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Author: Jacob Littleton
Date: 2001
World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them
From: World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them(Vol. 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: Celtic Migrations to the Reform Bill (Beginnings-1830s). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 4)

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by William Shakespeare

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A play set in Scotland In the mid-eleventh century; written and first performed c. 1606, published in 1623.


A Scottish warrior kills the king to take his throne, which leads to chaos, bloodshed, and tragedy.

Although the facts are continually in dispute, tradition has it that William Shake speare was born in Stratford in 1564, a child of the provincial middle class. He moved to London in the 1580s and joined the burgeoning world of the London theater, first as an actor and director, then as a playwright. Between 1588 and 1611, he produced close to 40 plays. Macbeth belongs to the end of Shakespeare’s “tragic period,” the years between 1600 and 1606 when he produced the five tragedies that are usually called his greatest work: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth. Written and performed—perhaps coincidentally—around the time of the accession (1603) of King James 1 of England, who also happened to be King James VI of Scotland, the play treats the issue of royal succession and offers a rare example of Renaissance English ideas about Scotland.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The political background to Macbeth

Macbeth is set in mid-eleventh-century Scotland, a time of intense political and social transition. Around 500 C.E. the Scots navigated the 13 miles of the North Channel separating the northeastern Irish kingdom of Dál Riata (today’s county Antrim) from Britain and became one of five distinct groups of medieval peoples who occupied what is now Scotland. The Scots tussled with the other groups throughout the centuries in an endless succession of battles and won only with difficulty the lands that Macbeth would rule in the mid-eleventh century. Among their rivals were the Picts who lived north of the firths of Clyde and Forth and in the northern Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetlands; the Britons who inhabited today’s Galloway, Cumberland, and Strathclyde (i.e., to the south and west); the Angles, who originated in Germany and Denmark, who lived in Northumbria (to the south and east); and later the Vikings who inhabited the northern and western isles. Having first set foot on the western coast of present-day Scotland (probably around the Mull of Kintyre), the Scots moved into the lands occupied by these other groups. By the mid-ninth century, all these people had been mingling and vying for prominence for centuries.

Under Kenneth mac Alpin (ruled 842-58), the Scots finally completed their conquest of the Picts; the political entity that arose from this situation Page 230  |  Top of Articlewas the foundation of the later kingdom of the Scots. It stretched almost completely across Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, except for some of the northern islands, which were occupied by the Vikings. These Scandinavians were tenacious in their attacks upon Scotland. As Shakespeare’s play opens, a Danish army under “Sveno” is attacking the Scots. In fact, the Scandinavian threat is often cited by historians as one of the reasons why the Scots felt such a need to consolidate their power by assimilating the Picts. From the mid-ninth century onward, the Scandinavians did not merely come as raiders, they came to stay, and settled in the northern islands and in Caithness, at the northernmost point of Scotland. The Scottish kings often forged alliances with them, and the players in Macbeth all had strong Scandinavian connections. Macbeth himself had Scandinavian cousins. His cousin Malcolm mac Malbrigte had given his daughter to Sigurd, the lord of Orkney, and she produced a son, Thorfinn, who would plague Macbeth’s kingship—the two seem to have fought at least one major battle, which Macbeth lost. Because of his complicated lineage, Thorfinn was actually one of the most powerful men in Scotland. He ruled the Orkneys, Shetlands, and possibly part of the Hebrides; also he claimed Caithness and Sutherland by hereditary right from his maternal grandfather. His position in a way exemplifies the intricate web of alliances and genealogies by which Scotland was held together and, sometimes, by which its existence was threatened.

To the south, the Scots had other, related problems. By 1018 they had defeated the Northumbrians at Carham and had won all the territory as far south as the River Tweed, a boundary that still divides Scotland from England. Sometime after 1018, the Scots made Strathclyde a client kingdom, which meant that it was subject to the Scottish kings. The rule of Strathclyde was made hereditary for whoever was the heir to the Scottish throne. But the situation was far from stable. The Angles of Northumbria in particular were a constant source of anxiety to the Scottish kings, and the complex power plays between the Scots, the Angles in Northumbria, and the Danes based in Dublin form the wider political backdrop of Shakespeare’s play.

Yet Macbeth is above all else a family drama, as were all political disputes in Scotland. The leading families were bound to one another in a practically unfathomable series of alliances and feuds. Macbeth and Duncan were certainly related, even if they were not, in fact, first-cousins. The Dál Riata royal family that first came from the Irish kingdom of the same name to Scotland was of the dynasty of cenél nGabrain; they moved into the heartland of what would become the Scottish kingdom. A second Dál Riata lineage, cenél Loairn, moved north and settled in a region of northern Britain (which included Macbeth’s home province of Moray); the region stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and from Ross to the river Dee—a huge, wild territory separated from the rest of Scotland by the Grampian mountains. From nearly the beginning of the Dál Riata migration, the two lineages would in an important sense be separate from one another (indeed they fought battles against each other). But, through intermarriage, political expediency (usually having to do with Viking incursions), and the peculiarities of the Scottish succession (see below), the two lines nevertheless often entered into an uneasy alliance.

The king of Moray

In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth is referred to incorrectly as the thane of Glamis and / or of Cawdor. His real title was king of cenél Loairn or king of Moray, and this is a distinction that makes all the difference for an appropriate historical understanding of what really transpired between Macbeth and Duncan. The two kingly dynasties—Cenél nGabrain and Cenél Loairn—had competed for primacy in Dál Riata and continued their competition when they moved into the east. By the tenth century they were competing for primacy over all of Scotland (Hudson, p. 146).

The leaders of the two royal families were often at serious odds with each other. A royal ancestor of Duncan, Malcolm I (died 954) attacked Moray in the mid-tenth century and killed the king, named Cellach. Malcolm’s son, Dub (“the Dark”), was slain in Moray in 966; a later legend claims that his body was hidden under a bridge, and the sun refused to shine until it was recovered. Malcolm’s other son, Kenneth I, Duncan’s great-grandfather, succeeded in having his over-lordship acknowledged by his rivals of cenél Loairn, and he is described as high king of the Scots on his death in 995. His supremacy was continued by his son Malcolm II, who was called the “king of the Mounth” (the mountain chain that marks Moray’s southern border) in an important historical document. Macbeth’s father, Findlaech, who was king of cenél Loairn, or king of Moray, probably was married to one of Malcolm’s female relatives (possibly a daughter or a sister) in what was most likely a politically motivated Page 231  |  Top of Articlemarriage meant to solder peace between the two royal dynasties of cenél nGabrain and cenél Loairn (Hudson, p. 137). Even after Macbeth’s eventual downfall, the dynasty of cenél nGabrain could not tame Moray, and political unrest continued in the area for at least another century and a half.

The changing rules of Scottish kingship

Macbeth, turns on the question of kingship, which was in a state of transition during the eleventh century. In practice, kingship among the Scots had alternated among the adult male members of the royal family who possessed the necessary genealogical qualifications. The kingship could be passed laterally—that is, from brother to brother, or cousin to cousin, or uncle to nephew—as well as from father to son or grandson. The candidates for king were to be drawn from the ranks of men whose father had himself been king (but was not necessarily the current king). The sharing of the kingship among branches of the dynasty was an effort to prevent the family from becoming embroiled in a feud, with all its attendant dangers. When one branch of the family felt powerful enough to exclude its kinsmen, the succession would pass lineally rather than laterally. A novelty, however, was introduced when Malcolm 11 appointed his grandson Duncan as his heir (technically, his tanaise, which is Gaelic for “the second” or “expected one”). Duncan’s ascension to the throne illustrated the power of his grandfather and the hold his family had on the kingship of cenél nGabrain. He claimed his royal title through his mother rather than his father, who was a cleric. Thus Shakespeare’s play, which laments the unnatural act perpetrated by Macbeth in taking the kingship from Duncan, does not reflect the actual political situation in eleventh-century Scotland: Duncan was himself inappropriately the king, according to the usual method of selecting a king.

Scottish kings were very powerful figures who had authority in all legislative, military, fiscal, and judicial matters. A king had a main fortress, but he also traveled about the country, visiting different fortifications and the powerful men who lived in them and who represented their province in dealings with the king. These men were called mormaers (or “great stewards”); such a man was often of royal lineage and was the toisech (“leader” or “chief”) of a particular family and the area it inhabited. In the Anglo-Saxon lands that had been annexed to the Scots’ domain there were also thanes, or minor officials appointed by the king. Thanages tended over time to become hereditary positions. The word “thane” (from the Anglo-Saxon thegn, or “one who serves”) was not used to describe the office in Macbeth’s day. Responsibility for running royal estates was in the hands of the rechtaire (“steward”), who assisted the exactores (“tax gatherers”) in collecting coin (tribute) and “conveth” (food and housing for the king and his followers when he was in the area). These services were necessary in view of the king’s habit of visiting royal estates; such a visit occurs in the first act of Shakespeare’s play when Duncan visits Macbeth’s castle.

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Although Shakespeare’s play portrays Macbeth’s killing of Duncan as an abnormal act, Scottish history from the midtenth to mid-eleventh century is full of slain kings. Two of them died in Moray: Dub probably in 966 and, of course, Duncan in 1040, But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The usual custom was for a king to appoint a tanaise—an heir-designate—while he himself was still alive. This effort towards a peaceful change of power counted for little in the civil wars that ravaged both Scottish royal families. Cousin murdered cousin, and nephew killed uncle as branches of the royal families fought for supremacy from the latter tenth century to the early eleventh century. Thus, while the men in Duncan’s retinue bewail the horror, the “murder and treason” that have befallen Scotland with the slaying of the king in Shakespeare’s play, in real-life Scotland no one was likely to have been much surprised by any of it (Macbeth, 2.3.69).

The kingship of Duncan

The reign of the historical Duncan offered much room for improvement; in real life, his removal from the kingship would not have been much cause for wonder. The grandson of the ruthless Malcolm II, Duncan (or Donnchad) had been appointed as the king’s heir, which, as mentioned, went against usual succession custom. Duncan succeeded to his kingship in 1034. His path to the throne had been smoothed by assassinations that his grandfather had prescribed on his behalf. This had created an atmosphere of unease and mistrust among Duncan’s nobles, which could account for the general failure of his reign; a contemporary poem (the “Prophecy of Berchan”) ridicules him as a hypochondriac and suggests that his maladies would be his claim to fame. In any case, Duncan became king mostly because it was his Page 232  |  Top of Articlegrandfather’s will that he be king, not because he was commonly held by his peers to be the best candidate of his generation; historians speculate that his accession “did not … gain wide acceptance” (Lynch, p. 49). His historical reputation is that of a very inept military leader. He led a disastrous raid on the city of Durham in Northumbria in 1039 / 40, from which he retreated, having lost badly. He then seems to have turned his eyes northward and to have gone into Moray on his royal circuit, a display of the royal presence that was intended to overawe his subordinate king. While on that progress he was killed by Macbeth on August 16, 1040. His exact age at death is unknown, but he was young (a contemporary chronicle describes him of immature age). Certainly he was a far cry from the gentle, wise, and aged king of Shakespeare’s imagination. In the matter of ambition, however, Shakespeare understood his man correctly: Macbeth took advantage of Duncan’s unpopularity and weakness to kill him and seize the overlordship of all the Scots.

The real Macbeths

Macbeth (or Mac Bethad Mac Findlaech) appears frequently in historical documents of the time, although never in much detail, and it is difficult to piece together his life and his career. The “Prophecy of Berchan” asserts that he was fair-haired and slender with a ruddy complexion. His early life, we know, was overshadowed by civil war among the cenél Loairn. Macbeth was the son of Findlaech (or Finlay), king of cenél Loairn, who was slain by Macbeth’s cousins Malcolm and Gillacomgain in 1020, when Macbeth was probably quite young. Macbeth himself became king in 1029, following Malcolm’s death. Soon after, as attested by both English and Scandinavian records, Macbeth submitted to Cnut the Great, king of the Danes and the English.

Macbeth is the first Scots prince for whom we know the name of his wife: Gruoch. Her prior husband was Macbeth’s cousin and rival for power Gillacomgain, who had been a mormaer to his brother Malcolm. Gillacomgáin was killed along with his men in a fire in 1032; historians do not know with certainty that Macbeth was responsible, but he did marry Gruoch shortly thereafter, in what is generally taken as a show of unity. We know almost nothing of Gruoch but that she was descended from royal blood of cenél nGabrain. Upon marrying her, Macbeth adopted her son by Gillacomgain, Lulach; this may indicate that he was interested in calming the political strife in Moray. Gruoch herself had a gripe with Malcolm II and his family—the former king had killed her grandfather, Kenneth III, and her nephew (in 1033). She was aristocratic, powerful, and doubtless vengeful when it came to Malcolm and Duncan; in this regard, Shakespeare’s portrait of her is accurate. The real Lady Macbeth was furthermore a patroness of the Church. Her donation of lands at Kirkness, in Fife, are remembered in the register of the church of St. Andrews. She and Macbeth were likewise patrons of the arts.

Macbeth killed Duncan in 1040, near Elgin, which is well within Moray’s borders. This act alone was not enough to have made him king of the rival dynasty of Cenél nGabrain, and high king of all the Scots—he would have needed to demonstrate the proper ancestral credentials and to have been enthroned at Scone. Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donald fled Scotland in 1042—Donald to Ireland, and Malcolm to England, to his kinsman Siward, earl of Northumbria. Malcolm eventually solicited the help of the English king Edward the Confessor to regain the Scottish throne, just as in Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth’s inability—or unwillingness—to kill the pair led to his own death in 1057. Evidence is scant, but Macbeth ruled peacefully and well for nearly two decades before the dynastic infighting and intrigue that characterized Scottish politics once again overtook him. He even made a lengthy pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, a sign to many historians that Scotland was at peace at that time. If so, it was not to last long. The Northumbrians under Siward attacked on behalf of Malcolm in 1054 and defeated Macbeth. Malcolm was reinstated in his home territory as Macbeth’s underking, and he set his sights on the kingship of all of Scotland. In mid-August 1057 Malcolm challenged Macbeth to battle at Lumphanan, north of the river Dee. Macbeth won the battle but was seriously wounded and bled to death at Scone on August 16, 17 years to the day after he had killed Duncan (Hudson, p. 144). After Macbeth’s death, Lulach, whom Macbeth had probably made his underking in Moray, succeeded to the throne. Lulach held on for a brief period of months and was killed by Malcolm in March 1058; this death marked the end of cenél Loaim’s aspirations to the kingship of all Scots. We do not know what happened to Gruoch.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

Macbeth opens on an ominous note. Duncan, king of Scotland, is receiving news Page 233  |  Top of Articleof battle from a wounded soldier. The battle is, in fact, a rebellion: Scottish warriors, among them the thane of Cawdor, are rising up against Duncan. Rosse, another thane, enters to announce that the rebellion has been subdued, and that the credit for the victory belongs to Macbeth. Duncan decides that, as a reward for valor, Macbeth will be made the new thane of Cawdor.

Now the scene shifts to a forest, where Macbeth and his fellow warrior Banquo are returning from the battle. They come across three “weird sisters,” witches or supernatural creatures. The witches greet Macbeth as the thane of Cawdor and say that he is fated to become king. Understandably amazed, Macbeth and Banquo ask for more information; the witches, however, say only that Banquo will not be a king, but that his children will rule. As the witches vanish, Rosse finds Macbeth and tells him that he is now thane of Cawdor. Shocked at the quick fulfillment of the prophecy, Macbeth falls into a soliloquy in which he reveals that he is already thinking of killing his king.

Of course, Duncan knows nothing of this when he decides to visit Macbeth at the latter’s home. His arrival is preceded by Macbeth’s first conversation with his wife, who has received a letter from him about the prophecy, and who is filled with deadly excitement over the possibilities:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty.…
… Come, thick night,
And pale thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, “Hold, hold.”
               (Macbeth, 1.5.37-52)

Her intent fully formed, Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to kill Duncan and fulfill the prophecy, but he is undecided. After dinner, they argue the situation: Lady Macbeth tries to get her husband to adopt ruthless violence, but Macbeth, at least at first, points out that the king has honored him and is a guest in their house. However, his objections are overridden by his wife’s taunting urgency and by his own desire for glory. In the depths of the night, he steals away to slay Duncan.

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Macbeth kills Duncan after his wife drugs the king’s attendants; afterward, Macbeth places bloody daggers in their hands. He is sorry almost at once, but Lady Macbeth, while shocked by the amount of blood, remains composed. A knocking is heard, and the scene shifts. Downstairs, the warrior Macduff has arrived. He greets Macbeth and asks to see the king; it is Macduff who finds Duncan’s body. As he raises the house with his cries, Macbeth kills the king’s sleeping attendants, whom he plans to blame for the murder. Lady Macbeth swoons—or pretends to; as the others attend her, Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, speak to each other. They decide to flee, Malcolm to England, and Donalbain to Ireland: they know that whoever killed Duncan will soon set his sights on them.

In the chaos and sorrow that follow Duncan’s death, strange happenings disrupt the normal flow of nature. Duncan’s horses eat each other; owls kills hawks. Most ominously, day refuses to come. In this dark confusion, the flight of the king’s sons throws suspicion on them. Macbeth is named king of this turbulent and peaceless land. A few days pass, and Macbeth plans to kill Banquo. All the witches’ prophesies have come Page 234  |  Top of Articletrue; but the guilty king believes he can circumvent the one that says that Banquo’s children will ascend to the monarchy. He hires murderers to assail Banquo and his son Fleance as they are out hunting before dinner at the royal palace. Although the murderers manage to kill Banquo, Fleance escapes.

At the banquet that night, Macbeth’s brief kingship reaches its zenith and immediately begins to decline. As he prepares to eat with the assembled thanes of Scotland, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. The apparition makes itself visible only to the king, but Macbeth cannot hide his horror. Despite Lady Macbeth’s attempt to explain it as a meaningless attack of nerves, a number of thanes begin to connect Macbeth’s strange behavior with the horrible events that continue to plague the land.

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The scene in England includes a brief reference to a notable legend of the English monarchy. After Malcolm and Macduff reach an agreement, Macduff asks if King Edward will see them. He is told that the king is attending those afflicted with scrofula, an inflammation of the joints called “the king’s disease” because the king’s touch was supposed to heal it. This belief lasted from the Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century. Within the play, the image of the English king piously helping his afflicted subjects serves to underscore Macbeth’s deep villainy. In its political context, however, the idea was somewhat sensitive. The new English king, James I, was uncomfortable with the idea of the touch. Theologically, he distrusted the implication that the king was capable of miracles, and politically, he tended anyway to limit his public appearances.

As the next scene opens, the situation has decidedly changed. Macduff has gone to England to find Malcolm and to rally support for a war against Macbeth. Macbeth prepares for war, and he seeks out the witches for more information. The witches give him what seems to be good news: they tell him he will not be harmed by any man “of woman born,” and will not lose his throne until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dun-sinan Hill / Shall come against him” (Macbeth, 4.1.107-108). But they also give him bad news, in the form of a pageant of all the kings who will follow Macbeth, all descended from Banquo. Yet Macbeth cannot accept this evidence. After the witches vanish, he promises to be bloody and quick for whatever little time is left to him.

His first act is to have Macduffs wife and children killed. Meanwhile, in England, Macduff has found Malcolm at the court of Edward the Confessor. He tries to persuade the exiled prince to join the fight against Macbeth. At first, Malcolm refuses; he claims he is unfit to be king, and would be even worse than Macbeth. When Macduff laments the future of a country with such kings, Malcolm tells the truth; he was only testing Macduff, unsure of the thane’s honesty. Of course he will join the fight, and he will also bring aid from the English court.

Act 5 unfolds rapidly. The forces massed against Macbeth have beaten him back to his last fortress, at Dunsinane. Locked inside, Lady Macbeth (absent since Act 3) is going insane. This woman who stood fast through bloody murder has succumbed to her guilt; she sees her hands stained with blood that cannot be washed away. Macbeth is convinced he cannot be conquered until Birnam Wood rises up and moves to his castle; still, he is in despair. Weighed down by his crimes, and possessed with an acid awareness of the futility of his ambition, he says in a famous soliloquy that life is only “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, 5.5.25-27). Outside, Malcolm gives the order that seals Macbeth’s fate: each soldier is to camouflage himself with boughs cut from the trees of Birnam Wood as they move to Dunsinane. When a sentry tells Macbeth of their approach, he knows he is doomed. He learns that his wife has just died, then swears he will fight until he himself is killed.

Scenes of battle follow. Macbeth encounters Macduff; as they fight, Macbeth tells him of the witches’ prophesy, that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born. Macduff scoffs because he himself was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,” delivered by Caesarian section from his dying mother (Macbeth, 5.8.15-16). Macduff kills Macbeth offstage and returns with the slain tyrant’s head, one of the bloodiest stage directions in Shakespeare’s body of works. Malcolm is named king, but the audience knows that, in the long run, Fleance’s children will peacefully succeed him.

Macbeth, royal play?

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s only play concerning Scottish history, and it was written in the first few years after the death of Queen Elizabeth made King James VI of Scotland Page 235  |  Top of ArticleKing James I of England. Many critics have suggested that these two facts are related, and that Shakespeare was prompted to consider Scottish history by the sudden ascension of a Scottish king to the English throne. Certainly, little had been written about Scotland in English literature for a while, with the exception of some prejudiced and scurrilous pieces (see Literary Context, below) now rendered hugely inappropriate. “When Scotland’s King James became England’s King James in March 1603, his accession made a Shakespearean Scottish play commercially viable and creatively attractive. King James and his Scottishness created an occasion, “and at some point Shakespeare and the King’s Men apparently seized the popular, commercial moment” (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 8).

It seems likely that Macbeth was at least partly inspired by King James’s accession. However, those critics who have suggested that Macbeth was an attempt to gain the favor of the king himself are on less steady ground. They ignore the fact that, in several ways, the play is actually dangerous, and perhaps even insulting to the king. Obviously, Macbeth is crammed with corrupt politics, blood-stained acts, deception and cruelty; the overall impression is of a brutal, almost primitive land ruled only by force and the sword. In itself, this pessimistic view is not remarkable; Shakespeare’s plays on English history are much the same (although they are not tragic). However, there are no redeeming Scottish characters in the play: of the “good” characters in Macbeth, Banquo stands by while he suspects Duncan’s life is in danger, Malcolm and Donalbain flee at the first sign of danger, and Macduff leaves his family exposed to Macbeth’s cruelty. The play’s unabated darkness prevents any glow, with the result that Scotland itself seems bleak, dark, and primitive.

In fact, the reader whose knowledge of the Renaissance view of Scotland is limited to this play will be led far astray. Macbeth’s obsessive focus on the turbulence of Scottish politics prevents it from portraying the full splendor of what was, in fact, a nation as advanced and cultured as England itself. While Scotland was smaller, less populous, and in places more barren than its southern neighbor, it had a long tradition of learning, arts, and culture. Its monasteries and universities made Scotland part of the cultural map of Europe in medieval times, and Scotland arguably experienced the Renaissance before England; during the fifteenth century, when English poetry languished in a post-Chaucerian lull, talented and erudite poets such as Robert Henryson (?1430-1506), William Dunbar (?1465-?1530), and Gavin Douglas (71475-1522) inaugurated a golden age of literature in Scotland. King James VI / I himself was a late product of this Scottish Renaissance; he was a scholar who, by the time he ascended the English throne, had composed important treatises on statesmanship (Basilikon Down [1599]) and on witchcraft (The Dae-monologie [1597]).

Macbeth ignores these facts about the Scottish past—facts that certainly would have been flattering to James. Instead, the play ends on a note of British imperialism: Malcolm’s first act as king is to “ennoble” his thanes by giving them the English title of “earl.” Shakespeare’s perspective on Scotland may well have pleased an English crowd; but it is hard to see how it would have flattered a Scottish king.

Sources and literary context

Shakespeare’s main source for the story of Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of the British Isles produced during Tudor times. He also seems to have consulted a number of Scottish chronicles. Shakespeare follows Holinshed’s account fairly closely, although Holinshed’s Duncan is young, while Shakespeare’s is aged. More significantly, Shakespeare turns Macbeth’s rule from a long and generally successful one, to a short, dismal fiasco. In addition, the playwright borrows details from other parts of the chronicles: Lady Macbeth’s prodding, for instance, is taken from the account of Donwald, an earlier king whose wife incited him to murder. The witches themselves are from the Macbeth story as told by Holinshed:

It fortuned as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres, where the king then lay, they went sporting by the way together without other company … there met them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whom when they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said; All hail Macbeth, thane of Glammis … The second of them said; All hail Macbeth, thane of Cawdor. But the third said; All haile Macbeth that hereafter shall be king of Scotland. (Holinshed in Bullough, p. 495)

Macbeth is a tragedy influenced in almost equal measure by the heroic tragedies of the 1590s and the darker, generally more pessimistic tragedies of the 1600s. Like the great tragic heroes of the 1590s, Macbeth is an over-reacher, and the audience is emotionally invested in him

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even as it abhors his actions. In this, he is reminiscent of such heroes as the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). But Macbeth has some affinity as well with the more sordid, scheming heroes of early Jacobean tragedies; like the heroes of such plays as The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling, he tries to succeed by intrigue and private murder. In fact, he opens the play as a bold warrior, but soon moves to scheming plots.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

The Gowrie Conspiracy

Murder and mayhem in Scottish politics was not confined to the shadowy past. King James I of England was himself involved in a murky incident that may or may not have involved an attempt on his life. At the time, he was still King James VI of Scotland. On August 5,1600, he went suddenly to Perth, accompanied by the 19-year-old Alexander Ruthven, a young man whose 22-year-old brother was John Ruthven, earl of Gowrie. The elder Ruthven had recently made very public statements against James. No one knows precisely what happened next, or why, but the result was that both brothers were killed that day. James claimed that the Gowries made an attempt on his life (a kidnapping attempt is more likely), but his version was not widely accepted, and many people voiced the opinion that the king had in fact had the young men killed. Some 18 years earlier, their father, William, earl of Gowrie, had been involved in a raid to seize James, only to be executed for treason.

All these years later, James was supposedly out hunting when young Alexander Ruthven told him an intriguing story of the capture of a suspicious stranger with a pot full of foreign gold, who was being held prisoner in his brother Lord Gowrie’s house in Perth. The king set off with Ruthven to Lord Gowrie’s house in Perth to examine the stranger. He accompanied Alexander to a small room in a turret, where instead of the stranger he found himself confronted with a dagger-wielding man in armor. A struggle followed, during which the panicky king screamed words like “treason” and “murder,” until an attendant rushed in and killed the two. So went the king’s story, which many of his ministers and courtiers simply would not believe (Bevan, p. 61). Certainly James’s reputation was damaged by the incident. A mere month later, a pamphlet published in Edinburgh, entitled “Gowries Conspiracie,” supported James’s version of events and was quickly sent to London to be published. The speed with which his official version was made public suggests “a propaganda war and / or contemporary anxieties about attacks on monarchs” (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 2). Queen Elizabeth herself seems to have doubted the veracity of James’s account.

In 1604, a year after James had become king of England and two years before Shakespeare Page 237  |  Top of Articlewrote Macbeth, James’s own troupe of actors performed The Tragedie of Gowrie, but the play was suppressed after only two performances. Doubtless, it intended to be supportive of England’s new king, but the monarch was clearly taking no chances with his public image. There was too much controversy about the event.


In 1590 James VI of Scotland traveled to Denmark to meet and marry the Danish princess, Anne. There, he came into contact with Continental theories about witchcraft, which were more lurid and fantastic than English ideas. That same year, in Scotland, he interrogated several accused witches at a trial in North Berwick; the women involved were accused of plotting his death by conjuring a storm to sink his ship on his voyage home from Denmark, and at least one of them was burned at the stake (Bevan, p. 48). James wrote a book on witches in 1597, called The Daemonologie, in which he introduced to Scotland the ideas he had heard about witches in the Danish court.

These beliefs included not merely the witch’s contracting her or his soul to the devil, but a demonic “pact” that involved sexual intercourse with Satan, … the “black Mass” and other inverted religious practices, and numerous activities such as stealing and eating children, exhuming bodies, parodying baptism using cats and other animals, flying through the air, and sailing the sea in sieves. (Braunmuller in Shakespeare, p. 30)

During the 1590s, persecution and prosecution of witches (who were overwhelmingly women) increased in both England and Scotland; this atmosphere surely pervades Macbeth.

Nonetheless, the history of witchcraft in the Renaissance is much less picturesque than the weird hags of Shakespeare’s play might suggest. The Church of England tended to discourage belief in witches, considering it superstition; notwithstanding the Salem witch trials in the American colonies a century later, Protestants usually de-emphasized the possibility of miracles in earthly life. This, however, did not prevent the average person from believing in charms and potions, and each village or neighborhood had its wise woman or man who could concoct love potions, hint about the future, or heal sick pets. Such “white” magic was an accepted part of most communities, even if the Church did not approve.

Quite different was the treatment of “black magic”—practiced not for the community, but against it). To be accused of witchcraft was no light matter. Sixteenth-to seventeenth-century statutes made hanging the maximum punishment (witches in England were never burned). Prosecution for witchcraft depended on witness testimony (which was often prejudiced). In comparison to some other lands, England condemned relatively few witches. Between 1558 and 1736, only 500 people were tried for the crime in its most populous counties; 109 were convicted and hanged. By comparison, 900 were burned as witches in the single French province of Lorraine between 1580 and 1595. The witches were generally accused of rather homespun evils: making a woman infertile, or ruining a crop, or haunting another person’s dreams. Few accusers were bold or fearful enough to assert that a witch could control the weather, a power that Macbeth’s witches claim in the play.

Shakespeare got the idea for witches from his source; but he makes them a larger part of his story. This seems to have been a response to a popular vogue partly inspired by the king himself, whose The Daemonologie asserted the reality

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In 1605 England was rocked by an alleged assassination attempt, the Gunpowder Plot (a conspiracy to kill James I while he addressed Parliament). The conspirators, a group of Catholics opposed to the Protestant monarchy, had formulated a plan to kill not only the king but also his family and dozens of government officials by blowing up Parliament House. The conspirators set out to dig a tunnel into the basement of the Parliament building, place gunpowder in the vaults, then explode them. Before they could fully execute their plan, the conspirators were found out, then arrested, drawn, and quartered. Among them was Robert Catesby, a young nobleman whose involvement came as a shock to James, since he had regarded Catesby as a loyal subject, much as the Duncan of Shakespeare’s play seems to have regarded Macbeth. Scholars speculate, however, that Catesby was the model not for Macbeth, but for the earlier thane of Cawdor, another rebellious lord.

of witches. Producers of Macbeth after Shakespeare enhanced the role of the witches, adding to their number and providing them elaborate costumes and dances; ironically, at the same time the prosecution of witchcraft was in marked decline in England. The trend would continue, Page 238  |  Top of Articleleading to the abolition of the statutes against witchcraft in 1736.


Macbeth survives only in the Folio collection of Shakespeare’s work. It was never printed in a cheaper quarto version, an oblique indicator of a popular play. Otherwise, there is little indication of the play’s reception among its original audiences. Macbeth grew in popularity as the seventeenth century progressed; a heavily revised version by William Davenant (almost operatic in its emphasis on song and spectacle) was frequently performed during the Restoration era. The chief eighteenth-century critic of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, both praised and criticized Macbeth (see The Life of Samuel Johnson , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times).

[The play is] deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action; but it has no nice discriminations of character, the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions, and the course of the action necessarily determines the conduct of the agents. (Johnson, p. 360)

During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Gothic era, Macbeth’s use of the supernatural would gain new appreciation. Later in the nineteenth century, during the Victorian era, audiences would inaugurate a fascination with the aggressive behavior of Lady Macbeth. The play has since remained among the most frequently performed in the world.

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Aitchison, Nick. Macbeth: Man and Myth. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1999.

Barrow, G. W. S. Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306. London: Edward Arnold, 1981.

Bevan, Bryan. King James VI of Scotland and I of England. London: Rubicon, 1996.

Hudson, Benjamin T. Kings of Celtic Scotland. New York: Greenwood, 1994.

Johnson, Samuel. Collected Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lynch, Michael. Scotland: A New History. London: Pimlico, 1992.

Mackie, J. D. A History of Scotland. 2d ed. Eds. Bruce Lenman and Geoffrey Parker. London: Penguin, 1978.

Morgan, Kenneth. Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History. London: Routledge, 1996.

Sadler, John. Scottish Battles. Edingburgh: Cannongate, 1996.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875500035