Macbeth Study Guide

Legend says that Macbeth was written in 1605 or 1606 and performed at Hampton Court in 1606 for King James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark. Whether it was first performed at the royal court or was premiered at the Globe theatre, there can be little doubt that the play were intended to please the King, who had recently become the patron of Shakespeare's theatrical company. We note, for example, that the character of Banquo—the legendary root of the Stuart family tree—is depicted very favorably. Like Banquo, King James was a Stuart. The play is also quite short, perhaps because Shakespeare knew that James preferred short plays. And the play contains many supernatural elements that James, who himself published a book on the detection and practices of witchcraft, would have appreciated. Even something as minor as the Scottish defeat of the Danes may have been omitted to avoid offending King Christian.

The material for Macbeth was drawn from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). Despite the play’s historical source, however, the play is generally classified as tragedy rather than a history. This derives perhaps from the fact that the story contains many historical fabrications—including the entire character of Banquo, who was invented by a 16th-century Scottish historian in order to validate the Stuart family line.  In addition to such fictionalization, Shakespeare took many liberties with the original story, manipulating the characters of Macbeth and Duncan to suit his purposes. In Holinshed's account, Macbeth is a ruthless and valiant leader who rules competently after killing Duncan, whereas Duncan is portrayed as a young and soft-willed man. Shakespeare draws out certain aspects of the two characters in order to create a stronger sense of polarity. Whereas Duncan is made out to be a venerable and kindly older king, Macbeth is transformed into an indecisive and troubled young man who cannot possibly rule well.

Macbeth is certainly not the only play with historical themes that is full of fabrications. Indeed, there are other reasons why the play is considered a tragedy rather than a history. One reason lies in the play's universality. Rather than illustrating a specific historical moment, Macbeth presents a human drama of ambition, desire, and guilt. Like Hamlet, Macbeth speaks soliloquies that articulate the emotional and intellectual anxieties with which many audiences identify easily. For all his lack of values and "vaulting ambition," Macbeth is a character who often seems infinitely real to audiences. This powerful grip on the audience is perhaps what has made Macbeth such a popular play for centuries of viewers.

Given that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, some scholars have suggested that scenes were excised from the Folio version and subsequently lost. There are some loose ends and non-sequiturs in the text of the play that would seem to support such a claim. If scenes were indeed cut out, however, these cuts were most masterfully done. After all, none of the story line is lost and the play remains incredibly powerful without them. In fact, the play's length gives it a compelling, almost brutal, force. The action flows from scene to scene, speech to speech, with a swiftness that draws the viewer into Macbeth's struggles. As Macbeth's world spins out of control, the play itself also begins to spiral towards to its violent end.