I am very excited to present to you a guest post from my friend S.A. Markham at What's It All About, Shakespeare?
After you read this post, do yourself a favor and read A Guide to Macbeth and An Introduction to the Bard of Avon -- they are great guides that help explain Shakespeare.
Why is Macbeth Shakespeare’s Most Popular Play?
‘Popular’ can, of course, mean many things. To say Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most popular play could mean that it is the best loved or the most well-known. Both of these assertions might be true, but it’s difficult to prove, unless we survey every person on the planet.
However, by ‘most popular’ what I mean is that Macbeth is the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays. This is not only a more measurable indicator of popularity, but also suggests that Macbeth still has top-notch box office draw!
Why Does the Tale of a 11th Century King Still Fascinate?
We tend to think of Macbeth is a four-hundred-year-old play, but let’s not forget that the actual subject matter of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is older still. So, what can possibly be relevant to modern life about this king murderer from the High Middle Ages?
Well, there are two reasons. First, Shakespeare didn’t exactly ‘stick to the script’ when writing Macbeth. In other words, Shakespeare’s version of the Scottish king is much more sensational than the actual events of his life. Second, there are some things that, quite simply, never go out of fashion.
The Timeless Themes of Macbeth
One of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts was that he had a knack for focusing his plays on subjects that were always, and will always be, part of the human condition. Yes, some of his plays address matters of politics, but because creative works were subject to strict censorship (and by ‘strict censorship’, I mean writers could get their heads chopped off), contemporary and potentially inflammatory facets had to be dealt with subtly and in passing.
Subsequently, the driving thrust of almost all of Shakespeare’s plays is the universal matters of the head and heart. For example, here are just a few of the timeless themes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
Divine right to rule
Each and every one is still just as relevant today as it was when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth…and just as relevant as when the real Macbeth was on the Scottish throne. We are just as fascinated by these topics as we have always been. And the mysteries of them are no closer to being solved.
Why is Macbeth so Popular with Theatre Companies and Audiences?
A production of Macbeth is staged somewhere in the world ever four hours. Chances are a Macbeth is being performed at this very moment. If it isn’t, wait a couple of hours and you’re sure to catch one. This makes it, by far and away, the most frequently performed play by anyone in the world…ever.
So, why? What is it that is so very special about Macbeth?
Well, partly it is simply because it’s Shakespeare, who is, by a long margin, the most popular playwright the world has ever known. But why Macbeth rather than Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or King Lear? I suspect there are a number of reasons. From a theatre company’s point of view, there are practical reasons to favour Macbeth: it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy; there are fewer lines to line; a relatively small cast is required.
However, there is clearly more to it than that, because companies wouldn’t keep putting it on if it wasn’t filling auditoriums. So, as well as the timeless attractions that I mentioned above, I think the appeal of Macbeth has to do with a few other things, including: fear - most people love a good horror; catharsis in the fall of a very human, but deeply flawed character; and a morbid propensity that exists in all of us for a good ol’ dose of blood ‘n’ guts.
All wrapped up together, this seems to make for a pretty irresistible package.
If you’d like to learn more about Macbeth: the characters, themes and appeal of the play, take a look at What’s It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. You can also find lots more about Shakespeare at What’s It All About, Shakespeare?
-- S. A. Markham