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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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MACBETH - THE DRAMA

Shakespeare based his play Macbeth on three actual historical events. King Duff of Scotland was murdered by Donwald in 967. Almost a century later, Macbeth seized the Scottish throne, in 1040, after killing Duncan I. Macbeth actually reigned until 1057 when Malcolm III, eldest son of Duncan I, killed Macbeth and succeeded him, after several months, as King of Scotland. Shakespeare created his play about Macbeth on a distorted version of the historical events which he studied in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of Scottish History. The only pure, historical truth in the entire play is Duncan's death at the hand of Macbeth. Shakespeare obviously gathered much information from Holinshed. The Chronicles state that King Duff found some of his nobles guilty of witchcraft and had them murdered. Donwald, who had friends killed by the king, began to resent King Duff and, with his wife's help, arranged to have the king murdered at Forres by four of his servants. After King Duff's murder, it is recorded that the sky remained dark for days, and that storms and evil omens were frequent. during this period of darkness, many lords grew suspicious of Donwald's part in the king's execution, because Donwald tried to act too innocent. Shakepeare revised many of the facts surrounding Duff's death and incorporated them into his play about Macbeth.

It is also recorded in The Chronicles that King Duncan and King Macbeth were cousins by blood, but they were very different by nature. Duncan was a kind king without a backbone. Macbeth, on the other hand, was described as a valiant, but cruel, gentleman. Holinshed also records that Macbeth and Banquo battled and defeated the King of Norway and actually encountered three strange women who made predictions about their future. It is also noted that Macbeth grew resentful of King Duncan when he named his eldest son Malcolm as heir to the throne, for Macbeth had hoped to gain the crown for himself. As a result, Macbeth, with the help of his friend Banquo, kills Duncan in 1040 and names himself King of Scotland. Duncan's sons, in fear, actually flee to England and Ireland.


For ten years, King Macbeth reigned as a decent ruler, but then, fearing the knowledge of his friend and accomplice, he hired murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance, who actually managed to escape the murderers. After Banquo's murder, Macbeth's fears increased, and he began to regularly have nobles put to death in order to calm his fears and to seize their possessions. Among those killed were Macduff's family. With Macduff's encouragement, Malcolm attacked King Macbeth and murdered him. A few months after Macbeth's death, Malcolm III became the King of Scotland.

Obviously, Shakespeare mixes the history of Donwald and Macbeth in creating his main character in Macbeth. He also changes the character of Banquo from an actual accomplice in Duncan's murder to a noble lord that is the perfect contrast to the evil Macbeth. Shakespeare also develops King Duncan in the play as a much stronger and more likable king than he actually was, once again to make his Macbeth seem more wicked. He also develops Lady Macbeth in much more detail than Lady Donwald and dramatically compresses the time frame of the entire play. All of these changes to the historical facts, recorded in Holinshed's The Chronicles of Scottish History, were made by Shakespeare to heighten the impact of his dramatic presentation of Macbeth and to create the perfect tragedy.

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