Poster for the Negro Division of the Federal Theatre Project's 1936 production of Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles.

The Tragedy of Macbeth, usually referred to simply as Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1603 and 1607, the earliest reference to a possible stage performance is from 1611. It was first published in book form in the First Folio, the first collection of the complete works of Shakespeare, published in 1623, seven years after the author's death.

The main character, Macbeth, is an ambitious Scottish nobleman and general who is told by the Three Witches that he will become King of Scotland. In order to help make the prediction come true, Macbeth murders the current king. Having become king, Macbeth finds it necessary to commit more murders in order to secure his position.

Although the play is usually classified as one of Shakespeare's tragedies rather than one of his histories, Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaich) was a genuine King of Scotland who died in 1057. Shakespeare probably used the account of his reign in the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland as his source. However, the play bears little resemblance to historical events.

It is no coincidence that the play was written shortly after King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England on March 24, 1603 and became the first monarch to rule both countries. The new king became the patron of Shakespeare's troupe of actors, which changed its name from the Lord Chamberlain's Men to the King's Men, and the play would bave been written with the intention of pleasing the new patron in mind. King James is known to have had an interest in the supernatural and the occult, having written a book about witchcraft himself. The character Banquo who features in the play is a mythical ancestor of King James.

There is a theatrical tradition that the play is cursed and that accidents are likely to occur whenever it is staged. It is considered unlucky to say the word "Macbeth" inside a theater, except during rehearsals and performances of the play. For that reason, actors usually refer to Macbeth as "The Scottish Play" and may refer to the title character as "Mackers", especially in the United States and Canada, "the Scottish lord" or "the Scottish king". If somebody accidentally says the word "Macbeth" inside a theater, an elaborate cleansing ritual has to take place. It is sometimes said that it is unlucky to quote a line from Macbeth inside a theater, except during rehearsal or performance. If somebody does so, the cleansing ritual involves quoting another line from a different Shakespeare play, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us" from Hamlet and "If we shadows have offended" from A Midsummer Night's Dream being popular choices.

In spite of its reputation for being unlucky, Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare's most popular plays and performances typically draw large audiences.


Act I


Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath, 1855 oil painting by Theodore Chasseriau.

The Three Witches plan when they will introduce themselves to Macbeth, a Scottish general and Thane of Glamis, a Scottish thane being roughly equivalent to any English duke. They decide that they will meet again at dusk on a heath that Macbeth must pass over as he returns home from battle.

A battle has taken place between the supporters of King Duncan of Scotland and rebels led by the Thane of Cawdor. A soldier gives a report to the king about Banquo and Macbeth's bravery in the battle. When Duncan hears that the Thane of Cawdor has surrendered, he decides that Macbeth should be given the thane's lands and title.

Macbeth and Banquo cross the heath where the Three Witches are waiting. They call Macbeth Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor and tell him that he will be King of Scotland in the future. They tell Banquo that he will never be king but that his descendants will be. The witches disappear. Messengers from the king arrive to tell Macbeth that he has just been named Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo realise that the Three Witches' prophecy has already started to come true.

King Duncan announces that he will visit Macbeth's castle at Iverness. He also names his son Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and next in line to the throne of Scotland. Macbeth asks permission to return to his castle early in order to prepare for the king's visit.

At the castle in Iverness, Lady Macbeth is reading a letter from her husband. The letter describes the Three Witches' predictions that have already begun to come true. Lady Macbeth is excited by the idea of her husband becoming king. She sees that the murder of King Duncan would be a step towards attaining that goal but fears that, unlike her, her husband is too kindly a person to do such a thing. When a messenger arrives to tell her that the king will be staying at her castle, she is delighted that the opportunity to kill him has presented itself. She begins to hint at the possibility of the murder as soon as Macbeth returns home.

King Duncan arrives at the castle with an entourage including his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, Banquo and his son Fleance, Lennox and Macduff. Lady Macbeth knows that her husband is hesitant to kill the king. She spurs him on by calling him a coward and accusing him of not loving her anymore. Her emotional manipulation helps to persuade him to do the deed.

Act II

Macbeth by Thomas Beach

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and John Phillip Kemble as Macbeth. 1786 painting by Thomas Beach.

Lady Macbeth has drugged the drinks of Duncan's guards to put them into a deep sleep. While waiting for a bell to ring, a signal from Lady Macbeth that the guards have gone to sleep, Macbeth is troubled by the evil deed he is about to perform. He begins to hallucinate, seeing a bloody dagger hovering in the air in front of him. When he hears the bell, Macbeth resolves to commit the murder.

After the king has been killed, Macbeth tells his wife the traumatic details of the murder. Lady Macbeth tells him to put the daggers, that he has brought back with him, into the hands of the guards. Macbeth refuses to go back to the scene of the crime, so Lady Macbeth goes instead. Lady Macbeth tells her husband to wash the blood off his face and hands and to go to bed, because they will have to pretend that they were asleep when the murder took place.

Early the next morning, Macduff and Lennox arrive at Malcolm's castle. Macduff discovers thet the king has been murdered. Macbeth rushes into the room and quickly kills the guards, claiming that he has taken revenge on Duncan's killers.

Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donalbain are skeptical about Macbeth's claims that their father was killed by his own guards. They agree to leave Scotland for their own safety, Malcolm going to England and Donalbain going to Ireland. Their departure arouses suspicion that they were behind the murder of their father. They lose their claims to the Scottish throne and Macbeth is declared king instead.


Macbeth has been made king and a great feast is to be held in the evening to celebrate his coronation. Banquo is the first to arrive at the castle ahead of the feast. He tells Macbeth that he will spend the afternoon horse-riding with his son Fleance. After Banquo has left, Macbeth reveals that he has arranged for Banquo and his son to be murdered, in order to prevent the Three Witches' prediction about Banquo's descendants ruling Scotland from coming true and to secure the throne for Macbeth's family instead. Macbeth tells his wife of the plan to kill Banquo and his son but wants her to remain ignorant of all the details of it.


Macbeth Seeing the Ghost of Banquo, 1854 painting by Theodore Chasseriau.

The murderers sent by Macbeth kill Banquo but his son Fleance manages to escape. At the feast, one of the murderers informs Macbeth of what has happened. Macbeth goes to take his place at the table but finds that it is occupied by Banquo's ghost. The other guests are surprised to see him talking to an empty chair. The ghost disappears, Macbeth apologises, saying that he is ill. He calls for wine and offers a toast. Unfortunately, he mentions Banquo by name in the toast, which makes the ghost reappear. Macbeth speaks to the ghost again. Lady Macbeth, concerned by her husband's strange behavior, promptly calls an end to the feast.

Macbeth decides that he needs to consult the Three Witches again to find out what is in store for him.

Lennox says that he suspects Macbeth of being behind the murders of Duncan and Banquo. He is told that, with the support of the English king, Malcolm has raised an army. Macduff has sided with him and they are preparing to invade Scotland and overthrow Macbeth.

Act IV

The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbeth by Daniel Gardner, 1775

The Three Witches from Macbeth are depicted in this 1775 painting by David Gardner.

The Three Witches gather together and brew a magic potion in their cauldron ahead of Macbeth's visit. Macbeth arrives and asks to know what the future has in store for him. Macbeth is shown three visions by the witches. In the first, he is told that Macduff is preparing to fight against him. In the second, he is told that no man of woman born can harm him. In the third, he is told that he will not be defeated until Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane hill. Macbeth believes that he will never be defeated because it is impossible for a forest to move. However, Macbeth remains troubled by the prediction that the Three Witches made to Banquo and asks if it will still come true. He is shown a vision of future Kings of Scotland who are all descended from Banquo.

The witches vanish and Lennox arrives. He tells Macbeth that Macduff is preparing to fight against him. Macbeth orders that Macduff's entire family be murdered as punishment.

In England, Macduff is informed of the murder of his wife and children. Malcolm tells him to turn his grief into anger and use it in the coming battle against Macbeth.

Act V

DBP 1976 911 Hermine Körner

1976 West German stamp which depicts the German actress Hermine Koerner as Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth is away, gathering an army to fight against Malcolm. Left on her own, Lady Macbeth dwells on the crimes that she and her husband have committed. One of her servants tells a doctor that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking. The doctor sees Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep, acting out vainly trying to wash the blood off her hands and speaking of the murders of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff's family. The doctor feels powerless to help her and decides to say nothing about what he has heard, fearing that his own life would be in danger if he did.

Macbeth is concerned about his wife's illness and refuses to accept the doctor's pleadings that she cannot be cured. However, as a result of the visions that the Three Witches showed him, he is unconcerned about the upcoming battle.

Malcolm gathers his army together at Birnan Wood. He orders each of his men to cut a branch from a tree and use it as camouflage before they move to attack Macbeth's castle. Consequently, it looks like the forest is moving.

Macbeth receives news that his wife is dead and that Birnan Wood is moving towards Dunsinane hill. Macbeth leaves the castle to join the battle. He is resigned to being defeated but, remembering the prediction that no man of woman born can harm him, believes that he will be able to escape alive.

Macduff challenges Macbeth to fight him. Macbeth tells him that it would be futile because of the Three Witches' prediction. Macduff says that he was not born in the usual way but was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. Macduff kills Macbeth and carries his head to the victorious Malcolm, now King of Scotland.

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