Shakespeare and Macbeth

October 4, 6, 10, 12, 2012, at 8 pm
Matinée October 14 at 2:30 pm

University of Victoria Resources

Learn more about Macbeth, Shakespeare, and Music

After the success of The World of Mary's Wedding: Reminiscences of World War I last year, the University of Victoria Libraries is excited to continue the collaboration with Pacific Opera Victoria. This year, we're mounting a smaller exhibit of selected scores, editions, and adaptations of Macbeth.

19th Century Sheet Music showing one of the Witches' Songs by Matthew Locke. Click on thumbnail to see larger image.Macbeth has a long history of incidental music and operatic adaptations, beginning with Sir William Davenant's 1664 Restoration staging with dances, musical numbers, and flying witches. The organist and composer Matthew Locke is thought to have written the witches' songs, which continued to be performed and printed well into the nineteenth century. We draw on the resources of the Rare Book collection, the Shakespeare Music Project fonds, the UVic Archives, and the private collections of faculty and friends to showcase the textual and performance history of Macbeth and its music.

The exhibit opens October 4 and runs until mid-November.
In the Special Collections and Archives Reading Room
at the UVic Libraries (Room A005, Mearns Centre for Learning)
Hours are Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.

To learn more about Macbeth in performance, we invite you to visit the Internet Shakespeare Editions. The University of Victoria Libraries has recently entered into a partnership with the ISE, an on-line library of the best digital editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems. Michael Best, Coordinating Editor and Professor Emeritus in the Department of English, launched this internationally recognized digital Shakespeare project on the web in 1996. An early adopter of humanities computing technologies, Michael recognized the potential of the internet as a virtual library, archive, publishing platform, and teaching tool.

From the Macbeth splash page, you can embark on a journey through old books, performances, and history. Click on the links under "Facsimiles" to experience Macbeth in its seventeenth-century printed form. We have digitized the first four folios of Shakespeare's works, from 1623, 1632, 1664, and 1685 respectively. Under "Texts of this edition," you'll find an old-spelling transcription of the First Folio; you can read by page, scene, or complete work. Click on any of the items under "Performances" to go to the catalogue entry for one of the 145 different productions of Macbeth currently listed in our ever-expanding Performance Database. Once you are in this database, clicking on names and titles will allow you to explore by actor, company, role, and country. Under "Performance Materials," you can browse posters, programs, prompt books, photographs, costume designs, and other artefacts that we have collected in our virtual archive. Search by keyword in the "Life and Times" to find contextual information on the witches, on husbandry, and on Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth's story.

Although we don't yet have a modern edition of Macbeth on our site, we do have modern editions of As You Like It, Julius Caesar, 1 Henry IV, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and a number of other plays. All of the plays are being edited by the best Shakespeare scholars in the world. We aim to provide the best in critical commentary and helpful annotations.

Our site is open source (i.e., access is free) and works well on mobile devices. We're really proud of the fact that community members and students from around the world can read Shakespeare's words – and scholarship about Shakespeare's words and world. All you need is an internet connection.

So if you want to brush up on Verdi's source material before you head to the Royal Theatre, fire up your web browser. You could even check a Shakespeare line during intermission. You'll have your phone off during the show, of course!

Janelle Jenstad, Associate Professor, Dept. of English
Assistant Coordinating Editor, Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare's Play: Background and Sources

The source for Giuseppe Verdi's opera Macbeth is Shakespeare's great play, a roiling brew of dark magic, murder, and madness. Here we meet the archetypal power couple, who are spurred on by witches' prophecies and their own ruthless ambition to kill and kill again. But as conscience prowls around the edges of sanity and impossible omens come true, their hold on power unravels.

Written around 1606, Macbeth is absolutely central to our literary heritage – shorthand for savage ambition, guilt, and twisted prophecy. The poetry is so deeply entangled in popular culture that it is practically part of our DNA. We all know bits of it:

  • The malign glee of the witches:
    Double, double toil and trouble, Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
  • Their announcement of Macbeth's arrival:
    By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.
  • Macbeth's hallucinatory trajectory to murder:
    Is this a dagger which I see before me?
  • His lady, unhinged by the horror of what she has done, her ruthless clarity of purpose turned inside out:
    Out, damned spot! Out, I say! ...
    who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

We can marvel at this creation – but let's spare a moment to pity the real Macbeth, who should be languishing in comfortable obscurity as just another medieval Scottish king. Instead, his reputation (along with that of his wife) was trashed for posterity by a playwright who was currying favour with a royal patron.

That royal patron was James I of England, aka James VI of Scotland (we met his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in Pacific Opera Victoria's last operatic outing, Maria Stuarda). King James loved the arts, and shortly after ascending the throne in 1603, he granted a royal patent to Shakespeare's acting troupe. Shakespeare was happy to return the favour with a little flattery.

The witches were sure to go over well with King James. Garry Wills points out in his book Verdi's Shakespeare

Shakespeare could count on his audience's absolute belief in witches. His government was still hanging them, and King James had personally interrogated witches, passed laws against them, and written a treatise on them (Daemonologie).

Shakespeare took the story of Macbeth (witches and all) from one of his favourite sources, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, (commonly known as Holinshed's Chronicles ), a massive history of Great Britain published in 1587. Holinshed in turn used as his source an earlier work Scotorum Historiae (1526-27) by Hector Boece.

Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches

Above: Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches, a woodcut from the Holinshed Chronicles

Both Boece and Holinshed portray Banquo as an accomplice in Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. Scholars today believe Banquo was invented by Boece, but at the time he was considered the founder of the Stuart dynasy; as King James fancied himself a direct descendant of Banquo, it would never do for him to be shown as an assassin. Shakespeare therefore made Banquo a voice of nobility and conscience. He even had the witches show Macbeth a vision of Banquo's descendants – a line of eight kings that culminated in a ruler with "twofold balls and treble scepters" – a reference to King James who was crowned twice – as King of Scotland and then as King of England (there are two scepters for the English crown). Verdi did not feel the need to keep this little detail in the opera.

The play tinkered with history in other respects. Shakespeare's wise old King Duncan was actually killed in battle in 1040 at the age of 39, after a mere six years of apparently incompetent rule. Duncan's first cousin, the real Macbeth, had a legitimate claim to the throne. By defeating Duncan and seizing power, Macbeth was following established tradition; he was no more and no less brutal than any other ruler of the time.

He wasn't such a bad king either. Considered wise and strong, he presided over a land that was surprisingly prosperous and peaceful for that bloodthirsty era. He could even afford to leave his kingdom for several months to make a pilgrimage to Rome – a sure sign, say historians, of a stable country and effective leadership.

The action that in the play hurtles through a span of weeks or months actually covered 17 years, for Macbeth was ruler of Scotland from 1040 to 1057.

But historical inaccuracy rarely fazes playwrights – or opera composers. A byword for ruthless ambition, Macbeth and his Lady between them are among Shakespeare's most notorious villains – right up there with Richard III, who was similarly maligned by the Bard.

Now, a millennium after Macbeth's death, his fictional doppelgänger still holds sway – and nothing is likely to wash this stain from his reputation!

Maureen Woodall



Explore Macbeth