Norbrook, David. "Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography."
Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England. Ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 78-116.

Thesis: One of the things that is most frequently said about Macbeth is that it was written to flatter King James, who claimed descent from Banquo. Coupled with this idea is the claim that the play supports King James' political views, which were founded on the idea that kingship and primogeniture were part of the divinely-sanctioned natural order. At the beginning of the essay it appears that Norbrook's purpose is to show that Shakespeare didn't necessarily share these views.

Norbrook points out that King James' political views weren't the only ones that Shakespeare could have known about, and a great deal of his essay is devoted to a review of the development of Scottish historiography up to Shakespeare's time. Norbrook lays particular emphasis on the views of George Buchanan, who published a history of Scotland in 1582. "At the basis of Buchanan's thought is a critical rationalism that is hostile to all forms of unreasoning submission to traditional institutions and hierarchies" (91). One example of Buchanan's critical rationalism is his argument that primogeniture subjected the welfare of the state to the vagaries of Fortune--the king might have no children, or only daughters, or only children unfit to be monarchs.

Knowing Buchanan's thought is important, says Norbrook, because we can see "in Macbeth a reaction against the rationalism of a Buchanan" (99). Norbrook supports his viewpoint "by consideration of his [Shakespeare's] handling of political action in relation to time, of patriarchal order, and of language and dramatic unity" (99). For a taste of Norbrook's commentary, here's a passage in which he comments on the scene in which the Ghost of Banquo holds a mirror which shows his kingly descendants:

[Banquo's] pride in his dynasty is presented as natural and commendable. This emphasis contrasts sharply with Buchanan's constant condemnation of those who confuse public with private concerns. . . . Shakespeare invents the scene of the murder of Lady Macduff and her son in order to bring home the "natural" links between the public and the private. Macbeth's rule strikes against the basis of the family. It is appropirate that Macduff, rather than Malcolm, should kill Macbeth: crimes against the family and against the state are avenged in a joint triumph.  (104)

Evaluation: Norbrook is a careful thinker, but his argument seems to me to be unnecessarily elaborate. Instead of pointing out ways in which Shakespeare reflects traditional ideas about politics in Macbeth, Norbrook shows how Shakespeare reacts against non-traditional ideas.

Also, there's not much new in Norbrook's commentaries on the themes of time and order in Macbeth.

Bottom Line: Deep scholarship which makes a positive out of a double negative.