Today we celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Normally we celebrate the anniversary of a great person’s birth, of course, but Shakespeare was born in such obscurity that there is no record of his birthdate. However, it seems ironically fitting that we would celebrate the death of the bard, who so often ended his plays with a dozen dead bodies on the stage!
Macbeth is one of those carnage-laden tragedies, and many scholars consider it has greatest work. Its story is particularly poignant: Macbeth is a good man in the beginning, loyal to King Duncan and content to serve Scotland as a respected general, until he is overcome by ambition when three witches tell him that he is destined to become the king. Spurred on by his ambitious wife, Macbeth hastens the day of his coronation by conspiring with Lady Macbeth to murder the king in his sleep while Duncan is a guest in his home at Cawdor Castle. Macbeth also contrives to have his best friend and colleague, Banquo, murdered because those same witches have prophesied that Banquo will beget a line of Scottish kings, and that makes Banquo a potential rival as well. By the end of the play, Macbeth has killed (or tried to kill) everyone who might thwart him. He is finally killed in battle and beheaded by Macduff, a Scottish nobleman who has opposed Macbeth’s ascension to the throne. Such a tragic ending to someone who had shown such promise.
Shakespeare often reworked other source material for his plays; Romeo & Juliet, for example, is based on the Greek myth “Pyramus and Thisbe.” What was the source of Macbeth? I believe he was influenced by a similar story he found in the Bible: The conflict between David and Saul in the book of 1 Samuel. Both Saul and David are chosen by God and ordained by Samuel the prophet to become future kings of Israel. Like Macbeth, David is selected as Saul’s successor while King Saul is still alive. But unlike Macbeth, David does not hasten the day when he will become king—even though Saul, jealous of David’s popularity with the Israelites, makes several attempts to kill David by throwing a javelin at him, chasing him with his armies, and even sending him to the frontlines of battle with the order to bring back “one hundred foreskins of the Philistines” (which should have guaranteed David’s death). David returns victoriously, however, and the Israelites continue to cheer, “Saul has his thousands, but David has his ten thousands!”
At one point David and his compatriots come across Saul fast asleep in a cave, just as Duncan is asleep at Cawdor Castle on the fateful night of his death. David’s soldiers urge David to kill Saul, saying, “God has delivered him into your hands,” just as Lady Macbeth urges her husband to fulfill the prophecy of the witches. David refuses, however, proclaiming honorably, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.” Despite Saul’s treachery toward him, David remains determined to serve the king and waits patiently for God to decide when he should take Saul’s place on the throne.
David cuts off the bottom of Saul’s robe, and after leaving the cave he calls out to Saul, “I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not; know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee. Yet thou huntest my soul to take it. The Lord judge between me and thee, and the Lord avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.”
Humbled by David’s loyalty, Saul weeps as he admits, “Thou art more righteous than I, for thou hast rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded thee with evil.” Saul promises to make amends and trust David in the future, but his contrition is short-lived; soon he is back to throwing javelins at David and chasing him with his armies.
Other similarities with Macbeth appear in the story. The loyalty and friendship of Saul’s son Jonathan is mirrored in Macbeth’s good friend and fellow general, Banquo. Like Jonathan, who is the heir apparent to the throne, Banquo has been told by the witches that his descendants will become the kings of Scotland. But unlike Macbeth, who turns on Banquo, David and Jonathan remain true friends throughout the story. And a precursor to Shakespeare’s three “toiling witches” appears in the Bible story, when Saul consults the witch of En-dor for a prophecy.
Eventually Saul’s army is surrounded in a heated battle with the Philistines, and his sons are killed, along with most of his men. Certain that he will be tortured and mutilated if the Philistines capture him, Saul falls on his own sword and dies. Frightened by the death of the king, his armor bearer does the same. In a ghastly scene worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, “Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.” When the Philistines find Saul’s body among the fallen, they cut off his head and parade it around the countryside to mock the great king of Israel, just as Macduff cuts off the head of Macbeth.
Shakespeare seems to have been so moved by this story and impressed by David’s humility and patience that he patterned Macbeth on both characters, David as the heroic foil and Saul as the tainted king. He reimagined the story however, exploring how a less noble person might react to knowing what his future holds. His Macbeth would be overcome by ambition and lust for power, taking the fulfillment of the prophecy into his own hands instead of waiting patiently for it to play out.
David, too, would soon forget the lesson that was so dearly won, for as king he would succumb to lust and then send his own loyal general, Uriah, to the front lines to be killed in battle in order to hide the paternity of the baby Bathsheba carried—David’s own baby. As a result of that decision, the prophet Nathan told David, “the sword shall never depart from thine house,” and that is how Macbeth ends too.
Unlike Macbeth, who sank deeper and deeper into evil after the murder of Duncan, David would spend the rest of his life drawing closer to God and seeking forgiveness for his sins. His psalms bear testimony of the sincerity of his repentance and the depth of his sorrow. He and Bathsheba repented together, married, and produced several children, including one whom they named Nathan in honor of the prophet who helped them with their repentance. Another they named Solomon, and this son would be a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ.
Rest in Peace Will!
You can read more about David, Bathsheba, and the maternal ancestors of Jesus Christ in Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ, by Jo Ann Skousen, available at Costco, amazon.com and selected bookstores.