Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The tale of the Macbeths takes place in Scotland around 1040 AD during the reign of King Duncan, a time of violence, assassinations, and witches. The play was first performed in 1603 to honor James VI of Scotland, who had just become England’s James I. The play opens when three witches, also known as the Weird sisters, tell Macbeth and Banquo, two military heroes, that Macbeth, the thane of Glamis, will also become the thane of Cawdor and will be king, while Banquo will not be king, but his children will be.

Meanwhile, a military captain reports to King Duncan that Macbeth and Banquo had been magnificent in battle, but that the thane of Cawdor had been disloyal. The king has the thane of Cawdor executed and transfers his title to Macbeth, placing him in line to be king. When Macbeth and Banquo learn that Macbeth has been named thane of Cawdor, they come to believe the witches’ prophesies. Separately, King Duncan names his older son, Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, heir to the Scottish throne. In a letter to his wife, Macbeth tells her of the witches’ prophesies, but planting a seed in her mind also lets her know that though he is now the thane of Cawdor he wonders how he is ever going to be king, Malcolm now having the inside track.

King Duncan travels to Inverness Castle for an overnight stay with the Macbeths. He is joined by his sons, by Banquo, by the Scottish nobleman Macduff and others. Ruthlessly ambitious for her husband, Lady Macbeth convinces her husband that if he is ever to be king he must use this moment to murder King Duncan. So, the plan is set. Lady Macbeth spends the evening with the king’s guards, telling stories and making sure they have plenty of wine. The guards fall asleep. Macbeth murders the king, but is so shaken by his actions that he returns to his wife with the bloody daggers in his hands, and says “I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?” He could not kill the guards, saying “They did wake each other” and “I could not say ‘Amen’ when they did say ‘God bless us.’” She says “Consider it not so deeply.”

Later, Macbeth greets Macduff; Macduff on his way to waken the king; Macbeth shows him to the king’s room. When Macduff returns, Macbeth slips away, Macduff crying “Murder and Treason!” Macbeth then kills the guards, leaving the bloody daggers on their pillows as evidence against them. Macbeth soon returns, telling Macduff and others that “I did kill them,” saying he did so after seeing Duncan “his silver skin laced with golden blood” and “there the murderers, their daggers unmannerly breeched with gore.” Suspicious of events and fearing for their safety, the late king’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain decide it’s in their best interest to flee, Malcolm to England, Donalbain to Ireland. But in the doing they both become suspects in the king’s murder. Separately, Macduff announces that Macbeth is to be crowned king at Scone, while he quietly plans to stay behind at his castle at Fife.

Meanwhile, Macbeth, now king, fears that Banquo knows too much; therefore represents a threat. Macbeth hires two murderers to kill him and his son, Fleance, during a roadside ambush. Banquo is murdered, but Fleance escapes, which worries the king, thinking of the witches’ prophecies. Meanwhile, Macbeth and his wife make plans for a state dinner; Macbeth continually preoccupied with fear. The banquet begins with all the nobles present, but soon the ghost of Banquo visits, but appears only to Macbeth. Macbeth shouts out at the ghost, seriously disrupting the dinner party. Lady Macbeth defends her husband, saying he just needs sleep.

Macbeth seeing the Ghost of Banquo.

The next morning Macbeth decides to revisit the witches. The witches’ apparitions (the witches’ masters) tell him he should “beware of Macduff,” but that he has nothing to fear from “any man of woman born” or until “Birnam Wood goes to Dunsinane.” Macbeth listens intently. Macbeth learns from Lennox, another Scottish nobleman, that Macduff has fled to England, leaving his wife and children unattended and vulnerable in Scotland. Murderers (hired by Macbeth) enter and kill Macduff’s family. Later, Macduff and Malcolm meet in England, but Malcolm is suspect of Macduff’s motives, fearing he is Macbeth’s agent, Macbeth having tried to trick him in the past. Malcolm puts Macduff to a loyalty test; Macduff passing the test with flying colors. The king of England has offered Malcolm access to ten thousand English forces with Siward as their commander, Siward being Malcolm’s uncle. Macduff learns that his wife and children have been murdered. Macduff, Malcolm, Siward and the English forces all agree to a joint effort to defeat Macbeth at Dunsinane Castle.

Meanwhile, at Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth takes to walking and talking in her sleep. She appears to those around her as having “lost” it. Macduff, Malcolm, Siward and the English forces assemble in Birnam Wood, outside Dunsinane. Macbeth is warned by a servant of an impending assault by the English forces, but Macbeth dismisses the warnings on the basis of the apparitions’ admonitions. The doctor warns Macbeth that Lady Macbeth is seriously ill. He tells the doctor to cure her. Later Macbeth learns that his wife has died. Sensing his own time is short, Macbeth gamely moves on.

Using tree branches from Birnam Wood as camouflage and shields, soldiers attack Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth kills Siward’s son. Macbeth learns that Macduff’s mother died just before he was born. Macduff slays Macbeth. Macduff proclaims Malcolm the new king of Scotland.

Source: simplifiedshakespeare.com


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