On their return from battle, Scottish generals Macbeth and Banquo meet "three weird sisters" who predict Macbeth's new title of Thane of Cawdor, his ascendance to the throne of Scotland, and the future reign in Scotland of Banquo's sons. Messengers from the king arrive to bestow the title of Thane of Cawdor upon Macbeth. Astonished at the fulfillment of the first prophecy, Macbeth contemplates the realization of the second prediction and his thoughts turn murderous. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot and carry out the murder of King Duncan while he is a guest in their house. Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan's sons, flee Scotland for their lives, and Macbeth is made king. Fearing that the third prophecy of the witches will come true, Macbeth devises a plan to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. On the way to a feast at Macbeth's castle, Banquo is killed, although Fleance manages to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost haunts Macbeth. Seeking further information, Macbeth searches out the witches. They present three apparitions: an armed head that warns the king to beware of Macduff, a rival thane; a bloody child, who tells him he need not fear "the pow'r of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth"; and a crowned child holding a bough, who soothes him with the knowledge that he is safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. The witches show Macbeth a vision of bloody Banquo and eight of his descendants, all crowned. Encouraged by this spectacle, Macbeth vows to hasten the speed of his "dread exploits" in an effort to hold on to the throne. Macduff flees to England to join the army Malcolm is raising against the Scottish tyrant. In a bloody rage Macbeth has Macduff's wife and children brutally murdered. Consumed with guilt, Lady Macbeth takes her own life. Macbeth has scarcely time to mourn her passing when news of the rebellious army is brought to him. Shut up in Dunsinane castle, Macbeth waits for the arrival of Malcolm's army when a messenger enters bearing strange tidings: Birnam Wood has begun to move towards Dunsinane Hill. Malcolm's men, camouflaged with boughs, have reached the outer walls. During the siege, Macduff and Macbeth meet. Macduff, not born naturally of woman but "from his mother's womb untimely ripped," decapitates Macbeth. The play ends as Malcolm takes his rightful place as king of Scotland.
Scholars continue to praise Macbeth as one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, ranked with Hamlet, Othello and King Lear, while directors continue to stage this fascinating work, providing new insight with each new production.
Although appealing for many reasons, one attraction to the play lies in the morally ambiguous world Shakespeare has created in which the protagonist is both "noble thaneÃ¶ and "butcher." Also left open to individual interpretation is the role the weird sisters play in the downfall of Macbeth. Exactly what is their part in the tragedy and how much do they control the world around them? Interpretative questions like these are addressed by a director before work on production begins. Perhaps because of its intriguing ambiguities, Macbeth has been one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays in production, second only to Hamlet. Actors such as David Garrick, John Philip Kemble, William Charles Macready, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Charles Laughton, Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacoby, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, and Christopher Plummer, each with his own interpretation, have attempted to unravel the mystery of Macbeth's fall from Grace. The theme of doubleness and equivocation are emphasized in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth in characterization and design. The actors' playing, the look and feeling of scenery and costumes, and the shifting brilliance of the lighting point up the idea that something can be two things at once: the physical and moral atmosphere is both "fair and foul," the battle is both "lost and won." Macbeth is a murderer, yet we are paradoxically drawn to him because he is a sympathetic, if unconventional hero. To encourage an intimate relationship between the audience and Macbeth, the stage is uncluttered, evoking the cold, remote, unpopulated moors of Scotland, and allowing our focus to stay directly on the hero/murderer. In this production Macbeth is neither forced into crime by Lady Macbeth nor by the witches. Macbeth chooses evil knowingly, and it is he alone who is responsible for the consequences that follow. Although Malcolm restores order at the end of the play, the corrupt world he inhabits is only precariously righted. Macbeth has stained the whole notion of kingship forever and an audience is left uncertain as to whether Scotland can wash away the blood. The set design for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth emphasizes the theme of doubleness in its ability to suggest several places at once. Resembling an abstract wooden sculpture, the set is composed of lengths of rough cut timber joined together at angles with crude, rusted steel straps and sockets. The wood is worn and broken, suggesting the physical and emotional distress of the play. The one detail on the set is a massive rusted steel disk that hangs from the top, used as an alarm bell for both Duncan's death and the battle scenes. Director Patrick Kelly describes the unit, reminiscent of both a bombed out ruin and a palace, as a "dream castle" or a "floating cloud of timbers." Completely open without any solid portions, the scenery conceals nothing. It provides an organizing gridwork for the world of the play, and remains free of definition as any particular locale. The set works both practically and aesthetically, allowing the rapid action of the play to unfold without the need for cumbersome set changes, and providing a powerful visual metaphor for the play's theme of doubleness and ambiguity. Although interpretations of character may vary greatly, each director of Macbeth must make a firm decision about the nature of the witches, and their place in the action of the play. In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, the weird sisters are real women, more "psychic" than supernatural. Ragged and semi-deranged, the witches have little control of the world around them. Rather, their influence lies in setting off an uncontrollable chain of events. The role of the weird sisters in the play is to create a situation in which Macbeth knowingly chooses evil, but they do not cause the action to happen and are not responsible for Macbeth's decisions. Relying less on supernatural power, and more on trickery, the witches create their "magic" illusions out of improvised materials. Both their appearance and physical vulnerability suggest images of the homeless in our society. Their clingy dresses reveal bodies with sores and scorch marks, signs of decay that are symbolic of their frayed moral fiber, and of Scotland's corrupt body politic.
Macbeth: Witchcraft and Double-Talk by Melissa Salz Written and produced at the Globe Theatre in 1606, Macbeth continues to be among the most popular works of Shakespeare's canon. The shortest of all his tragedies, each scene of the play is suspenseful and compact, and the action moves swiftly to its horrifying end. Along with a riveting plot, Macbeth's power lies in its poetry, and the universal questions it raises about good and evil. Witchcraft, ghosts, apparitions, murder, and the many images of blood provide spectacle, and introduce us to the darker side of human nature. Shakespeare's three "instruments of darkness," the "weird sisters," have long fascinated directors of the play. Who are they, and how should they be represented on stage? Little information is given about them in the play itself. The 1623 First Folio edition of Macbeth describes them as "Weyward" and "Weyard." They are not addressed by Macbeth as actual witches although they are commonly identified by that name in contemporary criticism. Scholars argue over their origin. Some believe they are Scottish or English witches. Others propose they are Scandinavian Norns, fates, hags, furies, or merely evil women. In the play, Banquo describes them as withered women with beards, and Macbeth refers to them as "secret, black, and midnight hags," "filthy hags" and "juggling fiends." Most critics agree that although the sisters exert some power over Macbeth, they are not ultimately responsible for the murder of Duncan. The prophesy of Macbeth's ascendance to the throne might suggest murder but it in no way forces Macbeth to commit the crime. The three sisters can predict the future but they do not have the ability to change it. As a result of the text's ambiguity about the witches, their portrayal on stage is left open to interpretation. Several eighteenth and nineteenth- century productions turned the weird sisters into comic characters, adding songs and dances that were quite popular with contemporary audiences. Twentieth-century productions of Macbeth have tended to stay away from the comic approach, although directors realize that terrifying an audience with the witches is harder to do now than in Shakespeare's day when the belief in evil spirits was more common. The challenge for today's director is to find a modern equivalent for the weird sisters that will convince a modern audience. Robert Cohen, in his 1982 Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, cast three beautiful women as the witches. Dressed in topless gowns they seduced Macbeth into a life of crime and corruption. Trevor Nunn, in his acclaimed 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production, chose to make the weird sisters eerie women who dabbled in the art of black magic but they were not supernatural. The weird sisters play an important thematic role in the tragedy of Macbeth. First scenes in Shakespeare are often important clues to character and motif. In the first scene of the play the witches' line, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," introduces the idea of doubleness, of things having two truths. The line refers both to the physical climate, as well as to the inverted topsy turvy moral landscape of the play, where there are "daggers in men's smiles" and things are not what they appear to be. Macbeth's first line on stage, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen," echoes that of the weird sisters, and immediately links him to the idea of doubleness and duplicity, skills he quickly learns to master as he, like the witches, deceives those who trust in his words. Equivocation, saying one thing but meaning another, is at the core of evil in Macbeth. In the famous "double, double, toil and trouble" cauldron scene, the weird sisters repeat the word "double" several times in their incantation, doubling, perhaps, the pain and sorrow experienced in the world. The witches' emphasis of the word "double" foreshadows their use of equivocation to destroy Macbeth. Believing he need not fear any man born of woman, and that he is safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth thinks of himself as indestructible. In truth, the weird sisters have deceived him, giving him false confidence with their double-talk, and Macbeth, dependent on their prophesies, is ultimately destroyed.
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