Macbeth

Definition

Theater

  • Shakespeare's tragedy about the corrupting effectof ambition, written in 1605 - 06; the first recorded performancewas in 1611. At this time Shakespeare's company sought the patronageof James I and this seems to have prompted them to choose a themethat flattered his descent from the Scottish kings and catered tohis interest in witchcraft.

    In the play Macbeth encounters three witches, who prophesythat he will become king. Inspired by this, Macbeth and his wife murderKing Duncan and seize the throne. Despite suffering the tortures ofa guilty conscience, Macbeth finds himself committing further crimesto consolidate his power, including the murder of the entire familyof the nobleman Macduff. Lady Macbeth, engulfed by madness, commitssuicide; finally Macduff returns from England to kill Macbeth in battle(see Birnam Wood).

    The play has always been one of Shakespeare's most popularworks and the prized roles of Macbeth and his Lady have been the makingof many careers. It has also seen some disastrous performances. RalphRichardson's 1952 Macbeth was so ill-received that he was ableto threaten an actor who hesitated to lend him money, "I'llhave it put about that you were in my Macbeth. " In 1980Peter O'Toole's bombastic performance at the Old Vic had some membersof the audience helpless with laughter.

    The play has spawned numerous adaptations. In the late 17thcentury William Davenant introduced dancing, singing, andflying witches. Other versions include Verdi's opera Macbetto(1847), Orson Welles's sombre film (1948), and the off-Broadway MacBird(1967), an attack on Lyndon Johnson that begins with the assassinationof J. F. Kennedy.

    Shakespeare's character bears only a loose resemblance tothe historical Scottish king. According to Holinshed's Chronicleof Scottish History, which Shakespeare consulted, Duncan (1001 - 40)was a highly ineffective ruler and his murder was carried out by severalnobles, not by Macbeth alone. The historical Macbeth - who hada fairly good claim to the throne - ruled well for 17 years (1040 - 57)before eventually being killed in battle against Duncan's son. Shakespeareclearly drew on other incidents in Holinshed for his characters andplot; amongst these were the murder of King Duff by his trusted lieutenantand host Donwald, who was encouraged by his wife. The supposed lineof descent from Banquo to James I may have prompted Shakespeare toportray that character as wholly innocent of Duncan's murder, whereasin Holinshed his role is far more ambiguous.

    Macbeth's ghost is said to haunt Glamis Castle, lamentingDuncan's death; his body lies on Iona - the traditional burial-placeof Scottish kings. According to long-established theatrical belief,Macbeth is the unluckiest play in the repertory and should never bementioned by name (see Scottish Play).

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