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The Timelessness of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

October 3, 2018 | by pac-admin
Macbeth - Chapel-01

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Shakespeare finished writing Macbeth only hours before its inaugural performance at Hampton Court Palace, in front of King James. This was a high-risk venture for several reasons. It was politically risky because the plot included the forceful deposition of a king. Moreover, in 1605 using God’s name in works of art had been censored, and Shakespeare had Banquo loudly proclaiming “In the great hand of God I stand!” (Act III, scene iv). Fortunately, James was a direct descendant of Banquo and undoubtedly appreciated the reference, perhaps associating it with himself.

Shakespeare may have written Macbeth explicitly to flatter the king, in whose inaugural procession he had recently marched. James was religious and superstitious, as were most Elizabethans. He had authored a book on witchcraft, was known to prosecute witches, and most importantly, had, in 1604, commissioned an English translation of the Bible. Shakespeare needed to entertain the king, who often fell asleep during long performances. It attests to Shakespeare’s genius that he was able to combine three of James’ passions – Scotland, religion, and the supernatural- into what many hailed as Shakespeare’s most moral play, and one of his shortest.

Some contemporary scholarship offers a different perspective, with a focus on the psychology of war and violence in the play, as noted by Shakespeare scholar Jesse M. Lander, who concludes “The play begins and ends in violence, but there is no reason to anticipate an end to the violence.” Thomas Jefferson would not have found the violence antithetical to the pursuit of peace. The overthrow of a tyrant required the ultimate sacrifice, Jefferson asserted, when he wrote, “The blood of freedom must, from time to time, be refreshed with the blood of patriots.” A more modern rendition reads “Freedom is not free.” Or, as Macbeth’s nemesis Siward proclaimed through his tears in Act V, “Some must go off, and yet, by these, I see so great a day as this is cheaply bought.”

Shakespeare’s plays have long been understood to follow a consistent trajectory, in which ultimate good wins. Yet in Macbeth, as scholar Harry Jaffa notes,” Shakespeare presented the moral phenomena in such a way that those who respond to his art must, in some way or another, become better human beings.” Macbeth has elicited diverse personal and public responses for more than 500 years – Abraham Lincoln lauded it as his favorite among Shakespeare’s works, and much more recently, the German heavy metal band Rebellion created an entire Macbeth inspired album entitled, “Tragedy in Steel” complete with text included as lyrics. Macbeth remains a cultural phenomenon with the potential to speak to those who will take the time to listen. Macbeth invites and challenges us to think critically, act virtuously, and live with honor in our religious, domestic, and civic lives.

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Pacifica Arts’ presentation of Macbeth