A few documents which help, or have been or might be thought to help, in putting the play into its context.
There were two editions of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The original edition, published in 1577 (STC 13568), had numerous woodcut illustrations; the revised edition (see below) did not. It is tolerably certain that the second edition was the one that Shakespeare made use of, but I have thought it worth reproducing a few of the illustrations from the first edition. Whether Shakespeare saw them or not, they give some idea how contemporary readers would have visualized the events that were being described. Some of the pictures – most notably the encounter with the Weird Sisters (p. 243)* – were made specifically for this section of the narrative. Others were stock images which could be used repeatedly wherever they were appropriate. The block used (on sheet Q2) to illustrate Macbeth’s coronation (p. 244) is used again (on sheet Q3) to illustrate Malcolm’s coronation (p. 252) – which is slightly surprising but of no significance whatever.
* I see it said that this is a generic picture of lords meeting ladies. It looks highly specific to me – but what do I know? If someone will tell me where else this block was used, I will think again.
A new edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, revised and expanded by some of his friends (Holinshed had died meanwhile), was printed in 1585–7. It is (as I have said) tolerably certain that this was the edition that Shakespeare had access to. For instance, as Verity (1901:xii) pointed out (I think he was first to do so), there is a line in Richard II alluding to a passage which is only to be found in this second edition. (A note in the margin identifies it as an addition made by Abraham Fleming.)
‘The historie of Scotland’ (the title-page for which is dated 1585) was revised and brought up to date by Francis Thin, but the stretches of text which are relevant here were not significantly altered in any respect. There are innumerable changes in the spelling and punctuation, but none affecting more than a single word. (In the first edition, for instance, the weird sisters’ apparel was ‘straunge & ferly’; now it is ‘strange and wild’.) There is one small chronological difficulty – which would not have troubled Shakespeare but may perhaps puzzle the reader (as it did me). When Holinshed first wrote this account, he relied, mostly, on Bellenden’s Scots translation (1536) of Boece’s Scotorum historiae (1527); but he was (with reason) distrustful of Boece’s dates. He preferred the dates that he found in an earlier chronicle, John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521). From Major he was able to work out that Duncan was killed in 1040, Macbeth in 1057. Those are the dates that he accepted; but (meticulous as always) he noted Boece’s discrepant dates, 1046 and 1061, in the margin. In this second edition, ‘1040’ got itself miscorrected to ‘1046’ (171a), so as to make it agree with Boece’s date, and the statement that Macbeth ‘reigned 17 yeeres’ (176a) was thus made nonsense of.
When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the facts on which his imagination went to work all came from this one source. The relevant passages have been frequently reprinted (but not always from the right edition): one convenient place to find them is this book of Boswell-Stone’s (1896). Thinking that Boswell-Stone would not object, I have corrected a few mistakes and made some small adjustments. (In particular I have reversed the changes that he made in the punctuation.) But perhaps I need not have bothered. In the end, this is just a guide to the original: it cannot be a substitute for it. (To save myself further effort, I have relegated the marginal notes – some of them copied from Holinshed, some supplied – to the back of the file.)
Boece 1527 Hector Boece, Scotorum historiae a prima gentis origine (Paris, 1527).
Boece transl. Bellenden 1536 Hector Boece, The hystory and croniklis of Scotland, transl. John Bellenden (Edinburgh, 1536).
Boswell-Stone 1896 W. G. Boswell-Stone, Shakspere’s Holinshed: the chronicle and the historical plays compared (London, 1896).
Major 1521 John Major, Historia Maioris Britanniae, tam Angliae quam Scotiae, … e veterum monumentis concinnata (Paris, 1521).
Verity 1901 A. W. Verity (ed.), Macbeth (Cambridge, 1901). ‘The Pitt Press Shakespeare for Schools.’
King James’s first parliament assembled for the first time on 19 March 1604. Of the acts passed over the next few months, 33 were printed in full straight away (STC 9500). One was a witchcraft act – ‘for the better restraining the said offences, and more severe punishing the same’ – due to come into force on 29 September (1 Jac. I. c. 12). It was, as that language implies, a harsher version of the act which it replaced, the witchcraft act of 1563 (5 Eliz. c. 16). Under that act, in certain circumstances, a witch could be punished with imprisonment for life. Under the new act, that loophole no longer existed. Some witches could escape death once; none could escape it twice.
The new act took much of its language from the previous act (and some of it can be traced back further still, to the witchcraft act of 1542 (33 Hen. VIII. c. 8)): I have shaded the wording which agrees, so that the added or altered wording can be seen at once.
William Warner (d. 1609) was a London attorney who wrote verse in his spare time. He was best-known as the author of ‘a long episodic poem in fourteen-syllable lines’ (DNB), with the title Albion’s England (STC 25079–83).
The astonishing popularity of this poem … is a proof that he possessed the most valuable talent of a poet, that of amusing and interesting his readers. This he effected partly by means of numerous episodes, which are always lively, though not always to the purpose, and partly by means of a style which, at the time, was thought highly elegant, and which certainly possesses the merit of uncommon ease and simplicity. (Ellis 1801 2:267)
For Warner, this was an open-ended project which might have gone on for ever – or, failing that, for as long as he stayed alive. The first edition, comprising four ‘books’, appeared in 1586. There were two more ‘books’ in the second edition (1589), three more in the third (1592), three more again in the fourth (1596),* and one more in the fifth (1602); so the total thus far was thirteen. By 1606, Warner was ready with three more ‘books’; but it seems that his publisher was not willing to proceed with a new edition – presumably because he still had copies of the current edition on his hands. By way of a compromise, the three new ‘books’ were printed as a supplement to the fifth edition, entitled A continuance of Albions England (STC 25085);† and this was the only shape in which they ever saw the light.‡
* This is the edition reprinted by Chalmers (1810 4:509–658). Like Ellis (1801 2:267–73), Chalmers divided the lines after the fourth foot.
† The copy available through EEBO is incomplete, but luckily complete enough for present purposes.
‡ A posthumous edition of Albion’s England published in 1612 (STC 25084) is nothing more than a reprint of the fifth edition. (That is, it contains books 1–13 but not books 14–16.)
Recent events – most notably the death of the queen and the accession of the Scottish king – had given Warner new themes to write about. Here are the first three ‘chapters’ in his ‘fifteenth Booke’, as they are described in the table of contents:
OF the Propagators of vs moderne English: An Entrance into the Historie of Wales, &c. Chap. 93 Of Makbeth the Tyrant: Of the noble Scot Fleance: The pas- sage of loue betweene him and the Kings Daughter of Wales, and of their royall Posteritie. Chap. 94 Of the most barbarous and vnexampled preuented Massacre, plotted against the whole Parliament and State of Great Britaine, 1605. &c. Chap. 95
The second of these ‘chapters’ is the piece reproduced here. It begins by mentioning Macbeth – but Warner was not interested in him. He was interested in Banquo and Banquo’s descendants; he was particularly interested in the fact that Banquo’s grandson was Welsh on his mother’s side. Evidently Warner – like Shakespeare, like many other people – had been consulting Holinshed’s Chronicles, but there is nothing significant in that – nothing to suggest that Warner had seen the play, nothing to suggest that Shakespeare had read this book.
Chalmers 1810 Alexander Chalmers (comp.), The works of the English poets, 21 vols. (London, 1810).
Ellis 1801 George Ellis (comp.), Specimens of the early English poets, 3 vols. (London, 1801).
On 27 August 1605 the king arrived in Oxford for a three-day visit filled with pomp and ceremony. There are at least three contemporary reports of the proceedings, written respectively (1) by a pamphleteer from London, Anthony Nixon, who put his version into print straight away (STC 18589); (2) by the university’s public orator, Isaac Wake, who composed an elaborate Latin account and published it in 1607 (STC 24939); and (3) by a visitor from Cambridge, Philip Stringer (printed in full by Nichols 1828 1:530-59 from BL Harl. 7044).
On the day of his arrival, approaching from the north, the king passed St John’s College, and there he was greeted by three young scholars dressed as sibyls who emerged from a forest (artificial, of course) and recited 29 lines of Latin verse. They were, they told the king, the same sisters who had once promised Banquo that his descendants would be kings; and now they had returned, to promise James that his descendants would be kings for ever and ever. All three reports refer to this performance, though Stringer rather missed the point of it (Malone 1790 4:437, Nichols 1828 1:543-5).
The lines of verse were written by Matthew Gwinne (1558–1627, a non-resident fellow of St John’s, currently professor of physic at Gresham College in London. For the same occasion he also wrote a Latin comedy called Vertumnus, which was performed for the king two days later. (According to Stringer, the king fell asleep, woke up in a bad mood, and grumbled till the play was over.) When Gwinne had that play printed two years later (STC 12555), the verses that he had written for the sibyls were added on two pages at the back. I reproduce them here. (A translation is available on request.)
It will be seen that there is not one word about Macbeth. Why would there be? Gwinne had not the slightest interest in Macbeth. He was interested in Banquo and Banquo’s descendants. The only report which refers to Macbeth is the one by Isaac Wake. When he comes to speak of this performance at St John’s, he thinks that he ought to put it into context; so he digresses. Instead of just naming Banquo, he names Macbeth as well. There were, he explains (Wake 1607:18–19), two predictions, almost the opposite of one another. The sibyls told Macbeth that he would be king but would beget no king; they told Banquo that he would not be king but would beget many kings (illum praedixisse regem futurum, sed regem nullum geniturum, hunc regem non futurum, sed reges geniturum multos). That is indeed how Holinshed tells the tale; but Wake only repeats it because he wants to show off his knowledge of Scottish history. Gwinne’s sibyls – the teenagers who greeted the king in Oxford – had spoken only to Banquo. They had, quite possibly, never heard of Macbeth.
Unhappily, because Wake’s puffed-up report was far more accessible than the others, it was the first one known to Richard Farmer; and it gave him the idea that Shakespeare’s play ‘might possibly have been suggested to him by a little performance on the same subject at Oxford, before King James, 1605’ (Farmer 1767:56). That guess of Farmer’s, despite being obviously wrong, has buzzed around like a gadfly ever since. Some people have been driven mad by it.
Farmer 1767 Richard Farmer, An essay on the learning of Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ‘with large additions’ (Cambridge 1767).
Gwinne 1607 Matthew Gwinne, Vertumnus siue Annus recurrens (London, 1607). STC 12555
Malone 1790 Edmund Malone (ed.), The plays and poems of William Shakspeare, 10 vols. (London, 1790).
Nichols 1828 John Nichols, The progresses, processions, and magnificent festivities, of King James the First, 4 vols. (London, 1828).
Nixon 1605 Anthony Nixon, Oxfords triumph (London, 1605). STC 18589
Wake 1607 Isaac Wake, Rex platonicus (London, 1607). STC 24939
Yet another Banquo-centric version of the story about the weird sisters – ‘three Virgins wondrous faire’, as they are described here – included in this book-length poem by Thomas Heywood. I only transcribe this piece because it was cited in Baker’s Companion to the play-house (1764), and likewise in later editions of the same book. (Heywood tells us that he got his information from Boethius’s history; I do not detect any echo of Shakespeare’s play.)