120spacer.gif (56 bytes) Macbeth Background

Enjoying "Macbeth", by William Shakespeare
by Ed Friedlander, M.D.

Macbeth, in a manner most flighty,
Aspired to the high and the mighty.
  Urged on by his wife,
  He stuck in his knife,
And the blood got all over his nightie!

-- Author Unknown!

Rule 9: Don't ... DON'T ... nag! -- Dale Carnegie on marriage

Warning: Macbeth is nasty. This page is nasty. I have a high regard for truth and I talk plain. If you want something nice, please leave now.

If you are a student assigned to read or see Macbeth, or an adult approaching it for the first time, you are in for an exciting experience. These notes will make it more fun.

This Is NOT
"Family Entertainment."

Young people who know of Shakespeare from "Shakespeare Gardens" and "Beautiful Tales for Children" will be pleasantly surprised by Macbeth.

  • When we first hear of Macbeth, he has just cut an enemy open ("unseamed") from belly button ("nave") to throat ("chops"). The king shouts "Oh valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!"
  • At their party, a witch shows her friends the chopped-off thumb of a ship's pilot wrecked on his way home.
  • Lady Macbeth, soliloquizing, prays to devils to possess her mind, turn the milk in her breasts into bile (!), and give her a man's ability to do evil.
  • Lady Macbeth bitches at her husband and ridicules his masculinity in order to make him commit murder. She talks about a smiling baby she once nursed and what it would have been like to smash its brains out.
  • Lady Macbeth keeps a strong sedative in the house. She doesn't mention this to her husband even when they are planning a murder. She just uses it. Attentive readers will suspect she has had to use on Macbeth in the past.
  • The Macbeths murder a sleeping man, their benefactor and guest, in cold blood, then launder their bloody clothes. They smear blood on the drugged guards, then slaughter them to complete the frame-up.
  • Horses go insane and devour each others' meat while they are still alive.
  • Everybody knows Macbeth murdered Duncan, but they make him king anyway. Virtuous-talking Banquo ("Let's have a thorough investigation sometime") acquiesces to murder, confirming what every teen knows about adult hypocrisy. Lennox plays both sides, and probably others do as well. Ross may have left Macduff's castle to "maintain plausible deniability" just before the arrival of assassins who he may have brought.
  • Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost with twenty skull injuries, any one of which could be fatal. He goes psychiatric and screams "You can't prove I did it." He goes on about how he used to think that once somebody's brains were out, he'd stay dead. But now he'll need to keep people unburied until the crows eat the corpse like roadkill, etc., etc.
  • Witches deliver incantations ("Double, double, toil and trouble, bubble etc.") that can stand alongside any meaningless-inferential heavy-metal rock lyrics.
  • Among the ingredients of a witches' brew are cut-off human lips and a baby's finger. It's not just any baby -- it was a child delivered by a prostitute in a ditch, and which she strangled right afterwards.
  • I'm an autopsy pathologist. I am very familiar with how human bodies decompose. To show Macbeth his future, the witches add to the brew "grease that's sweated from the murderer's gibbet." Would you like to know what that means? The bodies of murderers were left hanging on the gallows (gibbet) until they were skeletonized, which takes weeks. At about ten days in suitable weather, there are enough weak points in the skin that the bodyfat, which has liquified, can start dripping through. There will be a puddle of oil underneath the body. This is for real.
  • Macduff's precocious little son jokes with his mother about how there are more bad than good people in the world, and adds some wisecracks at the expense of her own possible morals. Moments later, the bad guys break in and stab him to death on stage.
  • "Who would have thought the old man would have so much blood in him?" Lady Macbeth goes psychiatric (definitely) and commits suicide (maybe). Hearing of this, Macbeth just says "She should have died hereafter", meaning "She should have picked a different time to die." He then launches into English literature's most famous statement of the meaninglessness of life. He considers suicide, which the Romans considered the dignified thing to do under such circumstances. But he decides it would be more satisfying to take as many people as possible with him.
  • Macduff recounts how he was cut out of his mother's uterus at the moment of her death.
  • Macbeth's head ends up on a stick. All teens know that severed heads were probably the first soccer balls. If you are directing the play, this is a nice touch.

The Real Macbeth and His Times

Shakespeare got his story from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. It's a fun read. Holinshed spends a lot of time on the incident in which Malcolm (who became a popular king) tests Macduff by pretending to be mean when he is really nice. Holinshed talks about the murder of King Duff by Donwald in the century before Macbeth. According to Holinshed, Donwald was nagged by his wife until he did the evil deed. Shakespeare adapted this for Macbeth.

I've read that Holinshed's section on Macbeth was largely derived from the work of one Hector Boece, Scotorum Historiae ("Chronicles of Scotland", 1526-7). I've never been able to find it. I've also read that Boece's sources include the Chronica gentis Scotorum ("Scotichronicon") by John of Fordun in the early 1500's (he also writes about William "Braveheart" Wallace and Robin Hood), and Andrew of Wyntoun (1400's). By the time the story of Macbeth had reached Holinshed, it was already mostly fiction.

Here's what we think really happened with Macbeth and the other characters.

In a barbaric era, population pressures made war and even the slaughter of one community by another a fact of life. Survival depended in having a capable warlord to protect life and property, prevent infighting, and protect from distant enemies. Groups of warlords would unite under the nominal leadership of one king to promote their common interests and war on more distant nations. While people pretended to believe in "the divine right of kings" and "lawful succession", continuing effective leadership was assured by warlords killing off the less capable family members.

The name "Macbeth" means "son of life", and is not a patronymic (hence the "b" is lower case.) Macbeth would have signed his friends' high school yearbooks "Macbeth mac Findlaech" (McFinley).

Macbeth's father Findlaech was ruler ("mormaer", high steward) of Moray, at the northern tip of Scotland. Macbeth's mother's name is unknown, but she is variously said to have been the daughter of King Kenneth II or the daughter of King Malcolm II. In 1020, Findlaech was killed and succeeded by his nephew Gillacomgain. In 1032, Gillacomgain and fifty other people were burned to death in retribution for the murder of Findlaech, probably by Macbeth and allies.

The historical Mrs. Macbeth was not named "Lady", but "Gruoch" (GROO-och). She was the daughter of a man named Biote (Beoedhe), who was in turn the son of King Kenneth III "the Grim" who Malcolm II had killed to become king. (Some say that Biote was the son of Kenneth II instead.) She was originally married to Gillacomgain. Their son was Lulach the Simple (i.e., stupid; he must be the baby that Lady Macbeth talks about braining.) After Macbeth killed Gillacomgain, he took his widow Gruoch for his own wife, and raised Lulach as their stepson.

Centuries before Macbeth, King Kenneth MacAlpin, "founded Scotland" by uniting the Picts and the Scots, i.e., getting them to fight foreigners rather than each other. In this era, Gaelic custom required that the succession go via the male line, and that if an heir was not yet old enough to reign when the king died, the kingship went to whatever male adult was next in line. Since the succession was designed to ensure some stability in a world of warlords and infighting, this made sense. Kenneth MacAlpin's male line continued to King Malcolm II, who had at least two daughters but no sons, and he killed the last member of the male McAlpin line. One daughter, Bethoc, (Holinshed calls her Beatrice) married Abbanath Crinen, the secular hereditary abbot of Dunkeld, and gave birth to Duncan.

In 1034, Malcolm II was murdered at Glamis by his fellow warlords, possibly including his grandson Duncan. Then Duncan managed to kill his rivals and seize the throne. Duncan married Sibylla Bearsson and they had Malcolm and Donald "Bain".

Macbeth allied with Thorfinn of Orkney, a Norseman. Thorfinn was the son of Sigurd the Fat and Bethoc, apparently the same Bethoc who was Duncan I's father. Thorfinn Sigurdsson is variously called "Thorfinn I", "Thorfinn II", "Thorfinn Skull-Smasher", "Thorfinn the Black", and "Thorfinn Raven-Feeder" (ravens eat dead meat, including human corpses). Thorfinn and Macbeth defeated and killed Duncan I in a battle in Elgin in August 1040. Thorfinn ruled northern Scotland, and Macbeth ruled southern Scotland. According to accounts, Macbeth was a good king, strict but fair, for the first decade of his reign.

In 1054, Earl Siward of Northumberland, who spirited Malcolm to England after Duncan's death, invaded Scotland. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, he met and defeated Macbeth at the battle of Birnam Wood / Dunsinane (July 27). Most of Macbeth's army were killed, but Macbeth escaped. Siward's son and nephew were also killed. According to the Chronicles of Ulster, Macbeth continued to reign and was actually killed three years later by Duncan's son Malcolm. Thorfinn II survived until 1064.

After Macbeth's death, Lulach claimed the kingship and had some supporters. Lulach was ambushed and killed a few months later by Malcolm.

Malcolm went on to reign as Malcolm III "Canmore" ("big head" or "great ruler"). He took Thorfinn's widow Ingibiorg for himself, and they had a son Duncan, who later ruled as Duncan II. After Ingibiorg died, Malcolm Canmore married Margaret, a princess of the old English royal family. Margaret was a woman of great personal piety, and is now honored as a saint by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Three of their sons became kings in their turns.

Malcolm Canmore was an aggressive and successful warrior who invaded England several times. He was finally killed in Northumberland. The story is that a treacherous soldier, pretending to hand him a key on a spear, put the spear through his eye socket.

Donald Bane, was king twice (deposed for a time by Duncan II, who he later defeated and killed). Donald Bane was finally defeated, imprisoned, and blinded by King Edgar, one of the sons of Malcolm Canmore and Margaret.

Banquo and Fleance Never Existed

Banquo (Banquho, "Thane of Lochabar") and Fleance are supposed to be the ancestors of the Stewarts (Stuarts), including some kings of Scotland and later Scotland-and-England. After Banquo's murder by Macbeth's assassins, Fleance fled to North Wales, and married one Nesta / Mary, daughter of Gryffudth ap Llewellyn, Prince of Wales. Walter the Steward, first "High Steward of Scotland" and the historical founder of the Stewart line, was supposedly their son.

This is all bunk. Walter's real name was "Walter Fitz Alan Dapifer", son of Alan Dapifer , the sheriff of Shropshire. The sheriff was the son of some ordinary folks.

For some reason, perhaps to give his own Stuart king some more glamorous ancestors, Boece made up Banquo and Fleance. Check out the old Scottish genealogies online. You'll find nobody matching their descriptions.

According to Holinshed, Macbeth's father was Sinel, Thane of Glamis (whose existence is otherwise unattested) and a daughter of Malcolm II named Doada (again, modern geneologies mention no such person.)

Some Story Details

Lady Macbeth's lie 'What, in our house?'
would have given the game away to even
the stupidest detective, but somehow
no-one picks up on it.
Chao Mugger

If you're here, you already know the plot of Macbeth, or can find it from the links. Here are some things to notice.

The three witches remind English teachers of the three Fates of Greek mythology and the three Norns of Norse mythology. "Weird" (as in "weird sisters") used to mean "destiny" or "fate". Perhaps in an older version they were.

At the beginning, Duncan I is not leading his army. This is a good way for a king to get himself replaced quickly.

A blood-drenched captain reports that Macbeth and Banquo have just defeated the rebellious Macdonwald (MacDonald, E-I-E-I-O). Ross and Angus then enter and announce that "Bellona's bridegroom, lapped in proof" has defeated the Thane of Cawdor and the Norwegians at Fife. Holinshed credits Macbeth with both of these victories, but let's think. Macbeth cannot have fought two battles 500 miles apart at the same time, and in the next scene he knows nothing of the Thane of Cawdor's disloyalty. Who is thane of Fife? If "lapped in proof" is a mistake for "brave Macduff", then the whole scene makes more sense, and Shakespeare introduces the conflict between the two men early. Duncan gives Cawdor's title and property to Macbeth.

Malcolm was not yet of age, and Duncan's declaring him heir was an impediment to Macbeth's claim on the throne via his mother. Holinshed points this out.

Notice that on the morning of the day Banquo gets murdered, Macbeth asks him three times where he is going and whether his son will be with him. Banquo should have been more suspicious.

People suspect Malcolm and Donalbain
because they ran away.
No white Bronco though.
-- Rodger Burnich


The Background

Around 1950, scholars noticed and argued the obvious. Macbeth was written specifically to be performed for, and to please, King James I.

James Stuart was already King James VI of Scotland when Queen Elizabeth's death made him James I of England as well. In the late 1500's, Scotland had a witch craze, with many people convicted of wicked secret practices without physical evidence. James I, who believed the witch hysteria, wrote a book about the supposed hidden world of wicked witches, entitled Demonology.

Macbeth deals with the fictional ancestors of the Stuart line (Banquo, Fleance) and presents Banquo more favorably than did the play's sources. (In Holinshed, Banquo is Macbeth's active accomplice.) The procession of kings ends with a mirror (probably held by Banquo rather than another king, as in some notes.) James could see himself, thus becoming part of the action. Macbeth says he sees more kings afterwards. Shakespeare has turned the nature spirits of his sources into witches for the witch-hunting king's enjoyment.


Are You a Man?

As you go through the play, look for the repeated theme of "What is a real man?" Like nowadays, there is no consensus.

  • Lady Macbeth wants to lose her femininity so she can be cold-blooded and commit murder like a man does.
  • Macbeth, having second thoughts, tells his wife that it's unmanly to murder your benefactor while he is asleep. Lady Macbeth gets abusive and tells him this will make him more of a man.
  • Macbeth flatters his wife, saying she has such "undaunted mettle" that she won't have any baby girls, only baby boys.
  • Macbeth, perhaps having learned from his wife, gets two men to commit his murder by insulting their masculinity.
  • Malcolm tells Macduff to bear his sorrow like a man. Macduff replies he must also feel it like a man.
  • Siward's son becomes a man in his father's eyes the day he falls in battle

There are others. You can get a good paper out of this.


Who Was the Third Murderer?

People have had lots of fun trying to figure out who the Third Murderer really is. It's evidently somebody who knows Banquo and Fleance. The usual suspects include Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or a servant or thane. All these people are supposed to show up momentarily at Macbeth's dinner party, without bloodstains.

Shakespeare actually needed to set the scene for a murder. He does not have a modern filmmaker's repertoire. (Macbeth's mutterings would be today's voice-overs.) So to set the scene, he had to use dialogue.

Macbeth pays spies in each of his warlords' castles, so he has other people available. It seems reasonable that he would send somebody knowledgeable to help two disenfranchised persons (not professional hit men) kill a mighty warrior and his teenaged son. It is also unlikely that he would want to introduce the assassins to each other ahead of time.

The Third Murderer does not come back with the others to collect his fee, because he was probably played by one of the minor actors who were party guests and would need to be changing costume.

In other words, you will have to decide for yourself!

More stuff on this "controversy":

Discussion Group for Interested Students


Is Macbeth bad luck?

Producing Macbeth is supposed to be unlucky. Fires, falls, and weapon injuries have plagued past productions. Superstition requires those involved in productions not to say the play's title, but rather "The Scottish Play". There are silly urban legends about the boy actor who first played Lady Macbeth getting sick and Shakespeare having to fill in, and Queen Anne closing the theaters after people thought the deviltry of the play had caused a bad storm. Some people think that the play's vision of evil, with witches, demonic familiars, and so forth explains the bad luck. You will have to decide for yourself.

You may be asked, "What is the nature of evil in "Macbeth"? Shakespeare only uses the word "evil(s)" in the England scene, and only uses it to refer to bad deeds and bad character traits. (The "King's Evil" for which Edward touches people was scrofula, a mycobacterial infection of the cervical lymph nodes.) Perhaps despite the supernatural trappings of witches and talk about devils, "evil" for Shakespeare is nothing more or less than bad human habits and behaviors.

The Curse
Ivanov on theatrical superstitions. The accidents are more common because the stage is dark, there's fire scenes, the fog machine makes the stage slippery, there's more wielding of crude weapons by more people, and so forth.


A Rooted Sorrow

Previous stage villains, notably Shakespeare's Aaron and Richard III, do not reach the Macbeths' depth. Aaron gloats on his misbehavior, and Richard acts the villain until the end. Your instructor may talk about Macbeth beginning as a good and fine man, possessing the tragic flaw of ambition, upsetting the divinely-ordained natural order, and so forth. This seems silly to me. The truth is that Macbeth is one of many thugs in a society in which power is gained and maintained by killing other thugs.

Of course, the Macbeths end up miserable. They do not suffer primarily from conscience (which is not much in evidence in any character, though Malcolm at least claims to live clean to test Macduff). They do not suffer from fear of the afterlife (which Lady Macbeth b-tches out of her husband; he talks about giving up his "eternal jewel", i.e., his soul, to the devil simply as an accomplished fact). Their fear of human retribution merely drives them to additional murders.

Shakespeare's insight goes far deeper. So far as I know, this is the first work in English that focuses on the isolation and meaninglessness that result from selfishness and cruelty. By the end, Lady Macbeth dissociates from the horror of what she has become. Macbeth verbally abuses and bullies the people who he needs to defend him (and who are abandoning him), while reflecting to himself on the emptiness and futility of it all. Of course, the couple no longer have a relationship, and Macbeth is merely annoyed when she dies.

Kids... this is true to life. Try to live better than the Macbeths did.


What Does It All Mean?

Fair is foul and foul is fair. In Macbeth, things are seldom what they seem, and we often don't know what's really happening. The play is full of ambiguity and double meanings, starting with the prophecies. The day is extremely foul (weather) and extremely fair (MacDonald has been disembowelled.) Banquo is not so happy, yet much happier. Is the dagger a hallucination, or a supernatural phantom? Ask the same question about Banquo's ghost. Does the bell summon Duncan "to heaven or to hell"? One of Duncan's son's called out "Murder!" in his sleep, but the other one laughed, mysteriously pleased at his father's death. Which was which? Liquor "equivocates" with the porter's sexuality. Does Macbeth say "Had I but died an hour...." because he is really sorry (i.e., sad about his moral deterioration and/or realizing he's getting himself into trouble), or just overacting? Does Lady Macbeth really faint? ("Perhaps she is actually a person of more sensitive feelings than she lets on.") Or does she simply pretend to faint to divert attention from her husband's overacting? Who's the third murderer? Is Ross playing both sides? Does Lady Macbeth commit suicide or die of cardiac complications? These mysteries add to the literal fog on-stage.

Shakespeare chose his subject matter and some plot details to please James I. But as always, his deeper purpose seems to be to show us our own lives and make us think.

The key question which Shakespeare seems to ask is this. Is human society fundamentally amoral, dog-eat-dog? If so, then Macbeth is right, and human life itself is meaningless and tiresome.

Or do the hints of a better life such as King Edward's ministry, Malcolm's clean living, the dignified death of the contrite traitor, and the doctor's prescription for pastoral care, display Shakespeare's Christianity and/or humanism?

It's a dark play. The light of goodness seems still fairly dim. But evil always appeals more to the imagination, while in real life, good is much more fun.

Is the message of Macbeth one of despair, or of hope?

I don't know. You decide.


Note from Mr. Aller-Stead

This page was created by Dr. Friedlander at the
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The full site address is: http://www.pathguy.com/macbeth.htm
and his email link is erf@alum.uhs.edu
I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

You may also contact me directly at martin@aller-stead.com