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Transcript of MACBETH
This theory, based on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept of the universe, was of great importance to Shakespeare’s contemporaries and was used by him in developing events in his plays. According to this idea, everything in the world had its position fixed by God. The Earth was the centre of the universe and the stars moved around it in fixed routes. In Heaven God ruled over the archangels and angels. On earth there was order everywhere. Society reflected this order with its fixed classes from the highest to the lowest – kings, churchmen, nobles, merchants, and peasants. The animals had their own degrees too, the lion being the “king”. Plant life and minerals also reflected this order. Among the trees, the most superior was the oak; among flowers, it was the rose. Among the minerals, gold was the most superior.
The Elizabethans called this hierarchical structure The Great Chain of Being.
Any attempt to break the chain of being would upset the established order and bring about universal disorder. Thus when Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is chaos in the heavens as well as on earth. In Macbeth after Duncan is murdered we are told by the Old Man and Ross (Act 2, Scene 4) that the day became as dark as night, a falcon was killed by an owl and that Duncan’s horses turned wild and ate each other. Only when the rightful king (Malcolm) gains his throne at the culmination of the play is order and harmony to the world restored.
The Scottish Play...
Shakespeare wrote this to show what might happen if a king, in this case King Duncan, were to be murdered, and his play would have embodied the worries and fears of the English people at that uncertain time. What happened was that:
Confusion now bath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder bath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building! (Act II, Sc. 3)
The good times are over. We have killed ‘the King’, and chaos is come upon us. It is an old theme. The story of King Arthur embodied the same idea: when Arthur was killed at the fateful battle of Camlann a darkness fell over Britain. The country was plunged into chaos and civil war.
Even today the theme has been applied in America to the assassination of John Kennedy (whose favourite musical, we learn, was Camelot!).It is interesting to study Don Maclean’s song ‘American Pie’ in this context: ‘While the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown,’ he wrote, yet he has never said who the king and the jester were. Perhaps the clue is ‘thorny crown’, for at the heart of this idea lies the event of the murder of Jesus on the cross. We have killed ‘the King’ and chaos is come upon us.
Death of a King
At that time the king was regarded as God’s ruler on earth, and thus to kill the King was not only murder but sacrilege, a crime against something holy.
Shakespeare drew on the popular traditions of his time and used them for his own purposes. In Macbeth he used popular beliefs about witches and witchcraft. The new king of England, James I, had written a book called Demonology which was published in 1597.
Until the time of Queen Elizabeth, no-one could be executed simply for being a witch. But in 1604, witchcraft became a capital offense. Evidence of a relationship with evil spirits condemned a suspect to death by hanging, burning or drowning.
Witches were supposed to be capable of doing all the things that the three weird sisters are said to perform in Macbeth. It was believed that they could see into the future; that they could create storms, hail, thunder and lightning; that they were able to sink ships; dry up springs; stop the sun and change night into day and day into night. They could also cause the death of their enemies, and could make themselves invisible. In order to work their charms they would open graves and steal parts of the bodies to make potions. For this purpose the bodies of unbaptized babies were especially prized. And witches could call up the dead.
For a king like Macbeth to visit and have dealings with witches would have seemed both a crime and a sin. Macbeth is easily captured by their power and by their prophecies. But note that they never tell him a lie. However, they do allow him to deceive himself. The devil does not lie...but leads us into temptation.
When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 James I had been King of England for three years. He had previously been James VI of Scotland. King James symbolised the union of the Scottish and English crowns, a union to which Shakespeare refers in the play. It was well known that the new king was fascinated by witchcraft; Shakespeare might have been trying to win his approval by introducing the figures of the 'three weird sisters' into the play.
Macbeth was first performed at Hampton Court Palace before James I and his guests in 1606.
The storyline, like that of most of Shakespeare's plays, was not original, and in this case was based on fact.
The story was familiar to James: he had inherited the throne of Scotland through his ancestors Banquo and the story of Duncan's murder was well known.
The real Macbeth reigned in Scotland from 1040 to 1057.
He killed his predecessor Duncan I, and was in turn killed by Duncan’s, son Malcolm III.
Events such as these were not uncommon in the 'barbaric' feudal Scotland of the eleventh century.
Of the fourteen kings who reigned between 943 and 1097, ten were murdered.
Macbeth ruled wisely and well for seventeen years. During his reign the north and south of Scotland were united for the first time.
He was defeated in battle near Aberdeen by Malcolm III, the son of Duncan I, who had invaded Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, King of England.
Malcolm slaughtered Macbeth's family so that his own kingship would be stabilised.
This marked the end of the purely Celtic, exclusively 'barbaric' Scottish folk as it led to the gradual breaking down of barriers between England and Scotland and to the introduction of English ways and customs.
Duncan – King of Scotland
Malcolm –Duncan's elder son
Donalbain – Duncan's younger son
Macbeth – a general in the army of King Duncan; originally Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor, and later King of Scotland
Lady Macbeth – Macbeth's wife and later Queen of Scotland
Banquo – Macbeth's friend and a general in the army of King Duncan
Fleance – Banquo's son
Macduff – Thane of Fife
Lady Macduff – Macduff's wife
Ross, Lennox, Angus, Menteith, Caithness – Scottish Thanes
Siward – General of the English forces
Young Siward – Siward's son
Seyton – Macbeth's servant and attendant
Hecate – Queen of the witches
Three Witches – make the prediction of Macbeth becoming a King and Banquo's descendants being kings
Porter – gatekeeper at Macbeth's home
Doctor – Lady Macbeth's doctor
Gentlewoman – Lady Macbeth's caretaker
What do you associate with the following?
Social perceptions of women have differed in texts, ranging from the nurturing fruitful mother figure—the holy Madonna image (i.e. our more biological perceptions of women)—to the evil witch or femme fatale. Many traditional social perceptions of men portray them as powerful, successful and as the head of the household.
During the Elizabethan period in which Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, there were distinct societal expectations about the roles of men and women.
Although society expected women to be submissive to their husbands, Lady Macbeth not only subverts this idea of complete submission, but also decisively challenges her husband’s masculinity. To attain power, she seeks to subdue her feminine characteristics in order to become more masculine. In doing so, she hopes to find the courage to kill the king and so become queen.
Task: As you read Macbeth, be alert to the role of the witches in the play, their influence on the characters and the events during the play.
In the late spring or early summer of 1585, Elizabeth began a correspondence with James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth was 51 years old; James celebrated his nineteenth birthday in June.
The correspondence continues at irregular but not infrequent intervals until Elizabeth's last letter of January 6, 1603, slightly more than two months before her death. The great preponderance of these letters survives in the collection now known as British Library, Additional MS 15891.
Sometime in the early months of 1585 Elizabeth appears to have begun writing to James to propose what she terms a "league" or "contract of amity" between them as monarchs of England and Scotland.
Eventually both refer with satisfaction to their faiths pledged to each other, even while their new league is imperilled by violence in the unruly borderlands between the two countries.
James succeeded Elizabeth I as the closest living relative of the unmarried childless English monarch, through his descent from one of Henry VIII's sisters.
Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI of Scotland
1. Why did Shakespeare choose to make Macbeth into a villain when history tells us that he was not?
2. Which political figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries do you know of (or have heard about) who have been assassinated? Find out the possible reasons for their assassination.
Shakespeare never let historical fact get in the way of a good story. He changed several key aspects of the original story, either to intensify his drama or to ensure political correctness. As an example of the latter, Shakespeare's Macbeth, who commits the greatest of all crimes by murdering his king, finds he cannot live with himself and the consequences of his actions. He has rebelled against God and the order of creation; he becomes inhumane and his crime is rightly punished by his death.
TASK: As you read Macbeth, be alert to how the Chain of Being functions in the play, what the characters observe, and how they respond.
THE CURSE OF MACBETH
A humanistic view of life is suggested in Cassius’ remark to Brutus:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
In Shakespeare’s time a movement known as “Humanism” had a great influence on men and their philosophy of life. Humanists had great faith in man’s ability to shape his own future. They tended to shift the emphasis from life after death to life on earth. The term “Humanism” refers to thoughts and actions which are directed at improving society.
• life is predestined
• controlled by impersonal forces (gods, stars, unknown being)
• has effect on human lives
• what happens is not your fault
• is Shakespeare suggesting this in the play?
Task: As you read Macbeth, be alert to the role of Fate in the play, the characters’ attitudes to superstition and how they respond.
FATE & HUMANISM
CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING
1. Where does the play take place?
2. Who is Fleance (Title)?
3. What happens if the Elizabethan Hierarchy is misaligned?
4. What did King James I symbolize?
5. How did the real Macbeth die?
6. Why was killing the king thought to be sacrilege?
7. What happened in 1604 regarding witchcraft?
8. What were two things "witches" were capable of doing?
9.What was unique about the character of Lady Macbeth for the time period?
10. What is humanism?
11. What is fate?