Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

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.

It was written somewhere between 1599 - 1606 when King James VI was the King of Scotland, and would become King James I of England in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I. This was not long after the 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.

This mood of horror and paranoia is captured perfectly by Shakespeare (who was also possibly inspired by the Holinsheds Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577-87). He tells the story of Macbeth, an army general and Thane of Glamis, who, with his friend Banquo, encounters three witches who prophecise that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor (a title currently held, incidentally, by the 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).

Further reading:

Burgess, Anthony - Shakespeare


  1. Thanks for the background and another great review! In the Shakespeare course I'm taking at the moment we're reading Romeo and Juliet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear and Winter's Tale, so no MacBeth, sadly. I've read it once before and loved it so it's definitely time for another read. Perhaps in the dark winter nights of December and January ...... just perfect!

    Love the illustrations too!

    1. Thanks, Cleo. I'm on a re-reading Shakespeare mission, so I'll be getting to King Lear, Othello, Much Ado and Winter's Tale soon (I've recently re-read R&J, Midsummer Night's Dream). I'm looking forward to them - it's the historical plays I struggle with! I'm not particularly intending on reading the tragedies first, but winter seems a good time for them! Winter for tragedies, spring and summer for comedies, and never for histories! ;)

  2. I've seen this performed (in a rather horror-esque way - enjoyed it very, very much) but, sadly, I've never read the play itself. I'll surely do it in the future, anyway, since I enjoy Shakespeare so much and I really liked seeing this performed.

    And I agree with you, I love the witches :D

    1. I think it's better to actually see them than read them :) I'm on the look out for Shakespeare DVDs, they're remarkably hard to get a hold of: all I've managed so far is to get Romeo and Juliet!

  3. Now you've impressed upon my mind a hypothetical version of Macbeth without the witches element in it, and... no..., I find there's something not quite right, something amiss. I agree with you, I would never leave them out, because they perfectly set the mood of the play, as they bring to a whole (and heightened) new level the feeling of foreboding pervading the play...

    And, while I loved reading this work, it's King Lear the one that has stayed with me the most out of all Shakespeare tragedies –perhaps because it's the first I ever read.

    1. I must give that another go - I wasn't so keen on it the first time around.

      And yes, the witches - they're essential! :)


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