While I studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth in school, I hadn’t yet until recently seen the play performed. It is apparently Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, which is perhaps why it has been popular for the past few centuries. Unlike some of his plays, there are no sideplots or intricate webs of deception. There is simply one overarching story – that of Macbeth’s gradual descent into madness and tyranny, and that of those valiant and angry enough to put an end to his reign and put the rightful king back on the throne.
Insofar as this is based on history, about the only accurate parts of it are the names of the characters and that it takes place in Scotland. The real Macbeth ruled for ten years, showed no sign of madness, and was by all contemporary accounts a good king. Duncan was not murdered and Malcolm was no saint. (In fact, his self-deprecating speech to MacDuff in the play is rather apt to his historical character, even if it was meant in the play to be a trick.) As far as is now known, Banquo is a likely fictional character – although Shakespeare’s sources stated otherwise. Like many historical facts from the eleventh century, the actual truth on that is unknown. It could very well be that King James I had an ancestor called Banquo who was contemporary to Macbeth, but there is no evidence.
However, Macbeth is a fanciful tale of intrigue, suspense, fairies/witches, and swordfights. It does its job to entertain, even with humourous interludes not often found in tragedies. These interludes and in-jokes would definitely have made more sense in 1606 when the play was first performed – the political commentary has not aged well at all, as not even the most savvy of historians can catch them. However, everyone can appreciate a drunken porter commentating on the effects of alcohol or witches relishing all of the nasty ingredients that they add to their potion.
Since the play requires a few large action scenes, having a small troupe of actors can make it difficult not to seem comedic. However, the script is fairly vague about stage directions, so what actors and directors choose to do to get around this problem is largely up each production. Having the characters move on- and offstage in rapid sequence is one good method to keep the dramatic tension high. Embracing some of the implicit comedy never hurts either, especially considering how mad Macbeth has supposedly become. (In the version that I saw, Macbeth demands that his servant give him his armour, only to be handed a tin of face-paint. Macbeth paints one line on his face and then hands it back to the servant. I thought it was hilarious, since Macbeth is so far agone that he cannot make any proper decisions. The look on the servant’s face was priceless.)
Overall, the plot of the play is Macbeth being tempted by witches and his wife to kill the king and usurp the throne of Scotland, against his own better judgement. Elizabethan (or Jacobean, to be precise) audiences would have laughed at the “don’t listen to women” cautionary tale. Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind the story and rather inexplicably decides to push her husband to commit regicide. To show her madness and incompetence, she ends up killing herself while her husband dies honourably (sort of) in battle. Modern audiences may find this appalling, but it was as common of a storytelling device for the era as the bumbling dad or the sexy lady mechanic is to ours. One of the reasons that it was popular? James I had recently come to power after a long reign by Elizabeth I. The king was Shakespeare’s new patron and the play was about making him look good. Also, for many, having a man back on the throne felt like a restoration of the “natural order”, even if said man was Scottish.
Macbeth combines elements of history, tragedy, and fantasy to tell a riveting story when done well. Its fantastical elements lend it to being more interesting than the straight-up histories. After so many years, Shakespeare was trying new ideas and even parodying himself. It is certainly entertaining.