For anyone in Shakespeare’s audience who knew the real story of Macbeth, his play must have been surprising. Shakespeare changed so many important details of the historical Macbeth’s life that had Raphael Holinshed, the main author of the most popular history of the British Isles in Shakespeare’s day — Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland — been in the audience, he might have voiced his objections out loud.
To begin with, King Duncan was quite a bit less than an ideal king, though he was not evil. More importantly, he was not assassinated by ambitious Macbeth and his demonic wife. Macbeth, Banquo, and other Scottish lords acted in concert to eliminate Duncan because he had allowed law and order to deteriorate. Not only was Macbeth made king by agreement of the Scottish lords, for years he also reigned peacefully and administered the realm in wisdom.
Holinshed wrote, “To be brief, such were the worthie doings and princelie acts of this Mackbeth in the administration of the realm, that if he had attained thereunto by rightfull means, and continued in uprightness of justice as he began, till the end of his reign, he might well have been numbered amongst the most noble princes that anywhere had reigned. He made many wholesome laws and statutes for the public weale of his subjects” (quoted in Ralph Allan Smith, Shakespeare the Christian, pp. 159-50).
Clearly Shakespeare had an agenda. He was not writing an “historical play,” even though he uses the name of an historical king and includes various details from Holinshed’s Chronicles throughout. Poor Lady Macbeth has been completely transformed — though Holinshed provided background for Shakespeare’s story. Macbeth and his Lady did not murder Duncan, but Donwald and his wife murdered a King Duffe — not for ambition, but for revenge after King Duffe killed their relatives in spite of the help they gave him in quelling a rebellion. Shakespeare conflates Macbeth and his Lady with Donwald and his lady, but the motive for the regicide in the play doesn’t come from Scottish history.
So, where do we get the story of Macbeth the tyrant who tries to kill Banquo? That is in Holinshed, but it comes later in the story, after many years of Macbeth’s good rule. The structure of Shakespeare’s story is borrowed or constructed from something other than Holinshed’s Chronicles, even though many details are borrowed from various parts of that famous historical work. Since we know that Shakespeare virtually always borrows his main plot from other sources, the question is, where did Shakespeare get his “master story” for this play?
Imagine a sixteenth century member of the audience, someone literate — about one-third of English men seem to have been literate in Shakespeare’s day — viewing the play and noting the incongruence between popularly recorded Scottish history and Shakespeare’s play. What would such a man think when he saw a story of a husband and wife tempted by demon-like beings to fulfil foul ambition by murdering a king and stealing his throne?
On the surface, the story recalls the fall of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent to become like God. It is hard to imagine someone in Shakespeare’s day not making the connection simply on the basis of the story itself. But was that Shakespeare’s intention? Did Shakespeare provoke his audience to connect the Biblical story of the fall with the story of Macbeth?
In Act 1, Scene 1 – the short, shocking twelve lines that begin the play – everything about the “weird sisters” connotes Satanic evil: The names Graymalkin and Paddock, but especially their miasmal mantra — “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” A note in the Arden Shakespeare refers to the fact that witches must say everything, including the Pater-noster, backwards (The Arden Shakespeare, Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir, p. 4). The weird sisters’ next appearance in Scene 3 is filled with strange language that is difficult to understand in detail, but seems to imply their ability to transform themselves into animals and use the wind to bring a curse on a ship. They are clearly a formidable force.
It is in Scene 3 that they meet the soldier who has already been referred to as “brave Macbeth” (1.2.16) and, apparently, “Bellona’s bridegroom” (1.2.55). Macbeth’s first words in the play echo the words of the witches, and hint at some strange connection with them: “So foul and fair a day have I not seen” (1.3.38).
The witches tempt Macbeth with a threefold greeting. He went to battle as Thane of Glamis. He is already, though yet unbeknown to himself, exalted to Thane of Cawdor. He will be, according to the third greeting, “king hereafter.” After greeting Banquo with a threefold greeting that ends with the promise that though he will not be king but will beget kings, the three sisters vanish, melting “as breath into the wind.”
While Macbeth and Banquo muse about their eerie augury, two Scottish noblemen, Rosse and Angus, appear to communicate the king’s gratitude and greet Macbeth with his new title, “Thane of Cawdor.” Banquo immediately responds, “What! can the devil speak true?” (1.3.107). Soon after, Banquo warns Macbeth in words that allude to 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, as well as other passages (See Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, p. 623).
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of Darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (1.3.123-26)
All of this is just to say that Shakespeare unquestionably intends his audience to see the overthrow of Duncan by Macbeth as something entirely different from the chronicle of Scottish history that records a conspiracy of Scottish lords, including Banquo. Shakespeare’s story is the story of a brave soldier, who had risked his life for his good king, but who falls into temptation by “the devil” who wins him through a trifling truth to betray him and his wife in matters of deepest consequence.
Macbeth responds to the witches’ temptation so quickly that we have to suspect that they have not so much planted a foreign seed into his pure heart as stoked the embers of underlying lust into a raging flame. Though he struggles valiantly with himself to resist the temptation — or seems to — the fact that he writes almost immediately to Lady Macbeth of his strange encounter and its great promise implies that the “horrible imaginings” that shook his “single state of man” dictate the letter.
Lady Macbeth, upon reading her husband’s message, concluded without Macbeth’s hesitation that “fate and metaphysical aid” has determined that Macbeth will be king, but she fears that he is “too full o’th’milk of human kindness, To catch the nearest way” (1.5.17-18).
Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win (1.5.18-22).
When she hears that King Duncan will visit that very night, she prays in language that displays how deeply the weird sister’s poison has infected her heart.
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ffect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Nature’s mischief! Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ (1.5.38-54).
Act 1, Scene 7 begins with bellicose Macbeth’s soul engaged in warfare against “vaulting ambition.” The good in him seems to win as he announces his conclusion to his Lady: “We will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31). Her response is a withering denunciation: Macbeth is “green and pale,” “afeared,” and “a coward.” He tries to object: “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more, is none” (1.7.46-47). But again her reply is devastating.
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.
In this dialogue in particular, Shakespeare puts before us the question of what it means to be a true man. Just as Adam gave in to Satan’s temptation and sought to attain “true manhood” by disobedience to God, so Macbeth and his Lady are seduced by the three weird sisters to attain something like godhood — the Scottish throne — through the murder of a saintly king. This setting is too obviously an allusion to the story of Genesis. Even if we did not know that Shakespeare had played fast and free with Scottish history to construct the story as he did, the story behind the story should still be unmistakably clear.
What we have seen here, however, is mostly Biblical outlines and story-level allusions, though sprinkled in language that alludes to Genesis. I will show in the next essay that Shakespeare provides numerous and quite specific Biblical allusions that show even more clearly that he intended to evoke the story of the Fall.
Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.