Macbeth hangs miscreants. Woodcut, 1577. Holinshed's Chronicle.

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Shakespeare’s primary history source for his play

 “The Tragedy of Macbeth”.

with a woodcut illustration of an execution.

Shakespeare's primary source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed's “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland”, first published in 1577. The outlines and considerable detail of Shakespeare's story are derived from Holinshed's account of Kings Duncan and Macbeth. 

Holinshed was Shakespeare's favourite and most trusted source and he used it for more than a third of his plays, including Macbeth, King Lear, Cymbeline and the English history plays such as Richard III. At times Shakespeare followed the text of the Chronicles closely, at other times using it as an inspiration for plot details or deviating entirely from its account, preferring other sources or his own imagination. 

Recto: Text in English printed in two columns in a blackletter font on watermarked laid paper. Heading “The Historie of Scotlande” and marginal notes printed in a Roman font. A woodcut illustration depicts “theeves, barrettours & other oppressors of the innocent people” being “trussed up in halters on gibets”. Macbeth is shown at the left of the woodcut as the mounted horseman holding a sword. 

Verso: As Recto, text only.

Printer: Henry Bynneman, London.

Date:  1577

Content: A section of the text on Recto, beginning at the second paragraph reads:

“Makbeth after the departure thus of Duncanes sonnes used great liberalitie towardes the nobles of the realme, thereby to winne their favour, and when he saw that no man went about to trouble him, he set his whole intention to maintayne justice, and to punishe all enormities and abuses, whiche he had chaunced through the feeble and slouthfull administration of Duncan…”.

Passages on Verso include the development of Macbeth’s guilty conscience (on which much of the play turns), and Macbeth’s plans to slay Banquo and his son Fleance.

Condition: This leaf is in fair antiquarian condition. The margins have been trimmed with the loss of a few letters of the marginal notes and some of the heading and pagination.. There is age-related surface marking and edge browning Nevertheless, the text is complete and legible and the woodcut is clear. The leaf is unconditionally guaranteed genuine.

Notes: In 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne, becoming James I of England. The king became a patron of the playwright's acting company. London was alive with an interest in all things Scottish, and Shakespeare turned to Scottish history for material. 

He wrote the final version of "The Tragedie of Macbeth" during the spring of 1606. Holinshed’s narrative of witches, prophesy, treason, execution and murder were topics that fascinated King James to the point of obsession. Shakespeare completed the play in time for a special royal performance at Hampton Court that same summer.

A second revised edition of The Chronicles was published in 1587 without the woodcut illustrations. 

Size:  Leaf: approx. 275x175 mm.

Item No: PSE097b

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