Shakespeare's Macbeth remains one of his most popular plays, both for classroom study and performance, and with good reason. Here we have the playwright's shortest play, but arguably his most intense, in terms both of its action and its portrayal of human relationships. The "butcher and his fiend-like queen" are among the most attractive villains in stage history, and the profound psychology with which Shakespeare imbues them is deliciously pleasurable for theater audience and student alike.
Macbeth was a real king of eleventh-century Scotland, whose history Shakespeare had read in several sources, principally the Chronicles of Holinshed, to which he referred for many of his other historical dramas. In Holinshed's account, Banquo and Macbeth combine to kill King Duncan after winning his favor in a battle against the Danes. The original story is full of wonderful details that show the cunning of the Scots and Macbeth, who slaughtered an entire Danish army not by brute force, but by cunning: first mixing a sleeping potion and sending it, like the Trojan horse, as a gift to the enemy army. Once they were asleep, Macbeth was able to kill them easily. Presumably from this incident, Shakespeare derived his idea of having Lady Macbeth administer a sleeping potion to the guards of King Duncan's chamber.
In Holinshed's account, however, although we learn that Macbeth's wife is ambitious to become queen, Lady Macbeth does not feature as an accomplice. Instead, Banquo joins forces with Macbeth in killing Duncan. As we shall see later, this particular confederacy of murderers presented Shakespeare with a problem.
Holinshed did not simply provide Shakespeare with a good story; Macbeth contains many examples of imagery and language that Shakespeare borrowed directly from his source, a practice common to all writers. For example, compare these words of Holinshed with Shakespeare's words.
"What manner of women (saith he) are you, that seeme so little favourable unto me, whereas to my fellow heere, besides high offices, ye assign also the kingdom?" Banquho "My noble partner / You greet with present grace, and great prediction / Of noble having, and of royal hope . . . to me you speak not." Banquo
Makbeth is afraid "lest he should be served of the same cup, as he had ministered to his predecessor." Macbeth knows that, all too often, " . . . even-handed Justice / Commends th'ingredience of our poison'd chalice /To our own lips"
There are many more such examples. What does Shakespeare add, then? Primarily, the dialogue form of a play allows Shakespeare to examine the emotional relationships between characters with much greater realism. An audience going to Shakespeare's play would see ambition, accusation, fear, grief, courage, anger, and madness at first hand instead of via a narrator.
Secondly, as in his other plays, Shakespeare's genius lies in the human treatment that each character receives. The audience is made to feel that this awful tragedy could actually happen precisely because the characters are so three-dimensional. Lady Macbeth cannot sustain her mask of cruelty; Macbeth is racked with a tormented conscience. Banquo, in Shakespeare's version a good man, is nevertheless ambitious, too.
Thirdly, drama allows events to be linked and patterned in ironic ways. The idea of sleeplessness, for example, the punishment of a guilty mind, is shown literally in Act V, when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and confesses her involvement with the murder of Duncan.
Finally, Shakespeare's mastery of the soliloquy, or solo speech, gives the audience the opportunity to see inside a character's mind, to witness, with some psychological accuracy, the intentions, hopes, and fears of these historical characters, something that a chronicler of history cannot do.
Continued on next page...