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Macbeth

Macbeth is among the best known of William Shakespeare's plays, as well as his shortest surviving tragedy. It is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world. The play, loosely based upon the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland by Raphael Holinshed and the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece, is often seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.

SYNOPSIS

The play opens amid thunder and lightning, with three Witches—the Weird Sisters—deciding that their next meeting shall be with a certain Macbeth. In the following scene, a wounded sergeant reports to King Duncan of Scotland that his generals, Macbeth (who is the Thane of Glamis) and Banquo, have just defeated an invasion by the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald. Macbeth, the King's kinsman, is particularly praised for his bravery, and fighting prowess.

The scene changes. Macbeth and Banquo enter in conversation, remarking on the weather and their win ("So foul and fair a day I have not seen"). While they wander into a heath, the three Witches who have been waiting greet them with prophecies. Even though it is Banquo who first challenges them, they address Macbeth. The first hails Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis", the second as "Thane of Cawdor", while the third proclaims that he shall "be King hereafter". Macbeth appears stunned into silence, so again Banquo challenges them. The Witches inform Banquo he shall father a line of kings. While the two men wonder at these pronouncements, the Witches vanish, and another Thane, Ross, a messenger from the King, soon arrives and informs Macbeth of his newly-bestowed title—Thane of Cawdor. The first prophecy is thus fulfilled. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming king.

Macbeth writes to his wife about the Witches' prophecies. When Duncan decides to stay at the Macbeth's castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth hatches a plan to murder him and secure the throne for her husband. Macbeth raises valid concerns about the regicide, but Lady Macbeth eventually persuades him to comply with their plan.

In the night of the visit, Macbeth kills Duncan - the deed is not seen by the audience, but it leaves Macbeth so shaken that Lady Macbeth (herself very jumpy) has to take charge - as per her plan, she frames Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by planting their bloody daggers on them. Early the next morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. The porter opens the gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's corpse. In a sham fit of fury, Macbeth murders the servants before they can protest their innocence. Macduff is immediately suspicious of Macbeth, but does not disclose his suspicions publicly. Fearing for their lives, Duncan's sons flee, Malcolm to England and his brother Donalbain to Ireland. The rightful heirs' flight makes them suspect, and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman to the dead king.

Despite his success, Macbeth remains uneasy regarding the prophecy that Banquo would be the progenitor of kings. Hence Macbeth invites Banquo to a royal banquet and discovers that Banquo and his young son, Fleance, will be riding that night. He hires two men to kill Banquo and Fleance (The third murderer mysteriously appears in the park before the murder). While the assassins succeed in murdering Banquo, Fleance is able to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place. Only Macbeth can see the ghost; the rest of the guests begin to panic at what they see as Macbeth raging at an empty chair, until a desperate Lady Macbeth orders them to leave. Disturbed, Macbeth goes to the Witches once more. They conjure up three spirits with three further warnings and prophecies, which tell him to "beware Macduff", but also that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and he will "never vanquish'd be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him". Since Macduff is in exile in England (he meets with Malcolm and together they begin to raise an army), he is safe, so Macbeth massacres everyone in Macduff's castle, including Macduff's wife and their young children.

Lady Macbeth eventually becomes racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands, all the while speaking of the terrible things she knows.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff plan the invasion of Scotland. Macbeth, now identified as a tyrant, sees many of his thanes defecting. Malcolm leads an army, along with Macduff and Englishmen Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers, thus fulfilling the Witches' second prophecy. Meanwhile, Macbeth delivers a famous nihilistic soliloquy ("Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow") upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the cause is undisclosed, but it is assumed by some that she committed suicide, as the Malcolm's final reference to her reveals "'tis thought, by self and violent hands/took off her life").

A battle ensues, culminating in the slaying of the young Siward and Macduff's confrontation with Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd" (i.e., born by Caesarean section before his mother's actual delivery)—and was therefore not "of woman born". Too late, Macbeth realises the Witches have misled him. A fight ensues, which ends with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the prophecies.

In the final scene, Malcolm is crowned as the rightful King of Scotland, suggesting that peace has been restored to the kingdom. However, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo, "Thou shalt [be]get kings", was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true, as James I of England was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.

 

 

Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

   

Click here for Much Ado About Nothing synopsis

   
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