iconBackground to Macbeth

Macbeth is a dark play both literally and symbolicalli tone of the play is sinister and its central characters are evil.  Wicked witches and the supernatural influence the actionwhich is characterised by bloody death.

When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 James I had been King of England for three years. He had previously been James VI of Scotland. King James symbolised the union of the Scottish and English crowns, a union to which Shakespeare refers in the play. It was well known that the new king was fascinated by witchcraft; Shakespeare might have been trying to win his approval by introducing the figures of the 'three weird sisters' into the play.

Macbeth was first performed at Hampton Court Palace before James I and his guests in 1606. The storyline, like that of most of Shakespeare's plays, was not original, and in this case was based on fact. The story was familiar to James: he had inherited the throne of Scotland through his ancestors Banquo and Fleance, and the story of Duncan's murder was well known. The real Macbeth reigned in Scotland from 1040 to 1057. He killed his predecessor Duncan I, and was in turn killed by Duncan’s, son Malcolm III. Events such as these were not uncommon in the 'barbaric' feudal Scotland of the eleventh century. Of the fourteen kings who reigned between 943 and 1097, ten were murdered.

Macbeth ruled wisely and well for seventeen years. During his reign the north and south of Scotland were united for the first time. He was defeated in battle near Aberdeen by Malcolm III, the son of Duncan I, who had invaded Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, King of England. Malcolm slaughtered Macbeth's family so that his own kingship would be stabilised. This marked the end of the purely Celtic, exclusively 'barbaric' Scottish folk as it led to the gradual breaking down of barriers between England and Scotland and to the introduction of English ways and customs.

Shakespeare never let historical fact get in the way of a good story. He changed several key aspects of the original story, either to intensify his drama or to ensure political correctness. As an example of the latter, Shakespeare's Macbeth, who commits the greatest of all crimes by murdering his king, finds he cannot live with himself and the consequences of his actions. He has rebelled against God and the order of creation; he becomes inhumane and his crime is rightly punished by his death.

1. Why did Shakespeare choose to make Macbeth into a villain when history tells us that he was not?

2. Which political figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries do you know of (or have heard about) who have been assassinated? Find out the possible reasons for their assassination.

Macbeth: An English Website unit ©
developed and designed by George Marotous. 14 February 2011. English Faculty

Melbourne High School