"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time."
Macbeth is defined as one of Shakespeare's tragedies and distinctly not labeled as one of his histories. This leads to the erroneous belief that it is a completely fictional story--but that is not so. While the majority of the dramatic action is fantastical, there is a historical basis for King Macbeth. The actual Macbeth--whose real name was Mac Bethad mac Findláich--lived from 1005 to 1057. He was the son of Finlay of Moray and Donalda, daughter of Malcolm II. By all accounts, and distinctly unlike Shakespeare's character, the historic Macbeth was a good and popular king, ruling over a prolonged (for that time) period of peace. He promoted Christianity, oversaw an efficient government, and helped bring some peace to a violent time in Scottish history.
So how did he become the traitorous villain that we know and love (to hate) today? Well, just like the character, the real Macbeth was a usurper. And just like in the play, he did kill King Duncan to secure his crown in 1040. (To be fair, that was a pretty common way to come into the throne in 11th century Scotland. We also have some reason to believe that Duncan was not the saintly ruler that Shakespeare makes him out to be.) He married Gruoch--Kenneth III's daughter and our Lady Macbeth--to secure his title. Fifteen years later, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, attempted to return his nephew Malcolm Canmore (Duncan's son), to power. Malcolm did succeed in killing Macbeth in 1057 at the Battle of Lumphanan. All of the above information is easily identified within the action of our play--but that's where the similarities seem to end.
While Mackers may have gotten the historical shaft, Shakespeare rewrites Lady Macbeth's story even more completely. We know her today as a brutal and manipulative wife, perhaps worse than Macbeth in her bloody desires. In all reality, she was likely a tragic figure. Gruoch ingen Boite (fl. 1020–1054) was a princess until Macbeth killed her husband in his initial attempts to secure the throne. This left Gruoch--and her young son--in a very vulnerable position. In a political move (and likely hoping to protect what was left of her family), she married Macbeth. That's right--she married her husband's murderer to save her son and bring some peace to her nation.
In the play, Lady Macbeth has no children, though she says things that make us believe that she might have known motherhood at one point. "I have given suck and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me." (Act 1, scene 7) While the real Lady M did have a son (Lulach with her first husband), he died relatively young (aged 26 years). And she did not have any children with Macbeth.
Don't get too frustrated with Will, though. These erroneous facts may not have been entirely his fault. Shakespeare worked from some pretty sketchy sources, primarily Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. At the time, this seemed like legitimate research material, but we now know that Holinshed fabricated a lot of history. Like, a lot.
The Gunpowder Plot
While Shakespeare dug deep into Scottish history for Macbeth character inspiration, he used a more contemporary event to inspire the tones of his play. Macbeth is considered one of the "Gunpowder Plays." But before we define what that means, let's start with the actual Gunpowder Plot.
Remember, remember the 5th of November!
It is impossible to pin down exactly when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth; but some scholars believe the play contains allusions to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the ensuing trials.
The plot itself, and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, have become powerful political and ideological symbols in modern pop culture. The graphic novel and film V for Vendetta features an anarchist anti-hero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and conspires to blow up the Parliament building. The hacktivist group "Anonymous" uses this same Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol.
But what was the plot, really? In a nutshell, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of English Catholics led by Robert Catesby (not Guy Fawkes) to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords on the 5th of November. This Catholic group had initially hoped that James, a Protestant, would take a more tolerant stance toward Catholics than his predecessors. When this did not come to pass, Catesby and his fellow conspirators turned to regicidal thoughts. They hoped to kill James and install his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, as the Catholic Head of State.
An anonymous letter revealed the plot to the authorities, who searched the House of Lords and found Guy Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. After his arrest, many of the conspirators fled, including Catesby. Eight of the captured conspirators--including Fawkes--were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered (ouch!).
This assassination attempt is consistent with the feeling of uncertainty in England during James’ reign. After all, James was Scottish, and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom many considered an English traitor. A series of plays emerged after the Plot that all revolved around similar themes. These so-called “Gunpowder Plays” all contained, “a necromancy scene, regicide attempted or completed, references to equivocation, scenes that test loyalty by use of deceptive language, and a character who sees through plots—along with a vocabulary similar to the Plot in its immediate aftermath (words like train, blow, vault) and an ironic recoil of the Plot upon the Plotters (who fall into the pit they dug)” (Wills, Garry; Witches and Jesuits). Macbeth certainly contains these themes and motifs.
Shakespeare’s play also contains a few more direct references to the Plot and its trial. The Macbeth castle Porter is seen drunkenly ushering imaginary people into Hell. He mentions an equivocator, a farmer, and a tailor. The “farmer” and "equivocator” are thought to be references to Henry Garnet, one of the conspirators. Garnet used the moniker “The Farmer” as his alias, and used equivocation (the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself) as his defense during the trial. The Porter says of the equivocator that he, “committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.”
Painting credit: Thomas Beach, 1786
To James, with love.
Shakespeare penned this popular tragedy sometime between 1603 and 1607. Macbeth was one of the first plays Shakespeare produced under the reign of the new king, James I (who started his reign in 1603). It makes good sense that Will would want to please the new monarch--and his biggest patron--with this play. And guess what--James was Scottish. (He's that same James that was James VI in Scotland, and he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.)
James I was a direct descendant of Banquo and Malcolm III (or at least, he claimed to be). Thus, these two figures are heroically portrayed throughout the story. So when the third witch says to Banquo "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none," that is a direct shout-out to James. Smart move, Will.
Another thing about James--he liked his plays short. Unlike most of Will's plays, Macbeth has almost no sub-plots. There is no final scene wherein all the characters, who have been having separate adventures, meet together and wrap up the plot. The story follows Macbeth entirely. Even the scenes in which Macbeth does not appear revolve around his actions.
Not surprisingly therefore, the action in the show is quite condensed. While the historic Macbeth ruled for 17 years, the action of Shakespeare's story takes place in a single year.
James I also had an obsession of sorts with witches--primarily with prosecuting them. His predecessor Elizabeth I had been noticeably benevolent and few witches were tried and executed while she was queen; like a good politician, she avoided extremes whenever possible. James was less tolerant. He published a book about (and condemning) witchcraft in 1597 called Daemonologie. He participated in many witch trials, and his fascination with the black arts was clear throughout his life. A quote from Daemonologie:
"I mean by such kind of [unlawful] charms as commonly daft wives use, for healing of forspoken [bewitched] goods, for preserving them from evil eyes, by knitting . . . sundry kinds of herbs to the hair or tails of the goods; by curing the worm, by stemming of blood, by healing of horse-crooks, . . . or doing of such like innumerable things by words, without applying anything meet to the part offended, as mediciners do."
Painting credit: The Cobbe portrait
Use these in classroom seminars, as essay prompts, or simply as inspiration for your critical mind.
- Is Macbeth a tragic figure? Why or why not? Use evidence from the text to support your opinion. Be sure to define what exactly is a "tragic" figure.
- Who is to blame for Duncan's murder: Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?
- Do we view the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth differently because of their respective genders?
- What role does fate play within the context of the story? Does Macbeth have free will, or was he destined to do what he does?
- Malcolm lies--rather egregiously--to Macduff about his ability to be king. Why does he do so? What is Malcolm trying to accomplish in this scene?
- Would you consider Lady Macbeth to be a feminist character?
- What moment would you consider the point of no return for Macbeth? The moment in which there is no going back; his fate is sealed. Why did you pick that moment?
- At first, Macbeth seems to be an easily influenced character. Does this change throughout the story? Identify moments where Macbeth appears more in control of his own actions.
- Why do the witches seek out Macbeth?
- Knowing what you now know about the "real" historical Macbeth family, do you feel that Shakespeare has done history a deep disservice? Or is all fair in art and war?
Painting credit: Charles Soubre, 1877, "Lady Macbeth"
"So foul and fair a day I have not seen."
Murder Most Foul
Regicide was considered a particularly heinous crime against both man and God. After all, murder itself is a sin. To kill a king means that you have killed a man ordained by God. Plus, it makes good sense that the monarchy would discourage king-killing as aggressively as possible. Of course, Shakespeare knew that if he wrote a play about a usurper, that character must get his comeuppance in the end.
Turn about = fair play.
Beyond Macbeth's eventual bloody fate, there are several other, classic, literary consequences that befall the king-killer. Because he has committed such a crime against man and God, Macbeth is essentially cut off from heaven. He can no longer commune with God through prayer.
MACBETH: One cried, “God bless us!” and “Amen” the other, / As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands. / List'ning their fear I could not say “Amen,” / When they did say “God bless us!"
LADY MACBETH: Consider it not so deeply.
MACBETH: But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”? / I had most need of blessing, and “Amen” / Stuck in my throat. (Act 2, scene 2)
Interesting side note: Shakespeare also uses this conceit in Hamlet, when Claudius attempts to pray away his sin of regicide and finds himself literally unable.
Another way Shakespeare cuts off the Macbeths from grace is by removing their ability to rest in sweet repose. Both Macbeth and his Lady are unable to sleep once the evil deed is done.
MACBETH: Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep, / Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast / ...Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house. / “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.” (Act 2, scene 2)
And later, Lady Macbeth is denied her rest.
GENTLEWOMAN: Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her nightgown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon ’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep. (Act 5, scene 1)
And somewhat childishly, the bold and brutal Lady Macbeth has been reduced to being afraid of the dark. "She has light by her continually. 'Tis her command." (Act 5, scene 1) This, coming from the woman who earlier chastised Macbeth by saying, "'Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil." (Act 2, scene 2)
Finally, Shakespeare invokes the powerful image of bloody hands that can never become washed of their heinous deed.
LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot. Out, I say! ... Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh! (Act 5, scene 1)
MACBETH: What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. / Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red. (Act 2, scene 2)
Something internal is broken in both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Something inside their psyches rages against what they have chosen to do. In this way, Shakespeare suggests that justice is innately human. We crave justice on such a deep physiological level that we will always seek it out, even if it is justice upon ourselves.
Painting credit: John Martin 1789 – 1854
Fun Facts and Links
A quick list of interesting facts.
- Macbeth is perhaps the first time a modern "Knock, knock" joke was told. "Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key....Knock, knock! Who's there, in th' other devil's name?"--Act 2, scene 3
- In all likelihood, the real Macbeth was a successful and good king, described as "liberal" and ruling over a prolonged time of peace.
- "Macbeth" means "son of life" in Gaelic.
- Lady Macbeth's real name was Gruoch.
- Macbeth is the only play in which Shakespeare uses the word "rhinoceros."
- The phrase "steal my thunder" has its roots in Macbeth. In 1704, John Dennis first used a metal sheet to make a thunder sound effect for his show Liberty Asserted; the theatre closed Dennis's show and immediately reopened with Macbeth. When Dennis attended the performance of Macbeth and heard "his" thunder being used, he claimed the theatre had stolen it.
- The play itself is considered to be cursed. Legend has is that real witches saw Shakespeare's play, were offended, and cursed all future productions of it. Some say that a real, dark incantation is used within the text. Others claim Shakespeare himself cursed the words. To this day, actors are afraid to say the title out loud inside a theatre. For more about the curse of Macbeth, read this:
Painting credit: George Cattermole (1800-1868)
List of Characters
- Macbeth--begins the play as Thane of Glamis and an extremely accomplished warrior. He is promoted to Thane of Cawdor after his prowess in the battle against the Norweyans after the current Thane of Cawdor is executed for treason.
- Lady Macbeth--Macbeth's wife, who is hungry for the throne and advancement.
- Duncan--the King of Scotland at the beginning of our play. Kind, soft-hearted, and noble.
- Malcolm--Duncan's eldest son, Prince of Cumberland, and the rightful heir to the throne.
- Donalbain--Duncan's youngest son who flees to Ireland.
- Macduff--the Thane of Fife and the hero of our play.
- Banquo--Macbeth's co-general and dear friend...for now.
- Fleance--Banquo's son.
- The Weird Sisters--three seemingly genderless witches who have some control over the winds and the elements of fate. They are ruled by Hecate, and their prophecies set Macbeth in motion.
- Ross and Lennox--Scottish thanes.
- Monteith and Caithness--thanes who desert Macbeth and bring aid to Malcolm and Macduff.
- Lady Macduff--Macduff's wife, whom he leaves behind as he goes off to plot against Macbeth.
- Siward--Malcolm's uncle and the Earl of Northumberland.
- Young Siward--Siward's son, who fights Macbeth in single combat.
- Seyton--Macbeth's preferred servant.
- Porter--keeps the gate at the Macbeth castle.
- Murderers--sent after Banquo and the Macduff family by Macbeth.
- Apparitions--three spirits who tell Macbeth riddled prophecies.
Painting credit: Charles Buchel
Glossary of Terms
- aroynt--be gone
- "became him"--suited him
- Bellona's bridegroom--groom to the goddess of war (as Ross describes Macbeth)
- corporal agent--physical self
- Gorgon--a monster that turns people to stone
- Greymalkin, Paddock, Harpier--the witches' familiars (cat, toad, bird)
- penthouse lid--eyelid
- Sinel--Macbeth's father
- trammel up--prevent
Painting credit: Henry Fuseli, "The Three Witches"
"Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
Who said it? Test your understanding of the characters and their motivations. Can you identify who said the quotes below?
- "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir."
- "Will all the perfumes of Arabia not sweeten this little hand?"
- "Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger; but in a sieve I'll thither sail, and like a rat without a tail, I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do."
- "Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all as the weird women promised, and I fear thou play'dst most foully for't."
- "Knock, knock; never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter it no further."
- "...for even now I put myself to thy direction, and unspeak mine own detraction; here abjure the taints and blames I laid upon myself for strangers to my nature."
- "Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair? ...If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favours nor your hate."
- "My plenteous joys, wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves in drops of sorrow."
- "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way..."
- "To be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus."
- "Say, if thou'dst rather hear it from our mouths or from our masters?"
- "Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes, his mansion and his titles in a place from whence himself does fly? He loves us not."
- "I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man. I cannot but remember such things were, that were most precious to me. Did heaven look on, and would not take their part? Sinful Macduff, they were all struck for thee!"
- "'Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil."
- "Lay on, Macduff. And damned be him who first cries 'hold, enough.'"