Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Written around 1606, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed plays. Based mostly on historical accounts, the play is a brutal, bloody story of a Scottish nobleman whose murderous ambition destroys him. Shakespeare changed some of the history to ensure that the play would appeal to England's King James I, who was Scottish.

1. Twenty-two audience members were killed in a riot after one performance.

The Astor Place Riot in 1849 was the result of a rivalry between two actors: the Englishman William Macready and the very popular American Edwin Forrest. In May 1849 the two were in competing productions of Macbeth in New York City. Forrest's followers attacked the luxurious Astor Place Theater in Manhattan where Macready was performing. A pamphlet put out soon after described the scene: "The ground was now covered with killed and wounded—the pavement stained with blood."

2. According to legend, Macbeth has a curse on it.

Supposedly, there is a curse attached to speaking the name of the play in a theater. Actors generally call it "The Scottish Play." No one is sure where this idea originated; some say it's because the actor playing Lady Macbeth in the first production died during the run of the play. Another theory is that the witches' spells Shakespeare used in the play were real. If an actor slips up, he or she is supposed to leave the room, turn around three times, spit, say a bad word, and then knock to re-enter.

3. King Macbeth was a real person.

Mac Bethad mac Findláich was the king of Scotland in the mid-1000s. He took the throne after killing King Duncan in 1040 and five years later killed Duncan's father. For the next 14 years, he ruled more or less peacefully, but in 1057 Duncan's son Malcolm killed him in battle and became king himself.

4. King James I was a descendant of the real Banquo.

Banquo, like the other characters in Macbeth, is loosely based on a real person. King James I (James VI of Scotland) claimed his ancestry through the Stuart dynasty could be traced back to Banquo, a friend of the real Macbeth. Banquo is depicted in a positive light in the play, which Shakespeare may have done in an effort to please King James.

5. Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy.

Macbeth is less than 2,500 lines (the exact number is dependent on the version). Hamlet, on the other hand, is both the Bard's longest tragedy and his longest play, at just over 4,000 lines. With an average spoken speed of 1,000 lines per hour, the performance times estimate that Macbeth is an hour and a half shorter than Hamlet. Macbeth's short length may be one reason why it is so frequently performed.

6. King James I wrote a book on witchcraft that helped shape Macbeth.

King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England, published the book Daemonologie in 1597. The book is focused on proving the existence of witchcraft and how best to punish witches. The representation of witchcraft in Macbeth is strikingly similar to the beliefs King James expressed in his book. Scholars speculate that Shakespeare either wanted to please the king or to subtly poke fun at his obsession with witchcraft.

7. Macbeth is Shakespeare's only play that uses the word rhinoceros.

Shakespeare refers to a rhinoceros just one time in all of his plays. The reference is made in Act 3, Scene 4, as Macbeth rants to Banquo's ghost:

What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The armed rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
shall never tremble.

Shakespeare groups the rhinoceros with other foreign wild animals to underscore Macbeth's avowed claims of fearlessness as contrasted to his complete cowardice around the ghost.

8. The phrase "steal my thunder" originated with Macbeth.

When you steal someone's thunder, you use that person's ideas to your own benefit without giving the person credit. Apparently, Shakespeare used an invention of fellow playwright John Dennis in creating the sound of thunder heard throughout Macbeth. The sound was first heard in Dennis's failed production, Appius and Virginia. Shortly after that play closed, Dennis then heard the thunder during a performance of Macbeth. He complained bitterly that his thunder had been stolen.

9. In one film adaptation, Macbeth played a fast-food worker.

Adaptations of Macbeth have changed the setting and time period of the play in various ways. Scotland, PA (2001) sets the story in a fast-food restaurant in the early 1970s. It presents what is perhaps the most changed version of the famous tragedy, inverting it to become a dark comedy. The main character in the film, Joe McBeth, is driven to murderous deeds by his greedy wife. Three hippies join the fray, and both McBeths lose their sanity as they try to gain the American dream.

10. The wicked queen in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on Lady Macbeth.

The wicked queen in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) goes to murderous lengths to keep her title as the "fairest of them all." This iconic villain is based in part on Macbeth's scheming wife Lady Macbeth. Film producer Walt Disney said the queen was "a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf."

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