"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes..."


Magic Circle

Macbeth is said to be a cursed play. Theatrical tradition insists that to say the name of the play out loud in a theater (or anywhere, according to some) is to bring down disaster on the individuals or the group performing the play. Actors and others often refer to it as "the Scottish play," in order to avoid using its title. The curse is said to go all the back to the first performance of the play, when the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage just before the play began, forcing Shakespeare to play the part instead.

To read more detailed information about the curse, see "The Curse of the Play," by Robert Faires.

Cursed or not, Macbeth is, most critics agree, one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Park Honan says, "Macbeth is the quintessence of his career." A.C. Bradley calls Macbeth "the most tremendous of his tragedies."

Some also see it as the darkest and most pessimistic of the major tragedies; Harold Bloom says of the play, "God is exiled from Macbeth...Exiled, not denied or slain; Macbeth rules in a cosmological emptiness where God is lost, either too far away or too far within to be summoned back." Bloom cites as evidence Macbeth's speech in Act 5, Scene 5:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If the fact that Shakespeare used the metaphor of the player indicates that the speech reflects his own views, then Macbeth is, indeed, one of Shakespeare's darker moments. But critics have never been able to arrive at a consensus about whether or not Macbeth speaks for Shakespeare.

Macbeth was first performed at the royal court in 1606, and was probably written not long before that. James had been king for three years by then.

King James had gone to Oxford in the summer of 1605 to hear a series of debates on various issues. He was greeted with a pageant in which he was hailed as a descendant of the Scottish warrior Banquo. One of the questions debated that week at Oxford was "whether imagination can produce actual effects." This question is answered, points out Park Honan, in Macbeth, when Macbeth's imagination conjures up the dagger in the air. Shakespeare's troupe arrived at Oxford several weeks after James had left, but the questions and debates had been printed, and anyone there could have told them detailed acccounts of the king's visit. These events, along with the attempted assassination of the king by Guy Fawkes and other plotters, may have inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth. (For a complete account of the assassination plot, known as the Gunpowder Plot, see the website of The Gunpowder Plot Society.)

King James I of England had been, before inheriting the English throne, the King of Scotland, and of course Macbeth is set in Scotland. There are a few critics who suggest that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to pander to James. After all, Shakespeare's troupe was now under the patronage of King James, and was now known as The King's Men. Stanley Wells points out that Shakespeare stresses, throughout the play, "the holiness of true kingship." Duncan's murder is compared to sacrilege and the desecration of a temple. Macduff says,

Most sacriligious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence
The life o' th' building. (II.3.66-8)

This echoes the intent of those involved in the Gunpowder Plot, as well, making the connection to James obvious.

In addition, Anthony Burgess informs us, James was fascinated by witchcraft and had even written a treatise on it called Daemonologie. As King James VI of Scotland, he had been angry at magistrates who failed to impose strong penalties on convicted witches. He had encouraged horrible tortures and methods of execution. And in England, he had assisted in the cross-examination of suspected witches.

And, of course, there is his relationship to Banquo. Burgess notes that "The supernatural element in Macbeth gave Shakespeare an opportunity to introduce a magical dumbshow showing King James' descent from the house of Banquo." Banquo, in Macbeth, is cleared of any guilt in the death of Duncan. In this, Shakespeare departs from his source material, Holinshed's Chronicle of Scotland, in which Banquo is depicted as one of Macbeth's confederates in the plot to kill Duncan. Park Honan points out that it would have been unwise (especially with James still sensitive after the Gunpowder Plot) to show his ancestor as part of a plot to murder a king.

(If you want to read Shakespeare's source material, look at Holinshed's Chronicle of Scotland; this site gives you the section that deals with Macbeth and the plot to kill Duncan.)

It is true that a writer as experienced as Shakespeare would have been aware of the political implications of any play he wrote, but it is also true that he usually had good artistic purposes for the choices he made. Macbeth is, Susan Snyder says, the portrait of a man's moral decline after committing a heinous act; it is primarily a psychological study. Shakespeare made Duncan, the victim of the crime, better than he was (according to Holinshed, Duncan was not a particularly good ruler). In reality, according to Holinshed, several other men, including Banquo, helped Macbeth to kill Duncan. But Shakespeare chooses to have Macbeth act alone, and gives him a victim who is nearly flawless. This creates a lack of moral ambiguity. For the Macbeth of the play, there can be no justification or rationalization: he is forced to confront his actions squarely, and we watch as it destroys him.

Stanley Wells also addresses the role of Banquo. He argues that Shakespeare changed history in Banquo's case for several reasons, mostly because he needed a representative of a more normal human attitude--virtuous, but not as saintly as Duncan--to contrast against Macbeth. Banquo hears the witches' prophecies, too, but unlike Macbeth, does not feel compelled to act upon them. In fact, Banquo worries that they may have come from the devil. Banquo is also troubled by temptation, since the witches prophesied that his line would be kings, but he resists his temptation. In fact, when Macbeth tests the waters in Act II, Scene 1, trying to enlist him in the plot to kill Duncan, he avoids becoming involved, and afterward, condemns Macbeth's actions. "To the audience, Banquo stands as a measure of normality against which the lack of balance in the mind of the tragic hero can be measured. To Macbeth he is as it were an embodied conscience, not to be stilled even by death."

Shakespeare also uses nature to highlight the evil of Macbeth's actions, as Susan Snyder details: the wild winds, an earthquake, Duncan's horses devouring each other (like Macbeth killing his king and cousin), the falcon killed by the owl (as Macbeth, a lesser man, killed Duncan, the greater). An eclipse which occurs the morning after Duncan's death suggests that "Scotland's moral darkness" will last until Macbeth's reign is destroyed. Many of the major scenes take place at night or in darkness. Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep. The dead won't follow natural laws and stay in their graves. Banquo's ghost walks, and perhaps Duncan's too.

Even Birnam Wood won't stay put, as a forest should. As Stanley Wells notices, the army that defeats Macbeth carries "leafy screens." Besides providing a false appearance (and thus supporting one of the major themes of the play), the action reminds us of the good in nature and its association in the play with virtuous characters. Opposing these characters are the witches, associated with forces opposed to nature. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Wells says, are caught in the middle: "In both of them we witness a conflict between natural and unnatural forces."

A.C. Bradley, like Snyder, notes that many of the play's most memorable scenes take place in darkness. The darkness becomes, to Macbeth, fearful and horrible; this becomes the spirit of the play.

The darkness in the play is contrasted with flashes of light and color: thunderstorms, torches, the flames beneath the cauldron, Lady Macbeth's candle. The color in the play is most often the color of blood. Blood is mentioned over and over. Images which violate nature are mentioned repeatedly. This serves to lift the audience's imagination to wilder heights.

All of this is heightened by irony, in which the audience sees the significance of words and actions which even the characters often don't see. Bradley explains that this increases the horror: "It cannot be by accident that Shakespeare so frequently in this play uses a device which contributes to excite the vague fear of hideous forces operating on minds unconscious of their influence."

The witches, too, contribute to the horror of the play. They raise more questions, as Susan Snyder notes, than they ever answer: Where do they come from? Where do they go? Why do they appear at this time, in this place? Are they human or supernatural? Do they cause men to commit crimes or only present the possibility? Do they reflect destiny or desire?

Stanley Wells argues that their evil balances the virtues of Duncan and Banquo. They blur the distinctions between what is and is not real. They make the audience, too, question reality, thus making the play more frightening. They "...help to create the sense of evil as a denial of nature, a disturber of the peace, yet as something which is itself, however mysteriously, in and out of nature." The witches heighten the sense in the play that things can appear to be fair when they are foul. Even the witches' prophecies seem fair: how could Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane? It is ironic that Macbeth, who has been so eager to create false impressions, should so easily take the witches at face value.

Some critics have put forth the suggestion that the witches are nothing more than reflections of Macbeth's subconscious deires. But A. C. Bradley says this explanation is inadequate. The witches prophesy things about which Macbeth could have no knowledge and which he could not have controlled. He doesn't know of the treachery of the previous Thane of Cawdor, and thus could not have known that he was about to receive that title.

The witches and their prophecies, if they are to be rationalized or taken symbolically, must represent not only the evil slumbering in the hero's soul, but all those obscure influences of evil around him in the world which aid his own ambition and the incitements of his wife. Such influences, even if we put aside all belief in evil "spirits," are as certain, momentous, and terrifying facts as the presence of inchoate evil in the soul itself...

And then there is Lady Macbeth. Of her, Susan Snyder says, "The Weird Sisters present nouns rather than verbs. They put titles on Macbeth without telling what actions he must carry out to attain these titles. It is Lady Macbeth who supplies the verbs."

She persuades him by calling him a coward for hesitating to do what he has sworn (although in fact, he never swore to do it). "Adopting instead a warrior ethic apart from social morality, she presents the murder not as good but as heroic." It is easy to see her as evil, but in an earlier scene, the saintly Duncan himself exulted in reports of bloodshed and death, even the deaths of children: "The mild paternal king is...implicated here in his society's violent warrior ethic, its predicating of manly worth on prowess in killing. But isn't this just what we condemn in Lady Macbeth?"

Many critics, Park Honan among them, have noticed that Lady Macbeth seems to have less interest in being queen than in urging her husband to be king. "Her feeling for her husband is nearly that of a mother living almost wholly for her child." Other critics have commented on the irony that, in the Macbeths, we see one of the closest and happiest marriages in any of Shakespeare's plays.

Macbeth himself is the heart of the play. By doing little to individualize the minor characters, Shakespeare sees to it that we identify with Macbeth . The only other character in the play who is as powerful is Lady Macbeth, and Shakespeare, except for the sleepwalking scene, for the most part gets her off the stage after she has done her part in urging Macbeth to murder. As Harold Bloom puts it, "Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."

At first, there is a clear contrast in the play between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. She is able to be more practical and less imaginative. But as time passes, their roles are reversed. They are both destroyed, but in different ways. Her imagination begins to work, until she disintegrates mentally. Macbeth, on the other hand, must kill his imagination. "In him," Stanley Wells says, "we see a slow death of the imagination proceeding from an extreme sensibility through great though self-inflicted suffering to a state of almost complete emotional sterility...He becomes a mass murderer--no wonder the play has continued to seem relevant to the twentieth century--committing his worst crimes with none of the awareness of evil that he had felt in murdering Duncan."

Park Honan, too, cites Macbeth's sensitivity as a weakness; he is more sensitive than one would expect of a warrior, and it tortures him. He can't quiet his conscience: "...he cannot bear his own lucidity. He is, indeed, ground down, torn, and stripped...and part of his punishment is to report on his destruction with an accuracy that complicates one's feelings for him, extends one's knowledge of human life."

Macbeth may have violated the laws of nature when he murdered Duncan, but, as Bloom says,"The nature that Macbeth most strenuously violates is his own."

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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
4. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
5. "Macbeth: A Modern Perspective," by Susan Snyder, in the New Folger Library edition of Hamlet
6. Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley

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