The Tragedie of Macbeth
1623, in Folio
Tragedy, historical drama
Five acts, 2,392 lines, approx. 16,500 wordss
The Scottish play rewrites history
Macbeth was actually king of Scotland for seventeen years, though you would never get this from Shakespeare's most popular play. Historians consider Macbeth and his wife to have been relatively good and decent rulers, far from the guilt-ridden tyrants of Macbeth.
But the factually true story would have made far less effective drama and told us fewer truths of human nature.
It's also strangely appropriate that the play should misrepresent history so drastically, for its central theme is the reversal of good and bad.
Just look at the many dark and tumultuous expressions remembered from Macbeth (see "Great lines"). Not to mention the famous monologue of the despairing king in the last act:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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,
Macbeth may be Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy—unrelentingly dark, without those moments of comic relief or frivolity found in Hamlet or King Lear. The dense plot runs thusly:
Three witches, or "weird sisters", are visited by Macbeth and Banquo, who on behalf of Scottish king Duncan have just defeated rebel forces. The witches prophesy Macbeth will become thane of Cawdor and then king. They also predict Banquo's heirs will someday rule Scotland. Immediately after the predictions, the men receive news the king has made Macbeth thane of Cawdor. Encouraged by the prophecy, Lady Macbeth convinces Macbeth to murder the king while he is visiting their castle. Some guards are set up to take the blame for the murder and Macbeth is named king.
Fearing the second part of the prophecy, Macbeth also orders the murder of his friend Banquo and his son Fleance, but Fleance escapes. Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo. Consulting the witches again, he is told to beware Macduff, but also that no one born of woman has power to harm him and that he never will be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane (his castle). Macduff joins Duncan's son Malcolm to form an army in England to fight Macbeth. While Macduff is away, Macbeth attacks Macduff's castle and has Lady Macduff and her children killed. Lady Macbeth goes mad with guilt and dies. The Malcolm-Macduff army advance on Dunsinane, using branches of Birnam Wood as camouflage. Macduff, who was born by Caesarian section (and thus not "born of woman") kills Macbeth. Malcolm becomes king.
It is also understood that Banquo's heirs eventually become rulers. This prediction may have been included in the play because the patron of Shakespeare's company, King James I of England, was considered a descendant of Banquo.
Some think Macbeth as we know it, Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, is actually an abridged version of a longer play.
The play has a reputation in the theatre for bringing bad luck. It is often referred to as "the Scottish play" to avoid speaking the cursed word "Macbeth", as any fan of the Blackadder TV series knows.
Several film versions have been made of Macbeth, as well as operas by Verdi and Bloch. It may not be accurate history but it tells us something dark about ourselves we need to keep hearing every now and then.