Shakespeare’s sources – Macbeth

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Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches in Holinshed

I would like to begin a new series of blogs looking at Shakespeare’s sources.  Many people will tell you that Shakespeare was not a very original writer and indeed it is true that most of his plays have some kind of antecedent. It is rare to find a play that appears to have sprung into life without any sort of inspirational impetus. But Shakespeare uses his sources in many interesting and various ways. In this series I mean to take a detailed at the ways in which Shakespeare worked with the literature that inspired him.

Shakespeare’s primary source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577. The outlines of Shakespeare’s story are derived from Holinshed’s account of Kings Duncan and Macbeth. In addition, Shakespeare seems to have taken details from Holinshed’s account of King Duffe, who died eighty years before Macbeth did.

Holinshed’s account has many of the details in Shakespeare’s play – for instance the scene where Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches is very similar. In Holinshed the Witches or “thrée women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world “ appear in a  clearing in the woods. In Macbeth the weird sisters scene takes place on a heath but the words which Holinshed wrote are clearly reflected in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis” (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The second of them said; “Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder.” But the third said; “All haile Makbeth that héerafter shalt be king ofScotland.”

The only thing Shakespeare removes from the scene and the play is the small personal detail of Macbeth’s father. Does this make his Macbeth less human? Less of a Hamlet figure?

The ending is also of particular interest here is Holinshed’s version

But Makduffe quicklie auoiding from his horsse, he came at him, answered (with his naked swoord in his hand) saieng: “It is true Makbeth, and now shall thine insatiable crueltie haue an end, for I am euen he that thy wizzards haue told thée of, who was neuer borne of my mother, but ripped out of her wombe:” therewithall he stept vnto him, and slue him in the place. Then cutting his head from his shoulders, he set it vpon a pole, and brought it vnto Malcolme. This was the end of Makbeth, after he had reigned 17 yeeres ouer the Scotishmen. In the beginning of his reigne he accomplished manie woorthie acts, verie profitable to the common-wealth (as ye haue heard) but afterward by illusion of the diuell, he defamed the same with most terrible crueltie.

There are several important differences between this and Shakespeare’s version. Firstly Macbeth is allowed no last words. He is not given the chance to say anything more before Macduff kills him. It is Shakespeare who gives Macbeth the brave final line when he knows he is doomed of “Lay on Macduff; and damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’”

Secondly If we only had Shakespeare’s account we would have no idea that Macbeth was ever a good king, or that he reigned for 17 years. In Shakespeare’s dramatic version Macbeth slides right from good soldier to tyrannical king in what seems like months or weeks. This dramatic shortening suits the genre and adds to the tension. Macbeth is a short powerful play there is no need to see Macbeth as a good king in order to appreciate his later wickedness.

Thirdly the witches in Macbeth are not explicitly related to the devil so Shakespeare’s Macbeth’s downfall is more complex than Holinshed’s he is not simply lead astray by the devil but more complexly by the witches, his wife and his own ambition. Shakespeare’s story ends with no explanation for why it happened – it is you the audience who must debate why…. Shakespeare loved to leave his audience with questions.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
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  • Wjray

    Thank you for the helpful reply.  I got these ideas after reading an annotated edition of ‘Macbeth’ by Richard F. Whalen. (Llumina Press) He made an interesting argument that the Thane of Ross, the court intriguer, was characteristic of ruthless faceless men close to power in the late feudal era.  Shakespeare doesn’t waste a word capturing the villain’s schemes and character. 

  • Peter Holling

    Hello Elizabeth

    I assume you mean by essays on society Michel de Montaigne’s ” On Cannabalism” which some experts think had some influence on”The Tempest”. Montaigne was a brilliant writer

    .Keep up the good work

  • Elizabeth Woledge

    It is almost impossible to know which books Shakespeare had access to but the parallels you make are certainly compelling 

  • Wjray

    I wonder if you have inquired whether William Stewart’s translation from Latin of an early Scottish chronicle, a manuscript copy of which lay in the library of Lord Burghley, was part of the Macbeth background?  It has the double trust theme, so central to the drama’s structure.  And certain details, the knife and the porter, closely follow how the Scottish Queen’s consort Lord Darnley was assassinated, after he was chased in his bedclothes into an orchard, with the connivance of Queen Mary, who in turn was done away with while a double-trust (both monarch and kinswoman) prisoner/guest of Elizabeth’s.  The play’s familiarity with the lore, clans, the custom of a clan flower in the hats of the warriors, the eerie micro-climatical weather–all have the authenticity of real experience in Scotland.  Did Stratford Will have all of this rather specific or learned background?  We assume he did.

  • Wjray

    I wonder if you have inquired whether William Stewart’s translation from Latin of an early Scottish chronicle, a manuscript copy of which lay in the library of Lord Burghley, was part of the Macbeth background?  It has the double trust theme, so central to the drama’s structure.  And certain details, the knife and the porter, closely follow how the Scottish Queen’s consort Lord Darnley was assassinated, after he was chased in his bedclothes into an orchard, with the connivance of Queen Mary, who in turn was done away with while a double-trust (both monarch and kinswoman) prisoner/guest of Elizabeth’s.  The play’s familiarity with the lore, clans, the custom of a clan flower in the hats of the warriors, the eerie micro-climatical weather–all have the authenticity of real experience in Scotland.  Did Stratford Will have all of this rather specific or learned background?  We assume he did.

  • Elizabeth Woledge

    And The Tempest – whilst not lifted directly from any single source was inspired very directly by travelers tales and essays on society. Blog on The Tempest coming soon. 

  • Elizabeth Woledge

    quite right! many thanks 

  • http://blog.iloveshakespeare.com Iloveshakespeare

    Great idea for a series of blog posts. The Orksfordians date Makkers as first being performed in 1611 and then suppressed as it pleased not James until 1621 or so. Obviously wethinks it had everything to do with the recent coronation plus state visit of Jame’s brother in law Christian of Denmark 1605/6. Where both got exceedingly roused and revelled let’s say. 

     

  • Iloveshakespeare

    and Merry Wives of Windsor? And MND shows traces of Chaucer and Ovid methought.

  • Peter Holling

    Kelly I think you are a bit harsh using the word steal as Elizabethan/Jacobean audiences liked “lively turning” as they called it: that is a story they had some knowledge of then seeing how the playwright used that story.
     Hence it is thought that only three of William’s plays were original plots viz “Midsummer Night’s Dream” , “Love’s Labours Lost” and “The Tempest”.

    Every good wish. Might bump into you in Stratford.

  • Kelly

    What a great idea for a series!  It’s always so fascinating and instructive to see how Shakespeare steals :)

  • Thane Whetstone

    Actually, Macbeth does mention his father, Sinel, in the play.

    Act 1, scene 3:
    Stay you imperfect Speakers, tell me more:
    By Sinel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
    But how, of Cawdor?

    Just a note! Thanks for the great info!

  • Thane Whetstone

    Actually, Macbeth does mention his father, Sinel, in the play.

    Act 1, scene 3:
    Stay you imperfect Speakers, tell me more:
    By Sinel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
    But how, of Cawdor?

    Just a note! Thanks for the great info!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6O7ZBVRIHAGDGLL7LTRDL35GRQ Sylvia Morris

    Looking at Shakespeare’s source material always reminds you how complex Shakespeare makes his characters. I don’t think he ever leaves you with easy answers which is why he’s so continually interesting.

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