Page images
PDF
EPUB

МАСВЕТН

WITH

NOTES, EXAMINATION PAPERS, AND

PLAN OF PREPARATION

EDITED BY

J. M. D. MEIKLEJOHN, M.A.

PROFESSOR OF THE THEORY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE OF EDUCATION
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]

Edinburgh:

Printed by W. & R. Chambers.

INTRODUCTION TO MACBETH.

1. The play of Macbeth belongs to the Shakespearian group known as his Later Tragedy, and was most probably written in the year 1606. Othello and King Lear were both written before Macbeth; and Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, came after it. Dr Forman, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, saw it acted at the GLOBE, on the 20th of April 1610, and has left an account of the plot. It was printed for the first time in the folio of 1623. Shakespeare was forty-two years of age when he wrote this play, and at the full perfection of all his powers of thought and feeling.

2. The materials for the plot were obtained by Shakespeare from the Chronicle of Holinshed-which indeed was the only source of all his English and Scottish historical plays. But the appearance of the ghost of Banquo, and the terrible sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth, are inventions of his own. Shakespeare is said to have been in Scotland in 1601, and to have visited Forres -a small town between Elgin and Inverness; but this is not quite certain. It is said that some parts of this play were written by Middleton (1574-1627)—a contemporary of Shakespeare's; and that the second scene of the first act, as well as the last forty lines of the play, are due to him. If this view is correct, it would account for the inconsistency between the two accounts of the death of Lady Macbeth.

3. The amount of historical fact at the basis of the play, it is very difficult—and perhaps hardly necessary—to determine. At some time in the eleventh century, Macbeth seems to have been maormor or ruler over the whole of Ross and Moray; and to have been nearly related to the throne. His wife, Gruoch-an unpleasant name which the poet silently drops, calling her only Lady Macbeth throughout the play-was also related to the royal family; and both had been deeply injured by the faction which had placed Duncan on the throne. Macbeth did not kill Duncan in his own house: this would have been a violation of the laws

of hospitality, which have always been held sacred by the Celts. He killed him in battle at a spot near Elgin, called Bothgowanan -the Smith's Dwelling, the smith or armourer being in those days a man of high importance. The following is Lord Hailes's summary of the history of Macbeth :

'In 1034, Duncan succeeded his grandfather Malcolm. In 1039 he was assassinated by Macbeth. By his wife, the sister of Siward, Earl of Northumberland, he left two sons, Malcolm, surnamed Canmore [great head], and Donald, surnamed Bane [white or fair]. Macbeth expelled the sons of Duncan, and usurped the Scottish throne. Malcolm sought refuge in Cumberland, Donald in the Hebrides. When Edward the Confessor succeeded to the crown of England (1043), Earl Siward placed Malcolm under his protection. Malcolm remained long at court, an honourable and neglected exile. The partisans of Malcolm often attempted to procure his restoration, but their efforts, feeble and illconcerted, only served to establish the dominion of the usurper. At length Macduff, Thane of Fife, excited a formidable revolt in Scotland, while Siward, with the approbation of his sovereign, led the Northum brians to the aid of his nephew Malcolm. He lived not to see the event of his generous enterprise. Macbeth retreated to the fastnesses of the north, and protracted the war. His people forsook his standard. Malcolm attacked him at Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire: abandoned by his few remaining followers, Macbeth fell, 5th December 1056.'

[ocr errors]

4. Shakespeare, who took what he wanted wherever he found it, uses every hint that Holinshed gives him. Holinshed says that Lady Macbeth was a woman 'very ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen;' and tells us how 'the same night after, at supper, Banquho jested with him and said: "Now, Makbeth, thou hast obteined those things which the two former sisters prophesied ; there remaineth onelie for thee to purchase that which the third said should come to passe. These and other suggestions of the chronicler, Shakespeare freely avails himself of. A second story in Holinshed has, however, also been incorporated in the play by Shakespeare. This is the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald, captain of the castle of Forres. The arrival of the king at the castle with 'the pleasant seat,' the distribution of presents among the officers, the purposed intoxication of the chamberlains, the killing of them by Donwald in a pretended frenzy of loyalty, but really that he might effectively stop their mouths as witnesses-all these incidents are related by Holinshed of the murder of King Duff, but all transferred by Shakespeare to the story of Macbeth. In Holinshed, Banquo is represented as a consenting party to the

murder of Duncan; but Shakespeare employs him as he employed the Earl of Kent in King Lear, to present a picture of truth, loyalty, and resistance to temptation, in strong contrast with the first indifference to good and evil shewn by Macbeth-an indifference which is succeeded by the hardened practice of crime and every kind of treachery.

5. The story of the drama is the story of a man who yielded to evil thoughts from within, and evil suggestions from without, and who gradually, after the first yielding, found himself compelled to further and greater crimes. Shakespeare generally, in his tragedies, proceeds by the method of contrast. Thus, in King Lear, the two fathers, King Lear and Gloster, find the same misfortunes and misery in their children, and both meet an end similar in character. In this play, the two characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth illustrate and throw light upon each other. Macbeth is hesitating and a coward at first; but, 'being in,' he goes through every crime that seems to him to be necessary to sustain his ill-gotten power. Lady Macbeth is ambitious-is a woman of slight physical frame (she speaks of her 'little hand'), but of strong will. She has made up her mind to have the crown; and, having willed the end, she accepts the necessary means. But her whole internal existence falls into ruins: day and night she is without free or quiet life-she is possessed by the thought of what she has done; and, at night especially, when the will has gone to sleep, the consciousness of her deed drags her to her feet, compels her to walk with sightless eyeballs through the palace, and to wash unceasingly the hands which 'the multitudinous seas' could not cleanse. She dies of that utter collapse of the nervous system which is called 'a broken heart.' She has given her whole life for that which she can neither hold nor enjoy. Macbeth has long envied the dead whom he sent into silence; but he dies, like a soldier, on the battlefield, and 'with harness on his back.' He fights, however, as a wild beast fights, without the smallest hope of victory; and the last combat is in reality an execution. He is worried to death, like a bear at the stake (see V. vii. 1). Professor Dowden* says, with his usual power and insight: His courage becomes a desperate rage. We are in pain till the horrible necessity is accomplished.' Both of the chief personages have a conscience; and this conscience kills Lady Macbeth, while it goads the unrepenting *Shakespeare-His Mind and Art, page 256. Among the thousands of books on Shakespeare, this is most probably by far the best.

« PreviousContinue »