About Macbeth


Stage History

One of Shakespeare's main interests in writing Macbeth was to examine the nature of kingship, as he had already done in Hamlet and King Lear, written only a few years previously. In order to understand why he was so interested in this topic, we must examine briefly the fascinating early stage history of this play.

Probably written in 1605-1606, Macbeth was first performed for King James I of England less than a year after the infamous Gunpowder plot in which a group of Catholics attempted to blow up the king and the English parliament. A play that concerned treachery and regicide — the killing of a king — was bound to be topical and politically significant. There can be no real question of Shakespeare's wish to flatter a king whose interest in both the supernatural and the nature of kingship are all referred to so strongly in this play. Moreover, James I was descended from Scottish ancestors, the Stuarts, so a play concerning the early kings of Scotland was bound to appeal to him. Shakespeare's only problem was that the Stuarts were descended from Banquo who, as Holinshed's Chronicle makes clear, helped Macbeth murder the king. This explains why, in Shakespeare's play, Banquo cannot be the accomplice, a role that instead passes to Macbeth's wife.

So fascinated was James I in the notion of what makes a good king that he himself had written (in 1599) a handbook on good government, the Basilikon Doron. Some of these ideas of good kingship are listed by Malcolm as "the king-becoming graces" in Act IV, Scene 3 of Macbeth: "Justice, Verity, Temp'rance, Stableness, Bounty, Perseverance, Mercy, Lowliness, Devotion, Patience, Courage, Fortitude." Macbeth lacks all these kingly virtues, but his greatest vice is his impulse to lie — even to his own conscience — in his pursuit of power.

The Audience

Like all tragic heroes before him, Macbeth's greatest lie is to himself. He becomes blinded to his own ambition. His overbearing pride (or hubris) is so great that he fails to see as he stumbles toward his destiny. Perhaps only when Lady Macbeth commits her off-stage suicide does he begin to acknowledge the truth. "She should have died hereafter," he comments, and then adds "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time . . . ."

These lines apply to us, not just as readers and playgoers, but as humans. We may not have committed murder, we may not have ambitions for power, but we all know how it feels to watch time passing. At this point in the play, we see a man emotionally raw, stripped momentarily of all his power, admitting — with self-awareness and, perhaps, with bitter self-irony — his share in the common human experience. This moment is only one of the few moments in the play when Macbeth does so. Immediately afterwards, he strides into battle with all his former arrogance, to his tragic end. Without these lines, we could not, perhaps, feel the tragedy in the same way.

We may not be Macbeth, but as playgoers and readers, we encounter what he does: We, too, experience visions of the supernatural. We, too, ask "Is it a dagger?" "Is it a ghost?" "Are they real?" The answer to all these questions is equivocal; they are real, in a way, and in another way, they are false, only tricks "paltering with us in a double sense." Even Macbeth is and is not real. He's an actor playing an actor, deeply aware of his twofold existence.

The play is peppered with references to the world of the theater, from the very beginning when we are seduced into a magic ritual by three characters who chant and dance around their stage. The banquet in Act III is a magnificent piece of staging, in which the director (Macbeth) is not allowed to direct as he wishes. Even the murder is an act, as distinct from the thought or intention of an act, as Lady Macbeth reminds her husband "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?"

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