THEMES: TYRANNY AND AMBITION.
We take a look at corruption and human nature in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.
The catastrophic consequences of tyrannical rule and unchecked ambition are important themes in Macbeth. In this way Shakespeare’s play strikes a note of tragic timeliness, as the world watches and responds to events unfolding in eastern Europe.
A play about a man who vaults to the highest office in the land and then uses that power to administer an increasingly blood-stained regime in no way approximates actual people and events.
Nor does Macbeth provide any answers as to how the war in Ukraine got to this point, or – more urgently – offer a solution to end it.
Let me repeat: Shakespeare’s play is not real life. For one, we could rewrite Macbeth so that no one dies or characters whom we thought dead are actually safe, hiding in a secret location somewhere offstage.
If only happy endings in the real world were so easily scripted and staged.
Current events were rarely far from the writing of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. We think Macbeth was written in 1606 during the reign of King James I, who became King of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.
Because James was already the King of Scotland, he saw himself as embodying an entirely new kingdom – that of a united Great Britain. He wanted his subjects to be not just English or Scottish, but also British.
James lobbied the English Parliament to approve the unification of the two kingdoms. Hence Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during a time of intense debate regarding national borders and identity, and what it means to be a loyal subject of the king.
But the idea of joining England and Scotland was not very popular. The Scottish didn’t like the idea of a king ruling them from far-away London, while the English were resentful of a ‘foreign’ king on the throne.
The English Parliament ultimately rejected unification, and it wasn’t until 1707 that England and Scotland were officially joined, well after James’s death.
Macbeth depicts a time in history that – much like James’ reign – represented a pivotal moment in Anglo-Scottish relations. What’s more, the king considered himself God’s chosen representative on earth.
James was also terrified of being killed. Not without good reason, since several plots were made against his life.
The problems of sacred authority and regicide we find in Macbeth were therefore also concerns for Jacobean audiences.
Remember that James came to power after the death of a childless Queen Elizabeth. So not only did he believe in his divine right to rule, but also in the divine right of his sons to rule after him.
Shakespeare’s audience likely believed that the Stuart family line began with Banquo (which is actually a myth). When the witches prophesy that – in Macbeth’s words – Banquo will be ‘father to a line of kings,’ people understood this line to reach down to James.
Shakespeare borrowed the plot of Macbeth from Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), which tells the histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Shakespeare used Holinshed as the basis for many of his plays, including King Lear and the English history plays.
But Shakespeare felt free to make changes, cut material, use other sources, and add his own characters and plot twists. For example, in Holinshed ‘Banquho’ participates in King Duncan’s murder.
Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and arguably the most strange and disturbing.
These days we may choose to turn to the past, to reread or watch well-known stories about greed, power, and ambition with fresh eyes, as we try to make sense of our own current world.