What Is Macbeth About?

Overview of William Shakespeare's Macbeth


Written by William Shakespeare in the early 17th century, Macbeth is widely viewed as one of the master poet’s darkest plays. Macbeth is generally believed to have been written in 1606, but the play may have been created anytime between 1603 and 1607. The first record of a performance of Macbeth dates back to 1611, when a description of a play at the Globe Theatre was recorded in a manuscript of Simon Forman, a British astrologer and alchemist.

To place Macbeth in historical context, the play was likely written by William Shakespeare while James I sat the English throne. Formerly King James VI of Scotland, he succeeded to the English throne in 1603, around the time Macbeth was written. An accomplished scholar and a supporter of the arts, James I was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men.

Macbeth is a story of a Scottish general who commits regicide after receiving a prophecy that he will one day become the King of Scotland. Drawing parallels to the time in which Shakespeare wrote, it is believed that Macbeth celebrates King James I, who is thought to be an ancestor of the character Banquo, whose descendants ultimately become future kings.

Taking place in Scotland, the story of Macbeth follows the title character, a Scottish general who, driven by his wife and his own ambition, butchers his king after receiving a prophecy that he is to become King of Scotland. After murdering the king, Macbeth is tortured by feelings of remorse and becomes ever more paranoid of losing control. Out of fear of losing his power, Macbeth plots the deaths of other men who could threaten his position, becoming an increasingly violent and oppressive ruler.  By the end of the play, both Macbeth and his wife become progressively more mentally unstable, the story ending with their demise.

The source material for Shakespeare’s play is loosely based on Holinshed’s Chronicles, a chronicle of British history published in 1587, which tells the story of many of the principal characters found in Macbeth. The first publication of Macbeth was in the Folio of 1623, which contained thirty-six of Shakespeare’s plays.

Whether stemming from Macbeth’s dark themes, or based on actual misfortune that plagued the play’s production, some believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth to be cursed, and refer to it only as “the Scottish play.” Despite the superstition, the story of Macbeth continues to resonate with audiences even today. Shakespeare’s Macbeth has drawn some of the most accomplished actors to play the lead roles, and has found its way into countless novels, films, and television shows.

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