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The Story of 'Macbeth'

ACT ONE: The opera takes place in Scotland and begins in a forest. Macbeth and Banquo, two Scottish generals in King Duncan's army, stop to visit with coven of witches. (In Shakespeare's play, there are three witches. Verdi's version has three groups of six — 18 witches altogether! — this is opera, after all ...)

The witches tell Macbeth that he'll eventually become the King of Scotland. They apparently don't want Banquo to feel left out, so they say his heirs will be kings, as well. This news fits nicely with Macbeth's ambitions — at least for the moment, before he consults his wife.

The next scene is in Macbeth's castle, where Lady Macbeth has learned about the witches' prophecies. She also learns that when Macbeth arrives at home that night, King Duncan will be accompanying him. Obviously, she decides, this is the perfect time for Duncan to be murdered, so Macbeth can become king.

After Macbeth has arrived, and the king has retired for the night, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband that Duncan should die. Macbeth immediately has a vision of a bloody dagger.

Late at night, with his wife as a grim cheerleader, Macbeth takes a real dagger, sneaks into the guestroom, and murders the king in his sleep. Afterward, Macbeth has a guilty conscience — much to his wife's disgust.

The crime is discovered when Banquo and the nobleman Macduff go to attend the King. To protect her husband, Lady Macbeth incriminates the King's own guards. The assassination is announced to the people as the act ends.

ACT TWO: Duncan's son, Malcolm, has fled to England — and given the mood Lady Macbeth is in, that move probably saved his life. Lady Macbeth remembers the witches' prediction that Macbeth would become king. But she also recalls their prediction that Banquo would father future kings. This could make Banquo's heirs a threat to Macbeth. Plainly, Banquo and his son must be added to the Macbeth family's hit list.

In Scene 2, Banquo and his son are attacked by Macbeth's assassins. Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes.

Back at the castle in Scene 3, the Macbeths are hosting a party. Lady Macbeth urges everyone to drink up — and considering the strange things about to take place, she's smart to get her guests as drunk as possible. One of the assassins returns and quietly tells Macbeth what happened in the park.

Macbeth is guilt-stricken, and has a vision of Banquo's ghost, sitting at the banquet table. Naturally, he's a bit distressed. Lady Macbeth acts as though nothing's wrong, and encourages everyone to party on. When the ghost appears to Macbeth again, he's even more terrified — by something nobody else can see — and the crowd begins to grow suspicious.

ACT THREE: In a gloomy cavern, the witches are casting spells around a glowing caldron. Macbeth appears looking for more predictions. The witches tell him to watch out for Macduff, who has left the country and suspects Macbeth of evil deeds. But the witches also reassure Macbeth — or at least he thinks they do. They tell him he'll remain in power until a great forest, the Birnam Wood, rises against him. They also predict that he won't fall victim to, "any man born of woman."

Then the witches conjure a procession of fearsome apparitions, all of them kings. The parade of ghostly sovereigns ends with the murdered Banquo himself, carrying a mirror. Seeing this, Macbeth passes out in terror.

When he comes around the witches have disappeared, and a herald announces Lady Macbeth. She demands to know what the witches had to say. Hearing about the vision of Banquo, Lady Macbeth renews her call for the death of Banquo's son. She wants Macduff dead, too, and his entire family along with him, just for good measure. Macbeth agrees, and his wife congratulates him on his newfound strength.

ACT FOUR: On the border of Scotland and England, Macduff has joined Duncan's son Malcolm, along with an English army and a band of Scottish refugees. Macduff's family has been massacred, and he's out for revenge. The band advances to Birnam Wood, where they all pick branches from the trees to use as camouflage as they approach Macbeth's castle.

Meanwhile, inside the castle, the scene is set for one of the most vivid passages in any Verdi opera. Lady Macbeth appears, sleepwalking. Her doctor and lady-in-waiting listen aghast as she reflects, in her sleep, on the murders she and her husband have committed.

In the final scene, Macbeth realizes that even though he successfully seized the throne, he has failed as a leader — and he sings the fine aria, "Pieta, rispetto, amore." With Macduff's forces approaching, hiding behind branches, Macbeth is told that the Birnam Wood itself is striding toward the castle. He goes off to meet the invasion.

Macbeth is confronted by Macduff, who reveals that he was not "born of woman" in the usual way but was, in Shakespeare's words, "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. As Macbeth curses the witches and their misleading prophecies, a battle begins. Macbeth is killed by Macduff, and Malcolm is declared King.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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