Behind the Scenes of Macbeth

As a play, Macbeth's got it all: spooky witches, murderous noblemen, dying kings, persistent ghosts, and a portable forest. But there's more to Shakespeare's famous drama than all the surface theatrics. The story behind Macbeth is as fascinating as the play itself.

1. A Scottish play. When he wrote his drama around 1606, Shakespeare was capitalizing on a new fascination with Scotland as England welcomed its new king James I of England--aka James VI of Scotland. The Virgin Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603; she was succeeded by James, the son of Elizabeth's second cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Insular Englishmen had a generally poor opinion of their northern neighbors--substitute "Scotsman" for "Redneck" in those "You Know You're a Redneck" jokes and you get the idea. When James took the throne and brought with him a bevy of Scottish courtiers, the English needed to bone up on their Scottish history--and stop the jokes fast.

2. Ripped from the headlines.
Just like Law & Order, Shakespeare wasn't above borrowing from current events. Except he had to do it very carefully. The heavily censored Elizabethan theater banned the portrayal of reigning monarchs. In 1604, Shakespeare's troop, the King's Men, had tried to get around this ban with a play called The Tragedy of Gowrie, which depicted the attempted assassination of King James by the Scottish nobleman the Earl of Gowrie in 1600. Gowrie had invited James to his castle and then tried to kill him, an action not only treasonous but also in violation of the rules of hospitality; it was later asserted Gowrie had engaged in witchcraft. But The Tragedy of Gowrie hit too close to home and was quickly banned by the court. The manuscript has been lost, and we don't even know who wrote it. However, a year or so later, Shakesepeare created Macbeth. In the plot, a courtier involved in witchcraft invites a king to his castle and then kills him. Just like Law & Order gets out of legal trouble by changing the names and circumstances of its "ripped from the headlines" plots, Shakespeare avoided scandal by setting the events of his play in the distant past.

3. A little eye of newt. James I had some peculiar interests, including a bizarre obsession with witchcraft. He participated in the questioning of accused witches and wrote a learned treatise called Daemonologie in 1597 in which he asserted the true aim of witches is to overthrow the king of the realm. So the inclusion of the Three Witches in Macbeth is more than a literary device: it's a way of capturing the attention of the most important member of Shakespeare's audience, the king.

4. Flattery will get you everywhere. Another way to capture the king's interest was to butter him up. James believed he was descended from the Scottish nobleman Banquo. Historical records potray Banquo as one of the murderous Macbeth's chief allies, but Shakespeare makes him the most honorable of men who refuses to help Macbeth kill the king . Shakespeare also portrays the royal succession from Banquo as unbroken and whole, "power without end" down to the present day and James. James certainly found this gratifying—who doesn't want to be told their ancestors were great guys?—and the English people liked hearing it, too. The waning years of Elizabeth's rule, when the succession was up in the air, were enormously worrying. James brought with him two sons and a fertile wife, reassuring the English there would be no messy power struggle or civil war.

5. Equivocation with get you nowhere. Reassurance about the stability of James' rule was particularly welcome in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. A group of Catholics, then a repressed minority, planted gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament in London with the intention of setting it off on November 5, 1605 at the formal State Opening with the King, his family, and most of the nobility of the realm in attendance. The plot was discovered and the conspirators seized, among them a Jesuit priest named Henry Garnet. Garnet had in fact opposed the plot, but that didn't stop authorities from torturing and then executing him.

What the English hated the most about Garnet was his promotion of the "doctrine of mental equivocation." Equivocation was a way to deceive someone in order to protect yourself or others without telling an out-and-out lie, which was a mortal sin. Under this doctrine, if the police asked, "Have you taken Mass?" a Catholic might answer, "No," and then add in his or her own mind, "not since last night." If asked, "Are you a priest?" a Catholic priest could reply, "No," and think to himself, "I'm not a priest of Apollo."

English Protestants—lawyers in particular—found this outrageous. And so when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, he included a dig at the king's enemies. In a short comic bit, Macbeth's porter imagines he is the gatekeeper in hell coming to greet new arrivals. "Here's an equivocator," he says of an imaginary sinner, "who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven."

6. "The Scottish Play." Macbeth is famously believed by actors to be "cursed." Saying the name of the play and of its two title characters is taboo within the theater, resulting in the euphemism "the Scottish play." Why would this particular play be cursed and not other Shakespearean dramas? Some say it's because the Bard stole actual spells from a coven of witches. Others say a real dagger was substituted for a fake dagger in the first performance, resulting in a death. Whatever the origins of the curse, should you accidentally utter the fateful word you have a few options to redeem yourself: either utter Hamlet's line "Angels and ministers of grace defend us," or leave the room, spin around three times while swearing, spit over your left shoulder, and the knock on the door and wait for an answer before entering.

Elizabeth Lunday writes fun and informative articles about art, architecture, and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.

New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?


Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”


1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.


The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.


chimp eating banana

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”


If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.


The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.


Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.


The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.


The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!


A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.


The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.


Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.


We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.


Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.


What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.


Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”


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