Macbeth

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Macbeth has been compared to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Both Antony and Macbeth as characters seek a new world, even at the cost of the old one. Both are fighting for a throne and have a 'nemesis' to face to achieve that throne. For Antony, the nemesis is Octavius; for Macbeth, it is Banquo. At one point Macbeth even compares himself to Antony, saying "under Banquo / My Genius is rebuk'd, as it is said / Mark Antony's was by Caesar." Lastly, both plays contain powerful and manipulative female figures: Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.[5]

Shakespeare borrowed the story from several tales in Holinshed's Chronicles, a popular history of the British Isles known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In Chronicles, a man named Donwald finds several of his family put to death by his king, King Duff, for dealing with witches. After being pressured by his wife, he and four of his servants kill the King in his own house. In Chronicles, Macbeth is portrayed as struggling to support the kingdom in the face of King Duncan's ineptitude. He and Banquo meet the three witches, who make exactly the same prophecies as in Shakespeare's version. Macbeth and Banquo then together plot the murder of Duncan, at Lady Macbeth's urging. Macbeth has a long, ten-year reign before eventually being overthrown by Macduff and Malcolm. The parallels between the two versions are clear. However, some scholars think that George Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum Historia matches Shakespeare's version more closely. Buchanan's work was available in Latin in Shakespeare's day.[6]

No other version of the story has Macbeth kill the king in Macbeth's own castle. Scholars have seen this change of Shakespeare's as adding to the darkness of Macbeth's crime as the worst violation of hospitality. Versions of the story that were common at the time had Duncan being killed in an ambush at Inverness, not in a castle. Shakespeare conflated the story of Donwald and King Duff in what was a significant change to the story.[7]

Shakespeare made another revealing change in Chronicles. Banquo is an accomplice in Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. He also plays an important part in ensuring that Macbeth, not Malcolm, takes the throne in the coup that follows.[8] In Shakespeare's day, Banquo was thought to be a direct ancestor of the Stuart King James I[9] (Banquo's Stuart descent was disproven in the 19th century, when it was discovered that the Fitzalans actually descended from a Breton family). The Banquo portrayed in historical sources is significantly different from the Banquo created by Shakespeare. Critics have proposed several reasons for this change. First, to portray the king's ancestor as a murderer would have been risky. Other authors of the time who wrote about Banquo, such as Jean de Schelandre in his Stuartide, also changed history by portraying Banquo as a noble man, not a murderer, probably for the same reasons.[10] Second, Shakespeare may have altered Banquo's character simply because there was no dramatic need for another accomplice to the murder; there was, however, a need to give a dramatic contrast to Macbeth—a role which many scholars argue is filled by Banquo.[8]

Other scholars maintain that a strong argument can be made for associating the tragedy with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.[2] As presented by Harold Bloom in 2008: "[S]cholars cite the existence of several topical references in Macbeth to the events of that year, namely the execution of the Rev. Henry Garnett for his alleged complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, as referenced in the porter's scene."[2]


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