The Context of Macbeth
Who was Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare was born in 1564, and is one of the most famous playwrights in all of English Literature. Growing up, he belonged to a middle class family (his father was a respectable glove maker), but Shakespeare himself wanted something a little different. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway and then in 1590 left her and their three children behind to become an actor in London. He quickly rose to prominence and was a favourite of Elizabeth 1st. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Shakespeare began to write instead for her successor, James 1st, for whom Macbeth, this play, was written.
When Was it Written?
Macbeth was written in 1606 for James I, three years after Elizabeth's death. James I was having a hard time of things. On the one hand, he was a Scottish monarch in England, which posed its own problems. On the other, England at the time was beset by high taxation, debts from the recent war in Ireland, and the aftermath of religious persecution which had set Catholics and Anglicans against each other. In the first year of his reign alone, James I survived two plots against himself (the Bye Plot and the Main Plot). In 1605, the Gunpowder Plot (which we now celebrate on Guy Fawkes Night) was thwarted before it could blow up Parliament of the evening of the state of opening of James’ second session there. This play attempts to praise James I's ancestry while legitimising his place on the throne. Regicide may then have been paramount in James I’s mind at the time Shakespeare was writing Macbeth.
Why Was It Written?
Written in this atmosphere of political turmoil, it is then perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare chose to write a play about the danger of killing Kings, both for one’s mortal and spiritual self. In Shakespeare’s day, there was a belief in The Chain of Being - people shouldn't try to better their social status and should accept their place in society. Included in this is the belief in Divine Right, the belief that the monarch is directly appointed by God. Usurping a King would have been a terrible crime, spiritually and on an earthly level. By showing the consequences of Macbeth’s regicide, Shakespeare dramatizes this for the audience, helping James I restore calm after the many plots against him.
Secondly, Macbeth flatters James I, who believed his distant ancestor was Banquo himself. By portraying Banquo as the rightful father of a line of kings, as a good and righteous man, Shakespeare suggests that James I also has these qualities.
Furthermore, it is not only James I himself who is flattered in the play. Do you remember in Act IV, where King Edward of England is said to be healing people with his touch? This was a real power which the King of England was supposed to have, ‘The Royal Touch’. Ironically, the Protestant James I wanted to stop the tradition of doing this, as he saw it as a Catholic belief. Yet nevertheless throughout his reign he found himself having to touch a large number of people to heal them – in 1633 he touched 100 people at Holyrood Palace in a mass healing!
Macbeth also focuses on interests very close to James I’s heart. Firstly, the need to be a good king. James I wrote two books in his life on kingship, one called the Basilikon Doron and the other The True Law of Free Monarchies. The first of these establishes the aforementioned divine right of kings. The second outlines an ideal king as someone who does his duty to God and the country, and someone with great personal integrity. We might see the Kingly qualities which James I believed in as embodied first in Duncan, and later in Malcolm.
James I, among many people of his time also held strong supernatural beliefs, such as belief in auguries (birds which predict future), and belief in witches. James I actually wrote a book called Daemonologie and was directly involved in witch trials - women were regular burnt as witches, who were believed to be servants of the devil. Notably in the North Berwick witch trials, which James attended, several women were accused of using spells to try and sink his ship – compare this with the actions of the witches against the ‘pilot’s wife’!
Who Was Macbeth?
Parts of Macbeth have a literal historical basis - Macbeth was a real King of Scotland of whom Shakespeare had read in Holinshed’s Chronicles. He changed the story a bit, however – in the Chronicles, Macbeth is a man fighting to help his kingdom despite the failures of King Duncan, and he and Banquo murder the King together before being overthrown by Malcolm and Macduff. Although the story of Macbeth had been told by a number of people before Shakespeare, he was also the first to have Duncan murdered in Macbeth’s own castle, making Macbeth seem even worse as he is violating the sacred laws of hospitality!