Review of Macbeth (1606)


William Shakespeare (writer).

Read in 2022.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Apart from being a brilliant play in other ways, Macbeth is an interesting example of fantasy as such. King James, who commissioned a famous English-language edition of The Bible (ca. 110 CE), was King of Scotland in 1591. In a pamphlet published that year, called the “Newes from Scotland”, King James is documented sitting in judgement at a witch trial and hearing the confessions of tortured women, including confessions of the attempted murder of the king himself by magic. The pamphlet was included in the king’s Daemonologie (1597), one of Shakespeare’s likely sources alongside Holinshed's Chronicles (1577/1587) of British history, where the bard probably found his plot. Banquo and the witches central to that plot had been invented half a century earlier by a Scottish historian. That man, Hector Boece, had wanted to provide a claim to power for King James’s family, the House of Stuart, and did so through Banquo, a character that Boece made up.

By the time Macbeth opened, King James was King of England and there had been a real attempt to kill him: The “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, to which some scholars find allusions in the script. This means that Macbeth is a blend of classically structured tragedy as a genre, real history (there was a Macbeth), fake history (there wasn’t a Banquo), then-common supernatural beliefs (witches) and perhaps the events of the day (the plot to kill the king). This blend differs from modern fantasy mainly in the detail that the supernatural motif was still current in its time; the head of state believed that witches like those in the play really existed. There is continuity there with the fantasy elements of the ancient world’s theatre, and perhaps they serve the same functions to the theatre-goer, regardless of their beliefs in magic and the legitimacy of the Stuarts.

References here: The Lord of the Rings (1954), Wyrd Sisters (1988).

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