Your 5-minute guide



We’ve done the research, so you can bluff your way through. Here’s a quickfire guide to all the thrills, spills, and chills of Macbeth. Compiled by Andy McLean.


  1. The set up: Fresh from the battlefield, victorious generals Macbeth and Banquo stumble across three Weird Sisters who predict the duo are destined for great things: Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and later King of Scotland; Banquo won’t be king, but his descendants will.
  2. The point of no return: The Sisters’ words soon come true when Duncan, King of Scotland, makes Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor. Egged on by his wife, Macbeth then murders Duncan in his sleep, frames the guards for the deed, and seizes the throne.
  3. The plot thickens: Duncan’s sons smell a rat and flee Scotland; later Macduff, one of Duncan’s loyal generals, does likewise. Sleepless with paranoia and guilt, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth cannot enjoy the trappings of royal life. With the Weird Sisters’ prophecies still ringing in his ears, Macbeth has Banquo murdered – but Banquo’s son escapes.
  4. The stakes get raised: Plagued by insecurity and haunted by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth seeks out the Sisters. They tell him he’s safe so long as the nearby forest, Birnam Wood, never marches towards his castle; and that he can’t be killed by any man “born of woman”. Emboldened by their words, Macbeth continues trying to wipe out his enemies, having Macduff’s wife and children murdered next.
  5. The bloody end: Increasingly isolated and unhinged, Lady Macbeth dies, possibly by suicide. Duncan’s sons raise an army, camouflage themselves in branches from Birnam Wood, and march on Macbeth’s castle. In a final confrontation with Macbeth, Macduff explains he was born by caesarean (i.e. not strictly speaking ‘born of woman’) and slays Macbeth. Duncan’s son, Malcolm, declares an uneasy peace and becomes king.


William Shakespeare dreamed up a lot of this play, but he also borrowed several characters and details from a history book, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Macbeth was a real person who lived in Perthshire, Scotland about 1,000 years ago. It’s believed that he was a chief of the northern Scots and lived in a fort high up on a hill in the Dunsinane area. Macbeth became King of Scotland after his army killed Duncan in battle. Years later, Duncan’s son Malcolm fought Macbeth and eventually defeated him, taking the throne for himself.


Macbeth A Scottish general admired for his cold-blooded feats in battle. Macbeth appears to be rawer and tougher than a gang of Hells Angels at a raw and tough convention in Rawandtuffville.

Lady Macbeth Smart, ambitious and a close confidante to her powerful husband. She and Macbeth have lost at least one child in infancy, and now have no living children.

Banquo A Scottish general who bears the same scars of war as his friend and ally Macbeth. Banquo’s son, Fleance, is often to be found at his father’s side.

The Weird Sisters ‘Weird’ used to mean ‘prophetic’, and these three appear to have an uncanny ability to see the future. They use their knowledge to tempt and toy with Macbeth. They also seem to get upset when you call them ‘witches’.

Duncan The autocratic ruler of Scotland, Duncan trusts his allies and maintains his power by violently crushing any rivals. But when you live by the sword…

Malcolm and Donalbain Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, is next in line to the throne. He and his brother, Donalbain, are (justifiably) wary of Scotland’s brutal power plays.

Macduff This Scottish general is a brave soldier who is deeply loyal to Duncan and his family.


Superstition has it that merely uttering the word “Macbeth” will provoke bad luck and misfortune. In fact, many theatre people refer to “The Scottish Play” instead of saying “Macbeth” aloud.

Is the play really cursed? It’s hard to say. But Bell Shakespeare’s history with the play is spattered with some undeniably strange happenings.

It all started when our founder, John Bell, starred in Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England in 1967. His director Peter Hall contracted severe shingles, forcing the production to be postponed by six weeks. Thirty years later , during rehearsals for a Bell Shakespeare Macbeth, director Peter Evans was hospitalised with appendicitis, throwing preparations into disarray. And just before the opening night of our 2012 production, many of the cast and crew were struck down with severe food poisoning!

All just a coincidence? Or something more sinister? You decide.


  1. Blood stained: For our 2023 production of Macbeth, lighting designer Damien Cooper regularly bathes the stage in blood red – and with good reason. The word ‘blood’ (and its cognates) is spoken more than 40 times in Macbeth; more than any other Shakespeare play.
  2. Indigenous ingenuity: The multi-talented Kylie Bracknell recently adapted and directed Hecate, a fresh version of Macbeth performed entirely in Noongar language. The production, which was a collaboration between Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare, premiered with a sell-out season at Perth Festival in 2020. Kyle Morrison, one of the originators of the Noongar Shakespeare Project, plays Lennox in our current production.
  3. Landmark date: The year 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, a collection of Shakespeare’s work that was printed after his death. Without the First Folio, Macbeth (and more than a dozen other plays) might have been lost forever.
  4. Literary influence: Down the years, Macbeth has inspired numerous fiction writers including Agatha Christie (By The Pricking Of My Thumbs) and Terry Pratchett (Wyrd Sisters), not to mention Aussie duo Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (Just Macbeth, a book which was also a Bell Shakespeare stage production).
  5. Spooky details: In our 2023 production of Macbeth, look out for the creepy séance and the 1920s costumes, designed by Anna Tregloan. These two details are interlinked. After the First World War, when many people had lost loved ones, séances were extremely popular.


The number- one rule in the theatre business is to give your audience what it wants, and so William Shakespeare did exactly that with Macbeth.

The patron of Shakespeare’s acting company was none other than King James I, a Scottish King who ascended the English throne in 1603. James was so fascinated by witches that he wrote a book about them, and he was thought to be a direct descendent of Banquo.

So it can be no coincidence that Shakespeare’s play includes witches, a flattering portrayal of Banquo, and a reference to a King of England who cures disease by touching the afflicted (something that James believed he could do). And, of course, the play celebrates the uniting of Scotland and England.

When Macbeth was staged in the royal court, James must have lapped it up. Which would have been extremely good news for Shakespeare and his colleagues.

Want to dive deeper into Macbeth? Check out our extensive suite of resources on the Shakespeare Hub.
Macbeth is on at Sydney Opera House 25 February - 2 April, Canberra Theatre Centre 14 April - 2 April and Arts Centre Melbourne 27 April - 14 May. Book your tickets today.