Witches, betrayal, ambition and a whole lot of murder – that’s Macbeth. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies plays fast and loose with Scottish history to paint a grim view of the drive to power and the madness of guilt. Not only stage and screen, but novels and comic books have told this tale that continues to weave itself into our cultural life and serve as perhaps the most important reference point for the theatre community.
The real King Macbeth – the Red King, as he was known – ruled Scotland in the 11th century. And he did indeed come to the throne after murdering then King Duncan. That’s about the extent of the historical accuracy, though, at least based on our major source, the 16th century Holinshed’s Chronicles. The most honourable character in the play, for example – Banquo – was a co-conspirator of the real Macbeth and played a key role in helping him to hold the throne in subsequent years. Such truths, though, had to be dispensed with – perhaps just for Shakespeare’s narrative purposes, but more likely for political expedience: then King James 1 was said to be a direct descendent of the historical Banquo, so it certainly would not do to dredge up a whole lot of bloody muck about the fella, however many centuries had passed.
The supposed curse that is ‘The Scottish Play’s” title said aloud in the theatre; Lady Macbeth’s handwashing and the famous “out, damned spot”; “bubble bubble, toil and trouble”; and even the simple “what’s done is done” – Macbeth is very much alive in our collective consciousness and in our language.
- Wiki on Macbeth and William Shakespeare
- Open Shakespeare, including links to the full text
- A performance of the play online