The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare was, I believe, the first Shakespeare play I read (at the age of 15), and it's one I've always enjoyed (sadly yet to see it performed, though). I read it last month and it's still one of the most ghostly, engaging, and exciting of all Shakespeare's works.
North Berwick witch trials of the 1590s (today North Berwick is referred to as East Lothian, Scotland). King James was both fascinated and terrified of witchcraft, and in 1603 had published Daemonologie, a short treatise in support of witch hunting, writing,
The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine ... to resolve the doubting ... both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.King James believed that Francis Stuart, 5th Earl of Bothwell (his mother's third husband), was in league with a coven of witches, plotting, among other things, to capsize the ship Anne of Denmark travelled in as she came to England to marry him. Furthermore, he found in the Earl's possession a wax doll labelled "This is King James the Sixth, ordained to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis, Earl of Bothwell". During this period, for reasons such as these, he oversaw the torture and murder of many women believed to be witches during this period.
7th Earl of Cawdor) and later King of Scotland, and that Banquo will beget a line of Scottish kings but will never be a king himself. Shortly after this prophecy, Macbeth learns that he has indeed been made Thane of Cawdor, and he wonders just how much of the witches' prophecy will come true. He tells his wife, and together their ruthless hunger for power leads them to murder, and consequently, to guilt and insanity.
It is a bloody tale (though I believe the bloodiest of Shakespeare's tales must be Titus Andronicus) about power and corruption, and it remains one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays. It is framed in an unnatural, or supernatural setting, one which leaves people divided: should the witches have been left out of this play altogether? Had they have been left out, the element of Fate would have been removed and the corruption and resulting evil would have been all the more terrible, but, for me, it is the witches that set the mood of the play (that and the thunder and lightning). And if one removes the element of Fate but keeps the witches, it shows just powerful suggestion may be. I don't feel that I'm enough of a Shakespeare buff to debate this any further, but I will say I do love the witches!
I think this may be one of the plays everyone has already read, but if someone told me they'd never read Shakespeare this would be the one I would recommend. It's the most accessible, and I find it the most exciting. It raises so many interesting debates: is Macbeth really a victim? And if so, whose victim? Fate's? The witches'? Lady Macbeth's? She is one of the strongest of Shakespeare's female characters, I think, and, interestingly, is implied to be the most masculine of females. This is one of many of the conflicts in the play.
Finally, some illustrations: these are by Averil Burleigh and come from Macbeth: Told by a Popular Novelist (published in 1914 by John C. Winston & co).
Burgess, Anthony - Shakespeare
Burgess, Anthony - Shakespeare