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AMONG the few of Shakespeare's plays which, as far as we know, were not based in a greater or less degree upon novels or the works of other dramatists, we must place Macbeth. He found the two stories which he interwove into the plot of this tragedy in Holinshed's Chronicles of Scotland. The first is that of the historical hero of the play, a Scottish nobleman, who, being himself the heir apparent to the throne in case of King Duncan's death during the minority of his sons, and being excited by the predictions of three witches that he should be king, attacks and slays his kinsman and his sovereign, usurps the crown, rules tyrannically, murders Banquo, to whom the witches predict that he shall be the father of kings, sacks the castle, and slaughters the family of Macduff, who distrusts him, carries a high hand because the witches tell him that he is invulnerable by any man of woman born, and is finally brought to bay and slain by Macduff, who did not enter the world in the ordinary course of nature. The second is the story of the murder of King Duff (who reigned about three quarters of a century before Duncan) by Donwald, captain of the Castle of Forres, in revenge of real or fancied injuries. He, at the instigation of his wife, caused the king to be slaughtered in the night by four of his (Donwald's) servants, and killed with his own hand the king's chamberlains, to turn suspicion upon them. Shakespeare seems to have been indebted in this play to no other source, either for incident or character, unless we should except the superstitions, written and unwritten, of his day, concerning witches and their spells and incantations. Shakespeare followed Holinshed's relation of these two stories very closely, as far as regards the cour.se of events, and even in the preservation of many minei
incidents, such as the occurrence of the prodigies which accompanied the death of the king, and the conversation between Malcolm and Macduff in England, in which the former slanders himself to test the sincerity of the latter. And, as his manner was, he did not even disdain, upon occasion, to adopt the language of the chronicler. The old story also suggested to him the character of Lady Macbeth herself, and her agency in the tragedy. For Holinshed represents Macbeth's wife as "very ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of queen." Donwald's wife, too, as we have seen, incited her husband to the murder of King Duff; pertinaciously devising "the means whereby he might accomplish it;" while he, although he yielded to her fiendish temptations, "greatly abhorred the act in his heart."
The principal points in which Shakespeare deviated from Holinshed's relation of the story of Macbeth are the substitution of the incidents of the murder of King Duff for the chronicler's simple statement that Macbeth "slew the king at Inverness," and the making Banquo innocent of all knowledge of the design upon Duncan's life, although it is recorded that he was chief among Macbeth's partisans in the usurpation and supporters in the regicide. By the former variation Shakespeare gained the opportunity for the grandest exhibition of the pure tragedy of horror that exists in all literature, — the second Act of this play, — and for two preparatory Scenes (Scenes 5 and 7 of Act I.) which are surpassed as psychological studies by few even of his own. By the latter, he adroitly nattered the newlycrowned monarch, James I., whose accession to the throne of England not improbably occasioned the choice of this subject or a new play.
A question has been raised, which cannot be regarded yet as settled, upon the originality of the Scenes of witchcraft in thi& tragedy. In a play called The Witch, the date of which is altogether uncertain, and which was written by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but who began his dramatic career about ten years later, there are Scenes which are unde niably either the originals of the incantation Scenes in Macbeth, or copies of them. Shakespeare would not have hesitated a moment about imitating Middleton, or any other writer, had it suited his purpose to do so; but I believe the Scenes in The Witch to be the imitations, not only because they have the air, at once timid, constrained, and exaggerated, which indicates in every art a copy by a very much inferior hand, but because witchcraft was an essential motive power in the-very story which Shakespeare had chosen to dramatise. And witchcraft being thus inherent in his plot, and the superstitions of his day furnishing him ample material with which to fulfil this indication, — exactly the material, too, which he used, — I cannot believe that, with his wealth of creative power, he would ever have thought of going to the work of a younger dramatist for the mere supernatural costume with which to dress out such mysterious and unique creatures of his imagination as the three weird sisters of this tragedy. Others have also concluded that Middleton was the copyist; but not on any grounds that seem to me sufficient.*
Macbeth was written between 1603 and 1610. The former of these dates is fixed by the vision of the kings in Act IV. Sc. 1, in which the last of the line carry "twofold balls and treble sceptres " — an allusion which could not have been made before James I. had united in his person the sovereignty of the three kingdoms known as Great Britain and Ireland. The latter limit was determined by the discovery of a record of the performance of Macbeth at the Globe Theatre on the 20th of April, 1610, in the manuscript diary of Dr. Simon Forman, which is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum. As James was not proclaimed King of Great Britain and Ireland until October, 1604, and as the remarkable circumstance of the union of the kingdoms under his sceptre would have been likely to direct Shakespeare's attention to his favorite historical authority for the subject of a new play, we may perhaps safely conclude that Macbeth was produced in 1605. In August of that year King James visited the University of Oxford, and was, of course, received with elaborate welcome and formal entertainment. At St. John's College he was met by three students personating the three weird sisters, who chanted a dialogue in which he was named as the descendant of Banquo, whose happy reign over the three kingdoms they had prognosticated so many centuries before.f To regard this performance as the origin of the brief'
* See especially Malone's Life of Shakespeare, Variorum of 1821, Vol. IT., pp. 420-438.
f "Tres adolescentes concinno Sibyl larum halitu induti, e Collegio prodeuntes, et carmina lepida alternatim canentes, Regi se tres esse iilas Sibyllas profitentur, quae Banchoni olim sobolis imperia praadixerant, jamque iterum tomparere, ut eadem vaticinii veritate praedicerent Jacobo, se jam et din passage in the tragedy which refers to the same prediction and its event appears to me to reverse the usual and natural relations of transmitted thought. It would seem rather that the masking at the University was a scholastic elaboration of Shakespeare's incidental allusion; and I have little hesitation in referring the production of Macbeth to the period between October, 1604, and August, 1605.
I am the more inclined to this opinion from the indications which the play itself affords that it was produced upon an emergency. It exhibits throughout the hasty execution of a grand and clearly-conceived design. But the haste is that of a master of his art, who, with conscious command of its resources, and in the frenzy of a grand inspiration, works out his conception to its minutest detail of essential form, leaving the work of surface finish for the occupation of cooler leisure. What the Sistine Madonna was to liaffael, it seems that Macbeth was to Shakespeare — a magnificent impromptu; that kind of impromptu which results from the application of well-disciplined powers and rich stores of thought to a subject suggested by occasion. I am inclined to regard Macbeth as, for the most part, a specimen of Shakespeare's unelaborated, if not unfinished, writing, in the maturity and highest vitality of his genius. It abounds in instances of extremest compression and most daring ellipsis, while it exhibits in every Scene a union of supreme dramatic and poetic power, and in almost every line an imperially irresponsible control of language. Hence, I think, its lack of formal completeness of versification in certain passages, and also some of the imperfection in its text, the thought in which the compositors were not always able to follow and apprehend. The only authority for the text of Macbeth is the folio of 1623, the apparent corruptions of which must be restored with a more than usually cautious hand. Without being multitudinous or confusing, they are sufficiently numerous and important to test severely the patience, acumen, and judgment of any editor.
The period of the action of this tragedy is the middle of the eleventh century, and its incidents occurred in the course of about twenty years. Duncan was killed about 1040, and Macbeth defeated and slain about 1060. The costume must of necessity be the Highland garb; but it should be presented in
Regem futurum Britanniae felicissimum et multorum regum parent em. tit ex Ban chorus stirpe nunquam sit hseres Britannico diademati defuturus." Wake's Rex Platmieus, 1607. PP- 18, 19.
as rudimentary a condition as possible. For not only is the modern Highland costume an artistic compilation and elaboration not many centuries old, though of elements themselves indigenous and ancient, but its purposed and pavonic picturesqueness is somewhat inconsistent with the rugged and primitive social aspect of this drama, and the simplicity of the motives which produce its action. AA2