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SELECTED CRITICISMS ON THE PLAY; AND NUMEROUS EXTRACTS FROM
THE HISTORY ON WHICH THE PLAY IS FOUNDED,
Adapted for Scholastic or Private Study, and for those onaylying for University
and Government Esemkientras
BY TIIE REV. John HUNTER, M.A.
Instructor of Candidates for University, Civil Service, and other
THE TRAGEDY of Macbeth was entered in the Stationers' Registers immediately previous to the publication of the folio collection of 1623, and, therefore, probably had not been published before it appeared in that collection. That it had been composed, however, at least thirteen years earlier than the above date, has been ascertained from the interesting diary of Dr. Forman, which contains a detailed account of the play as he saw it acted at the Globe Theatre on the 20th of April, 1610. But that it was not then a new play seems probable enough; for Shakspeare in making Macbeth say~
Some I see That two-fold balls and treble sceptres carry'obviously intended a reference to the union, in 1604, of the three kingdoms under James I., as a supposed descendant of Banquo; and it is most likely that this reference was suggested to the poet when the union was of very recent date. Malone assigns the composition of this tragedy to the year 1606, chiefly on the following grounds. The Porter in his soliloquy makes supposition of a farmer who hanged himself on the expectation of plenty,' and of an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale :' the former of these thoughts Malone supposes to have been suggested by the great plenty and cheap
* Banquo and Fleance have no place in authentic history.
ness of corn in 1606; while in the latter he sees la direct reference to the doctrine of equivocation avowed and maintained by Henry Garnet, superior of the order of Jesuits in England, on his trial for the Gunpowder Treason on the 28th of March, 1606, and to his detestable perjury.' Knight considers these proofs to be entirely frivolous and unsatisfactory,'—a criticism with which we do not agree. Still, we cannot accept Malone's proofs as of themselves settling the chronology of the play. It is when they are considered along with the reference to the union of the three kingdoms under James, that we have sufficient warrant for the supposition that the play was produced in 1606, or very shortly afterwards.
Holinshed's History of Scotland supplied Shakspeare with most of the incidents in this tragedy. The poet, however, conscious that the legendary narrative which the chronicler gives of a remote and semi-barbarous time, was no proper foundation for an historical play, has made free with the story of Macbeth as if it were fabulous, and has conformed to the chronicle, or deviated from it, as best suited bis ideal of character, and tended to the development of dramatic power.
• Better authorities than Holinshed had access to,' as Mr. Knight observes, have shown that the contest for the crown of Scotland between Duncan and Macbeth was a contest of factions, and that Macbeth was raised to the throne by his Norwegian allies, after a battle in which Duncan fell. In the same way, after a long rule, was Macbeth vanquished and killed by the son of Duncan, supported by his English allies. But with the difference between the real and apocryphal history, it is manifest that we can have here no concern. The interest of Macbeth is not an historical interest. It matters not whether the action is true, or has been related as true: it belongs to the realms of poetry altogether. We might as well call Lear or Hamlet an historical play, because the outlines of the story of each are to be found in old records of the past.'
Of all our dramatists, Shakspeare appears to have been the first to call in the aid of witchcraft as supernatural machinery. The vulgar sorcery creed that prevailed in England in his time was partially adopted by him; but he blended it with the sibylline or prophetic character of the Scandinavian weird sisters, and spiritualised it by his own imagination. It is now generally believed that Middleton's play of The Witch, containing as it does a resemblance in some particulars to the incantation scenes in Macbeth, was not composed before 1613.