Behind the Scenes of Macbeth

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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.

May 5, 2008 - 1:49pm
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