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Context and Background - Macbeth

The play Macbeth was first performed for King James VI of Scotland also James I of England in 1606.  It is based on Raphael Holinshead’s  Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland dramatising the reign and assassination of the Scottish King Duncan I,  in 1040.  Duncan had reigned for six years before he was overthrown by one of his generals, Macbeth, who then ruled Scotland from 1040 - 1057 when he was defeated by an English force led by Duncan's son,  Malcolm III.

A helpful article that provides a generalised overview of Macbeth’s sources is Mabillard’s An Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sources for Macbeth found at  www.shakespeare-online.com.

The sources she encompasses are:

– Holinshed’s Chronicles

– Boece’s Scotorum Historiae

– Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft

– King James I Basilicon Doron and Daemonology

– Erasmus’s Colloquia

Mabillard (2000) offers several speculations as to what motivated Shakespeare to appropriate these sources. She goes on to discuss “the dramatic purpose of producing a more exciting story than is found in the sources; the thematic purpose of creating a more complex characterisation of Macbeth; and the political purpose of catering to the beliefs of the reigning monarch, King James the First.”

Scotland, at that time was a primitively feudalistic society.  The Rocky Highlands of Scotland were hard, primitive and full of violence. From Holinshead’s history, Shakespeare crafted a story about the usurping of a king’s throne, the ensuing violence and chaos that erupted throughout the kingdom of Scotland changing it from an historical chronicle into a sophisticated classical tragedy. 

In 1603, with the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Lancaster lineage became extinct and Parliament turned to the Stuart line, King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England.  James became ruler of both England and Scotland. James attempted to influence his sons,  Prince Henry, Duke of Albany and Charles, Duke of Cornwall, for a Union of England and Scotland.  Shakespeare was one of the first to refer to his country as Britain.

King James is depicted in the show of Kings:

And yet an eighth appears, who bears a glass

 which shows me many more; and some I see

That twofold balls and treble sceptres carry:

In 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament in what is known as the Gunpowder Plot – the origins of Halloween.  This was a provocative terrorist act that could easily have resulted in the death of a king and chaos throughout the land. 

Shakespeare was not writing history, rather tragedy, and he changed and simplified much all the history to suit his purpose.  The real Macbeth ruled in Scotland from 1040 -56 and for much of that time he was a good king.  Only at the end when he was under threat, did he turn to tyranny.

Shakespeare did not write many plays after 1599.  The early death of his young son affected him deeply. Then in 1606, he wrote three historical tragedies following the Gunpowder Plot that targeted King James I and parliament. King James came to the throne in 1603 so do these reflect his concerns about the transition of monarchs?   Many of these may have been an attempt to curry favor with King James I, while others served as warnings against poor governance and gullibility.  Macbeth illustrates many of the themes of power also portrayed in other tragedies of this time.

King James I, the father of Charles I, was a Stuart who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, staunchly believing in the Absolute Power of Monarchs and the Divine Right of Kings.

This is his speech to parliament on 21st of March 1610:

Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth.  For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King.   God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.

Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”.  When an noted lawyer, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives,   King James thundered “So then I am under the law.  It is treason to say that!”   Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage. 

Yet 38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle.  The Civil War cost tens of thousands of lives, the price paid for our inherited freedom and democracy.

Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch.  Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper.  In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England. 

Most of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance.  There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances.  There are few indications of his reactions.  King James granted the royal patent to the Chamberlain’s company who became known as the King’s Men. 

MacBeth may have subtle cautionary messages about the limitations of the power of a monarch; they can be held to account, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.


People have practiced witchcraft as early as Egyptian and Roman times.  From curses, potions, poisons, prescriptions, transfigurations, divination, oracles and necromancy we give way to our deepest fears, superstitions and phobias.  Witches, sorcerers,  demons, ghosts inhabit the world of magic and make-believe.

In the book of laws he compiled toward the end of the ninth century, King Alfred outlawed wiccan among the people of England, on pain of death. From its first appearance in English, the word “witch” has referred to a person not merely magical but actively abhorred by state power. (JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE)

Obscure archaic witchcraft terminology:

Incubi - in medieval times, a male demon, believed to have sexual intercourse with women while they were asleep. 

Succubi - in medieval times, a woman demon, believed to have sexual intercourse with men while they were asleep.

Early Christians persecuted many innocent people who rejected their beliefs for sorcery; as wizards, warlocks or witches.  The first full account a pact with the devil dates from 1435 in a printed book on witchcraft detailing many of their rituals as inverse parodies of the Catholic church. 

A fool-proof trial by ordeal for witchcraft was to tie their hands and throw them into a body of water.  If they floated and survived, they were obviously bewitched and burnt at the stake.  If they drowned, they were clearly innocent and so went straight to heaven.

Witchcraft was well-accepted in King James I’s time. He believed that witches had attempted to kill him on a trip to Denmark as well as his newly wed.  Six Danish witches were tried and executed. When they finally arrived back in Scotland, Agnes Sampson confessed that she and a coven of witches had conspired against him.  Under torture she confessed horrible crimes of using a cat to conjure evil spirits against the King and Queen and that the only thing that saved him was his strong Christian faith.  Agnes was tried, convicted, garrotted and burned in a public display in the presence of the King.  Witches were commonly considered to be the embodiment of evil and the audience would have been aware of the King’s reputation as a man for whom the devil had a healthy respect. 

The witches in Macbeth had magical powers of foretelling events much as clairvoyants, tarot cards or horoscopes claim today.  Their powers were limited in that they could not kill people. Here a witch threatens the husband of a woman who refused her some chestnuts:

“I’ll drain him dry as hay:

Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his pent-house lid;

Though his bark cannot be lost,

Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d.      Act 1, sc. 3  19 – 26


This foreshadows what they do to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

This is Banquo’s description of them:

                                     What are these,

    So withered and so wild in their attire,

    That look not like th' inhabitants o'th' earth,

    And yet are on't? Live you, or are you aught

    That man may question? You seem to understand me

    By each at once her choppy finger laying

    Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,

    And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

    That you are so.                                             Act I Sc. 3  40 48.    

Shakespeare demonstrates the deceptive role of language when Banquo tries to warn Macbeth not to trust the witches.  

And often times, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest  trifles to betray’s

-      In deepest consequence

Macbeth fails to heed the advice, so intoxicated with his ambition to become King that only through his painful experience he learns the lesson too late:

Macbeth on the witch’s assurances.

Infected be the air whereon they ride;
And damn'd all those that trust them!


And be these juggling fiends no more believed

That palter with us in a double sense,

That keep the word of promise to our ear

And break it to our hope.          

They are referred to by a number of names, the most common is “weird sisters” others include;  “imperfect speakers” , “instruments of darkness”,  “secret, black and midnight hags”, later “filthy hags” and finally “juggling fiends who palter with us in a double sense.

Due to Miller’s play The Crucible, this ancient word has lately bubbled up from the mud of time into American culture. “Witch” now resonates among two sharply different sets of people: Young, often queer women, who see the witch as an appealingly transgressive and charismatic archetype, in the the McCarthy trials and President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly described his critics as the perpetrators of a “witch hunt.”  JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE

Though his intent may be to expose the damage done by hysterical and misguided authority figures to hapless victims during the McCarthy era of America in the 1950’s, Miller sets his scene in the time of the witch hunts of the 1690’s to gain perspective and remoteness; abuse of power is a perennial issue, not the exclusive preserve of any one time or place.

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