Macbeth Summary and Analysis

Act 5

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Act 5, Scene 1

At the Scottish royal home of Dunsinane, a gentlewoman has summoned a doctor to observe Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. The doctor reports that he has watched her for two nights now and has yet to see anything strange. The gentlewoman describes how she has seen Lady Macbeth rise, dress, leave her room, write something on a piece of paper, read it, seal it, and return to bed—all without waking up. The gentlewoman dares not repeat what Lady Macbeth says while thus sleepwalking.

The two are interrupted by a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, who enters carrying a candle. The gentlewoman reports that Lady Macbeth asks to have a light by her all night. The doctor and the gentlewoman watch as Lady Macbeth rubs her hands as if washing them and says " Yet here's a spot. . . Out, damned spot; out I say” (27-30). As she continues to "wash" her hands, her words betray her guilt to the two onlookers. Lady Macbeth seems to be reliving the events on the night of Duncan’s death. She cannot get the stain or smell of blood off her hand: "What, will these hands ne'er be clean. . . All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" (37-43). As the sleepwalking Lady Mabeth imagines she hears knocking at the gate and returns to her chamber, the doctor concludes that Lady Macbeth needs a priest's help and not a physician's. He takes his leave, asserting that he and the gentlewoman had better not reveal what they have seen or heard.

Act 5, Scene 2

The thanes Menteith, Caithness, Angus, and Lennox march with a company of soldiers toward Birnam Wood, where they will join Malcolm and the English army. They claim that they will "purge" the country of Macbeth's sickening influence (28).

Act 5, Scene 3

At Dunsinane, Macbeth tires of hearing reports of nobles who have defected to join the English forces. He feels consoled, however, by the witches' prophesy that he has nothing to fear until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, or until he counters a man not born of woman. Since both of the events seem impossible, Macbeth feels invincible.

A servant enters with the news that the enemy has rallied a thousand men but Macbeth sends him away, scolding him for cowardice. After calling for his servant Seyton to help him put on his armor, Macbeth demands the doctor’s prognosis about Lady Macbeth. The doctor replies that she is “not so sick” but troubled with visions (39). In some way or other, she must cure herself of these visions—an answer that displeases Macbeth. As attendants put on his armor, he declares that he would applaud the doctor if he could analyze the country's urine and therein derive a medicine for Lady Macbeth. Abruptly, Macbeth leaves the room, professing once again that he will not fear “death and bane” until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane (61). Aside, the doctor confesses that he would like to be as far away from Dunsinane as possible.

Act 5, Scene 4

Malcolm, Siward, Young Siward, Macduff, Mentieth, Caithness, and Angus march toward Birnam Wood. As they approach the forest, Malcolm instructs the soldiers to cut off branches and hold them up in order to disguise their numbers. Siward informs Malcolm that Macbeth confidently holds Dunsinane, waiting for their arrival. Malcolm comments that almost all of Macbeth’s men have deserted him. The army marches on.

Act 5, Scene 5

Macbeth orders his men to hang his banners on the outer walls of the castle, claiming that it will hold until the attackers die of famine. If only the other side were not reinforced with men who deserted him, he claims, he would not think twice about rushing out to meet the English army head-on. Upon hearing the cry of a woman within, Macbeth comments that he has almost forgotten the taste of fears. Seyton returns and announces the death of Lady Macbeth. Seemingly unfazed, Macbeth comments that she should have died later, at a more appropriate time. He stops to muse on the meaning of life:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (23-27)

A messenger enters and reports that he has seen something unbelievable: as he looked out toward Birnam Wood, it appeared that the forest began to move toward the castle. Macbeth is stunned and begins to fear that the witch's words may come true after all. He instructs his men to ring the alarm.

Act 5, Scene 6

Malcolm tells his soldiers that they are near enough to the castle now to throw down the branches they carry. He announces that Siward and Young Siward will lead the first battle. He and Macduff will follow behind. The trumpeters sound a charge.

Act 5, Scene 7

Macbeth waits on the battlefield to defend his castle. He feels like a bear that has been tied to a stake for dogs to attack. Young Siward enters and demands his name. Macbeth responds that he will be afraid to hear it. Macbeth kills Young Siward in the ensuing duel, commenting that Young Siward must have been “born of woman" (12).

Act 5, Scene 8

Macduff enters alone and shouts a challenge to Macbeth, swearing to avenge the death of his wife and children. As he exist, he asks Fortune to help him find Macbeth.

Act 5, Scene 9

Malcolm and Siward enter and charge the castle.

Act 5, Scene 10

Macbeth enters, asserting that he should not “play the Roman fool” and commit suicide (2). Macduff finds him and challenges him. Macbeth replies that he has thus far avoided Macduff but that he is now ready to fight. As they fight, Macbeth tells him that he “bears a charmed life”: he will only fall to a man who is not born of woman (12). Macduff replies that the time has come for Macbeth to despair: "let the angel whom thou still hast served / Tell thee Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped"—Macduff was born through the equivalent of a caesarian section (13-16). Hearing this, Macbeth quails and says that he will not fight. Macduff replies by commanding him to yield and become the laughing stock of Scotland under Malcolm's rule. This enrages Macbeth, who swears he will never yield to swear allegiance to Malcolm. They fight on and thus exit.

Act 5, Scene 11

Malcolm, Siward, and the other thanes enter. Although they have won the battle, Malcolm notes that Macduff and Young Siward are missing. Ross reports that Young Siward is dead and eulogizes him by stating that "he only lived but till he was a man, / The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed / In the unshrinking station where he fought, / But like a man he died" (6-9). After confirming that his son’s wounds were on his front—in other words, that the Young Siward died bravely in battle—Siward declares that he not wish for a better death for his son.

Macduff enters, carrying Macbeth's severed head and shouting "Hail, King of Scotland!" The men echo this shout and the trumpets flourish as Malcolm accepts the kingship. Malcolm announces that he will rename the current thanes as earls. He will call back all the men whom Macbeth has exiled and will attempt to heal the scarred country. All exit towards Scone, where Malcolm will be crowned as King of Scotland.

Analysis

Until Act 5, Macbeth has been tormented with visions and nightmares while Lady Macbeth has derided him for his weakness. Now the audience witnesses the way in which the murders have also preyed on Lady Macbeth. In her sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth plays out the theme of washing and cleansing that runs throughout the play. After killing Duncan, she flippantly tells Macbeth that "a little water clears us of this deed" (II ii 65). But the deed now returns to haunt Lady Macbeth in her sleep. Lady Macbeth's stained hands are reminiscent of the biblical mark of Cain—the mark that God placed on Cain for murdering his brother Abel (Genesis 4:15). But Cain's mark is a sign from God that protects Cain from the revenge of others. Lady Macbeth's mark does not protect her from death, as she dies only a few scenes later.

The doctor's behavior in Act 5 Scene 3 resembles that of a psychoanalyst. Like a Freudian psychoanalyst, the doctor observes Lady Macbeth's dreams and uses her words to infer the cause of her distress. Lady Macbeth's language in this scene betrays her troubled mind in many ways. Her speech in previous acts has been eloquent and smooth. In Act 1 Scene 4, for example, she declares to Duncan:

All our service,
In every point twice done and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honors deep and broad wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house. For those of old,
And the late dignities heaped upon them,
We rest your hermits. (I vi 14-19)

In this speech, Lady Macbeth makes use of metaphor (Duncan's honor is "deep and broad"), metonymy (he honors "our house," meaning the Macbeths themselves), and hyperbole ("in every point twice done and then done double"). Her syntax is complex but the rhythm of her speech remains smooth and flowing, in the iambic pentameter used by noble characters in Shakespearean plays. What a contrast it is, therefore, when she talks in her sleep in Act 5:

Out, damned spot, out, I say! One. Two. Why then, ‘tis time to do't. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him. . . The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No more o' that, my lord, no more o' that. You mar all with this starting. (V i 30-48)

In this speech, Lady Macbeth's language is choppy, jumping from idea to idea as her state of mind changes. Her sentences are short and unpolished, reflecting a mind too disturbed to speak eloquently. Although she spoke in iambic pentameter before, she now speaks in prose—thus falling from the noble to the prosaic.

Lady Macbeth's dissolution is swift. As Macbeth's power grows, indeed, Lady Macbeth's has decreased. She began the play as a remorseless, influential voice capable of sweet-talking Duncan and of making Macbeth do her bidding. In the third act Macbeth leaves her out of his plans to kill Banquo, refusing to reveal his intentions to her. Now in the last act, she has dwindled to a mumbling sleepwalker, capable only of a mad and rambling speech. Whereas even the relatively unimportant Lady Macduff has a stirring death scene, Lady Macbeth dies offstage. When her death is reported to Macbeth, his response is shocking in its cold apathy. (Here again Macbeth stands in relief to Macduff, whose emotional reaction to his wife's death almost "unmans" him.)

As the play nears its bloody conclusion, Macbeth's tragic flaw comes to the forefront: like Duncan before him, his character is too trusting. He takes the witches' prophesies at face value, never realizing that things are seldom what they seem—an ironic flaw, given his own treachery. He thus foolishly fortifies his castle with the few men who remain, banking on the fact that the events that the apparitions foretold could not come true. But in fact the English army does brings Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. And Macduff, who has indeed been "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, advances to kill Macbeth. The witches have equivocated; they told him a double truth, concealing the complex reality within a framework that seems simple. (As a side note, it may also be worthwhile to consider the dramatic “weight” of such a conclusion: does it appear strange that such a tragic play should be resolved through a more or less frivolous play on words?)

It is fitting that the play ends as it began—with a victorious battle in which a valiant hero kills a traitor and holds high the severed head. The first we hear of Macbeth in Act 1 is the story of his bravery in battle, wherein he decapitated Macdonwald's and displayed it on the castle battlements. At the end of the tragedy, Macbeth—himself a traitor to Duncan and his family—is treated in exactly the same manner. After killing Macbeth, Macduff enters with Macbeth's severed head and exclaims "behold where stands / Th'usurper's cursed head" (V xi 20-21) The play thus ends with the completion of a parallel structure.

One moral of the story is that the course of fate cannot be changed. The events that the Weird Sisters predicted and set in motion at the beginning of the play happen exactly as predicted, no matter what the characters do to change them. Macbeth tries his hardest to force fate to work to his bidding, but to no avail. Banquo still becomes the father of kings and Macbeth still falls to a man not born of woman. The man who triumphs in the end is the one who did nothing to change the fate prescribed for him. The prophecy is self-fulfilling.

The river of time thus flows on, despite the struggles of man. Although Macbeth's reign of terror has made “the frame of things disjoint,” by the end of the play the tide of time has smoothed over Scotland (III ii 18). The unnatural uprising of Macbeth now in the past, Macduff comments that "the time is free" (V xi 21). And Macbeth's life proves to be indeed a "tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (V v 27-29). Time washes over his meaningless, bloody history: Banquo's family will give rise to the line of Stuart kings and Malcolm will regain the throne his father left him—all exactly as if Macbeth had never dared to kill Duncan.