Short Shakespeare!


January 22

March 5, 2011

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by David H. Bell

Shakespeare's Sources

As Shakespeare searched into Scotland’s history for material for his play, he turned to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1587, as he frequently did for his history lessons. Holinshed’s history was in part mythology and the tales of oral history, but his stories proved a fertile ground for the active imagination of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is drawn largely from two stories in Holinshed: one of King Duncan and the usurper Macbeth; the other, of King Duff, slain by Donwald with the help of Donwald’s ambitious wife. Holinshed’s Duncan was an ineffective ruler who depended upon the strength of his warriors—like the tough Macbeth. As in Shakespeare’s tale, Macbeth and Banquo are greeted by the prophecies of witches, but in Holinshed, Banquo is an active accomplice to the murder of Duncan. Shakespeare gives Banquo (the reputed ancestor of James I, England’s newly crowned king as Shakespeare wrote his new play) a more ambiguous role than did Holinshed. Though Shakespeare’s Banquo knows of the prophecies, his character is not directly implicated in the murder, and can be interpreted as a noble foil to Macbeth’s villainy. Prior to ascending to England’s throne when James was still King James VI of Scotland, he traced his royal ancestry back to this “Banquo.” Interestingly, there is no evidence that such a Banquo ever existed. He seems to first appear in a myth created by Boece in 1526. But in Shakespeare’s time, this story of James’s lineage was accepted fact. Macbeth retells this story to an England now interested in all things Scottish.

According to Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth was said to rule his country well for many years—a welcome contrast to Duncan’s ineffective leadership. Only much later did Macbeth’s rule become tyrannical, and his overthrow finally a reaction to his tyranny. Shakespeare crafted his Macbeth more darkly, with neither years of peaceful and effective rule, nor relief of his subjects who had suffered under the rule of King Duncan before him. Holinshed refers to Duncan’s naming of his son as heir to the throne as a breach of Scottish law, which in the eleventh century determined succession by election rather than by primogeniture. Duncan overstepped his powers in naming his son Malcolm as his successor, and Macbeth’s outrage was therefore historically more justified. As a powerful warrior and as a close kin, his claim to the throne was strong. Shakespeare, however, makes no mention of Duncan’s abuse of power here; he treats the King’s appointment of his son as natural—as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own time, determined by primogeniture. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is another creation of the playwright’s imagination—borrowed, it seems, from another story in Holinshed’s Chronicles of an ambitious Lady Donwald who assisted her husband in the murder of King Duff.

Another historical source credited by scholars for Macbeth was a book entitled the History of Scotland by George Buchanan, published about 25 years before Shakespeare wrote his play—notable for James I’s attempted suppression during his time as King of Scotland. Why such royal interest about this particular history? Buchanan asserts that sovereignty derives from, and remains with, the people: The king who exercises power against the will of his people, says Buchanan, must be deposed. To James I, who believed in the absolute rule and divine right of a king, Buchanan’s was a dangerous text. It was written to justify the 1567 overthrow of James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, a lawful—and tyrannical—ruler. And it was used to be used again in 1642 to depose James’s son, Charles I, from the British throne in 1642. Many in Shakespeare’s audience embraced the doctrine of divine right and absolute power, but in a country that just one generation later would behead its king, there were clearly dissenting views.

– Contributed by the CST Education Department

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