Background Information

History of Macbeth

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William Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth" was performed at the Globe Theater in 1605-06. The "Scottish" play was a calculated to be pleasing to James I, who took the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth Tudor in 1603. It was not simply that the play was set in the homeland of the Stuarts, but also that when Banquo's royal descendants are envisioned the last of them is the new King. (Note: Shakespeare does a similar sort of tribute to Queen Elizabeth when in the final act of "Henry VIII" the the Archbishop prophesizes great things for the infant Elizabeth. However, not only is there doubt that Shakespeare was the sole author of that particular history, it was not produced until 1612-13, ten years after Elizabeth's death.)

The play chronicles Macbeth's seizing the Scottish throne and his subsequent downfall, both aspects the result of blind ambition. However, one of the interesting aspects of "Macbeth" for me has always been its take on prophecy, which is decidedly different from the classical tradition. In the Greek myths there is no escaping your fate; in fact, one of the points of the story of Oedipus as told by Sophocles is that trying to resist your fate only makes things worse (the original prophecy was that Oedipus would slay his father; it was only after Jocasta sought to have her son killed to save her husband that the prophecy given Oedipus was that he would slay his father and marry his mother). In the Norse tradition prophecy is simply fate and manhood demands you simply resign yourself to what must happen.

But in "Macbeth" there is a different notion of prophecy that is compatible with what is found in the Bible: specifically, the idea that human beings simply cannot understand God's predictions. This is the case both with those who failed to understand the prophecies that foretold the birth of the Christ but also the book of Revelations, where the fate of the world is detailed in complex and essentially uncomprehensible symbolism. When Macbeth is presented with the first set of prophecies by the three witches, he is understandably dubious: he will become thane of Cawdor and then King, while Banquo will beget kings. However, when the first prophecy comes true, Macbeth begins to believe that the rest of the prophecy may come true. His fatal error, at least in the Greek tradition, is that he does not allow fate to bring him the crown, he takes active steps by slaying King Duncan. He compounds this error by projecting his ambitions onto Banquo; although Macbeth has Banquo killed, his son escapes to keep the prophecy intact.

Now the witches's prophecies are deceptively clear: no man born of woman may harm him and he is secure until trees start walking. Macbeth, who now believes in the inevitability of prophecy, fails to understand the fatal concept of loopholes. Thus, the nature of prophecy becomes an integral part of the play's dynamic.


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