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Macbeth Introduction

In A Nutshell

Stop us if you've heard this one before: a man hears an exciting prophecy about his future and decides to take fate into his own hand by killing his king. Things go rapidly downhill.

Sure, it's possible that you were just tra-la-la-ing through the Internet and randomly stumbled over this guide, but we're guessing that you already know Macbeth's basic plot. After all, it is one of the most famous works of English literature, and it's even loosely based on some real-life 11th century events found in Holinshed's Chronicles.

So let's tell you something you might not know: when it was first performed by Shakespeare's company around 1606, Macbeth was the latest in ripped-from-the-headlines, up-to-the-minute political events. It's basically The Dark Knight trilogy of the (very) early 17th century. Check it out:

(1) It was written in 1605 or 1606, right after James I, the first Stuart king, took up the crown of England in 1603. James I was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (cousin to Elizabeth I) and this less-than-direct connection meant that James was eager to assert any legitimacy he could over his right to the English throne.
Coincidentally, Macbeth is the only of Shakespeare's plays set in Scotland, and it includes a nice little moment where he ties James I's ancestry to the rightful succession.

(2) Witchcraft was a hot topic at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. James I was particularly excited about witches—excited about hunting them down, that is—publishing his very own book about the subject, Daemonolgie, in 1597.

Coincidentally, Macbeth begins with the stage directions, "Enter three witches."

(3) In 1605, James was also the target of the Gunpowder Plot, where a group of rebel Catholics tried to blow up the King and Parliament. (This is where we get Guy Fawkes, that guy in V for Vendetta).

Coincidentally, Macbeth shows the murder of a king and alludes in Act II, scene iii, to the Catholic priest who encouraged Catholics to be deceptive and treasonous. These allusions would have struck a sensitive chord with the play's audience—a lot like referring to the attacks of September 11th.

In case you haven't picked up on it, we don't actually think these are coincidences. Shakespeare was consciously writing a play that would be topical, touching on the subjects that everyone—from the groundlings to the king himself—would be thinking about.

Presumably, King James was happy enough with the play: Shakespeare's theater company The Kings Men, which was under the patronage of the king himself, survived the performance. But, even though the world is restored to normal at the end of the play, we have to wonder: was Shakespeare's critique of power intended to hit home? And did it?


Why Should I Care?

Would you convince your frenemy to eat weight-gaining nutrition bars by telling her they'd help her lose weight? Would you plot to kill your daughter's cheerleading rival?

Probably not. But would you cheat on a test? Pretend to be nice to the smart kid so he'll let you copy his calculus homework? Deface a rival's student body campaign flyer? Spread a rumor about a girl who stole your boyfriend?

We bet more than one of you is feeling a little uncomfortable now.

Macbeth asks a lot of heavy questions, and we had a hard time to narrow our list down to just one. But out of all the themes of destiny, fate, time, and nation-building, we think this question just might resonate the most: how far would you go to have power?

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