Introduction to Macbeth

In all likelihood The Tragedie of Macbeth was first performed in 1606 at the court of King James I. Its first public performance likely occurred at the Globe Theatre in 1611 (a review of this performance was given by the sometimes misleading astrologer, Simon Forman). Macbeth was first published in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, seven years after the death of Shakespeare. In the First Folio, Macbeth follows Julius Caesar and precedes Hamlet. At the time, Shakespeare’s play company was changed from “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” into “The King’s Men” in 1603 when James acceded the throne.

Considerable scholarly work has been devoted to ‘discovering’ interpolations and revisions from the original hand of Shakespeare in Macbeth, and while it seems there have been some changes made to the play (such as Thomas Middleton’s supposed addition of Hecate), I find these arguments mostly unhelpful and uninteresting. In the same way that certain philosophical dialogues from antiquity have come down to us as Platonic despite dubious authorship, we should also consider the full breadth of literature that has come down to us as Shakespearean. A similar case should be made with respect to Homer. Too much skepticism about the Bard detracts and distracts from engaging fruitfully with his plays.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s chief source material for Macbeth comes from Raphael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of Scotland, England, and Ireland (first published in 1577). The Chronicles was also a source for King Lear and Cymbeline, however, it was merely a source of inspiration for Macbeth, not a direct reflection on which the play is based. The Chronicles offered a dark tone and atmosphere filled with Celtic legends of superstition, betrayal, and violence that was wonderfully captured in Macbeth. We can also see glimpses of archaic views on witchcraft (i.e. the ‘weird sisters’) as found in King James’s Daemonologie and perhaps taken in part from the mythical sibyl from classical antiquity (the scene of the weird sisters may have been a latter addition). The occult plays an important role both within the story of Macbeth, as well as offstage. The play has come to be known as “the Scottish play” for fear of uttering “Macbeth” and thus bringing a curse upon the production. Rumors abound as to mysteries occurring during early productions of Macbeth.

In the Shakespearean universe, Macbeth shares a certain kinship with Richard III as both plays explore the idea of regicide, however Richard III comes to light as an unrepentant claimant to the throne, while Macbeth is plagued by Aeschylean furies over his decision to dethrone a king. While we feel a considerable distance from the cold-hearted King Richard III and his machinations, in Macbeth Shakespeare brings us deep into the mind of the murderer -so much so that we share a certain Aristotelian pity for Macbeth’s struggle. Macbeth also shares kinship with Antony and Cleopatra -in which Antony envisions a new world against the rule of his enemy, Octavius, not unlike Macbeth. The idea of witchcraft also appears in Henry VI part II. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, in contrast to Hamlet -one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.

Outside the Shakespearean cosmos, classical allusions abound in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth shares a great deal in common with Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra, as well as certain similarities with Seneca’s Medea, and also Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

The Context
Macbeth was first performed perhaps around the year 1606 before the court of King James I, three years after his coronation (James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen who led a rebellion against her cousin Queen Elizabeth that failed and Mary was beheaded). James’s kingship represented a turning point for England -a Scottish King at the end of the Elizabethan epoch. Macbeth is a play for a post-Elizabethan England, with a Scottish king that is not divinely authorized but rather received his approval from Parliament. One of the central questions is guilt and punishment of Macbeth -was he justified in killing the king? Shakespeare apparently fused several stories from the Chronicles to form the narrative, particularly Macbeth and the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald and his wife -a conspiracy in which Banquo was an accomplice. This allusion is particularly striking because King James I considered himself a descendent of the true Banquo, though in Macbeth Banquo is far less of a villain.

The other chief historical event that was contemporaneous with Macbeth was the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a conspiracy of Catholics sought to blow up Parliament and overthrow the Protestant King James I. The idea of usurpation, mutiny, conspiracy, and high treason were fresh on the minds of many Englishmen at the time. Indeed Shakespeare, himself, may have been concerned about his own position with the nascent king. His father (John Shakespeare, a Catholic) was friends with William Catesby, father of Robert Catesby -the head conspirator in the Gunpowder plot. In a word, Shakespeare’s family was covertly Catholic in a time when Catholicism was repressed in Protestant England. Additionally, some have suggested that Shakespeare frequented “The Mermaid” tavern in London -a watering hole that was the preferred meeting place for the Gundpowder Plot conspirators.

Shakespeare’s decision to stage a Scottish play at the court of a Scottish king about treason against the Scottish crown entitled Macbeth (or “son of Beth” or Elizabeth) was a choice to highlight parallels between the two Scottish kings -especially in light of the fact that James had betrayed his Catholic mother’s rebellion and instead followed in the footsteps of the ‘tyrannical’ rulership of the late Queen Elizabeth. However, in another light Macbeth is a plea for England to unite under the new king -a reimagining of Duncan as a noble and heroic king (in reality he was a feeble king) and a somewhat empathetic portrayal of Macbeth as well as Banquo, especially considering James’s claim to inheritance from the line of Banquo. Personally, Shakespeare is elusive and I have not yet found a partisan angle one way or the other.

1 thought on “Introduction to Macbeth

  1. When we studied MacBeth in school, we were taken to another school’s stage play of MacBeth. It was so appealing in its own unique way that I went back to see it a second time with my family. No other MacBeth adaptation has impressed me that much since, with the only exception being Marion Cotillard’s unrivalled and quite beautiful performance as Lady MacBeth.

    Liked by 1 person

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