Ancient Scotland. A murdered king. A guilt crazed nobleman and lady. Guess which Shakespearean we’re discussing today… If you said “MacBeth”, you are correct. Let’s explore one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies and uncover the historical threads in the playwright’s fiction.
The Play *Warning: Spoilers* MacBeth, a trusted nobleman of King Duncan, has just won a splendid victory against enemies of the realm. As he and his friend, Banquo, travel across a lonely heath, they come across three witches who prophecy that MacBeth will receive a new noble title and become king and Banquo will be the father of kings. King Duncan gives MacBeth a new title (thus supposedly fulfilling the witches’ words) and announces that he will stay the night at the MacBeth castle. MacBeth arrives home and tells his wife about the prophecy; they eventually agree to murder King Duncan, though they welcome him warmly into the castle. With much fear and searing of conscience they prepare their daggers and in the night, MacBeth murders the king. The princes of Scotland flee, fearing foul deeds, and MacBeth is crowned the new king. MacBeth and his lady are tormented by their guilt and begin killing noblemen around them who suspect their deeds; Banquo is brutally murdered and MacBeth sees his ghost. Lady MacBeth descends to madness. Meanwhile, a Scottish nobleman enlists the help of an English army and marches to overthrow MacBeth. The wretched king finds the witches who assure him his kingdom is safe unless the forest marches against the castle and he cannot be killed by a man of woman born. Still MacBeth mused on the futility of life and on his guilty conscience. In the end the English use the branches of forest trees to cover their advance on MacBeth’s castle and in the final battle he is killed by Macduff. King Duncan’s son is crowned the new king of Scotland.
1577 Illustration of MacBeth, Banquo, and the Three Witches
The History Once upon a time Holinshed’s Chronicles was considered the definitive text on English history. In the text a man named Donwald discovers that several of his family have been killed by the king for consorting with witches; in revenge Donwald kills the king. Also in Chronicles, Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches and then the noblemen plot the murder, at Lady Macbeth’s urging. Macbeth has a long, ten-year reign before eventually being overthrown by Macduff. Now, it is important to note that some modern scholars feel the story of MacBeth in the Chronicles is fictional; however, it is interesting that Shakespeare took an accepted historical event of his time and built a story around it. In the play the first battle MacBeth wins is against the Danes who were raiding along the Scottish coast. Also, remember the prophecy of the witches that Banquo’s children would be kings? That doesn’t happen in the play, but it was common belief in Shakespeare’s time that James IV of Scotland (James I of England) was a descendant of Banquo!
The Fiction Shakespeare took a story of witches, a murdered king, and characters named MacBeth and Banquo and invented a plot with great drama. He used what were accepted “historical facts” (in his era) and built his play around them. Unlike Henry V where almost everything is historically based, MacBeth takes the skeleton of a historical event (no puns intended) and transforms into a deep study of man’s ambition, turning from righteousness, and the torment of a guilty conscience.
Analysis MacBeth has a historically setting and borrows some basic historical facts from a history book of Shakespeare’s time, but it must be acknowledged that much of the drama of the work is fiction. Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature produces a dramatic fictional work, underscored with historical themes. Thus, while coming from a history/legend book, it is best to appreciate the author’s skill of portraying human nature and drama rather than take our Ancient Scottish history from this play.
On the whole the play is very, very dark (of course, it’s a tragedy), but I see value in the study of this classic work. It is a powerful literary example of Biblical truth. James 1:14-15 reminds us: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” MacBeth was tempted by the witches’ prophecies, desired to be king, committed murder, and, in the end, was haunted by his deeds until his death.
P.S. Have you read MacBeth? What did you think of it?
You can find the full text here.
I have seen a film version, but I cannot recommend it. I watched what is called the least gruesome MacBeth film, and while not gory, it was really creepy and frightful (in a bad way). I’d highly recommend reading the play if you’re 16 or older, but would suggest skipping all film versions.