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Malone has assigned to the year 1606 the composi.. tion of this great effort of our author's genius, which has been regarded as the medium of dexterous and graceful flattery to James I. a lineal descendant of Banquo, who is charged by the old historians with a participation in the murder of Duncan, although for very obvious reasons Shakspeare has here represented him as innocent of that cruel deed.
The original narrative of these events is contained in the Scotorum Historia of Hector Boethius, whence it was translated into the Scottish dialect by John Bellenden, and afterwards into English by Holinshed, from whose Chronicles Shakspeare closely followed it. The awful incantations and mysterious agency of the witches in this tragedy could not fail to be highly gratifying to the pedantic vanity of a monarch, whose prejudices in favor of the reality of witchcraft or enchantment are well known.
This play,' says Dr. Johnson, ‘is deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action; but it has no nice discriminations of character: the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions; and the course of the action necessarily determines the
conduct of the agents. The danger of ambition is well described ; and I know not whether it may not be said, in defence of some parts wbich now seen improbable, thai in Shakspeare's time it was necessary to warn credulity against vain and illusive predictions. The passions are directed to their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested ; and though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at bis fall.'
Duncan, king of Scotland, is rescued from the calamities of
foreign invasion and domestic treason by the valor of his generals Macbeth and Banquo, who, after the defeat of the eneny, are returning in triumph, when they are arrested in their progress by three witches, who salute Macbeth by the titles of Cawdor and king; at the same time foretelling that Banquo shall be the father of a race of kings, although he shall never be in possession of the crown. After the announcement of these prophecies, the witches vanish, and messengers arive from Duncan with the intelligence that the rebellious thane of Cawdor is condemned to death, and that his title is conferred on Macbeth, whose ambition is now panting for the fulfilment of the remainder of the prediction : overcome by the suggestions of his wife, he murders his sovereign in his sleep, during a visit with which he honors him. By the artful contrivances of the guilty pair, the king's two sons are suspected of parricide, and compelled to purchase their safety by flight. The sovereignty now devolves on Macbeth, who, fearful of the prophecy which assigns the crown to the posterity of Banquo, resolves to free himself of his apprehensions by the assassination both of him and his only son: the father is slain, but his son Fleance escapes under favor of the night. In the mean time, Malcolm, the eldest son of Duncan, resides in the English court, under the protection of Edward the Confessor, who raises a large army in his bebalf, which is strengthened by the arrival of Macduff, the thane of Fife, who, in consequence of Macbeth's jealousy, is compelled to quit his country: after his departure, the inhuman tyrant wreaks his vengeance on that nobleman's wife and children, all of whom he causes to be murdered. The two friends, with their English auxiliaries, now proceed towards Scotland, where they are joined by a number of discontented nobles. Macbeth is defeated and slain; his wretched wife puts a period to her existence; and Malcolm is restored to the throne of his ancestors.