Macbeth Timeline & Plot

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson will go over all five acts of William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' and detail the predetermined plot structure. The acts reveal a man, cursed with ambition and later racked with guilt, who becomes king by assassinating his predecessor.

Plot Structure

Sometimes following a sort of formula can produce emotionally satisfying results in a work of literature. William Shakespeare follows a predetermined plot structure in the five acts of Macbeth. This play presents the story of an ambitious man who upsets the natural order of things by killing the king and seizing the throne for himself. Let's see how Shakespeare follows this structure by going over the events in this bloody play.

Act I

Invariably in Shakespeare's plays, certain events occur in a predetermined sequence, and Macbeth is no exception. All the main characters appear and the dominant conflict is usually introduced in the first Act of a Shakespearean play.

The conflict is introduced within the opening lines of Macbeth, when the witches indicate that the world of Macbeth is a topsy-turvy one, a world in which things are not as they appear. 'Fair is foul and foul is fair,' the witches warn. In Shakespeare's plays, the opening scene is unusual and highly dramatic. What could be more unusual and dramatic than witches floating onto the stage, accompanied by thunder and lightning?

The plot, or events, of Act I show Macbeth to be a brave and loyal subject of Duncan, the king of Scotland. Macbeth has helped squash a rebellion led by the Thane of Cawdor, so Duncan rewards Macbeth with the title Thane of Cawdor. Banquo and Macbeth then stumble upon three witches in the forest, and the witches greet Macbeth with his new title.

The witches tell Banquo that his descendants will be kings, though he will not. This prediction establishes the subplot (subordinate or less important plot) involving Banquo. The witches predict that Macbeth will be king, a prospect that shocks Macbeth who is not in line to inherit the throne. Macbeth shares these prophecies in a letter to his wife, who is surprised to learn by messenger that the king is planning to visit the Macbeth castle. Not content to wait for the crown to pass to him in some natural manner, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot to take matters upon themselves by killing Duncan.

Act II

In Act II, Macbeth kills Duncan. Lady Macbeth then takes the bloody murder weapon, a dagger, in to the grooms. Her plan is to make the grooms appear to be guilty of Duncan's death. As part of the cover-up, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don their night clothes so they will appear to have been sleeping when the king was assassinated. Macduff arrives at the castle and finds Duncan dead. Realizing they may be next, Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donalbain leave the country. Macbeth becomes king.


If Shakespeare includes a subplot, it is usually resolved by the end of Act III. Shakespeare again follow this plot structure in Macbeth when, in an effort to thwart the witches' predictions, Macbeth decides to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. He subtly questions Banquo about his plans for the evening, which he reveals to the cutthroats he has hired to commit the murders.

While Macbeth entertains the noblemen, the murderers appear at the door. They reveal that they have killed Banquo, but his son has escaped. Macbeth returns to his guests, but he is horrified to see Banquo's ghost take a seat at the table. Embarrassed by Macbeth's sudden, strange behavior, the noblemen excuse themselves from the gathering. The noblemen assemble again later and decide it is time to put an end to Macbeth's reign of terror.

Act IV

In Act IV, Shakespearean plays usually contain the emergence of a second subplot. In Macbeth, the second subplot consists of further revelations from the witches. These revelations drive Macbeth's actions throughout the remainder of the play. The witches tell Macbeth to beware Macduff, while offering Macbeth some comfort at the same time. No one born of woman will harm Macbeth, the witches say. Their final prediction gives Macbeth a great deal of confidence; the witches claim Macbeth will not be vanquished until Birnan wood moves to Dunsinane hill. Believing this an impossible feat, Macbeth feels confident in his position as king. Still, to make doubly sure his crown is secure, Macbeth murders Macduff's family.

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