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 Sacrificed God

The death of King Arthur

The play opens with the three witches arranging to meet again on the moor, where they encounter a Scottish chieftain named Macbeth. We learn of an insurrection against the reigning King Duncan being put down by the heroic efforts of Macbeth and ensuring victory. The Norwegian King in alliance with the Thane of Cawdor sues for peace, the latter being executed and his lands and title being bequeathed to Macbeth. The witches hail Macbeth, in company with Banquo as a new leader, prophesying his rise to King. Soon after Macbeth hears that he has indeed been promoted, he departs to the King’s court where he receives his honours with a promise by the King to visit him some future time. However, to Macbeth’s consternation the King names his son Malcolm as his future successor to the throne. At Macbeth’s castle at Inverness the Lady Macbeth is reading a letter describing her husband’s encounter with the three witches when news is brought of the King’s impending visit. She then plots to do away with the King thereby assuring the witches’ prophetic declarations. Macbeth arrives and she takes him aware of her conspiracies. The King then arrives and is warmly welcomed by Lord and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s conscience plagues him with the awful consequences of the King’s murder but his Lady then reviles him as a spineless coward.
Act II features the famous dagger scene (“Is this a dagger which I see before me…”), as Macbeth contemplates his awful fate and the foul deed, while Lady Macbeth plans to make the grooms in waiting drunk and then blame them for the murder of the King. Macbeth returns with the two daggers from the sleeping grooms and his wife annoyed that their plan will lack credence is forced to return to the scene of the crime. A knocking is heard at the castle gate, apparently Macduff, with Lennox has arrived to await on the King. When they go to his chamber they discover him dead and he forthwith disposes of the two grooms. The King’s sons Malcolm and Dunabain flee from the scene in fear and anguish, which only serves to throw popular suspicion on them. Meanwhile, in light of the dreadful events Macbeth is swiftly pronounced King, but fears the consequences of the witches prophesy that Banquo and his descendants will succeed to the throne. Subsequently, Macbeth instructs two assassins to murder Banquo and his son Fleance. However, Fleance manages to escape and later at a grand celebration feast the ghost of Banquo, visible only to Lady Macbeth, arrives and takes his place at the banquet. The banquet is broken off by this supernatural turn of events and she decides to consult again with the three witches. We learn that Malcolm has retired to the English court to raise an army intended to rid Scotland of its new tyrant.
In act IV Macbeth is visiting the three witches in their cave, where they warn him of the Thane of Fife (Macduff), but assure him that none of woman born shall harm him and that he will only be vanquished when Birnham wood moves to Dunsinane. He asks if Banquo’s children will ever reign and is shown eight King’s assembled with Banquo’s ghost. Then the witches disappear and Lennox arrives with news that Macduff has fled to England, at which Macbeth resolves to seize his castle fortress and kill his remaining wife and children. The next scene opens with the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, while Macduff is still away enlisting support from Malcolm for his campaign. Then news is brought to Macduff of the murder of his wife and son, so that Macduff and Malcolm unite and direct forces against Macbeth.
In act V Lady Macbeth, now suffering from mortal guilt and inner torment at her own deeds and conspiracies is under the care of a physician being prone sleep-walking. Lennox decides to join forces with Macduff and Malcolm at Birnham Wood. Malcolm orders boughs of trees to be cut down and used by troops as camouflage. Macbeth then hears his wife is dead, and that apparently the watch has reported that Birnham Wood is indeed moving towards Dunsinane. He is dismayed and realises that the witches prophecy has come true, yet clings to the notion that he cannot be harmed by any man born of a woman. In a final combat match between himself and Macduff he reiterates the witches phrase to which Macduff announces that he was torn from his mother’s womb before his timely birth. Fighting offstage in bloody conflict Macduff returns with Macbeth’s severed head and the play concludes with Macduff being crowned King of Scotland.

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


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