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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. This painting is a false representation of the scene, because there should be a black cauldron between the witches, and the apparation should be comming out of the cauldron. Painting by William Rimmer
Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. This painting is a false representation of the scene, because there should be a black cauldron between the witches, and the apparation should be comming out of the cauldron. Painting by William Rimmer

The Tragedy of Macbeth is among the most famous of William Shakespeare's plays, as well as his shortest tragedy. It is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world.

This play, loosely based upon the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland by Raphael Holinshed and the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece [1], is often seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.

Date and revision

Macbeth cannot be precisely dated, but the most likely date of composition is between 1603 and 1606.[1] The play is unlikely to be earlier than 1603 given that it seems designed to celebrate King James's ancestors and the Stuart accession to the throne in 1603 (James believed himself to be descended from Banquo).[2] Many editors of the play suggest a more specific date of 1605-6; the principal reason for this is a number of possible allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and its ensuing trials, specifically the Porter's speech (Act II, scene iii, lines1-21) may contain allusions to the trial of the Jesuit Henry Garnet in spring, 1606; "equivocator" (line 8) may refer to Garnet's defense of "equivocation" [see: Doctrine of mental reservation], and "farmer" (4) was one of Garnet's aliases.[3] However, the concept of "equivocation" was also the subject of a 1583 tract by Queen Elizabeth's chief councillor Lord Burghley as well as the 1584 Doctrine of Equivocation by the Spanish prelate Martin Azpilcueta that was disseminated across Europe and into England in the 1590's.[4]

Scholars also cite an entertainment seen by King James at Oxford in the summer of 1605 that featured three "sibyls" not unlike the weird sisters; Kermode surmises that Shakespeare could have heard about this and alluded to it with the three witches.[5] However, A. R. Braunmuller in the New Cambridge edition finds the 1605-6 arguments inconclusive, and argues only for an earliest date of 1603.[6] The play is not considered to be any later than 1607, since, as Kermode notes, there are "fairly clear allusions to the play in 1607."[7] The earliest account of a performance of the play is April 1611, when Simon Forman recorded seeing it at the Globe Theatre.[8]

The text of Macbeth incorporates later revisions by Thomas Middleton, who inserted passages from his own play The Witch (1615), most notably an extra scene involving the witches and Hecate, because these scenes had proven highly popular with audiences. These revisions, which include all of Act III, scene v, and a portion of Act IV, scene i, are usually indicated as such in modern texts.[citation needed]


Apart from the one mentioned in the Forman document, there are no performances recorded with certainty in Shakespeare's era. In the Restoration, Sir William Davenant produced a spectacular "operatic" adaptation of Macbeth, "with all the singing and dancing in it" and special effects like "flyings for the witches" (John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, 1708). In an April 19, 1667 entry in his Diary, Samuel Pepys called Davenant's MacBeth "one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and music, that ever I saw." David Garrick returned to the Shakespearean original in a 1744 production.[9]

On the stage, Lady Macbeth is considered one of the more difficult and challenging female roles because of her intensity and varied emotions.[citation needed]


As the play opens amid thunder and lightning, with three Witches—the Weird Sisters—deciding that their next meeting shall be with a certain Macbeth. In the following scene, a wounded soldier reports to King Duncan of Scotland that his generals, Macbeth (who is the Thane of Glamis) and Banquo have just defeated an invasion by the allied forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald.

Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

When Macbeth and Banquo wander into a heath, the three Witches greet them with prophecies. The first hails Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis", the second as "Thane of Cawdor", while the third proclaims that he shall "be King hereafter". The Witches also inform Banquo he shall father a line of kings. While the two men wonder at these pronouncements, the Witches disappear. The Thane of Ross, a messenger from the King, arrives and informs Macbeth of his newly-bestowed title—Thane of Cawdor. The first prophecy is thus fulfilled. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming king.

Macbeth writes to his wife about the Witches' prophecies. When Duncan decides to stay at Macbeth's castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth hatches a plan to murder him and secure the throne for her husband. While Macbeth raises concerns about the regicide, Lady Macbeth eventually manages to persuade him.

In the night, Macbeth kills Duncan. Lady Macbeth arranges to frame Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by planting bloody daggers on them. Early the next morning, Lennox, a Scottish nobleman, and Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, arrive. The porter opens the gate and Macbeth leads them to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's corpse. In a sham fit of fury, Macbeth murders the servants before they can protest their innocence. Macduff is immediately suspicious of Macbeth. Fearing for their lives, Duncan's sons flee, Malcolm to England and his brother Donalbain to Ireland. The rightful heirs' flight makes them suspect, and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland as a kinsman to the dead king.

Despite his success, Macbeth remains uneasy regarding the prophecy that Banquo would be the progenitor of kings. Macbeth invites Banquo to a royal banquet and discovers that Banquo and his son, Fleance, will be riding that night. He hires three men to kill Banquo and Fleance. While they succeed in murdering Banquo, Fleance is able to escape. At the banquet, Banquo's ghost enters and sits in Macbeth's place.

Disturbed, Macbeth goes to the Witches once more. They conjure up three spirits which tell him to "beware Macduff", but also that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" and he will "never vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him". Since Macduff is in exile, Macbeth massacres everyone in Macduff's castle, including Macduff's wife and children.

Lady Macbeth eventually becomes racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed. In a famous scene, she sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands.

Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff plan an invasion of Scotland. Malcolm leads an army, along with Macduff and Englishman Siward (the Elder), the Earl of Northumbria, against Dunsinane Castle. While encamped in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers, thus fulfilling the Witches' second prophesy. Meanwhile, Macbeth delivers a famous nihilistic soliloquy ("Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow") upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death (the cause is undisclosed, but it is assumed by some that she committed suicide).

A battle ensues, culminating in the slaying of the young Siward and Macduff's confrontation with Macbeth. Macbeth boasts that he has no reason to fear Macduff, as he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff declares that he was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped" (i.e., born by Caesarean section before his mother's actual delivery)—and was therefore not "of woman born". Too late, Macbeth realises the Witches have misled him. A fight ensues, which ends with Macduff beheading Macbeth offstage, thereby fulfilling the last of the prophecies.

In the final scene, Malcolm is crowned as the rightful King of Scotland, suggesting that peace has been restored to the kingdom. However, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo, "Thou shalt [be]get kings", was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true, as James I of England was supposedly a descendant of Banquo.

Recurring motifs and themes

This section may contain original research or unverified claims.
Please help Wikipedia by adding references. See the talk page for details.
  • Paradoxes/Things in Twos. Throughout Macbeth, there are many situations and characters' internal conflicts which are paradoxical. There are also many things which come in twos; these are similar, but not always identical. From almost the beginning of the play ("when the battle's lost and won"), parodoxes/doubles appear regularly. Examples include:
    • "when the battle's lost and won" (1.1.4)
    • "fair is foul and foul is fair" (1.1.13), (said by the witches)
    • "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater." (1.3.65)
    • "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38) (Macbeth's first line)
    • "they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe." (1.2.42)
    • "the service and the loyalty I owe in doing it pays itself." (1.4.25-6)
    • "I have thee not, and yet I see thee still." (2.1.46)
    • "double, double, toil and trouble..." (4.1.10)
  • Ambition and Betrayal. Macbeth's tragic flaw is likely his own ambition, which leads him to betray his king and, later, murder his friend Banquo. He becomes thane of Cawdor only after the previous thane rebels against the king; Macbeth thus continues a tradition of betrayal among those in power. The play dwells on ambition's ability to be a morally corrupting agent. It has the same effect on Lady Macbeth, whose sins drive her to madness and suicide.
  • Visions. There are several hallucinations in the play. In Act 2 Scene 1, Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air, pointing to King Duncan’s resting chamber, perhaps encouraging his upcoming deed. In Act 5 Scene 1 Lady Macbeth hallucinates that her hands are covered in blood, despite her obsessive washing. Macbeth also sees the ghost of Banquo at the royal banquet. The precise meaning and origins of these visions is ambiguous. They could possibly be conjured by the three witches, who are actively involved in the play's events. Or they could be simple products of madness, reinforcing the play's thesis that betrayal is corrupting in the mind. (The ghost, at least, would not be unusual to see in a Shakespeare play that already involves the supernatural.)
  • Blood and bloodshed. Macbeth is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays. As the play opens, Macbeth’s army has just defeated Norwegian invaders in a gruesome battle. As a gravely-wounded captain arrives, Duncan remarks: “What bloody man is that? He can report, as seemeth by his plight” (1.2). In this and other examples, blood might signify the advent of a messenger, the admonitions of God, or a warning for the future. The witches' cauldron too is filled with blood. Macbeth of course serves a bloody term in office, ordering the murder of opponents and potential rivals. Lady Macbeth's hallucination of blood on her hands seems to represent her feeling of guilt. At the play's end, Macduff presents the new king (and the audience) with Macbeth's severed head, clearly a gruesome spectacle, illustrating the price of treason and murder. Shakespeare uses the word blood well over 100 times throughout the play.
  • Infants and children. Children are frequently referenced, though hardly seen, in the play. Their innocence is frequently contrasted with the guilty meditations of Macbeth and other characters. Lady Macbeth provides the most graphic example, making an analogy to her level of commitment: "I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this" (1.7).
  • Natural Order/Great Chain of Being. The 'unnatural' replacement of Duncan by Macbeth disturbs the natural order of the royal lineage. Those in Shakespeare's time valued the divinity of the king, i.e. the king's preordained selection by God. Thus, by unnatural replacement of the king, Macbeth has invoked the wrath of greater beings. Nature is disturbed and thrown into turmoil: horses cannibalise each other, and a small owl kills a regal hawk.
  • Insomnia. Sleep is referenced several times through out the play; Duncan is murdered in his sleep, while his guards sleep. Following the murder, Macbeth states, "Sleep no more!/Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care... (2.2). Indeed, following the crime, both Macbeth and his wife are cursed with insomnia and sleepwalking. These seem to be tangible expressions of each character's guilt. Fear of sleep might also represent Macbeth's fear of his inevitable death.
  • Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Ambiguity. Shakespeare shows in the play a connection between masculinity and violence, as well as ambition. Lady Macbeth goads Macbeth on to treason by saying, "when you durst do it, then you are a man" (1.7.48). Even more explicit is her early soliloquy: "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!" The "here" plainly refers to her genitals, although few modern actresses can bring themselves to make that obvious. The women of the play manipulate Macbeth into doing their bidding. The witches awaken Macbeth's ambitions, and then Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to kill Duncan.
  • Moral Ambiguity. The witches, servants of the devil, and their dark prophecy steer Macbeth through the play. Early on, they set an overall tone of moral uncertainty with their chanting. The evil in Macbeth grows throughout the play. In the beginning he is reluctant to commit murder, but it slowly becomes easier for him. At the turning point of the play Macbeth says, "Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." (3.4.164-165) He has decided it would be just as easy to keep killing and murdering as it would to repent and turn back.
  • Conflict and Opposition. The play is full of contradictory statements, beginning with the witches' conversation in Act 1: "When the battle's lost and won," (1.1.4) and "Fair is foul, and foul is fair", (1.1.12)I. Macbeth's first line in the play is: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." (1.3.38) Shakespeare's portrayal of Macbeth's world is a confusing and chaotic one. This mirrors the moral dilemma involved in the plot to kill the King, and Macbeth's own indecision.
  • Internal Struggle. In the first two acts of the play, Macbeth struggles with morality and ambition, trying desperately to reconcile the two. After Act 2, he struggles instead to reconcile with his regicidal 'new self,' finally failing in the task and falling into utter moral darkness and abandoning all optimistic perspective. His former greatness decays until his "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" speech, which shows he has given up on all hope of self-reconciliation.

The "Scottish Play"

Actors and other theatre people often consider it to be bad luck to mention Macbeth by name while inside a theatre, and usually refer to it superstitiously as The Scottish Play or sometimes, "The Scottish King".

This is said to be because Shakespeare used real witches spells in his text, so witches got angry and are said to have cursed the play. Thus, to say the name of the play inside a theatre is believed to doom the production to failure, and perhaps cause physical injury or worse to cast members. A large mythology has built up surrounding this superstition, with countless stories of accidents, misfortunes and even deaths, all mysteriously taking place during runs of Macbeth. [10]

In reality actors were worried that if a play was not going well, anyone mentioning Macbeth might prompt a manager to consider Shakespeare's shortest tragedy to pull in the crowds.

This superstition was parodied in the Blackadder the Third episode Sense and Senility, in which two actors had to go through the Macbeth ritual (an exorcistic chant/dance) every time the name "Macbeth" was mentioned which Blackadder exploits for his own amusement.

Text of the play

Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath by Théodore Chassériau.
Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath by Théodore Chassériau.

Macbeth was first printed in the First Folio of 1623. The Folio is the only authoritative source for the text. This is regrettable, as the text has been plainly altered by later hands. Most notable is the inclusion of two songs from Thomas Middleton's later play The Witch, on the basis of which many scholars reject all three of the interludes with the goddess Hecate as inauthentic and added by a later editor, possibly Middleton himself. Even with the Hecate material, the play is conspicuously short, indicating that the Folio text may derive from a promptbook that had been substantially cut for performance.

King James VI of Scotland (King James I of England)

The parade of eight kings which the witches show Macbeth in a vision in Act IV is generally taken to represent the Stuart line, and be intended as a compliment to King James VI of Scotland, who had recently been crowned James I of England when the play was written.

Shakespeare's sources

  • Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, based on Hector Boece's 1527 Scotorum Historiae.
  • Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft
  • King James I of England's 1599 Daemonologie
  • Macbeth's words on dogs and men in Act 3, scene 1, (91-100), likely came from Erasmus' Colloquia
  • Compare also the Witch of Endor.

Adaptations and cultural references

Film versions

See also Shakespeare on screen (Macbeth)

The Three Witches as portrayed in the 2006 film.
The Three Witches as portrayed in the 2006 film.
  • Macbeth, 1916 film directed by John Emerson [2]
  • Macbeth, 1948 film directed by, and starring, Orson Welles, with Jeanette Nolan, Roddy McDowall, and Dan O'Herlihy.
  • Joe Macbeth, 1955 film noir resetting the story as a gangwar in Chicago
  • Throne of Blood, 1957 film directed by Akira Kurosawa, is a reimagination of Macbeth in Feudal Japan, starring famed Chinese-born actor Toshiro Mifune.
  • Macbeth, 1971 film directed by Roman Polanski
  • Macbeth, 1978 film directed by Philip Casson, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.
  • Macbeth, 2006 film directed by Geoffrey Wright.
  • Men of Respect, 1991 film, set as a Mafia power struggle in New York, in modern English, but otherwise very closely tracking the original. + *Macbeth, 2006 film directed by Geoffrey Wright.
  • Macbeth, 1997 film directed by Jeremy Freeston and Brian Blessed, with Jason Connery as Macbeth and Helen Baxendale as Lady Macbeth.
  • In the Flesh, 1998 pornographic film adaptation by Antonio Passolini and Stuart Canterbury. Featured Mike Horner as Macbeth and Kylie Ireland as Lady Macbeth.
  • Scotland, Pa., 2001 independent film retelling the story in the form of a black comedy set against the backdrop of a 1975 hamburger stand.
  • Maqbool, 2004 Hindi adaptation set in the Mumbai underworld.
  • Macbeth, 2005 independent film, neo-noir version of the play, set in an alternate universe where the United States is led by a totalitarian government
  • Macbeth, 2006 film set in the backdrop of a violent gangwar in southern Australia.

Literary versions

  • "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District", short story by Nikolai Leskov only loosely related to Shakespeare's play
  • Macbeth — 1988 Greek novel by Apostolos Doxiadis
  • Wyrd Sisters — 1988 novel by Terry Pratchett, whose plot combines those of Macbeth and Hamlet. One of many novels set in the Discworld fantasy world.
  • MacBeth — 1999 Finnish comic book, adapted by Petri Hannini and artwork by Petri Hiltunen.
  • The Third Witch — 2001 novel by Rebecca Reisert, told from the point of view of one of the witches in the play.
  • Macbett — 1972 play by Eugène Ionesco which satirizes the original.
  • MacBird, a 1966 counterculture drama by Barbara Garson featuring US President Lyndon Johnson as Macbeth
  • American Ambition[3]2006, by John Hamilton Allen sets the story in the contemporary United States and the struggle for the White House.

Television versions (a selection)

  • Macbeth — 1954 Hallmark Hall of Fame live adaptation of the famous stage production starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson, with a mostly American supporting cast of stage and television actors, among them Richard Waring.
  • Macbeth — 1960 television remake of the 1954 production, again produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and again starring Evans and Anderson, but this time featuring an all-British supporting cast, and filmed on location in England and Scotland. Ian Bannen and Jeremy Brett are also featured.
  • Macbeth— 1983 production produced for the BBC Shakespeare series shown on PBS, this version starring Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire.
  • Macbeth — 1992 animation by Nikolai Serebryakov as a part of Shakespeare: The Animated Tales
  • Macbeth — 1998 TV movie on UK Channel 4, starring Sean Pertwee and set in an alternate present-day Scotland, but with the original dialogue
  • The BBC's ShakespeaRe-Told series in 2005 included a present-day modern-language Macbeth set in a Glasgow restaurant.

Musical adaptations

  • The opera Macbeth (1847) by Giuseppe Verdi
  • Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, opera by Dmitri Shostakovich based on the short story by Nikolai Leskov.
  • Macbeth is one of Richard Strauss's earliest tone poems (1890).
  • The album Thane to the Throne (2000) concept album by Jag Panzer
  • The album A Tragedy in Steel (2002) a concept album by Rebellion.
  • Macbeth: the Contemporary Rock Opera (revised 2006) by Judy Stevens and Clarry Evans, first performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
  • Umbatha, merging the story with the history of Shaka Zulu, incorporating Zulu tribal songs and dances. Written by Welcome Msomi and first performed in 1969. See UCLA news article.
  • David Hobson's rock opera - 1985

Cultural references

  • Macbeth is a recurring character in the television series Gargoyles. His backstory is a very loose version of the play, bearing similarities also to the real Macbeth's actual history. Macbeth is an immortal who has a long link and grudge with a renegade Gargoyle, Demona, and originally harassed the Manhattan clan in hopes of drawing her to him. The Weird Sisters, taking the form of the three witches, had given them both immortality, and gave Macbeth the prophecy that he and his son, would each become king. Duncan had murdered the remaining Gargoyles in order to prevent the prophecy from coming true.
  • Macbeth is the name of a planet in the video game Starfox and Star Fox 64. The boss of the planet is called Mechabeth.
  • The historical comedy series Blackadder includes three episodes featuring references to Macbeth. In the episode, "The Foretelling" (the first episode of the first series), Prince Edmund (the main protagonist) meets three witches who tell him that he will be king, although after he departs it is revealed that they had mistaken him for Henry Tudor. Blackadder also sees the ghost of Richard III, who he had accidentally killed, in his chair at a banquet. In the fourth episode of the third series, "Sense and Senility", the Macbeth ritual is parodied. Also, in the final episode of the third series, "Duel and Duality", the Prince Regent recounts a dreams in which "Duncan's horses did turn and eat each usual", prophesying his death later in the episode.
  • An episode of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, "Out, Darn Spotlight", is about a school play called Macbeth in Space.
  • The graphic novel and a 2006 film V for Vendetta features the title character using direct quotations from Macbeth (the first thing he says in the novel is a quote from the second scene of the first act, where a bloody captain is describing the feats of Macbeth to the king). Other literary works of William Shakespeare are referenced as well, such as Richard III, Twelfth Night and Hamlet.
  • The title of the Ray Bradbury novel, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is taken from a line in Macbeth.
  • In the Harry Potter books the Weird Sisters are the name of a magical rock band.
  • In the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the song done by the students at Hogwarts, features many lines from the story, specifically from Act 4 Scene 1 of the Macbeth tragedy. This includes the famous line, "Something wicked this way comes", and "double double, toil and trouble."
  • In the Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton, the starship that Joshua Calvert inherits from his father Marcus is called Lady MacBeth.
  • William Faulkner took the title of his masterpiece, The Sound and The Fury, from Macbeth's famous speech in Act 5, Scene 5. ("Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.")
  • The title of the movie Double, Double, Toil and Trouble is a line spoken by the three witches in Macbeth.
  • Grey's Anatomy Episode 309 "From a Whisper to a Scream" storyline parallels the Macbeth theme of betrayal.
  • Simpsons Episode The Regina Monologues in which Bart bothers guest star Ian McKellan by saying the name Macbeth outside of an English theater, which was said to have horrible consequences.

See also

  • Assassinations in fiction
  • William Shakespeare


  1. ^ A.R. Braunmuller, ed. Macbeth (CUP, 1997), 5-8.
  2. ^ Braunmuller, Macbeth, pp. 2-3.
  3. ^ Frank Kermode, "Macbeth," The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 1308; for details on Garnet, see Perez Zagorin, "The Historical Significance of Lying and Dissimulation—Truth-Telling, Lying, and Self-Deception," Social Research, Fall 1996..
  4. ^ Mark Anderson, Shakespeare By Another Name, 2005, pp. 402-403
  5. ^ Kermode, Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1308.
  6. ^ Braunmuller, Macbeth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997; pp. 5-8.
  7. ^ Kermode, Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1308.
  8. ^ If, that is, the Forman document is genuine; see the entry on Simon Forman for the question of the authenticity of the Book of Plays.
  9. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 294-5.
  10. ^

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The Tragedy of Macbeth
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