First Known Performance of Macbeth
Shakespeare was a great playwright, but he also had an eye to the main chance. During the reign of Elizabeth I certain history plays flattered the Tudors – it’s partly thanks to him we have our traditional view of Richard III as evil and malformed for example. When Elizabeth was succeeded on the English throne by James I in 1603 a new royal house meant new opportunities - and dangers.
Soon the Bard of Avon had written Macbeth , in which James’ supposed Stuart ancestor Banquo is portrayed rather sympathetically; the new monarch’s fascination with witchcraft (he published a book on the subject) also pandered to in the inclusion of the three witches. A third aspect of the piece may likewise indicate it was customised for James – it is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, the king known to have no appetite for longer dramas.
The first known performance was on August 7 1606 for James and his guest at Hampton Court , his brother-in-law King Christian IV of Denmark. Staged in the Great Hall there it must have been a particularly nervy airing for the play, a situation exacerbated by the sudden illness of boy-actor Hal Berridge, due to play Lady Macbeth. Legend has it Shakespeare had to fill that role himself. The subsequent death of Berridge is one of many tragic events linked with the piece that have led to the idea it is cursed: actors refuse to even name it other than when reciting lines, using such euphemisms as The Scottish Play instead.
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