition he has had for some time to become king.

Later, in the royal palace at Forres, Duncan commends Macbeth for his service, but appoints his son Malcolm to be Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth sees this as an obstacle to his ambition and to the prophecy since the Prince of Cumberland is always next in line for the throne.

In Macbeth’s castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband telling of the Witches’ prophecy. She fears Macbeth’s kindness will stand in the way of his ambition. A messenger announces that King Duncan is coming to spend the night, and Lady Macbeth sees this as an opportunity to make Macbeth king. 

She asks evil spirits from the underworld to help in the murder of Duncan, and when Macbeth arrives, she tells him of Duncan’s forthcoming visit to their castle. Vowing that Duncan will never see the light of day, she volunteers to take charge of the night’s events. 

When Duncan arrives, Lady Macbeth welcomes him graciously. That evening, at a banquet given in Duncan’s honor, Macbeth goes off alone, troubled by his conscience. In a soliloquy (speech given alone onstage), he reveals the conflict between his “vaulting ambition” and his sense of honor. 

Lady Macbeth taunts him for his lack of manliness and outlines her plan to get Duncan’s guards drunk. At that point, Macbeth will murder the king with the servants’ daggers. Pushed by his wife’s determination, Macbeth prepares for the deed.

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ACT 2 

Alone onstage, Macbeth sees a hallucination of a dagger that points the way to Duncan’s chamber. The midnight bell sounds—a signal that it is time to commit the murder—and Macbeth goes off to Duncan’s room. 

Lady Macbeth enters in a state of great excitement as she imagines what is going on in Duncan’s chamber. Macbeth, visibly shaken, returns with two bloody daggers in his hands and tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. But he is overcome with horror about his act and hears voices saying, “Macbeth does murder sleep…Macbeth shall sleep no more.” 

Lady Macbeth orders her husband to return the daggers to the scene of the crime and to smear the sleeping guards with blood. Macbeth refuses, so she is forced to plant the evidence herself.

A loud knocking is heard at the gate. In a comic scene that relieves the tension of what has just happened, the drunken Porter fumbles and jokes as he tries to unlock the gate for Macduff and Lennox, two Scottish generals who have come to report to the king. Macbeth enters, and while Macduff goes to wake Duncan, Lennox describes the strange occurrences of the night. 

A horrified Macdruff returns after discovering the murder, and Macbeth, pretending disbelief, rushes to Duncan’s chamber, returning soon to explain that in his fury, he killed the sleeping guards whose hands were covered with Duncan’s blood. 

Lady Macbeth faints. Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing the same fate as their father, flee—one to Ireland, one to England. Outside the castle, an Old Man describes some recent evil omens (warning signs of the future) to Ross, a nobleman: the day suddenly turned to night, a falcon was killed by an owl, and Duncan’s horses went wild and ate each other. 

Macbeth is named king, which makes Macduff uneasy. He says he will not attend Macbeth’s coronation at Scone; he mistrusts Macbeth and fears that something is quite wrong.

ACT 3 

At the royal palace at Forres, where Macbeth now resides as king, Banquo, in a soliloquy, reveals his feeling that Macbeth has murdered Duncan.

The new king, queen, and court enter and Macbeth invites Banquo to be the guest of honor at a feast that evening. Banquo, who intends to go riding with his son Fleance that afternoon, agrees to return for the banquet. In a soliloquy, Macbeth confesses his fear and jealousy of Banquo, who has the wisdom and courage to destroy Macbeth. 

Two criminals arrive and Macbeth sends them off to murder Banquo. They intercept Banquo and Fleance on a road near the palace and slay Banquo. But Fleance escapes. As the banquet begins, Macbeth welcomes his guests. 

One of the assassins appears at the door with blood on his face. Macbeth leaves the table to hear his report, and when he returns to his seat, Banquo’s blood-covered Ghost is seated in his place. The horrified Macbeth shouts at the Ghost, which is invisible to everyone else. Lady Macbeth apologizes to the alarmed guests, assuring them it is but a momentary fit. 

Taking Macbeth aside, she scolds him for his fear. The Ghost vanishes and Macbeth becomes calmer, but when he proposes a toast to Banquo, the Ghost reappears.

Terrified, Macbeth rages at the apparition. Lady Macbeth asks the guests to leave at once, and when all have gone, Macbeth tells her he is “in blood / Stepped in so far” that there is no turning back. To make matters worse, he is suspicious of Macduff’s refusing his invitation to the banquet. 

Lennox and another lord, while discussing Macbeth’s tyranny, reveal that Malcolm is being safely protected in England by King Edward. Macduff, too, has gone to England in hopes of obtaining aid to free Scotland from Macbeth’s oppression.

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ACT 4 

Macbeth, now totally dedicated to evil, goes to the Witches for counsel. They conjure up three apparitions. The first is an armed head, which tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Next is a bloody child; it tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (Macbeth cannot be hurt by anyone who was born of a woman). 

The third apparition, a child wearing a crown and holding a tree in his hand, tells Macbeth that he will never be defeated unless Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (site of the castle that Macbeth now occupies). The Witches conjure up a parade of eight kings, the last of whom holds a mirror in his hand. Banquo’s Ghost follows, pointing at the line of kings (his children and heirs). 

Lennox arrives to report that Macduff has fled to England. Outraged by Macduff’s defection, Macbeth orders his castle seized and his wife and children slaughtered. At Macduff’s castle, a messenger warns Lady Macduff to flee, but it is too late: Macbeth’s murderers arrive, kill Macduff’s little son, and pursue Lady Macduff as she escapes. 

In England, Ross informs Macduff that his wife and children have been savagely slaughtered. Macduff vows to return to Scotland with the forces Malcolm is raising, and to conquer Macbeth himself.

ACT 5 

At Dunsinane, an insane Lady Macbeth enters, sleepwalking, and repeatedly attempts to rub a spot of blood from her hands. Speaking in her sleep she assures Macbeth that Banquo cannot come out of his grave. 

Near Dunsinane, Scottish lords and soldiers set out to join Macduff and the English forces at Birnam Wood. Inside the castle, a servant reports that an English force of 10,000 soldiers is approaching. At Birnam Wood, the Scottish army is united with the English forces led by Malcolm, who orders his troops to camouflage their movements by cutting down branches. At Dunsinane, Macbeth prepares for battle.

An anguished woman announces that Lady Macbeth has committed suicide. In his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, Macbeth bitterly reflects on the senselessness of life. 

When a messenger reports that Birnam Wood (that is, the camouflaged soldiers) appears to be moving toward Dunsinane, Macbeth suddenly realizes the meaning of the prophecy. The assault begins. Macbeth gives the call to arms and though victory seems unlikely, Macbeth refuses to commit suicide. When Macduff confronts him, Macbeth hesitates to attack, telling him, “My soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already.” 

Assuming that Macduff’s mother gave birth to him in natural childbirth, Macbeth tells Macduff that he cannot be killed by one “of woman born.” Macduff reveals that he was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb (i.e., Caesarean section). 

A furious fight-to-the-finish begins and Macbeth is slain offstage. Macduff triumphantly displays Macbeth’s decapitated head as the Scottish lords, hailing the tyrant’s death, proclaim Malcolm king.

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Key Characters


Courageous warrior driven by ambition for power. From the beginning, Macbeth is aware of the consequences of his crimes. He has a feverish imagination and is subject to hallucinations. At first, he is loyal to the king but becomes progressively more evil, ending up as a ruthless, bloodthirsty villain.

Lady Macbeth

An evil character with no scruples, she holds great power over Macbeth. She lacks the imagination to foresee the consequences of their crimes. In the beginning, she is stronger than Macbeth and is convinced that the murders can be committed easily. As guilt over her evil increases, she grows weaker, becomes mad, and commits suicide.


An aging king of Scotland who is murdered by Macbeth. He is a virtuous and humble king.


Duncan’s son and heir to the throne, he flees Scotland upon the murder of his father. He raises an army in England to free Scotland from Macbeth’s tyranny and becomes the king at the end of the play.


A Scottish nobleman and general with great integrity. Macbeth is jealous of Banquo’s wisdom and achievements. Banquo was the historical founder of the Stuart dynasty and an ancestor of King James I of England.


A Scottish nobleman and Thane (feudal lord) of Fife, he is a major opponent of Macbeth. He is uneasy about Macbeth’s becoming king even before he is aware of Macbeth’s role in Duncan’s murder. Macduff is straightforward and refuses to play games.

Witches (Weird Sisters)

They foretell the future and have supernatural powers. They are evil agents of Satan who tempt Macbeth.

Themes and Ideas

1. Ambition

Macbeth’s ambition for the throne is checked by his conscience, morality, and loyalty to the king. But after being spurred on by the Witches’ prophecy, he gives in to Lady Macbeth’s persuasion and his own passion for power. Macbeth demonstrates the devastating price that must be paid when greed for power is pursued ruthlessly.

2. Struggle Between Good and Evil

The Witches’ prophecy, Lady Macbeth’s urging, and Macbeth’s ambition are forces of evil that tempt the hero. The play demonstrates the horrendous consequences of sin: mental torment, mortal destruction, and eternal damnation.

3. Punishment of Sin

The certainty of punishment is part of the moral structure of Elizabethan/Jacobean tragedy. Lady Macbeth thinks a little water can wash away her guilt, but Macbeth knows they will never escape punishment and the forces of revenge. Yet, once his ambition for the crown is unleashed, he is helpless to restrain it, despite the reality of future punishment.

4. Pursuit by “Furies”

In Greek tragedy, those who commit horrible crimes are pursued and tormented by hideous, black creatures called Furies. Shakespeare has created the equivalent of Furies to torment Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: visions of blood, Banquo’s bloody Ghost, and the voices that prevent Macbeth from sleeping. There is a constant fear of an avenger added to their hallucinations and nightmares, and there is an unrelenting succession of mental torment from the moment of the Witches’ prophecy until Macbeth’s destruction.

Lady Macbeth escapes earthly Furies by madness and suicide. But, given that the play is firmly rooted in the Christian morality of paying for one’s sins, Shakespeare leads us to conclude that she and Macbeth both face eternal damnation.

5. Degeneration of Character

In the beginning, Macbeth is a courageous warrior honored for his loyalty to the country. But from the moment of the Witches’ prophecy, his character undergoes a change for the worse. His startled reaction to the Witches reveals he has already contemplated the crown; his hostile reaction to Malcolm’s being made Prince of Cumberland (i.e., successor to the throne) confirms this.

His wavering over the murder of Duncan, his revulsion at having done the deed, and his horror-stricken flight from the scene of the crime indicate the fall from grace of a basically moral man. By the time of the brutal slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children, he has turned into a bloodthirsty monster. Macbeth’s first crime was motivated by a specific purpose (i.e., to get rid of Duncan and seize the crown); his last crimes, senseless and monstrous, reflect his degenerated character.

6. Play-acting

In the beginning of the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are obsessed with hiding their evil behind a false front (play-acting). Lady Macbeth’s gracious welcome to Duncan is play-acting; it follows the scene in which she has plotted his murder. When Macbeth agrees to kill Duncan, he tells Lady Macbeth: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Before the feast for Banquo, Macbeth warns Lady Macbeth that their faces must be “vizards” (masks) for their hearts.

7. Upside-Down World

Macbeth’s world is a reversal of the Christian world order (belief in virtue, justice, and harmony). It is a world of ruthless acquisition of political power and material possessions—a world ruled by treachery, deceit, and evil. 

This upside-down world is symbolized by references to hell (Macbeth’s castle as hell). This is underscored by the Witches’ speech of “Foul is fair, fair is foul.” Evil masquerades as good. The innocent are believed guilty (Malcolm, Donalbain).

Note the reversal of traditional masculine/feminine roles (i.e., “traditional” in Shakespeare’s time): Lady Macbeth denounces Macbeth for his lack of manliness and prays to “murdering ministers” to unsex her. 

This reversal of sexual roles was considered particularly perverse in the Elizabethan period and would have been considered by audience members to have been the result of witchcraft.

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1. Daggers

Instruments of murder, daggers symbolize treachery and guilt. They become the image of hallucinations and nightmares for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

2. Banquets

The two banquet scenes might be said to relate to Christ’s Last Supper: (1) The offstage banquet for Duncan takes place while Macbeth soliloquizes about the consequences of murder. Like Judas, Macbeth leaves before the meal is over. His lines, “If it were done…then ’twere well / It were done quickly” recall Christ’s words to Judas, “That thou doest, do quickly.”

This offstage banquet is the Last Supper of Duncan, a good, noble king betrayed by his subject Macbeth. (2) The second banquet honors Banquo, whom Macbeth has murdered on his way to the feast. Banquo’s Ghost attends this Last Supper.

3. Hell

Symbol of disorder, evil, and violence. The drunken porter answers the banging on the gates and identifies himself as the “porter of Hell gate.” Macbeth’s castle symbolizes Hell. The scene of the Witches’ cauldron also relates to Hell and satanic evil.

4. Two-fold Balls and Treble Sceptres

Royal insignia of King James I, seen in the vision of Banquo’s descendants in the parade of kings conjured up for Macbeth by the Witches. Symbolizes the double kingship of James I, who was king of both England and Scotland. The two “balls” represent the two kingdoms; the treble sceptres (royal staff) symbolize the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland ruled by James.


1. The Masterful Use of Metaphor and Symbolism

One of the things that make Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” a masterpiece is the masterful use of metaphor and symbolism. From the opening scene, Shakespeare introduces us to the witches, who serve as an omen of the dark and destructive events to come. The witches’ prophecies are full of metaphor and symbolism, and they are the driving force behind Macbeth’s actions.

Moreover, Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damned spot!” is a powerful metaphor for her guilt and the blood on her hands. The line is a testament to Shakespeare’s skill at using symbolism to convey complex emotions and themes.

2. The Rich Character Development

Another thing that makes “Macbeth” a great read is the rich character development. The titular character, Macbeth, undergoes a profound transformation from a loyal soldier to a ruthless tyrant consumed by guilt and paranoia. Lady Macbeth, too, is a complex character whose ambition and manipulative nature ultimately lead to her downfall.

Shakespeare also skillfully portrays the minor characters, such as Banquo and Macduff, and the ways in which their actions impact the story’s overall arc. The characters are multidimensional, and their actions have weight and significance, making the story all the more compelling.

3. The Dark and Haunting Atmosphere

Finally, “Macbeth” is a masterclass in creating a dark and haunting atmosphere. The play is filled with violence, bloodshed, and supernatural elements, which add to the story’s eerie and unsettling tone. Shakespeare’s use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates an immersive experience that draws the reader in and keeps them engaged until the very end.

The play’s themes of ambition, guilt, and the corrupting nature of power are universal, and its portrayal of the human psyche’s darker aspects continues to resonate with readers today. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s skill as a writer that “Macbeth” remains a timeless classic that continues to fascinate and horrify readers to this day.


1. Lack of Poetic Language

Shakespeare is renowned for his use of poetic language, and many of his plays are filled with beautiful metaphors, rhymes, and insights. However, “Macbeth” falls short in this regard. If you’re looking for Shakespeare’s lyrical language, you might be disappointed.

The dialogue in “Macbeth” is relatively straightforward and lacks the poetic flair that you might expect from Shakespeare’s other works. Although the language is still rich in imagery and metaphor, it doesn’t quite match up to the masterful writing found in “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet.”

2. Predictable Plot

From the moment the three witches appear, the audience knows that the main character, Macbeth, will be corrupted by power and lead himself to his own downfall. The themes of ambition, guilt, and betrayal are all very obvious, and there’s not much subtlety in the way they’re presented.

While this is a common feature of many Shakespearean tragedies, it does make the plot of “Macbeth” feel somewhat predictable and lacking in surprise. There are no real twists or turns in the story, and the audience is simply waiting for the inevitable tragic ending.

3. Lack of Emotional Connection

While the plot and themes of “Macbeth” are certainly intriguing, I found it difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other works, such as “Othello” or “King Lear,” the characters in “Macbeth” feel somewhat one-dimensional.

Macbeth himself is a tragic figure, but his motivations and emotions are not explored in depth. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is a fascinating character, but her manipulation of her husband feels a bit contrived. Overall, I found it hard to care about the characters and their fates, which made the tragic ending less impactful than it could have been.


Macbeth by William Shakespeare is a play that explores the themes of witchcraft and Satanism prevalent during the time it was written. Shakespeare weaves a tale of demonic possession, diabolical persuasion, and the inversion of the natural order through the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth’s interactions with hellish spirits.

The play’s portrayal of the possession of Duncan’s horses and the hallucination of the dagger pointing the way to his chamber showcases the extent of the diabolical forces at work.

Macbeth is a haunting and powerful tragedy that showcases Shakespeare’s mastery of language and storytelling while delving into the darker aspects of human nature.

About The Author

William Shakespeare, born around 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, moved to London in 1586. He worked as a playwright, poet, actor, and theater owner from the early 1590s until 1612.

Shakespeare wrote various types of plays, including tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas, which were popular in theaters. His early plays captured the optimism and vibrant energy of England as it was emerging as a dominant global power.

However, his later works, such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, have a more pessimistic and cynical tone. They also reflect the corruption and decay of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts.

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