General structure of Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth consists of five acts, in keeping with the structure of most like classical dramas. However, the number of scenes per act in this play vary quite a lot, as does the length of each scene. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays and it is very fast-paced, which can partly be explained by the fact that there is no subplot: there is only the main plot about Macbeth’s desire to be king. This structure is typical of classical tragedies, too.

Macbeth has a two-part structure: the first part is about crime, the second is about consequence. What Macbeth does in the first part of the play returns to haunt him in the second. This may be linked to one of the key elements of the play: the world is turned upside down and “foul” has become “fair” (and vice versa). Life is not black and white, and what may seem desirable like becoming king, may turn out to have catastrophic consequences.

Dramatic structure of Macbeth

The play can be analysed according to what is called Freytag's pyramid. This diagram divides a plot into five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Fig. 1. Freytag's pyramid of plot structure.


Act 1: Exposition

Macbeth starts in medias res in Act 1, Scene 1 when we meet the three witches who are in the middle of a conversation about a battle. The strange words and appearance of the witches, combined with the violent storm which accompanies them, catch our attention from the start and create a sense of suspense. What are these creatures up to? What is the battle they talk of? And who is Macbeth?

As we move into the following scenes of Act 1...

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