Short Summary of Macbeth
In Macbeth, Shakespeare reveals that when one knows his or her fate, the knowledge taints one’s thoughts and actions and causes him or her to make choices that he or she normally wouldn’t choose; therefore, this knowledge can lead to one’s downfall. Shakespeare demonstrates this downward spiral through the characterization of the main character Macbeth. Macbeth first learns about his future from three witches that appear to him one day. They reveal to him that he is destined to become king. Macbeth —a virtuous and valiant man—strongly believes that if he is destined to become king, then he will become king when fate decides he will. After waiting some time, however, his lust for the throne becomes too great. Believing that things are taking too long, Macbeth decides to hastily speed up his fate by taking matters into his own hands. Macbeth, now a murderer, finally ascends to the throne. In spite of getting what he wanted, he continues to contemplate about the rest of his prophecy: “ ‘Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown / And put a barren scepter in my grip, / Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, / No son of mine succeeding. If ’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind; / For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d; / Put rancors in the vessel of my peace / Only for them; and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man, / To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! / Rather than so, come fate into the list, / And champion me to th’ utterance’ ” (3.1.66-77). In this passage, Macbeth explains his fears of the next part of his prophecy coming true, which would cause him to lose the throne he just gained. Macbeth’s disdainful tone reveals his bitter attitude towards what he knows will happen.
The witches prophesied that, even though Macbeth will become king, Banquo’s children will gain succession to the throne. Macbeth metaphorically expresses his opinions about his fate by saying he was given a “fruitless crown” and a “barren scepter.” The metaphor—referring to the fact that Macbeth won’t have an heir to rule after him—unveils the bitterness that Macbeth is now feeling. The bitterness is caused by the fact that he worried himself sick murdering a respectable king, and yet he knew the whole time that eventually his title of the king will be stripped away from him. The metaphor, “ rancours in my vessel of peace,” is also used to highlight his disdain by describing his actions as “poisoning his own peace.” Fate and free-will are two motifs present in this passage. They are used throughout the book to question whether Macbeth is a pawn of fate, or if he’s acting on his own free will. Appalled by the fact that he has done a terrible deed for nothing, Macbeth allows his knowledge of the future to manipulate his actions. He vows he will challenge his fate and prevent Banquo’s son from ever gaining the throne. While fate isn’t directly controlling him here, it strongly influences his actions. If Macbeth never knew that he would not have an heir, then he would have been content in his position, eventually overcoming the guilt that now haunts him.
However, by knowing that his succession will not be passed on, he lets the knowledge consume him. The knowledge of his fate infiltrates his thoughts and influences his actions, eventually inducing Macbeth to make poor decisions. These choices push him down a very violent, bloody path. People trying to escape their fate is a theme often repeated throughout literature and history. In the Greek Myth Perseus, for example, a king named Acrisius was told that his daughter would have a son that would eventually kill him. In order to prevent his fate from coming true, Acrisius locked his daughter in a bronze chest; however, she still bore a son. He then cast his own daughter and grandson out to sea in a chest in order to prevent his fate from coming true. In the end, fate always wins. Acrisius’ prophecy still came true, even after all the things he did to prevent it from happening. One may try to fight his or her fate, but those efforts would be in vain. Trying to fight one’s fate makes things worse, and often leads one to make poor decisions that hasten their fate. When Macbeth messes with his fate, his choices change him from an honorable man to an abhorred tyrant: causing the people to rise against him. Macbeth, however, is not panicked when they do: “ ‘Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests; / I bear a charmed life, which must not yield / To one of women born’ ” (5.8.14-16). Macbeth’s tone in this passage reveals his confident and arrogant attitude when he says this to Macduff—the person he is dueling. His arrogant tone can be inferred when he tells Macduff that he is better off trying to stab the air with his sword, and when he boasts about his “charmed life” by saying he can’t be killed by a person born from a woman.
Ever since the witches revealed this apparition to him, Macbeth has become overly confident—how can he be defeated by a person who is not born from a woman? This knowledge leads Macbeth to believe he is invincible. As he faces his greatest enemy, he stands there disregarding the fact that this is a life or death situation. Cockily, he mocks Macduff by telling him that he cannot harm him. Little did he know there was a loophole in this situation. Macduff was technically not born since he was ripped out his mother’s womb. He then goes on to defeat Macbeth. If Macbeth didn’t know about how he can’t be defeated by a person born from a woman, then he wouldn’t have exposed himself like he did. The knowledge caused him to be overly confident, and it led to himself getting killed. Macbeth’s situation echoes a famous fable: The Tortoise and the Hare. Hare is a rabbit who seems destined to be the fastest animal alive since he always wins his races. In the story, slow Tortoise challenges the swift Hare to a race. Hare gladly accepts the challenge, knowing that it is impossible for the lumbering Tortoise to ever beat him in a race; however, Hare lets this knowledge get to him. Thinking he can’t lose, Hare takes a nap during the race, only to wake up and find that he lost. Because he thought he was unbeatable, Hare changed his mindset to a more relaxed state, which ultimately caused his downfall.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare tackles the issue of fate versus free-will. As the reader follows the path of Macbeth, he or she learns about the driving force behind the choices that lead many men to their downfalls: fate. While a person’s fate can cause a lot of damage when left alone, it causes more damage when one tinkers with it. The influence that fate has on a person often leads to disaster. Shakespeare, once again, proves that “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”