Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the drama is presented with stark economy. The intensity of the play – the turmoil, the treachery, the succession battles, and the general blood bath – embraces the audience like a feverish nightmare that is nearly impossible to wake up from. And when it is all over the play lingers – as it has done, no doubt, since its first performance in 1606.

Shakespeare’s tale was inspired by a regicide and other events in 11th-century Scotland. What actually took place and what is legend is difficult to know for certain;  at least in detail. However, the general tendencies of the era are less vague. Emerging ideas of national unity and kingship were competing with civil disorder caused by battles for power among local warlords, and struggles over succession often resulted in ruthless wars.

In the play, Macbeth is initially a loyal general to king Duncan. But after being flattered by three witches and their auguring, and his own wife, Macbeth becomes convinced that murdering the king and taking over the throne is the right thing to do. Blinded by ambition and narcissism, Macbeth gets involved in one murderous act after another, seemingly unable to put a stop to the slayings, and the paranoia and suspicions of political power take over life in the court. It becomes clear that there is only one way out for Macbeth, and that way can be found at the end of a sword.

Typically for Shakespeare (and his time), the audience is offered a reassuring conclusion in which a just political authority triumphs. The kings who attended the world premiere, King James I of England and King Christian of Denmark, would have been well pleased with the finale. But the play does ask some unnerving questions about the price of power, and they remain valid to this day.

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