In 2016, Britain is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Kick off the celebrations with the most recent film adaptation of "the Scottish play", Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the ambitious couple who will stop at nothing to gain and keep power. But how accurate is Shakespeare's portrayal of the real King Macbeth?
The recent film version of Macbeth has spectacular visuals and Scottish scenery, unlike the theatre productions in Shakespeare's time with their minimal costumes and scenery. Legend has it that Shakespeare himself played Lady Macbeth in the first performance, after the boy who was supposed to play the role died suddenly. This is the origin of the idea that the play is cursed. Actors consider it extremely bad luck to mention the name of the play in a theatre, and call it "The Scottish Play" instead.
Tragedy or History?
Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare's tragedies, rather than one of the history plays. It is certainly a tragedy in the Greek tradition: Macbeth and his wife's faults – their ambition and greed – sow the seeds of their downfall.
Yet it could just as easily been a history play. Duncan (1034-1040) and Macbeth (1040-1057) were real kings of Scotland. Macbeth really did kill Duncan. However, it was not murder as in the play. Both men had claims to the throne and Macbeth killed Duncan in battle. And their characters are very different from those portrayed in the play. Duncan was a weak, ineffectual king whereas Macbeth was well respected and reigned for 17 years of relative peace – he was so confident of his influence he was able to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. He was ultimately slain himself in battle… by Duncan's son.
The King's Man
Why did Shakespeare change the men's roles? By the time he wrote Macbeth (1606), King James I had succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. He was the patron of Shakespeare's theatre company, the King's Men. James was Scottish, and his somewhat romanticised lineage put him in Duncan's camp rather than Macbeth's. It was in Shakespeare's interest to flatter King James and keep his patronage. The Bard also filled the play with references to witchcraft, a keen interest of James's. And the overall theme of the play, that usurpers will meet their downfall, would have pleased James in the period of political unrest at the beginning of his reign. (This was, after all, just a year after Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the king with it!)