Is Shakespeare’s Macbeth based on a Phagwa legend?

Both Hiranya and Macbeth were over-ambitious kings who turned into tyrants. Each plotted the murder of someone once held dear and close to him. King Hiranya planned the murder of his own son, Prahalad. Similarly, General Macbeth murdered his king, Duncan, and usurped the throne
By Kumar Mahabir
Phagwa or Holi, the Festival of Harvest and Colour, has just been here! 

It is signalled by the bloom of the large poui trees visible for miles because of their distinct bright yellow and mild pink colour. The bloom of the poui foresees Phagwa and the heart of the dry season when watermelons are harvested and sugarcane was cut not too many years ago.

All over the world, Phagwa is celebrated with chowtal songs, music and dances. Added to the repertoire in Trinidad and Tobago are pichakaree songs on the theme of resistance and empowerment. A variety of watercolours (abeer) are mixed and sprayed on participants, with the corresponding coloured powder (gulaal) smeared on their clothes and bodies. Phagwa is also a time when Hindus, who have studied the legend of Hiranya-kashipu and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, meditate on the deep similarities between the two stories. The similarities are too peculiar and numerous to dismiss as sheer coincidence. 

Both Hiranya and Macbeth were over-ambitious kings who turned into tyrants. Each plotted the murder of someone once held dear and close to him. King Hiranya planned the murder of his own son, Prahalad. Similarly, General Macbeth murdered his king, Duncan, and usurped the throne. 

Hiranya and Macbeth were both granted a boon of invincibility by supernatural beings. Hiranya was promised by Lord Brahma that he would not be killed by man or animal; in the day or night; indoors or outside; and on earth or in space. Eventually, he was slain by the avatar, Narasimha, in the incarnation of a man with a lion’s head. Hiranya was defeated at twilight (when it is neither day nor night), on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor outside), and on the avatar’s lap (neither earth nor space). 

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the tyrant king was assured by mystical creatures that he would not be killed by anyone born of woman, and until the forest of Birnam moved to the hill of Dunsinane. Eventually, Macbeth, was slain by Macduff, who was born by a Caesarean section. He was killed when soldiers camouflaged themselves with branches from the forest of Dunsinane.

Frithjof Schuon, the respected Swiss philosopher of religion, also notes the striking similarities between the legends of Hiranya and Macbeth. In the book Logic and Transcendence (1975), Schuon uses the story of Hiranya to illustrate the point that a prophecy cannot be entirely accurate, and, therefore, should not be taken literally. Schuon discusses the sequence of prophecy, false assurance, pride and “divine ruse” in the legend of Hiranya, and concludes that “Shakespeare took this subject or doctrine for his theme in Macbeth ...”

In an article entitled “The Invisible Saraswattie” published in a peer-reviewed journal, Sasenarine Persaud (1996) contends that “… nowhere is the Indian influence more remarkable in Shakespeare than in one of his greatest tragedies, Macbeth.”

The story of Hiranya-kashipu is narrated in the Bhāgavata Purāna, (also known as Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, or Bhāgavata), one of the sacred literary texts of Hinduism. The celebrated text contains mainly stories of devotees and their attachment to divine incarnations, particularly Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu. Historical scholars generally agree that the Bhāgavata-Purāna was probably composed around 3100 BCE. 

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Macbeth (commonly called Macbeth) sometime between 1603 and 1607. The source of the story is controversial. It is commonly considered to be based on historical accounts drawn from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). However, the outline of Macbeth bears little relation to real events associated with the Scottish king and Scottish history.

It seems that Shakespeare drew the outlines of Macbeth from the legend of Hiranya. There are a few of his other plays that show Indian influence. One is King Lear, apparently based on the Indian folktale “The King and his Seven Daughters,” published in my book Caribbean Indian Folktales (2005). Both stories open with a king summoning all his daughters to question their loyalty and love for him. The youngest, honest daughter does not flatter him like the others do. In shock and anger, the king banishes her without her inheritance from the kingdom. It is a mistake the king realises only at the end when they reunite.

A third example is The Merchant of Venice derived perhaps from in the Lalita-Vistara, the biography of Buddha, written in 100 AD. The “pound of flesh” motif in Lalita-Vistara reappears in this Shakespeare's play.

In his article, “The Invisible Saraswattie,” Persaud provides details of trade between Europe and India dating from as early as 2000 BCE. Persaud developed the subject first introduced by A.L. Balsham in his monumental work, The Wonder that was India (1979). This contact between the two places influenced economic, political, social, cultural and literary life in both societies. Europe’s most dramatic contact with India was the Greek invasion, starting with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 326 BCE. The romance of India attracted Europeans to the fabled land for thousands of years. In 1492, it drove Christopher Columbus to set sail across the Atlantic to find a sea-route to the land of gold, silk, spices and stories.

—Dr Kumar Mahabir, Assistant Professor, School of Cognition, Learning and Education, University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT)

April 2011

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