Macbeth | 2017, 2012, 2007
About the Play by John Dunlap
“I absolutely loved your production of Macbeth. Everyone did a great job. It was scary, suspenseful, and even funny in some parts. The best part about it though, was feeling like I was watching a real event.”
– Emma P.
The probable date of composition for Macbeth is 1605-06, when Shakespeare was 42 and near the summit of his poetic powers. The 11th-century Scottish setting of the play seems designed to appeal to James VI, who, already king of Scotland when Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir in 1603, had assumed the English throne as James I. King James traced his own lineage more than 500 years back to Banquo, the Scottish nobleman murdered by the treacherous Macbeth. The play is semi-historical, based on the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
In the Chronicles, Duncan the Meek is portrayed as the first monarch of the new kingdom of Scotland, whose rather ineffectual reign (1034-1040) suffers outbursts of rebellion partly instigated by Norwegian intrigues. Macbeth, King Duncan’s cousin and his most valiant general, is persuaded by the prophecy of witches to murder Duncan under cover of a battle against the rebels and so acquire the throne of Scotland.
In the play, Shakespeare borrows a different story from the Chronicles to dramatize a more cowardly murder of the gentle Duncan in Macbeth’s castle, but otherwise follows Holinshed’s narrative fairly closely. The play opens with a foreboding scene of witches on the heath (the scholarly King James, fascinated by the topic of witchcraft, had written a book on demonology), and the witches’ encounter with Duncan’s generals Macbeth and Banquo sets the plot in motion.
Macbeth—driven by a prophecy of his future kingship, and by his wife’s and his own demonic ambition—murders the king and then usurps the throne after Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee into exile. Malcolm eventually takes refuge in the court of England’s saintly King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1043-1066); with the support of an army raised by the English nobleman Siward, Malcolm returns to Scotland to claim his rightful inheritance by force.
King Macbeth meanwhile has sunk deeper and deeper into the role of tyrant, planting spies in the castles of his restless nobles and arranging the murder of Banquo and of any others whom he knows or imagines to be a threat to his power. The darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is a tale of conscience itself betrayed, and then lost.