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Macbeth and Banquo – two generals in King Duncan’s army – meet three groups of witches. The witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and as King of Scotland. They greet Banquo as a father of Kings, who himself will never reign. The witches disappear and messengers arrive. The Thane of Cawdor has been executed for treason and Macbeth has been appointed to succeed him. Macbeth is disturbed by the swift fulfilment of the witches’ prophecy. All leave and the witches return. They predict that Macbeth will return to them.
Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth describing his encounter with the witches. She is determined that Macbeth will find the courage to murder King Duncan. It is announced that the King is imminently to arrive. Lady Macbeth appeals to dark forces to assist her. Macbeth enters and Lady Macbeth urges him to kill the visiting King.
King Duncan, Malcolm, his son, Banquo and Macduff are received by the Macbeths. Alone and troubled, Macbeth hallucinates, seeing a blood-stained weapon. He enters the King’s chamber to kill him. Lady Macbeth appears, listening intently. Macbeth reappears and describes the murder to Lady Macbeth. She tells him he must return to smear the King’s grooms with blood in order to implicate them in the crime. Macbeth is paralysed with remorse – so Lady Macbeth goes into the chamber herself. The couple then leave to wash blood from their hands. Banquo, his son Fleance, and Macduff enter. Banquo is uneasy. Macduff discovers the body of King Duncan. The assembled nobles, including Macbeth and Lady
Lady Macbeth confronts Macbeth: he is avoiding her. Macbeth is burdened by the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s line will endure and reign. Encouraged by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth resolves to murder Banquo and Fleance. Alone, Lady Macbeth euphorically meditates on night, murder and the crown.
Murderers, hired by Macbeth, wait to attack Banquo and Fleance. Banquo – fatalistic and overwhelmed – is killed. Fleance escapes.
The Macbeths are greeted by the assembled nobles. While Lady Macbeth makes a toast, the murderers report Banquo’s death and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth. Returning to the nobles, Macbeth believes he sees the dead Banquo. Lady Macbeth attempts to resume the toast but Macbeth insists he sees Banquo once more. The atmosphere descends into suspicion, fear and hallucination.
The witches pour vile ingredients into their cauldron and dance. Hecate, the Queen of the Witches, appears. She signals that the witches may tell Macbeth about his destiny but must not tell him how he will finally meet his end. Macbeth arrives – anxious to consult the witches. He sees his future through three visions. First, a helmeted head urges him to beware of Macduff. Second, a blood-stained child assures him that no one born of a woman will harm him. Lastly, a child holding a branch assures Macbeth that he cannot be conquered as long as Birnam Wood does not move. Following these visions Macbeth sees eight Kings: Banquo and his descendents. Macbeth faints and the witches summon airy spirits to revive him. Waking, Macbeth informs Lady Macbeth of the visions. Together, they make a genocidal resolve – every one of their enemies must die.
Macduff’s wife and family have been murdered and the refugees from Scotland grieve for their country. Malcolm arrives from exile. He urges the refugees to cut branches from Birnam Wood to disguise them advancing on Macbeth.
The doctor and the Lady-in-waiting observe Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. She obsessively tries to wash blood from her hands.
Alone, Macbeth understands himself to be feared, hated and unloved. Women bring news of Lady Macbeth’s death: Macbeth is unaffected. Soldiers report that Birnam Wood has started moving. Macbeth now understands the witches’ prophecy and prepares for battle. He is confronted by Macduff who tells him he was not ‘born of woman’ but ‘ripped from his mother’s womb’. Cornered, Macbeth comments ironically about kingship. He is killed and Malcolm is proclaimed King.