Okay, so that’s the historical MacBeth.
A bit of a plod with all those Malcolm’s, Findlay’s, Duncan’s and so on, and probably an unbearably dry story for those without a scrap of interest in hoary old kings and dusty characters consigned to the scrapheap of history.
All the same, I think Shakespeare did Scotland an enormous favor by adapting the story of an 11th century King of Scots that might otherwise have been lost to us. Don’t forget, many accounts of Scottish history were destroyed in the course of successive invasions, none the least that of Edward I in 1296.
One of the great aspects of the play is the way Shakespeare manipulates audience response to Macbeth throughout the performance. Your sympathies are entirely with Macbeth at first, even after the murder of Duncan, but then all empathy for him disappears at the brutal slaughter of Macduff’s family. After that you see Macbeth for the brutal, power-hungry tyrant that he has become. When he eventually accepts his condition and puts on his soldier’s uniform and becomes something of his old self your sympathies return. In the first part of the play Shakespeare takes you deep into Macbeth’s mind and you travel down his path, identifying with his ambition and desire, hardly unaware of the horror you are entering into. And after Duncan’s murder, you are still deep in there, experiencing Macbeth’s fear and guilt for yourself.
But it's much more than just a dark story – taken in context with the times in which it was written, it’s a glimpse into the mind of a Monarch and the country he ruled – and I’m not talking about MacBeth here. Shakespeare took many liberties with history in order to make the play more interesting to the king he wrote it for, James I, and this is another aspect of the play that I personally find utterly fascinating.
By the way, I’m not getting into the controversy regarding whether it was actually Phillip Marlowe, or any one of a number of other prime suspects, who wrote all these plays. That’s an issue I might explore some other time things are slow and I’m bored out of my mind.
For the purpose of this thread, let’s assume the story was indeed adapted by the immortal scribbler from Stratford-upon-Avon.
James Stuart, the sixth king of his name in Scotland and the first in England, ascended the English throne in 1603, becoming the first monarch in the British Isles to rule both England and Scotland. His crowning was met with high hopes from the English; after the somewhat brutal reign of the Tudor monarchs, a Stuart seemed like a chance for new beginnings. They were to be bitterly disappointed. James was quickly discovered to be uncouth, ill-kempt, and more inclined to spend the people’s taxes on his own amusement than on the betterment of the realm. Though he was a generous patron of the arts and an enthusiastic herald of the new age of global exploration, James was viewed throughout his reign with a mixture of amusement and contempt.
At the time of James’s coronation, Shakespeare had been writing plays and poems for about fifteen years, during which time he had had many of his plays performed before Elizabeth I. It was for her that Shakespeare had written his famous English histories. Like all artists who enjoyed Elizabeth’s favor, Shakespeare had learned to create storylines which would please both the royal court and the common people. Such skill was even more necessary under James, who was a hard critic. Macbeth, however, pleased the new king immensely, and James went so far as to write Shakespeare a letter commending his new and impressive play.
The play itself is believed to have been written sometime in 1606, although the first printed version appeared much later in 1623. It’s commonly thought that Shakespeare had worked out a rough draft of the play some time before James’s accession and that the playwright went back and made several revisions in order to make the MacBeth more reflective of the king’s tastes.
TO BE CONTINUED