| Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare|
|by Edith Nesbit|
|Twenty stories from Shakespeare retold in lively prose. The author makes the complex language of Shakespeare's greatest plays accessible to young children by relating the stories that form the core of the plays. Her graceful, vivid retellings are the perfect introduction to Shakespeare's works. Ages 9-12 |
THE THREE WITCHES.
HEN a person is asked to tell the story of Macbeth, he can tell
two stories. One is of a man called Macbeth who came to the throne
of Scotland by a crime in the year of our Lord 1039, and reigned
justly and well, on the whole, for fifteen years or more. This
story is part of Scottish history. The other story issues from
a place called Imagination; it is gloomy and wonderful, and you
shall hear it.
A year or two before Edward the Confessor began to rule England,
a battle was won in Scotland against a Norwegian King by two
generals named Macbeth and Banquo. After the battle, the generals
walked together towards Forres, in Elginshire, where Duncan, King
of Scotland, was awaiting them.
While they were crossing a lonely heath, they saw three bearded
women, sisters, hand in hand, withered in appearance and wild in
"Speak, who are you?" demanded Macbeth.
"Hail, Macbeth, chieftain of Glamis," said the first woman.
 "Hail, Macbeth, chieftain of Cawdor," said the second woman.
"Hail, Macbeth, King that is to be," said the third woman.
Then Banquo asked, "What of me?" and the third woman replied, "Thou
shalt be the father of kings."
"Tell me more," said Macbeth. "By my father's death I am chieftain
of Glamis, but the chieftain of Cawdor lives, and the King lives,
and his children live. Speak, I charge you!"
The women replied only by vanishing, as though suddenly mixed with
Banquo and Macbeth knew then that they had been addressed by witches,
and were discussing their prophecies when two nobles approached.
One of them thanked Macbeth, in the King's name, for his military
services, and the other said, "He bade me call you chieftain of
Macbeth then learned that the man who had yesterday borne that
title was to die for treason, and he could not help thinking, "The
third witch called me, 'King that is to be.' "
"Banquo," he said, "you see that the witches spoke
 truth concerning
me. Do you not believe, therefore, that your child and grandchild
will be kings?"
Banquo frowned. Duncan had two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, and
he deemed it disloyal to hope that his son Fleance should rule
Scotland. He told Macbeth that the witches might have intended
to tempt them both into villainy by their prophecies concerning
the throne. Macbeth, however, thought the prophecy that he should
be King too pleasant to keep to himself, and he mentioned it to
his wife in a letter.
Lady Macbeth was the grand-daughter of a King of Scotland who had
died in defending his crown against the King who preceded Duncan,
and by whose order her only brother was slain. To her, Duncan
was a reminder of bitter wrongs. Her husband had royal blood in
his veins, and when she read his letter, she was determined that
he should be King.
When a messenger arrived to inform her that Duncan would pass a
night in Macbeth's castle, she nerved herself for a very base
She told Macbeth almost as soon as she saw him
 that Duncan must
spend a sunless morrow. She meant that Duncan must die, and that
the dead are blind. "We will speak further," said Macbeth uneasily,
and at night, with his memory full of Duncan's kind words, he
would fain have spared his guest.
"Would you live a coward?" demanded Lady Macbeth, who seems to have
thought that morality and cowardice were the same.
"I dare do all that may become a man," replied Macbeth; "who dare
do more is none."
"Why did you write that letter to me?" she inquired fiercely, and
with bitter words she egged him
 on to murder, and with cunning
words she showed him how to do it.
After supper Duncan went to bed, and two grooms were placed on
guard at his bedroom door. Lady Macbeth caused them to drink wine
till they were stupefied. She then took their daggers and would
have killed the King herself if his sleeping face had not looked
like her father's.
Macbeth came later, and found the daggers lying by the grooms; and
soon with red hands he appeared before his wife, saying, "Methought
I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more! Macbeth destroys the sleeping.' "
"Wash your hands," said she. "Why did you not leave the daggers
by the grooms? Take them back, and smear the grooms with blood."
"I dare not," said Macbeth.
His wife dared, and she returned to him with hands red as his own,
but a heart less white, she proudly told him, for she scorned his
The murderers heard a knocking, and Macbeth wished it was a knocking
which could wake the dead. It was the knocking of Macduff, the
 Fife, who had been told by Duncan to visit him early.
Macbeth went to him, and showed him the door of the King's room.
Macduff entered, and came out again crying, "O horror! horror!
Macbeth appeared as horror-stricken as Macduff, and pretending that
he could not bear to see life in Duncan's murderers, he slew the
two grooms with their own daggers before they could proclaim their
KING AND QUEEN MACBETH.
These murders did not shriek out, and Macbeth was crowned at Scone.
One of Duncan's sons went to Ireland, the other to England.
 King. But he was discontented. The prophecy concerning
Banquo oppressed his mind. If Fleance were to rule, a son of
Macbeth would not rule. Macbeth determined, therefore, to murder
both Banquo and his son. He hired two ruffians, who slew Banquo
one night when he was on his way with Fleance to a banquet which
Macbeth was giving to his nobles. Fleance escaped.
Meanwhile Macbeth and his Queen received their guests very graciously,
and he expressed a wish for them which has been uttered thousands
of times since his day—"Now good digestion wait on appetite, and
health on both."
"We pray your Majesty to sit with us," said Lennox, a Scotch noble;
but ere Macbeth could reply, the ghost of Banquo entered the
banqueting hall and sat in Macbeth's place.
Not noticing the ghost, Macbeth observed that, if Banquo were
present, he could say that he had collected under his roof the
choicest chivalry of Scotland. Macduff, however, had curtly
declined his invitation.
The King was again pressed to take a seat, and
 Lennox, to whom
Banquo's ghost was invisible, showed him the chair where it sat.
But Macbeth, with his eyes of genius, saw the ghost. He saw it
like a form of mist and blood, and he demanded passionately, "Which
of you have done this?"
Still none saw the ghost but he, and to the ghost Macbeth said,
"Thou canst not say I did it."
The ghost glided out, and Macbeth was impudent enough to raise a
glass of wine "to the general joy of the whole table, and to our
dear friend Banquo, whom we miss."
The toast was drunk as the ghost of Banquo entered for the second
"Begone!" cried Macbeth. "You are senseless, mindless! Hide in
the earth, thou horrible shadow."
Again none saw the ghost but he.
"What is it your Majesty sees?" asked one of the nobles.
The Queen dared not permit an answer to be given to this question.
She hurriedly begged her guests to quit a sick man who was likely
to grow worse if he was obliged to talk.
 Macbeth, however, was well enough next day to converse with the
witches whose prophecies had so depraved him.
He found them in a cavern on a thunderous day. They were revolving
round a cauldron in which were boiling particles of many strange
and horrible creatures, and they knew he was coming before he
"Answer me what I ask you," said the King.
"Would you rather hear it from us or our masters?" asked the first
"Call them," replied Macbeth.
Thereupon the witches poured blood into the cauldron and grease
into the flame that licked it, and a helmeted head appeared with
the visor on, so that Macbeth could only see its eyes.
He was speaking to the head, when the first witch said gravely,
"He knows thy thought," and a voice in the head said, "Macbeth,
beware Macduff, the chieftain of Fife." The head then descended
into the cauldron till it disappeared.
"One word more," pleaded Macbeth.
"He will not be commanded," said the first witch,
 and then a crowned
child ascended from the cauldron bearing a tree in his hand. The
"Macbeth shall be unconquerable till
The Wood of Birnam climbs Dunsinane Hill."
"That will never be," said Macbeth; and he asked to be told if
Banquo's descendants would ever rule Scotland.
The cauldron sank into the earth; music was heard, and a procession
of phantom kings filed past Macbeth; behind them was Banquo's
ghost. In each king, Macbeth saw a likeness to Banquo, and he
counted eight kings.
Then he was suddenly left alone.
His next proceeding was to send murderers to Macduff's castle.
They did not find Macduff, and asked Lady Macduff where he was.
She gave a stinging answer, and her questioner called Macduff a
traitor. "Thou liest!" shouted Macduff's little son, who was
immediately stabbed, and with his last breath entreated his mother
to fly. The murderers did not leave the castle while one of its
inmates remained alive.
 Macduff was in England listening, with Malcolm, to a doctor's tale
of cures wrought by Edward the Confessor when his friend Ross came
to tell him that his wife and children were no more. At first
Ross dared not speak the truth, and turn Macduff's bright sympathy
with sufferers relieved by royal virtue into sorrow and hatred.
But when Malcolm said that England was sending an army into Scotland
against Macbeth, Ross blurted out his news, and Macduff cried,
"All dead, did you say? All my pretty ones and their mother? Did
you say all?"
His sorry hope was in revenge, but if he could have looked into
Macbeth's castle on Dunsinane Hill, he would have seen at work a
force more solemn than revenge. Retribution was working, for Lady
Macbeth was mad. She walked in her sleep amid ghastly dreams.
She was wont to wash her hands for a quarter of an hour at a time;
but after all her washing, would still see a red spot of blood
upon her skin. It was pitiful to hear her cry that all the perfumes
of Arabia could not sweeten her little hand.
"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?"
 inquired Macbeth of
the doctor, but the doctor replied that his patient must minister
to her own mind. This reply gave Macbeth a scorn of medicine.
"Throw physic to the dogs," he said; "I'll none of it."
One day he heard a sound of women crying. An officer approched
him and said, "The Queen, your Majesty, is dead." "Out, brief
candle," muttered Macbeth, meaning that life was like a candle,
at the mercy of a puff of air. He did not weep; he was too familiar
Presently a messenger told him that he saw Birnam Wood on the march.
Macbeth called him a liar and a slave, and threatened to hang
him if he had made a mistake. "If you are right you can hang me,"
From the turret windows of Dunsinane Castle, Birnam Wood did indeed
appear to be marching. Every soldier of the English army held
aloft a bough which he had cut from a tree in that wood, and like
human trees they climbed Dunsinane Hill.
Macbeth had still his courage. He went to battle to conquer or
die, and the first thing he did was to
 kill the English general's
son in single combat. Macbeth then felt that no man could fight
him and live, and when Macduff came to him blazing for revenge,
Macbeth said to him, "Go back; I have spilt too much of your blood
MACBETH AND MACDUFF FIGHT.
"My voice is in my sword," replied Macduff, and hacked at him and
bade him yield.
"I will not yield!" said Macbeth, but his last hour had struck.
Macbeth's men were in retreat when Macduff
 came before Malcolm
holding a King's head by the hair.
"Hail, King!" he said; and the new King looked at the old.
So Malcolm reigned after Macbeth; but in years that came afterwards
the descendants of Banquo were kings.
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