AP Literature and Composition
November 14, 2006
Biblical influences in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
During Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616), few books were readily available to the general population. The Bible in particular pervaded the literary scene during that time. Growing up in England, a Christian nation, it is probable that young Shakespeare’s first exposure to the written word was The Bible. Rather than the modern King James Bible, Shakespeare was more likely acquainted with the Geneva Bible of 1582 (Shaheen 11). Regardless of the version, Shakespeare’s work proves he was inarguably familiar with Bible stories and Christian themes. In his tragedy, Macbeth, Shakespeare affirms his knowledge through comparisons to Bible stories, references to specific Biblical passages quoted almost verbatim, and Christian ideas such as belief in divine judgment and the dichotomy between good and evil.
Shakespeare’s primary source of inspiration for Macbeth came from Holinshed’s Chronicles; however, he altered history and many aspects of the story fictionalized to gain the interest and favor of King James. Shakespeare’s secondary source, inspiring many details of the tragedy, was the Christian Bible. Adding an interesting human element to Macbeth was the interaction between Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth. Despite, and perhaps because of his genius, Shakespeare did not create his characters and their interactions without drawing from an outside source, notably the Bible. One of the similarities between these works can be traced from Macbeth and his “fiendlike” lady back to Ahab and Jezebel. In the book of Kings, Ahab desires the vineyard of Naboth. At the urging of his wife, Jezebel, the two frame Naboth, having him stoned to death in order to seize his lands. In comparison, Macbeth desires the throne of Scotland. Just as Jezebel urged Ahab, Lady Macbeth schemes and encourages a treasonous plot to allow her husband to assume the power he craves (Burgess 87-88). Following the acquisition of their desired ends, (Ahab’s vineyards of Naboth, and Macbeth’s crown of Scotland), both men are haunted by similar prophetic truths. The Lord told Elijah to warn Ahab that “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood… The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel”(1 Kings 22:19, 23). Macbeth realizes himself that “…blood will have blood./Stones have been known to speak./Augurs and understood relations have…/Brought forth…The secret’st man of blood” (3.4.125). Both men are doomed to pay for their misdeeds from the time they are committed, and they realize their eventual demise. Ahab is killed and left for “the dogs” as Naboth was, and Macbeth is aware that the murders of Duncan and Banquo will only lead to more bloodshed, ending with his own. In the action following both stories remain true to the foreshadowing. Ahab is betrayed in battle, and Macbeth is murdered by his own Scotsmen. As Jezebel, once a strong female figure, was hurled from her chamber window; Lady Macbeth who also began her story as a strong influence over Macbeth ends her own life by hurling herself from a window (Burgess 90).
In addition to mirroring story lines and characterizations, Shakespeare also references more individualized ideas such as treason, reflected by the use of similarly worded lines to those in the Bible. “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere/ well/ It were done quickly.” (1.7.1-2) said Macbeth while contemplating the murder of Duncan, while “That thou doest, do quickely” (John 13:27) was Jesus’ warning to Judas during the Last Supper (Shaheen 161). Though the story of the betrayals of King Duncan and Jesus Christ cannot be compared in their entirety, the comparable of the wording of these passages indicates that Shakespeare was making a Biblical reference. Macbeth follows through in his actions against Duncan, killing him in his sleep. Judas also betrayed Jesus, having him arrested by Roman soldiers and crucified (Bible Gateway). Directly following their acts of treason, both Macbeth and Judas felt extreme sense of guilt; Judas hanged himself while Macbeth worried that he “…had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in [his] throat” (2.2.33-34). In the 1500s-1600s, much of Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with the Bible and would have picked up the relationship between these lines, immediately confirming the treachery about to unfold in Macbeth.
After his vision of Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene, Macbeth acknowledges his doom, “It will have blood. They say blood will have/ blood.” (3.4.124). As he has drawn the blood of innocent men, Duncan and Banquo, the only resolution can be the spilling of more blood and eventually his own. The idea that one will be punished for murder by other men indirectly through divine intervention was introduced in the book of Genesis when God told Noah, “Whoso sheadeth mans blood, by man shal his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6) (Shaheen 167).
Shakespeare sometimes employs other Biblical references not verbatim, but passages in which the ideas and implications are analogous. “Like figtrees with the first ripe figs: for if they be shaken, they fall into the mouth of the eater” (Nahum 3:12) prophesizes the downfall of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, as punishment for the treachery, superstition, and injustice its inhabitants practiced. The city was to be “shaken” and the city’s ill to fall into “the mouth of the eater” (Shaheen 171). Treachery, superstition and injustice are trespasses Macbeth is guilty of; treachery in the betrayal of his king, superstition in his belief of the “weird sisters” and injustice shown by unfair treatment of his subjects. At the conclusion of act four, Malcolm proclaims, “Our power is ready/…Macbeth/Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above/Put on their instruments” (4.3.237-38). Rather than Nineveh, Macbeth’s regime needed to be “shaken” or toppled and instead of falling into “the mouth of the eater” Macbeth must face divine providence or the “powers above.”
The use of powerful symbolism and clear imagery sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights. His symbols and images, however, may have been borrowed from other sources, namely the Bible to evoke a strong reaction in his Bible-literate audience. After of the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth is literally covered with blood and believes that “… my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/making the green one red” (2.2.61-63). His wife, who had encouraged him to commit the act, assured him that “A little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.67). The symbolism of being soiled with blood is used throughout the tragedy. Lady Macbeth eventually feeling her own guilt in act five, laments “Out, damned spot! Out, I say…/ Yet who would have thought the old/man to have had so much blood in him?” (5.1.39-45). The symbolism used here is not unique to Macbeth. The use of the hand-washing metaphor is also present in the Bible. Following the sentencing of Jesus to be crucified, Pontius Pilate “…tooke water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the bloud of this iust man.” (Matthew 27:24). Both Pilate and Macbeth identify the guilt of a sin with the idea of being soiled or having “blood” on their hands (Shaheen 163), and purge themselves of responsibility with the “washing of hands.”
Even where distinct line references cannot be paralleled between Macbeth and The Bible, there are myriad passages in which the playwright alludes to the Christian ideals of the “immortal soul” and divine judgment. In Macbeth these ideas weigh heavily upon the title character. In his first soliloquy, Macbeth bewails the consequences, both on Earth and in the afterlife, of murdering the king, “…this even handed justice/Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/…his [Duncan’s] virtues/Will plead like angels trumpet tongued against/The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.10-20); after seeing the body of the murdered king, MacDuff cries “Up, up, and see/The great doom’s image! Malcolm! Banquo!/ As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites (2.3.77-79) (Shaheen 165); and in retrospect, Macbeth recognized, “…mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man” (3.1.68-69) (Noble 234), or that his immortal soul was given to the Devil. Before even committing the sinful deed, Macbeth, a Christian man, is aware that his immortal soul will be damned for murdering Duncan, a good and just king. Macduff’s cry evokes the idea of judgment day when, “All that are in the graues, shal heare his voice. And they shal come foorth” (John 5:28-29) (Shaheen 165), and serves as an indirect warning to Macbeth to atone for what he’s done. It is also an assurance to the audience that Macbeth will pay for his sins and will not escape “judgment” on earth, or, more importantly in the afterlife.
In every great story a battle rages between the forces of “good” and “evil.” No two stories exemplify this conflict better than The Bible and Macbeth. In The Bible, God and Satan are in opposition, God in Heaven, Satan in Hell with earth as their battlefield and all the people, God’s holy disciples and Satan’s conniving minions, pawns of their will. In Macbeth, Shakespeare aligns his characters with these forces in a battle of good and evil over the crown of Scotland. Macbeth is identified with darkness, and unclean animals such as “wolves.” His home, Iverness, is likened to hell, the porter calling himself, “the porter of Hell gate” asking “Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebeb?” (2.3.2-4). In contrast, Macduff the consummate “good guy” is identified with clean animals, “pretty chickens” and, after learning of his family’s murder at the conclusion of act four, makes reference to “heaven” several times as if to ally himself with God against Macbeth, a “hellkite”, whose name “The Devil himself could not pronounce a title/More hateful” (5.7.10-12). The use of Biblical figures aligned with characters in Macbeth serves to clarify the characters’ motives and intentions, effectively demonstrating how thematic references rather than direct “quotations” from an old, well known sources such as The Bible, can be used to convey an idea in another story like Macbeth.
In his great tragedy, Macbeth, Shakespeare effectively uses Biblical influences to convey ideas that can be paralleled with action and ideas in the play. Shakespeare’s 16-17th century audience would have been well acquainted with the Bible. Their understanding of his references to the Bible would have helped them better understand the story of Macbeth. Comparisons to Bible stories such as Ahab and Jezebel; references to specific Biblical passages from the books of John, Genesis, Nahum and Matthew, and Christian ideas, contribute to the comprehension of themes in Macbeth such as spousal influence, betrayal, conscience, divine judgment and the forces of good and evil.
Bible Gateway.com. Gospel Communications International. Nov. 11, 2006.
Burgess, William. The Bible in Shakespeare. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968.
Noble, Richmond. Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge. New York, Octagon Books, 1970.
Shaheen, Naseeb. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (From the handout)