Plot Structure and Macbeth’s Climax

SparkNotes is a source for information used by students of all ages, teachers too! Generally teachers don’t encourage students to use SparkNotes, Cliff’s Notes, etc. since these resources are most often used in place of reading the text rather than a guide to be used in addition to the text. This is a big company devoted to helping people understand literature better, so think of my surprise when a friend pointed out that their facts are a little screwy.

A friend brought to my attention that their facts page has the climax of the story in an unexpected place. The plot structure listings are odd to me. What do you think?

RISING ACTION · Macbeth and Banquo’s encounter with the witches initiates both conflicts; Lady Macbeth’s speeches goad Macbeth into murdering Duncan and seizing the crown.

CLIMAX · Macbeth’s murder of Duncan in Act II represents the point of no return, after which Macbeth is forced to continue butchering his subjects to avoid the consequences of his crime.

FALLING ACTION · Macbeth’s increasingly brutal murders (of Duncan’s servants, Banquo, Lady Macduff and her son); Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches; Macbeth’s final confrontation with Macduff and the opposing armies

So the climax of the play is in Act II… and then there are three acts of falling action? Shakespeare knew better than that!

A simplistic way to look at the plot structure in a tragedy is that the protagonist gets closer and closer to their objective as the story progresses until the climax (in a comedy the protagonist gets pushed further away from their goal until the climax). By that model, the climax of Macbeth is the fight between Macduff and the Scottish King.

And I don’t think that “Macbeth is forced to continue butchering his subjects to avoid the consequences of his crime” at all. He continues murdering so that he can ensure his royal position, not primarily to avoid the consequences of his first murder.

I sent an message about this by clicking on the “Report an Error” link at the bottom of the Macbeth facts page. You should too! We don’t want faulty information on such a widely used resource.

So, Sparknotes, please fix this! Mr. Shakespeare was not silly enough to have a play with over half of it as falling action.

Remember to keep your eye out for things like this. You can’t always trust what’s published online or even in print.

Student’s essays on this play will be a little different from now on, won’t they?