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(William Shakespeare)

Macbeth is Thane (Lord) of Glamis in early medieval Scotland. He is a loyal subject of King Duncan. After a battle with the Danes, Macbeth and his friend Banquo come across three witches on a ?blasted heath?, who predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth laughs at them, because the Thane of Cawdor is alive and well. Shortly afterwards, the King announces that Cawdor had been a traitor, helping the enemy, and is to be executed, with his title going to Macbeth as a reward. Macbeth is rather more than pleasantly surprised, and the seeds are planted of the most relentless tragedy in the English language.

Macbeth and Banquo come across the witches again, and this time they tell Macbeth that he will be king and that Banquo?s descendants will be kings. As their first apparently impossible prediction had actually come true, Macbeth is mesmerised by the possibility that the crown will somehow miraculously pass to him. Nevertheless, despite his fatal streak of ambition, he is a basically decent man and determines to ignore the witches and enjoy his newfound position as the king?s favourite. He rides home to his castle and his wife, and right into a situation that is familiar to most married men. If Macbeth is ambitious, he is also vacillating and prefers to go with the flow and not take any real chances, but his wife has other plans for him and starts goading him about how spineless he is and how he needs to grasp the nettle and force events if he?s going to make something of himself. She wants to push him into senior management when he?s happy as a team leader in his own little office.

The upshot is that King Duncan is shortly to visit their castle, and Lady Macbeth reckons that they should do away with him while they?ve got the chance. Sometimes you have to make an effort, dear. Macbeth, after wrestling unsuccessfully with his conscience, and sick of being nagged, takes the plunge and stabs Duncan to death as he sleeps, pinning the blame on his drugged bodyguards and killing them too in his supposed rage before anyone has a chance to conduct a proper investigation. From that point on, it?s all downhill for Macbeth, and his wife, having unleashed the monster, realises too late that she can?t control it any more.

Duncan?s heir is Malcolm, but seeing which way the wind is blowing he flees abroad, and Macbeth is duly crowned king. But the crown does not sit easily, for he remembers that the witches had predicted that Banquo?s children would be kings, so he has Banquo bumped off, although his son Fleance escapes the ambush. He also has the family of Macduff, a rebel against his rule, killed, and Macduff goes off to join Malcolm, who is busy mustering an army to overthrow Macbeth. In the meantime, Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo ? the original spectre at the feast ? and Lady Macbeth goes mad.

As Malcolm and his army move in on him, Macbeth is confident that the castle can never be stormed because the witches, at another meeting, had assured him that he is safe until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill, where the castle stands. As it happens, Malcolm?s soldiers cut down the trees and bushes for camouflage, so the forest does indeed come to the hill. Macbeth is furious, but determines to fight to the death, especially as the witches had said that he could not be harmed by any man born of a woman, which presumably covered everybody. But as Macduff confronts his family?s murderer in the now-deserted castle, he tells Macbeth that his mother had had a caesarean operation (?Macduff was from his mother?s womb untimely ripped?), and Macbeth realises that the game is up and, too late, that the witches were bitches. He is clobbered and killed and his head stuck on a pole, and Malcolm is crowned in his place, and the whole of Scotland rejoices over the downfall of the dictator. Just like the Iraqis, presumably.

?The Scottish play? has a reputation for causing all sorts of trouble for theatres that stage it, and you can easily see why. Macbeth is such a tight, relentless, terrifyingly predictable play ? like riding a tank to the edge of a cliff and being unable to stop it going over ? that you can well imagine it setting up a sort of whirlpool on the psychic plane that sucks in undesirable elements such as outrageous coincidences and plain bad luck. A typical example would be during Peter o? Toole?s troubled run at the Old Vic in 1980, when the pointed end of a sword broke off and embedded itself in the only empty seat in the house.

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