Macbeth

An ambitious general and his wife usurp the Scottish throne through foul means and are tormented with guilt for their actions.

What’s done cannot be undone.

Lady Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

Macbeth is a general in the Scottish army, famed for his exploits on the battlefield and beloved of King Duncan.

Following a bloody battle, he and his comrade Banquo are met by three Weird Sisters who prophesy their future, telling Macbeth he will one day be king. Unable to shake the thought from his mind, Macbeth tells his wife, Lady Macbeth, and the two execute a plan to murder King Duncan at their castle, assuming the crown and taking fate into their own hands.

But the Macbeths cannot enjoy their newly gained power, and their once strong union crumbles. Lady Macbeth is plagued with guilt and Macbeth is consumed by an unquenchable thirst for power, setting in motion a bloody chain of events. King Duncan’s son Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne, raises an army against Macbeth. With the help of the noble general Macduff, Macbeth is finally defeated and order is restored to Scotland.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies and one of his shortest plays, at just over half the length of Hamlet. It is the play that most reflects the interests of the monarch at the time in which it was written: King James I was famously obsessed with witchcraft.

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Dan Spielman as Macbeth and Lizzie Schebesta as the Weird Sisters (2012, photo: Rush)

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Dan Spielman as Macbeth and Kate Mulvany as Lady Macbeth (2012, photo: Rush)

SYNOPSIS

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Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4

Three witches meet on a heath and plan an encounter with Macbeth, a Scottish general who has the title of Thane of Glamis. Meanwhile, a wounded captain reports to King Duncan that the Scottish forces have been victorious in battle against Norway. He reports that Macbeth has fought valiantly and the Thane of Cawdor, one of the King’s men, has been named a traitor. King Duncan orders the Thane of Cawdor to be put to death, and his title be bestowed to Macbeth.

Returning from war, Macbeth and his comrade and friend Banquo, are confronted by the witches who give Macbeth a prophecy that Macbeth will be promoted to Thane of Cawdor, and will one day be crowned king. They also give Banquo a prophecy that he will be father to a line of kings. The witches disappear and the lords Ross and Angus arrive to inform Macbeth that he has been granted the title Thane of Cawdor, just as the witches predicted. Macbeth then privately contemplates the idea of becoming king.

King Duncan greets Macbeth and Banquo with great praise. To Macbeth’s dismay, Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will be the Prince of Cumberland, a title bestowed on the next in line to the Scottish throne. Duncan announces that they will ride to Macbeth’s castle in Inverness.

Macbeth writes a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, to tell her that they are coming to the castle, informing her of what has happened, and the witches’ prophecies. On reading the letter, Lady Macbeth feels compelled that her husband should attain what the prophecy has foretold. However she does not think her husband has what it will take to seize the crown. She summons dark spirits to aid her in making the prophecy come true, by their own actions, sooner rather than later.

When Macbeth arrives at the castle, Lady Macbeth tells him that they should seize this opportunity and murder King Duncan while he is staying under their roof. Macbeth does not agree to the suggested plan at first, nor rule it out. Soon after King Duncan arrives at the castle, Macbeth racked with indecision and guilt, informs his wife that he will not go through with the murder. She challenges his loyalty, love and manhood, eventually convinces him to proceed. They plan to frame the guards outside Duncan’s chamber for the murder.

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Lizzie Schebesta as the Weird SIsters (2012, photo: Rush)

Famous lines

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

Second Witch, Act 4 Scene 1

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Dan Spielman as Macbeth and Kate Mulvany as Lady Macbeth (2012, photo: Rush)

Historical background

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. It was written in the early 17th century, not long after King James I was crowned after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

Lizzie Schebesta as the Weird Sisters (2012, photo: Rush)

Fast facts

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, coming in at around half the length of Hamlet.

It has arguably the most concise plotline of any of Shakespeare’s plays – the action follows one storyline without multiple subplots.

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Ivan Donato as Macduff and Dan Spielman as Macbeth (2012, photo: Rush)

Debatable points

Who is to blame?

One of the most popular points of contention about the play is the question ‘Who is to blame?’ The three main arguments usually involve Macbeth, Lady Macbeth or the Weird Sisters as key instigators for the events of the play.

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The Macbeth Superstition

Is Macbeth a 'cursed' play?

For a long time Macbeth was considered an unlucky, cursed play (despite being hugely popular), and stories have long-circulated about terrible accidents, injuries, illnesses and deaths that have occurred to actors and crew members whilst working on it.

Read about the superstition