by William Shakespeare
Some details of William Shakespeare’s life are still shrouded in uncertainty. What is known is that he rose to prominence as a playwright in London toward the end of the sixteenth century and that he died on April 23, 1616. He wrote Macbeth sometime between 1605 and 1606, shortly after the ascension of King James of Scotland to the English throne. Scotland, previously a land of mystery to the people of England, came into the public limelight during a period of political plotting, violence, and religious conflict.
Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place
Scotland during the eleventh century was still a very primitive land. Until the beginning of the tenth century, it had been under the authority of England, but during the time in which Macbeth is set, Scotland was able to establish its independence because England was forced to channel its resources toward defending itself against continuing Viking invasions. During this transition period, living conditions in the rugged hills of Scotland were crude at best. Houses were simple structures built of wood or turf around a central hearth. Even the “castles” of the higher classes were primitive in style. Macbeth’s castle, of which Duncan says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.6.1), was most likely a rough fort. It probably consisted of a central hall built of wood upon a mound of raised dirt that was circled by a log wall.
Succession and feuding in Scotland
When King Malcolm II of Scotland died in 1034, his last command was that the throne should pass to his oldest grandson, Duncan. This last request went against the Celtic tradition of succession, which stipulated that the inheritance of the throne alternate between different branches of the family. The historical Macbeth, who was also a grandson of King Malcolm, felt that he should succeed the old king, as prescribed by tradition. He further supported his claim through the ancestry of his wife, the Lady Gruoch, who was a direct descendent of two earlier Scottish kings, Malcolm I and Kenneth III. Despite the fact that Macbeth’s claim on the throne was valid, it was rejected in favor of Duncan’s claim. The old king’s will continued to exert power even from the grave.
Macbeth was not immediately hostile to the new king, but several years into Duncan’s reign, he raised an army and openly opposed him. Duncan led his own forces against Macbeth and was killed in the ensuing battle. With Duncan finally out of the way, and his two young sons out of the country, Macbeth became king of Scotland. He held the throne without incident for seventeen Page 226 | Top of Articleyears until Duncan’s oldest son, Malcolm III, returned to Scotland with an army. Macbeth was defeated in a clash that in many ways resembled his usurpation of Duncan’s throne nearly two decades earlier. Malcolm killed Macbeth when their armies met at the Battle of Lumphanan. With the death of Macbeth, the final obstacle to Malcolm’s ascension to the throne was Lulach, the son of Macbeth’s Lady Gruoch from an earlier marriage. Lulach claimed the Scottish throne through the ancestry of his mother and was actually crowned king immediately following Macbeth’s death. Malcolm did not let this development deter him; he had Lulach murdered and took the crown in 1058.
The Norse invasion—raiders and settlers
During the ninth century Scotland found itself invaded by raiders who came across the North Sea from Norway and Denmark. These “Norsemen,” also known as Vikings, came to Scotland for several reasons. The most basic explanation for their presence was simply that the prevalent pattern of winds on the North Sea was favorable to this enterprise. These winds blow west in the spring and east in the autumn, which made Scotland a natural destination. Another attraction for these northerners was the remarkable similarity between the landscapes of Scotland and Norway. Both countries possessed offshore island chains, deep inlets or fjords, and rugged mountains. Perhaps the most important reason for the arrival of the raiders, however, was the opportunity for conquest and plunder. The remote monasteries and villages of Scotland were easy targets for the Norse rovers, who dominated the bloody northern seas for several hundred years. The monasteries were especially ripe for plunder, as they generally housed valuable religious artifacts and other treasures. The Scandinavian pirates launched raids on Scotland from the surrounding islands, and few monasteries or villages could hope to defend themselves from these attacks. In his play, Shakespeare depicts such an invasion when he portrays King Sweno of Norway attacking Scotland from the Hebrides island chain. The character Macbeth’s defeat of Sweno’s forces is the incident in the play that serves as the foundation of his rise to power.
As time passed, many of these hostile invaders found that, amid the rocky hills and bogs, Scotland offered some fertile land for fanning. A growing number of northerners gave up their warring and turned to the soil to make their living. The similarity of the terrain to their homeland meant that very little adjustment was necessary for the Norse settlers to establish communities. Through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity in the tenth century, these settlers assimilated completely into the Scottish culture.
The status of women in Scotland
With the beginning of the Viking Age in Scotland, the position of women changed drastically. While women in other societies of the time were bound to home and farm activities, the Viking influence spurred greater freedom and independence for women in Scotland. The most famous matriarch of the period was Aud the Deep-Minded, a Norse woman who rose to a position of power in Scotland. After the death of her husband, Olaf the White, who was the King of Dublin, Ireland, Aud lived as an independent monarch. She held power for several years following his death and finally moved north to Iceland, where she founded the first of the Icelandic dynasties. This tradition of strong-willed women is represented in Shakespeare’s play in the character of Lady Macbeth, who tells her husband,
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.
Lady Macbeth is depicted by Shakespeare as an equal of Macbeth in the realm of ambition and ruthlessness; without her, in fact, Macbeth’s courage may never have reached the “sticking-place.”
The Play in Focus
Macbeth is a minor Scottish noble who leads the Scottish army to victory over the forces of Norway. Following the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, a fellow nobleman, encounter three witches. These mysterious old women greet Macbeth with prophecies. They tell him that he will rise in rank and eventually become king. The hags also inform
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Banquo that although he will not be king, his descendants will hold the Scottish throne.
Following this encounter, Macbeth is rewarded by King Duncan, who proposes to stay with him at his castle. Lady Macbeth persuades her husband that he should murder the king during his visit and take the crown for himself, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy. Giving in to her persuasion, Macbeth murders the “gracious” Duncan. Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Don-albain, flee from Scotland and are blamed by Macbeth for having orchestrated the assassination. Macbeth then assumes the kingship, just as the witches foretold. Worried about the witches’ prophecy concerning Banquo’s family gaining the throne, Macbeth hires assassins to murder the nobleman and his son, Fleance. Banquo is slain, but Fleance escapes.
The witches then warn Macbeth that another nobleman, Macduff, is also a threat to his power. Macbeth attempts murder again, only to find that Macduff has fled to England. Angry at the nobleman’s escape, Macbeth has the wife and children of Macduff brutally murdered. In England, Macduff meets with Malcolm and decides that Malcolm is worthy of ruling Scotland. Together they gather an army and march against Macbeth. A guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth loses her sanity and dies as the opposing army surrounds the castle. Macduff kills Macbeth in combat, and Malcolm is crowned king of Scotland.
Witchcraft and the supernatural
Among the traditions of Scotland was a belief in witches, including their ability to make prophecies and to affect the outcome of certain events. During the reign of King Kenneth, one of Lady Gruoch’s ancestors, witchcraft was considered an unsavory practice and a serious problem. King Kenneth proclaimed that witches who called up spirits and asked their help should be burned to death.
Macbeth’s encounters with the witches build on this tradition and were inspired in part by the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), a volume written by Raphael Holinshed. An incident that reflects the strong beliefs of these Scottish people in the supernatural comes from Holin-shed’s account of strange occurrences that began to happen after the death of Duncan. Holinshed writes, “horses in Louthian, being of singular beauty and swiftness, did eat their own flesh and would in no wise taste any of her meat” (Holinshed, p. 140). These lines helped shape Shakespeare’s scene between the nobleman-messenger Ross and an old man outside Macbeth’s castle. As they discuss the bizarre happenings that are being reported in the countryside, Ross says,
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And Duncan’s horses ...
Beauteous and swift ...
Turned wild in nature….
The old man responds by saying, “Tis said they eat each other” (Macbeth, 2.4.18). Clearly, the fact that strange events and witch appearances are incorporated into Holinshed’s text on history indicates how strong an influence the supernatural world exercised upon the society of eleventh-century Scotland.
The play’s focus on witchcraft also reflected an interest in the subject in Shakespeare’s England more than five centuries later. The succession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne as King James I in 1603 had an important influence on Shakespeare’s writing of Macbeth. King James had multiple interests encompassing many of the period’s important issues. One of James’s greatest passions was the subject of witchcraft. The king’s interest in this topic was so great that in 1597 he wrote Daemonotogie, a text in which he contended that witchcraft was a reality and that its practitioners must be punished. In addition to writing on the subject, King James also attended the examinations of Dr. Fian, a Scottish schoolmaster who was an alleged witch. Fian was accused of practicing wicked acts with of her witches. Charges of which he was accused included making curses against the king and the possession of an attendant spirit much like the “Paddock,” “Graymalkin,” and “Harpier,” which are the attendant spirits of Shakespeare’s witches. Dr. Fian’s spirit was reputed to have caused several marine disasters, including an attempt against the ship of King James himself. This episode is reminiscent of the witch’s curse against a ship captain in the play: “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest tossed” (Macbeth, 1.3.24-5).
Following the process used in the creation of several of his plays, Shakespeare drew the plot for Macbeth from a historical source. In this case, the source was Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Shakespeare used this book as a source of historical information on of her occasions as well. This text, though fantastic by modern standards, was the authoritative historical text of the period.
The story of Macbeth’s treacherous murder of Duncan was actually drawn from Holinshed’s description of King Malcolme Duffe’s murder at the hands of Donwald. In this episode, King Malcolme, just like Duncan, puts his trust in his noblemen and is murdered. The characters of Macbeth, Duncan, and Banquo were all drawn from Holinshed’s text as well. Macbeth and Banquo were noblemen of King Duncan, who was described Page 229 | Top of Articleby Holinshed as too kind and gentle to be an effective monarch. Realizing this, he enlisted the aid of Macbeth and Banquo to fight off the invasion of Macdonwald from the western islands. Macbeth and Banquo defeated this invasion, as well as a subsequent invasion by Sweno of Norway. Other elements of Macbeth that can be traced to Holinshed’s Chronicles include Macbeth’s attempt to murder Banquo and Fleance, and Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff.
Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written
The Gowrie Conspiracy
On August 5, 1600, an assassination attempt on King James of Scotland was undertaken. The resulting scandal came to be known as The Gowrie Conspiracy. OnAug James was in residence at Falkland Palace when the plot began. Just before embarking on a hunting expedition, the king was approached by Alexander Ruthven, the oldest brother of the Earl of Gowrie. Ruthven told the king that he had captured a suspicious character whom he thought the king would be interested in questioning. He explained that the captured man had been carrying a substantial quantity of gold and could provide no explanation for his possession of this great wealth. After much persuading, the king agreed to examine this mysterious character and set off with Ruthven. Ruthven led the king and his party to Gowrie House. Once there, the king was taken to a locked chamber in which he was greeted by “not a bondman, but a freeman, with a dagger at his girdle” (Clark, p. 77). Ruthven left the king in the man’s custody and went to fetch his brother, the Earl of Gowrie. When Ruthven returned and attempted to bind the king, the king yelled out the window. His noblemen, who were preparing to leave, heard his cries. They rushed to the scene, and with their assistance, the king killed Ruthven. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gowrie gathered his forces together and attacked the king and his men. The king’s noblemen fought valiantly and killed the traitorous earl and his henchmen. This attempt on the king’s life became a major event of the period—pamphlets were written about the affair, including one penned by the king himself. Numerous sermons were also presented throughout England and Scotland focusing on the blasphemy of the attempted murder. Shakespeare was certainly acquainted with the incident, which may have influenced his decision to use the murder of a king as the central plot element of his play.
The Gunpowder Plot
On November 5, 1605, London reeled under a whirlwind of wonder and horror. A blanket of terror had settled over the city as a result of the Gunpowder Plof, in which a group of Catholics violently opposed to the Protestant monarchy had formulated a plan that was intended to kill the king, the royal family, and dozens of government officials. The plotters planned to blow up the Parliament House during a ceremony at which the majority of the English government would be present. The plan was to dig a tunnel into the basement of the Parliament building, place large quantities of gunpowder in the vaults, and explode them during the ceremony. On the night before the ceremony, during an inspection of the cellar, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was found waiting in the darkened basement ready to ignite the explosives. Several of the plotters were immediately arrested. The rest were captured a few days later, after a failed attempt to rouse Catholic citizens to action against the Protestant government. The capture of these renegades was bloody and resulted in the deaths of the plot’s key figures, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Robert Catesby.
The King’s Book, a text written about the plot and the subsequent capture of the rebels, stated that people wanted to view the traitors, “as the rarest sort of monsters; fools to laugh at them; women and children to wonder; all the common people to gaze.” This line expresses sentiments almost identical to those in Macduffs address to Page 230 | Top of ArticleMacbeth during their final encounter in Shakespeare’s play:
Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o’ the time:
We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole.
In the actual Gunpowder Plof, the surviving traitors were tried in court, convicted of treason, and executed on January 30, 1606. The event proved that the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in England had not been resolved and that the threat of further violence was a real one.
The trial of Father Henry Garnet, the great equivocator
An examination of the issue of “equivocation” gives further evidence of the religious conflicts in England during the period. Equivocation was a doctrine of the Jesuits that justified the giving of untruthful responses to interrogation. This practice involved the use of words with equivocal or unclear meanings. A person being interrogated about their religious actions would speak such words so that they wouldn’t have to admit to wrongdoing. This practice became crucial for staunch Catholics in Protestant England, where one’s Catholic faith could have dire consequences. Indeed, under the Protestant King James, being Catholic was considered a crime.
Equivocation came to be regarded as a punishable form of treason in England. The trial of Father Henry Garnet stands out as the climax of the Protestant attack on equivocafors. The trial took place in March 1606; Garnet was found guilty in fifteen minutes and was executed at Saint Paul’s Church in London. Shakespeare undoubtedly followed the event, as did the rest of London, and although Macbeth may have been almost completed at the time of the trial, he was still able to incorporate the subject of equivocation into his text. Following the death of Duncan, a porter appears whose speech seems to be a direct reference to Father Henry Garnet. The porter says, “Faith, here’s an equivocafor, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (Macbeth, 2.3.8-11). This episode would have been understood by every member of the audience during this period as a mockery of Catholics and the practice of equivocation.
The political interests of King James
The attempts against the king’s life in the Gowrie Conspiracy and the Gunpowder Plof could have been influential in Shakespeare’s choice of the treacherous murder of a Scottish king as the plot for his play. In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts this type of murder as the most loathsome treachery possible. When Macduff discovers the body of the slain Duncan, he cries,
O horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee.
Throughout the play Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as the foulest of murderers, and its depiction of the extreme guilt and resulting insanity that plague Macbeth and Lady Macbeth sends a warning about plots against monarchs. This moral lesson, implicit in the play, certainly enjoyed the support of King James, who had felt the threat of murder himself. Shakespeare also touches on of her subjects of interest to his king. James’s interest in ancestry and his desire to maintain friendly relations between England and Scotland are represented in the play. Shakespeare addresses his monarch’s interest in ancestry by including a scene wherein the witches in the play conjure an image of King James’s ascent to the throne. This ascent is traced unbroken back to the line of Banquo. Finally, the king’s desire for friendly interactions between his kingdoms of England and Scotland is supported in the play. Safe harbor is offered to the exiled Malcolm by the king of England following Duncan’s murder.
For More Information
Adam, Frank. The Clans, Septs, and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh, Scotland: W. & A. K. Johnston & G. W. Bacon, 1960.
Clark, Arthur Melville. Murder under Trust or The Topical Macbeth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Academic Press, 1981.
Cromartie, Roderick Grant Francis Mackenzie, Earl of. A Highland History. Berkhamsted, England: Gavin Press, 1979.
Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Edited by Sylvan Bamet. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.
McMurtry, Jo. Understanding Shakespeare’s England. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1989.
Nicholls, Mark. Investigating the Gunpowder Plot. Manchester, England: Manchester University Books, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Edited by Sylvan Bamet. New York: Signet Classic 1987.
Sharpe, Charles Kirkpatrick. Witchcraft in Scotland. London: Handlton, Adams, 1984.