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Much of Shakespeare's ideas come from other stories, histories, mythologies and legends. In the case of Macbeth, most critics point to Holingshed's Chronicles, a history, as the chief source. Macbeth is known to have been drafted in honor of and to entertain King James I of England, who was King James VI of Scotland. He is made out to be one of the many kings whose ancestor is Banquo, the honorable "not so happy but happier" character in the play. This is one reason why the play is known as "the Scottish play" since it is set in Scotland and also because of the supposed curse on any actor who mentions the play by its name inside the theater.
As ever in Shakespeare plays, there are a complex web of sources for Macbeth, which are constantly being examined and argued about by scholars.
The basic historical plot and many individual details come from the "Chronicles" of Raphael Holinshed, though Shakespeare fuses two events (Donwald's murder of King Duff and Macbeth's usurpation of the throne) which are seventy years apart together to make up the plotline of his play.
James IV of Scotland, who had recently been crowned James I of England (which is why Macbeth is a Jacobean and not an Elizabethan play - James, not Elizabeth, is the reigning monarch) is clearly also a huge influence on the play, and perhaps even its first audience.
The final, apparently unfulfilled prophecy of the witches, that Banquo's children will become kings, points to James himself, the current king, and supposed historically to be a descendant of the historical Banquo. Thus, we might suggest, James himself is almost a character within the play (much as Elizabeth I is thought to be referenced in one of Oberon's speeches in A Midsummer Night's Dream as the "imperial votaress").
Yet in a more general sense, James I is perhaps the play's biggest influence, as its dark world of witches, strangled babies and ravens owes much to James' obsession with all things occult and dark (he even wrote a book about witchcraft himself, titled Daemonologie).
Shakespeare also used a 1584 text by Reginald Scot, entitled Discovery of Witchcraft and a work by King James I called Daemonologie written in 1599. These two works influenced Shakespeare's accounts of the witches.
Two contemporary plays, The Queen's Arcadia (1605) by Samuel Daniel and Sophonisba (1606) by John Marston contributed a few lines to the play.
Some of the important sources for Shakespeare's "Macbeth" are as follows:
1. Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland." (1577) (2nd edn.1587) Which was based on
2. Hector Boece's "Scotorum Historiae" (1527).
The Shakespearean scholar Boswell-Stone has demonstrated that Shakespeare used the 2nd. edition as his main source for "Macbeth."
The materials for the witches and witchcraft were from:
1. Reginald Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft" and
2. King James I's "Daemonologie" (1599).
Macbeth's references to dogs and men in ActIII Sc.1 are most probably from Erasmus' memoirs "Colloquia" (1500).
His theories about the divine right of kings and kingship are most probably from King James I's "Law of Free Monarchies" (1598) and "Basilicon Doron" (1599).
The Latin dramatist Seneca's influence can be seen throughout the play especially in the depiction of Lady Macbeth's character.
What is important however is that Shakespeare even though he borrowed from so many sources was able to amalgmate them into a unique creation of art and make it completely his own masterpiece.
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