Why “Macbeth”?

Begin with a king (James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots) beset by terrors and fascinated by “the black arts.”

Add a “greeting ceremony” performed during this same king’s visit to St. John’s College, one that featured “three sibyls stepping forward as if from a wood.”

Throw in an accomplished and ambitious playwright.

Mix them together, and what do you get?

For the past two weeks, self has lived in the world of Stephen Greenblatt’s immensely moving Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. On p. 351, Greenblatt writes: “Shakespeare was a professional risk taker. He wrote under pressure — judging from its unusual brevity, Macbeth was composed in a very short time — and he went where his imagination took him. If the cheerful sibyls of St. John’s became the weird sisters dancing around a cauldron bubbling with hideous contents . . . then Shakespeare was obliged to pursue the course. The alternative was to write the kind of play that would put James to sleep and send the thrill-seeking crowds to rival theatres.”

Following, the chant of the “weird sisters”:

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravined salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digged i’ th’ dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Slivered in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-delivered by a drab

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