Macbeth (1603-4)

There is no adherence to historical accuracy in Macbeth by Shakespeare, the murder of his uncle Duncan is actually derived from the murder of an earlier Scottish King Duff. In reality Duncan was killed in the battle of Bothnagowan by his rival Macbeth (reigned 1040-1057). Historically, Malcolm III (1031-93), who was a vassal to the first Norman King William the Conqueror, became monarch after killing the usurper Macbeth in revenge for the murder of his own father Duncan Ist. The story of Macbeth comes partly from Hollinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland. From this work the infamous scene of the three witches was derived; he wrote: “three women in wild apparel, resembling creatures of the elder world”, but Shakespeare fails to mention that Macbeth actually murdered Duncan and after his own death Macbeth was buried on the isle of Iona. The episode seems to have been an allusion that was adapted from the murder of King Duff by one Donwald who was similarly egged on by an ambitious wife. What Shakespeare might have been alluding to was the murder of the husband of Mary Queen of Scots namely Lord Henry, Stuart Darnley (the father of James Ist of England who was implicated in the murder of the Scottish Queen’s secretary, David Riccio in 1566) who was himself murdered by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell in 1567 who then supposedly went on to abduct and marry Mary. Shortly after their demise and defeat at Carberry Hill, Mary returned to England and  Bothwell escaped to Denmark where he died of insanity and incarceration. Other tenuous influences derive from George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) and Matthew Gwynne’s Latin pageant Tres Sybyllae performed before James Ist in 1605. It was supposedly written shortly after the shock of the Gunpowder Plot or Powder Treason (Nov 5th 1605) of Guy Fawkes backfired, who was then configured as an iconic scapegoat into the hands of the Puritan Cause. An anonymous letter by Francis Tresham sent to his Catholic brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle warned of the imminent threat to the King and Parliament. The leading conspirator was Robert Catesby of Warwickshire, the son of Sir William Catesby who was known to Shakspere’s father. He was shot dead while resisting arrest in Staffordshire and his uprising in Warwickshire was halted and dismantled. It has been suggested that Ben Jonson had a hand as a spy in uncovering the threat. Under torture Fawkes revealed that among the conspirators was Father Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuit mission in England and the author of A Treatise of Equivocation. This book explained how to give misleading or ambiguous replies when being tortured or questioned under oath. Nevertheless, Fawkes and Garnet along with other conspirators were brought to trial and found guilty by Sir Edward Coke then hung, drawn and quartered with their dismembered bodies placed on public display. The fear of Catholic interference extending to political subterfuge and actual terrorism may have been real or merely a theatrical masquerade for taking a tougher stance towards Rome now that James had ascended the throne. The Bard, who now commanded his actors as the “King’s Men” instead of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men may have secretly intended an endorsement of loyalty to the first Stuart King of England & Ireland – James Ist. James’ Scottish lineage, which extended back to the noble thane Banquo had also gained a popular reputation for his bizarre belief in benevolent and malevolent spirits and witchcraft generally. His predecessor James Ist of Scotland was reputed to be something of a literary scholar or poet and was himself assassinated in Perth. Having both parents previously assassinated, James may have had an unconscious fear or premonition of regicide himself, which is essentially the theme of the play. Shakespeare would no doubt have read the monarch’s treatise on the subject of witchcraft (Daemonologie 1597) attacking the sceptical Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) by Reginald Scott, and also George Gifford’s Concerning Witches and Witchcraft (1593). Moreover that his lineage was cursed by the actions of his forebears that in the end seem to require even more murders and more bloodshed to consolidate his claims to simultaneously Scottish and English sovereignty.

The First Folio version seems to correspond to a promptbook (F) which is a fairly reliable source though somewhat abbreviated for the manuscript. Unfortunately, a viable date for composition or first performance of this play eludes most researchers although usually completion and performance is assumed to be sometime around 1605-6, although other scholars have suggested 1603. Analogies and allusions firstly to Henri, Duke of Guise assassinated by King Henri III of France (Macbeth) and Catherine de Medici (Lady Macbeth) by E. T. Clark suggests the play was written as early as 1589/90. In comparison with other plays this was rather short that is half the length of Hamlet. Scholarly expertise suggests that the witch’s scene was added to the original script shortly after the first performance and incorporates extracts of songs from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (1613). In actual fact Middleton or Heywood might have been involved in the final revision for the Folio of 1623. The real Macbeth had several children although in the play Macduff states “He has no children” and Lady Macbeth contradicts “I have given suck, and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me”. Therefore several anomalies surround this play, historical accuracy becomes distorted purely for theatrical effect or continued royal patronage, then the fear of witchcraft and the rationalisation of regicide predominates which is also touched upon in Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Fantasy, horror and reality are thrown into the theatrical cauldron and mixed together for terrifying impact. But morally the fallible main character, Macbeth is clearly placed in the uncomfortable position of embracing the dark side of his own nature in order to achieve position and power. It would seem that Lady Macbeth had read Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise on statecraft (Il Cortegiano, or The Prince) before encouraging her husband to murder Duncan. He wrote in chapter 37 that: “Nature has created men so that they desire everything but are unable to attain it, desire being thus always greater than acquiring, discontent with what they have and dissatisfaction with themselves result from it”. Actors have for long feared the play is cursed and have decided that even a mention of the name has negative consequences and instead refer to it as “The Scottish Play”. Many actors have been injured or indeed even killed during or after performances. King James apparently banned it for 25 years after seeing it. During a production in Amsterdam in 1622 the actor playing Macbeth held a real dagger and accidentally killed the actor playing Duncan. A more recent production by John Gielgud in 1942 three actors died, two of the witches and the actor playing Duncan. Roman Polanski’s film production in 1971 is thought to have cursed his family, his wife being murdered by Charles Manson. Indeed, the feminine aspect in this play is portrayed in an evil light and the sole source of other troubles in the world. This may have been the prevailing superstitious and bigoted view in Shakespeare’s time however since many women were being investigated and pursued for the charge of witchcraft. It was in 1258 that Pope Alexander IV instructed the Inquisition to deal with witchcraft. In England witchcraft was subsequently made a felony in 1542, then became a capital offence in 1563 and in the same year endorsed with the death penalty in Scotland. Many of the victims of witch-hunts were harmless old women who were little more than local healers/doctors or even worse those suffering from mental illness. Metaphysically the idea being promoted is that fate and destiny are beyond the knowledge of the players in world affairs and that sympathetic magic is real and may have an impact on the world stage. The fear of witchcraft was nevertheless palpable and ongoing leading to numerous witch-hunts in the 17th century (see Pendle Witches, Witch Finder General Matthew Hopkins and Witches of Salem). When James VIth along with his wife Anne first arrived by ship from Demark in 1590 he was unwittingly a victim of witchcraft by the four witches of North Berwick. When arrested, tortured and questioned they confessed to having cast a “conjured cat” into the sea near the royal ship and of making a waxen image of James which they ritually impaled and melted. They were eventually burnt at the stake on Castle Hill, Edinburgh in 1591.

In Renaissance England a belief in magic, alchemy and astrology permeated, albeit in varying degrees of superstitious credulity to serious research, all aspects of the literary and dramatic arts, the known sciences of the period, as well as agriculture, maritime expeditions and religion. It was a truly unusual and metaphysical period in British history rich in the belief of supernatural powers and agencies. Pliny wrote in his Historia Naturalis; “At present day, Britannia is still fascinated by magic, and performs its rites with much ceremony”. In his three books of Occult Philosophy (1651), Henry Cornelius Agrippa wrote: “Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of the most high mysteries containing the most profound contemplation of things.” However, in the 9th century King Alfred wrote: “Women who are wont to practice enchantments, and magicians and witches, do not allow them to live”. He clearly echoed and reflected the prevailing Catholic views when King James I ascended the English throne mainly that magic, as well as those who practised it were to be feared and exterminated. Alchemical religions in Europe were rife during the 14th -16th century although the study of alchemy in England began with Robert of Chester who translated a Muslim treatise on the subject. Its adherents included Roger Bacon, George Ripley, Thomas Bungay, Thomas Norton, Robert Fludd and Dr. John Dee.

Father Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuit mission in England being involved in the Gunpowder Plot was also the author of A Treatise of Equivocation. This book explained how to give misleading or ambiguous replies when being tortured or questioned under oath. The Jesuit father was involved in the marriage of the Earl of Derby and Earl of Oxford’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Vere around 1594 an occasion for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows:


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