A short introduction to the classic play Macbeth in the form of five interesting facts
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s very best plays. Here are some of our favourite bits of trivia about ‘the Scottish play’. (Those who wish to learn more about Shakespeare might like our list of the top ten best books about Shakespeare.)
1. Lady Macbeth’s real name was Gruoch and Macbeth’s real name was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. Many people know the story of Macbeth: the ambitious Thane of Cawdor, egged on by his wife who taunts him with jibes about his (insufficient) manliness and encouraged by the prophecy imparted to him by three witches, kills the Scottish king, Duncan, while Duncan is asleep in Macbeth’s own castle. Macbeth takes the crown for himself, and tyrannically rules Scotland until Macduff defeats him, killing Macbeth and enabling Duncan’s son Malcolm to be crowned King. But the story as told by Shakespeare is somewhat different from the historical truth. The real Macbeth killed Duncan in battle in 1040 and Macbeth (or Mac Bethad) actually went on to rule for 17 years, until he was killed and Macbeth’s stepson, known as Lulach the Idiot, became king (though he only ruled for less than a year – then Malcolm, as Malcolm III, took the crown). Unsurprisingly, the historical record is rather lacking in witches, and the idea of killing Duncan while the king was a guest in Macbeth’s own home was Shakespeare exercising his artistic licence.
2. Shakespeare talked up the role of Banquo in the play in order to flatter the reigning King, James I. Banquo – the one-time friend of Macbeth who is murdered by him, but later returns to haunt Macbeth at the dinner-table – was made an important character in the play because King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), who had come to the throne a few years before Shakespeare wrote the play, claimed descent from Banquo. In Shakespeare’s play, Banquo is the man who the Witches prophesy will ‘get [i.e. sire] kings’, even though Banquo himself will not be King.
3. If you say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre, you are meant to walk three times in a circle anti-clockwise, then either spit or say a rude word. The idea of the ‘curse’ of Macbeth has a complicated origin, though it was certainly given a leg up in 1898 when novelist and wit Max Beerbohm put about the idea that the play was unlucky. That said, it has had its fair share of tragedies and disasters: in a 1942 production starring John Gielgud, four people involved in the production died, including two of the Witches and the man playing Duncan.
To mankind in general Macbeth and Lady Macbeth stand out as the supreme example of all that a host and hostess should not be. – Max Beerbohm
4. In 1849, Macbeth caused a riot in New York. The Astor Place Riot was caused by two rival actors arguing about whose portrayal of Macbeth was better. American actor Edwin Forrest and English thespian William Charles Macready were both playing the role of Macbeth in different productions at different theatres on the same night, and a longstanding rivalry erupted. Another notable nineteenth-century production of the play (featuring acting rivalry) involves the so-called ‘worst poet in the English language’, who once played Macbeth on stage – and refused to die at the end. As we revealed in our selection of interesting facts about Scottish poet William McGonagall, when McGonagall – who has a reputation for being the worst poet in English – played the role of Macbeth in a stage production, he was so annoyed at being upstaged by his co-star, who was playing Macduff, that when Macduff went to kill Macbeth at the end of the play, he found his foe mysteriously unvanquishable.
5. The phrase ‘steal my thunder’ comes from Macbeth. But the phrase doesn’t actually appear in Shakespeare’s play. As we discuss in our feast of interesting William Shakespeare facts, the phrase ‘to steal someone’s thunder’ originates in a production of the play from the early eighteenth century. In 1704, John Dennis invented a sound-effect for his play, Liberty Asserted, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre that year: a piece of sheet-metal used to simulate the sound of thunder. Liberty Asserted wasn’t a huge success and the play was taken off and replaced by that old favourite, Macbeth – complete with Dennis’ sheet-metal sound effects. Dennis, seated in the audience for the production of Macbeth, accused the theatre of stealing his thunder – and a new phrase came into being.
If you’re looking for a good edition of Shakespeare’s play, we’d recommend Macbeth: Third Series (The Arden Shakespeare). And if you enjoyed these Macbeth facts, check out our interesting facts about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, our trivia about King Lear, our great Cymbeline facts, and our facts about Romeo and Juliet.
Image: Poster for Thomas Keene Macbeth production, c. 1884 (author: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith.); Wikimedia Commons.