Experts speculate that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606. This was amid the reign of James I, and the political climate certainly influenced the writing of the tragedy. In the play, the Weird Sisters prophesy that Banquo will be the father of a line of kings—a suggestion by which Shakespeare honored his patron king. The Stuart line is (supposedly) the fulfillment of this prophecy, and it is an example of history being written by the victorious. The manuscript of Macbeth is also surprisingly short, barely half as long as Hamlet, for example. This has led some experts to speculate that we may only have an abridged version, perhaps one specifically prepared to be performed before the king. If there are missing pages or lost scenes, it seems likely they would have increased the exposition, building Macbeth’s character earlier in the story and making his downfall all the more tragic.
It seems that Shakespeare founded his tale not on the older manuscripts mentioned previously but rather on a piece written by one of his contemporaries, Raphael Holinshed. The record is now called Holinshed’s Chronicles, an unfinished history of the world compiled by him and a team of scribes. The Chronicles portray Macbeth as a man struggling to keep a kingdom afloat in spite of King Duncan’s great ineptitude. This version of story includes the name of Banquo as an accomplice in the kingslaying. But because Banquo was believed to be the ancestor of James I, it seems Shakespeare removed him from the murder plot. This also lent something to the drama, giving Macbeth a nobler foil.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s darkest and yet most powerful stories. He accomplished this through a protagonist who commits many villainous deeds. In fact, only Shakespeare’s version of the story has Macbeth killing King Duncan in Macbeth’s own castle. This makes the crime all the more treacherous, as it violates ancient codes of hospitality—like murdering a messenger carrying a white flag. Even versions written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries had Duncan being killed in an ambush at Inverness, not in the castle.
Shakespeare added to the story’s dark presence by infusing it with fantastic elements, including the Weird Sisters (who speak in verse, specifically iambic tetrameter in rhymed couplets). A witch, representing darkness and chaos, was seen as “the most notorious traytor and rebell that can be”—so said Shakespeare’s contemporary William Perkins. With the power of spiritual traitors, the Weird Sisters straddle the border between reality and the supernatural, either controlling fate itself or acting as its agents. Their foul prophecy in the fog and filthy air sets the tone for the rest of the play, muddling the distinction between good and evil. The prophecy they relay to Macbeth and Banquo comes, in fact, directly from the Chronicles.
The play centers around themes of fate and murder. Production accidents have haunted its performance. And legend says that Shakespeare’s witches mutter the words of actual spells, which supposedly angered the powers that be and brought a curse upon the play. Because of these uncanny facts, many actors don’t dare to mention the play by name, instead simply referring to it as “the Scottish play.”
In the next couple days, I’ll post about these:
- Macbeth as a Tragic Hero [part 1]
- Is Macbeth a True Story? [part 2]
- Who Is Macbeth in Disney’s Gargoyles? [part 4]
- An Analysis of the Language of Macbeth [part 5]
I put together a beautiful ebook of Macbeth. If you want something nicer than the free ones, you can pick it up here for just $3.89.
Or, send me a link to your review of SONG OF LOCKE, and I’ll send you Macbeth for FREE!