There is no more powerful opening than that of the three witches muttering incantations on the blasted heath, surrounded by the ‘hurly-burly’ of war and storm.
Macbeth is a play with scarcely a pause for breath, for the tension and drama rise inexorably from that first supernatural scene. Nothing is quite what it seems, either to Macbeth or to the audience, and these illusions make Macbeth one of the most riveting of all the tragedies on stage. Can the audience see Banquo’s ghost? Is the dagger visible or not? Are the witches real women or supernatural beings? In his excellent series of essays included in the companion volume to this edition, editor Nicholas Brooke discusses the history of Macbeth in performance and what those uncertainties reveal. It was Abraham Lincoln’s favourite play, and after his assassination, Macbeth seemed to his contemporaries uncannily apposite. Pamphlets were printed with Malcolm’s words to express a nation’s mourning:
'our country sinks beneath the yoke,
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.'
Act 5 Sc. 3
All Shakespearean tragic heroes have their ‘flaw’, but where Othello, Lear and Hamlet come to self-realisation, for Macbeth there is no redemption. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s finest study of how power and evil deeds corrupt the soul.
The complexities of his character keep the audience oscillating between loathing and pity. Connected as if by a fulcrum, Macbeth and his wife begin and end the play at opposing points. At first, Lady Macbeth, who has no qualms at Duncan’s murder, seems truly a ‘fiend-like Queen’, but in her final sleep-walking scene, we see a mind unravelling, tormented by unbearable guilt. Macbeth, by contrast, hesitates to begin with, but by the end he has become inured to murder: ‘I am in blood/ Stepped in so far, that should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ As so often with Shakespeare, the language and images he creates have sunk deeply into our consciousness. The concept of wading through blood to a throne now symbolises our notions of usurpation and tyranny.
Macbeth has long held the reputation of being an ‘unlucky’ play, giving rise to a superstition amongst actors never to say the name, but instead to refer to ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Scottish King’. Some claimed it was because Shakespeare had used the spells of real witches in the play and that a curse had resulted. Others, rather more prosaically, pointed to the fact that, such was its popularity, Macbeth was often put on by ailing theatres in a last-ditch attempt to boost flagging audiences. Since salvation is a heavy burden for one play, this often meant that Macbeth was the last performance for many theatres before they closed – giving rise to a ‘bad luck’ reputation.
Macbeth was probably written between 1603 and 1606, and its subject matter was intended, at least in part, as a compliment to King James I. According to legend, James was descended from Banquo – providing the proof to the witches’ prophecy that ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none’. James had a well-known obsession with witchcraft, writing the Demonologie and presiding over an increase in witch-hunting in both England and Scotland. The witches proved to be crowd-pleasers and it is likely that additional scenes with Hecate were inserted by other writers, while in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they came almost to dominate the play.
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