The Curse of Macbeth

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By DAVIS HARRISON
11/28/10
THESIS:

It is said that whilst William Shakespeare was writing his famous tragedy Macbeth, he consulted several witches for actual incantations to use in the dialogue. The witches themselves were opposed to the manner in which Shakespeare portrayed them in the script, so they placed a curse on the play. Ever since, there have been many recorded accidents and tragic occurrences in the making and performance of Macbeth. Are these happenings a matter of circumstance or was the tale of Shakespeare’s witch dilemma reality?

Among the many tragedies and comedies William Shakespeare wrote during his career, Macbeth was, and still is, one of the most renowned and celebrated stage-plays in the world. The story is that of a faithful Thane fighting for Scotland. He and his friend, Banquo, run into three witches who greet them with great prophecies. They predicted that Macbeth would be Thane of Cawdor and also the King of Scotland. For Banquo, they foresaw the promise of royal kin. Macbeth tells himself that the prophecy will become true without his effort. In Act 1, Scene 3 he says to himself;

If Chance May Have Me King, Why, Chance May Crown Me
- Macbeth - Act I - Scene III

However, he soon begins to doubt himself and asks his wife Lady Macbeth whether or not he should plot to kill Duncan, the current king of Scotland. His wife acts as if it is a necessity and tells her nervous husband:

Screw Your Courage To The Sticking Place, And we’ll not fail - Lady Macbeth - Act I - Scene VIII

Though he still feels uneasy, Macbeth follows the advice of his wife and murders King Duncan with a dagger. This action soon put sin motion Macbeth’s demise, even though he is appointed king without suspicion. He desperately attempts to leave his feelings of guilt behind by murdering those whom he suspects know of his foul play, leaving a bloodbath in his wake. Eventually, Macbeth is killed by Macduff, “the man not of woman born” (ACT IV, Scene I.) Shakespeare illustrates via Macbeth’s actions that guilt can precipitate a person to become crazed and violent with ease. Shakespeare originally wrote this stage-play around 1600 for the pleasure of King James I and his brother in law King Christian of Denmark. It is said that King James was a very superstitious man, and became so because of a visit to Denmark. Denmark, at the time, was highly involved in witch-hunts, which might have aroused the King’s curiosity in witchcraft and sorcery. When King James returned to Scotland he participated in the North Berwick witch trials; a major part in the persecution of witches which led to the installment of Scotland’s Witch Act of 1563. King James believed the study of witchcraft to be a branch of theology and soon became obsessed with the danger of witches, taking every opportunity to study the subject. Not long after his return to Scotland he wrote the book Daemonologie a tract on his opposed opinions of the practice of witchcraft and how to detect witches. Shakespeare knew of the King’s superstitious beliefs and practices, and based Macbeth around them, taking great care not to offend the king. In fact, Shakespeare named the character “Banquo” after one of James’ ancestors, and made the stage-play brief since James was not a fan of long or epic plays and became bored easily. Shakespeare’s biggest mistake in the writing of Macbeth however, was to include real incantations that he had learned from real witches in the tragedy. In the beginning scene of Act IV, he reproduced a sacred black-magic ritual in which a group of witches dance around a cauldron throwing in odd ingredients and reciting strange phrases including the famous:

Double, Double Toil And Trouble;
Fire, Burn; And, Cauldron Bubble.
- Three Witches - Act IV - Scene I

Witches and practitioners of magic who came to see the show were furious that their witchcraft had been exposed publically, and cast a curse upon the play, which, supposedly, still...
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