Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intense plays and one his most complex psychological studies. It is also a play about which there is a great deal of historical background, which I think you’ll find interesting because it reveals Shakespeare’s creative process. The play was written in 1605–1606. It’s one of the plays where the date is pretty firmly established by internal references to external events, and most scholars have agreed on the date.
Shakespeare was at the height of creative powers, and his theatrical company, the King’s Men, was the official royal acting company. He had the large Globe Theater, a large public playhouse on the south bank of the Thames. He would soon open the Blackfriars Theater, a small private theater within the city itself where the plays were performed indoors, and he and his men performed often at the court for the king and his family. The Blackfriars Theater would be exempt from the law prohibiting theaters within the City of London by being a private club. It could accommodate only a couple of hundred people, opposed to the Globe audiences of a couple of thousand, and therefore Shakespeare charged a higher price for entry.
That in turn meant that the audience was wealthier and more sophisticated than the average attendee at the Globe was. Because the plays were performed indoors by artificial light, they could be done at any time or weather. Because it was a smaller theater, the acting style used could be more subtle and understated than the broad, overly dramatic acting used in the Globe before audiences of several thousand. As far as we know Shakespeare’s company continue to perform all the plays in both theaters; it’s just that the productions would have differed in the way they were performed.
Once you know something of the complex historical background, a very curious fact emerges about this bloody, violent drama: the story of this psychotic killer and his fiendlike wife was actually written as a tribute to Shakespeare’s royal patron, King James I of England, who was also king of Scotland. What an unusual way to thank the king for his patronage! Of all of his plays, this is a powerful suspense thriller. We may know who the killer is, but we are fascinated to see if Macbeth gets away with it and to see how he convinces himself to commit the multiple homicides.
The historical background is necessary to help you understand why Shakespeare wrote the play the way he did. Without the background there are many passages and references which make no sense to a modern audience. This background also reveals the fascinating way Shakespeare used and twisted history to make a better play and to address the political agenda of King James. It also shows some of the things going on at that time in English society and politics. Macbeth is an openly political play. Macbeth is considered a history play, based on the events in the life of a real historical figure, but it is even more a powerful tragedy.
Shakespeare played fast and loose with historical fact in all his history plays, but none more so than this play. When Shakespeare wrote a play like Richard III, he was writing about events that had taken place about 100 years before, so most people in his English audience had a general sense of what that time was like. In the case of Macbeth, he was writing about a time over 500 years in the past in a country about which most of his English audience was totally unfamiliar.
Shakespeare and his audience did not consider history to be a science, in which the goal was accuracy; rather history was an art, related to storytelling. The purpose of history was to make a moral point about the present society. You looked to the past to find or create parallels with the present age that would help you explain how people should behave right now. Therefore history was often manipulated, changed or simply created to support some political agenda. Every king at this time used history as a tool in his arsenal to help hang on to power.
They would hire professional historians to rewrite the past to support their claim to power in the present. Similarly, religious figures would use history as a weapon to attack their opponents. In many accounts written at this time by Protestant advocates, history is seen as the rise of many proto-Protestants, people who lived hundreds of years before Martin Luther, the first official Protestant. These earlier figures are shown to be forerunners who simply didn’t realize they were Protestants.
The historical sources that Shakespeare used were as much mythologies as they are reality. Actually there was very little known about the historical Macbeth, so if the historians hadn’t made things up they wouldn’t have had much to say about him. Shakespeare’s principal source, Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scottish History, was a loose collection of gossip, tales and fantasies, so the material he was using was already seriously flawed from a historical perspective. Shakespeare then used this flawed material selectively, not telling the whole story, but only bits and pieces that made for a good drama. He altered historical records to heighten dramatic effect, as we’ll see in the dramatic account of Macbeth’s first murder.
Shakespeare also changed history to simplify complexities and, quite frankly, to kiss up to King James. Shakespeare took a story supposedly set in the 11th Century, around the year 1050, and filled it with many references to events taking place in 1605 in England, in particular to one of the most dramatic events in English history, the Gunpowder Plot, which had happened just the year before. No wonder the play bears little resemblance to the historical reality.
The historical Macbeth had become king in the year 1040 when he killed the previous king, Duncan, in battle. To put this in a historical context, this is hardly the Middle Ages; it’s still the Dark Ages, as historians have termed the various stages of European history. It is 26 years before the Norman invasion of England, which is generally considered to be the beginning of the medieval period in Britain. In 1040 Macbeth became king and ruled for 17 years until he was overthrown and killed by Duncan’s son, who became King Malcolm III. Malcolm is famous primarily because he married an English princess named Margaret who was later made a saint.
According to the Scottish historian Archibald Duncan, little is known about Macbeth and his lovely wife Grunnich, except that they were pious and endowed a religious house at St. Andrew’s (which is probably the caddy shack on the fourth green of that famous golf course — joke). The couple went on a religious pilgrimage to Rome where, the chroniclers said, “they sowed money like seed.” (Many of us when we go on vacation do the same thing.) That’s all we know for certain about the real Macbeth.
Now the fact that Macbeth killed the previous king was not a big deal. Of the eight Scottish kings who ruled during this time, seven had died unnatural deaths, including several who burned to death until suspicious circumstances. It was highly unusual for a Scottish king to die of natural causes in bed. This violent record was largely the result of how Scottish kings came to power. There was no fixed process of succession from one king to the next. In effect, when an old king died every male who was related to the royal family, no matter how distant the relationship, had an equal chance for the throne. It was a kind of royal free-for-all with the last man standing getting to be the king until he was done in by the next ambitious claimant. Macbeth is overthrown in 1057, still nine years before the Norman French invasion of England under William the Conqueror.
Two hundred years pass by. The Norman kings are on the throne of England. A succession of English kings and queens has tried to extend their power north into Scotland, as generations of Scots have raided English settlements to the south. The warfare between these two historic enemies is almost constant. In the mid-1200’s the English king Edward, also known as Longshanks and the Scots Killer, has invaded Scotland determined to subjugate it once and for all. He pushes north and reaches the holy place of Scone where the Scottish kings were crowned. Here he seizes the holy relic called the Stone of Scone and takes it back to London where he places it under his throne at Westminster Abbey, where it remained for seven centuries, despite the efforts of Scottish nationalists to steal it back.
(Prime Minister Tony Blair finally returned the stone to Scotland after his election — a smart political move.) The film Braveheart gives you a highly dramatic sense of the conflict at this time between the Scots and the English. The Scots fight back unsuccessfully because they are not united in their efforts. Finally one man arises who is able to weld the Scottish people into a single nation, Robert the Bruce, and he is able to lead to a Scottish victory. The English have to acknowledge the right of the Scottish State to exist. King Edward is bitterly disappointed and when he dies, he leaves instructions that if England ever mounts a new invasion of Scotland, his bones are to be carried at the head of the army. So you see how bitter the hatred is between the two nations.
Under Robert the Bruce the Scots succeed in driving the English out, but in 1329 he dies and his daughter ascends the throne. She had married a guy who was like the business manager or steward of the royal estates. Not surprisingly the guy’s name was “Steward” or as it came to be spelled, “Stuart.” And so the Scottish throne passed on to this obscure family that had never been more than civil servants. Now every royal family worried about two things: succession, or who would inherit the throne. Henry VIII had gone through five wives trying to sire a male heir to the throne and broken with the Catholic Church over the issue. The second worry was to try and keep the crown within the family against attacks on their legitimacy. So kings were always seeking ways to bolster their claim on the throne in the perception of the people. The family of Elizabeth, the Tudors, had had on-going problems in both these areas. The first Tudor, Henry VII, lost his oldest son soon after the boy had been married to Catherine of Aragon. So as not to have to return her substantial dowry to the King of Spain, Henry VII simply married the young widow to his next son, Henry VIII, setting in motion all the turmoil of that king’s five wives.
Henry’s son Edward died while still in his teens, and his daughter, who reigned as “Bloody Mary Tudor,” was unable to produce an heir. The next Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, declined to try to have a child by refusing to marry. Her decision caused all kinds of political problems as she approached death in 1603, until she declared on her deathbed that her distant cousin, James VI of Scotland, would rule after her. The Stuart kings, by contrast, had been very prolific. By the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, there had been eight generations of Stuart kings on the throne of Scotland. They were the longest-surviving royal family in all of Europe. They boasted that they would remain on the throne until Doomsday. However, the Stuarts continued to worry about the public perception of their legitimacy.
After all the original Stuart king had had little claim to the throne. So it was that in the early 1500’s one of the Stuart kings hired a professional historian and ordered him to create an older, more respectable connection to the throne for the Stuarts. This historian made up an ancient ancestor of the Stuarts, Banquo, who lived clear back in the time of old King Macbeth. This Banquo, a thane or nobleman, was told by goddesses of Scottish destiny that his descendents would eventually become kings of Scotland. These goddesses were given special powers to look into the future of the Scottish nation. So the Stuarts had a mystical claim on the throne for several hundred years before they actually were crowned. This Banquo was a completely fictional character that the historian/PR guy simply made up. Not surprisingly this character and the prediction of his descendant’s rise to power figure prominently in the play.
Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII, had used history in just the same manipulative manner. After he defeated and killed the rightful king, Richard III, in 1485, he hired a number of “professional” historians to do a hatchet job on poor old Richard. They “proved” that he was not the legitimate king and was in fact a monster who deserved to die so the Tudors could take power.
In the mid-1500’s Scotland was ruled by Mary, Queen of Scots, a distant cousin of Elizabeth I. Mary has come down in history as a kind of romantic figure, but in reality she was not nearly as sympathetic. She was a Catholic trying to rule a land that was fiercely Presbyterian, and she was not very adept at the politics of power. Plus she had the unfortunate habit of blowing up the castles where her estranged husband was staying. She was finally driven out of Scotland and fled to England where she was given asylum by Elizabeth.
Rather than being content and grateful for her cousin’s kindness, she began almost immediately plotting with malcontents to overthrow Elizabeth. She let it be known that if the Catholic minority in England was able to get rid of the queen, she would graciously accept the crown. Elizabeth tried to ignore the threats and then tried to confine Mary in an isolated country home where she could cause less trouble. But Mary persisted in her plots. Finally Elizabeth is forced to stop Mary’s intrigues by having her beheaded
Now when Mary fled from Scotland she left her infant son, James, and he was crowned James VI and ruled throughout his childhood. Poor James was manipulated and used by the powerful men who had custody of the young king. He learned to be very slippery and deceitful in order to survive to adulthood. In one of the great ironies of history, when Elizabeth faces death she bequeaths the English throne to the son of her mortal enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots. James was finally able to escape from Edinburgh and the clutches of the Presbyterian elders and go to the sinful city of London, the Las Vegas of that age. In 1603 James is crowned James I of England and becomes a dual monarch.
A few months later he names Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men, the royal dramatic company. The company has royal protection from local authorities and they make a great of money performing all the plays Shakespeare had written for the court. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare felt compelled to write a tribute to his royal patron, Macbeth. As I said earlier, it’s an odd play to be a tribute to a Scottish king, but then Shakespeare made a career out of doing the unusual.
Now as Shakespeare pays tribute to James, he also wants to support James’ political agenda. England and Scotland had been historic enemies, but now they were governed by the same monarch, and he wanted to unite them into a single kingdom. In several plays written before 1603 Shakespeare used the Scots as convenient ethnic targets. (We see this Scots-bashing in Merchant of Venice and Henry V.) After 1603 it became politically incorrect to take potshots at the Scots. Although James and the other Stuarts wanted a United Kingdom, it would take over 100 years for England and Scotland to merge into a single political entity.
To advance the king’s agenda, Shakespeare wrote the play in a certain way. He created and emphasized commonality between the two kingdoms. He was also careful not to show Banquo, the king’s mythical ancestor, in a bad light. Rather than being actively involved in overthrowing King Duncan, Banquo just stands around and waits for Fate to fulfill the prophecy of his family’s future greatness. (In Holinshed’s account Banquo had been an active participant in Duncan’s overthrow and death.) Having set up the story of the Stuart family’s rise to power, Shakespeare shift gears and makes the homicidal maniac Macbeth the protagonist of the play.
The other political event which shaped the composition of the play was the criminal conspiracy to assassinate James, his family and most of the Protestant leadership of England in the Gunpowder Plot. This took place in early November of 1605, when a group of Catholic extremists planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the occasion of a speech by the king to Parliament. There had been a long history of hostility between the Catholics and Protestants in England through the 1500’s, especially during the time of Elizabeth. Catholics considered her an illegitimate ruler and a bastard because she was the child of King Henry VIII’s second wife, after the illegal divorce. The film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, gives you a good sense of the conflict in this time with the Catholic side being represented by the Pope and Queen Mary. By contrast with Catholic intransigence, Elizabeth is shown to be much more humane and tolerant.
She had seen too much bloodshed over religious differences. She did not much mind what people’s private beliefs were as long as they avoided public display of religious heresies. So under Elizabeth it was not illegal to be a Catholic, unlike Mary Tudor’s persecution of Protestant dissenters; it was just illegal to perform a Catholic mass in public. Understandably Catholics chafed under the restrictions of Elizabeth’s rule and believed that a strong Catholic monarch could bring England forcibly back to the Catholic faith. When Elizabeth died in 1603 many Catholics hoped their persecution would end with James. After all, his own mother had been a Catholic. However, that belief ignored the fact that James had been raised as a Presbyterian, not a Catholic. Also he found Elizabeth’s principle of allowing private faith a good compromise. And so the more militant Catholics plotted to fill the basement of Parliament with gunpowder and at the critical moment blow it up. Now this plot was the 17th Century equivalent of 9/11 or the harebrained scheme of Timothy McVey to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
The plot was discovered at the last minute. According to the official account released at the time the king himself, with the help of God, covered the plan. He was shown some intercepted messages which referred to “strike a blow” for the cause and realized that “blow” could mean an explosion and ordered the building searched. The effect of the discovery on England was electric, traumatic. In a flash the country realized how close they had come to disaster. As the conspirators were arrested, tortured, confessed and were executed more details came out. English society was changed in ways that are still visible today. For example to this day on November 5, the day the plot was discovered, called Guy Fawkes Day, children throughout Britain collect money in the neighborhood to buy fireworks to set off and burn a wooden effigy called “the Old Guy” in honor of Guy Fawkes, one of the principal conspirators. The revelation of the plot did not ease the plight of Catholics, who were forbidden the vote or the ability to serve in Parliament.
One of the other conspirators turned out to be a secret Jesuit priest named Henry Garnett. Although it was illegal to perform the mass, the Jesuits recruited young courageous English Catholics, trained them in France and smuggled them back into England to perform as priests. Garnett was the confessor of several of the other conspirators and he was detained in the initial investigation. The authorities suspected he was a priest and they asked him under oath if he knew anything about the plot. He denied any knowledge. Subsequent suspects were arrested and they revealed that Garnett had known about the plan and had advised the conspirators on what to do. He was arrested again, questioned and this time he admitted that he did know about the plot. When confronted with his earlier perjury under oath, Garnett explained that as a Jesuit he was not required to tell the authorities what they wanted to know.
In defense of his own faith he had not lied under oath; he had simply equivocated. That simply meant he had not told the whole truth and had played fast and loose with the terminology, a lot like a former president testifying under a threat of impeachment. This aspect of the scandal was in some respects the most shocking for the public because he seemed to cast the Jesuits as sneaky, lying shock troops of the Pope who would commit any sin to further their own cause. And so the concept of “equivocation” became infamous, a kind of shorthand reference to the evil behind the plot. It was so shocking that the legal oath Englishmen took when they testified in court was changed at that time to include the provision that the oath was taken “without equivocation” to cover any future Garnetts. That provision continued in the English legal system down to the twentieth century. Both the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day and the legal oath demonstrate how traumatic the Gunpowder Plot was on English society. A lot of popular works were written at this time which refer to the details of the plot, including at least three plays called Gunpowder dramas. One was called The Whore of Babylon all about the Pope leading a black mass to call forth Satan to engineer the assassination of Queen Elizabeth.
The second play was called The Devil’s Charter which traces the efforts of the evils Catholics to engineer the assassination of an English ruler. The third play was Macbeth, according to noted author Garry Wills. In the plays the Jesuits are linked to witchcraft. This was not the first attempt on King James’ life; he had survived three earlier assassination attempts. (One reason James may have been able to uncover the plot so quickly is that he had had lots of experience,) The would-be assassins were subsequently tried as witches. In another related case a plot was uncovered to kill James’ bride, a princess of Denmark. A group of accused witches from a town called Forres, mentioned in the play, had disapproved of James marrying a foreigner, and so the charmed the winds and caused a major storm on the North Sea to try and sink the ship bringing the Danish bride to Scotland.
As in the other cases the plotters were arrested, tortured, confessed and were executed. As a result of his experiences and his own interest in the occult, James fancied himself an expert and had written a book called Daemonology, all about Scottish witches. In the first two Gunpowder plays listed above it is a male witch that is behind the plots to kill the English monarch. What Shakespeare does in his play is to take the “goddesses of Scottish destiny” that he had read about in Holinshed and change them into very unusual witches, in keeping with the interest of the principal person for whom he was writing the play, King James.