Scotlands History

Shakespeare's Macbeth

William Shakespeare had counted Queen Elizabeth I among his patrons. His plays and poems already included A Midsummer's Nights Dream, the sonnets, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

When King James VI and I united the crowns of Scotland and England, Shakespeare was quick to capitalise on the arrival of the Scots King with a tale of witches, kings, and murderous plots – 'The Tragedie of Macbeth’.

The play begins as Macbeth and Banquo are met by three witches on a blasted heath in Scotland.

First Witch: When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch: When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

Shakespeare took inspiration from a 16th century history book - Holinshed's ‘Histoirie of Scotland' – which tells of meetings between Macbeth, Banquo and three ‘weird sisters’:

...It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores, where the king then laie, they went... thorough the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world...

...afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.

King James VI had already made his belief in witchcraft and the supernatural clear in his book ‘Daemonologie’ and his persecution of the North Berwick Witches. He would later become more sceptical and warn judges not to be fooled.

Shakespeare was fond of bringing the supernatural to the stage. It gave him the chance to use the latest special effects during his plays. Shakespeare’s plays had to compete for an audience with bear-baiting, taverns and public executions so The King’s Players used flying effects, smoke, crashing storm sounds and trap doors to create a spectacle onstage.

It is generally considered to be unlucky to say the name of Shapespeare’s tragedy ‘Macbeth’ out loud - so people will often simply call it ‘The Scottish Play’. The curse of the Scottish Play is said to be responsible of hundreds of year’s worth of accidents, mishaps, financial disasters and even deaths.

  • Image of text from opening scene of Shakespeare's MacBeth published in 1623

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