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The Context of Macbeth

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the Jacobean era, a time when King James I ruled.

During this time, there were uncertainties in the political climate, and a strong interest in the supernatural and witchcraft. These aspects heavily influenced the themes and characters in the play.

Historical Context

The tragedy Macbeth was written around the year 1606, during a period closely associated with the reign of King James I of Scotland. King James I was not only the ruling monarch, he also financially supported Shakespeare’s performing group, known as the King’s Men.

The narrative of the play explores concerns that were very real and significant for King James I. For example, it explores the following complex themes:

  • The potential repercussions of treason
  • The deep mental distress and conflict that a person experiences when they are involved in the killing of a king
  • The fragile nature of power
  • The consequences of engaging with supernatural forces

These themes mirror the fears and anxieties that plagued King James I during his reign. King James I was a strong believer in the divine right of kings, a doctrine that considered the act of killing a king an immense and unforgivable sin.

In the infamous 1605 Gunpowder Plot, an assassination attempt was made on King James I, but he narrowly escaped. As a result, fears of betrayal and conspiracy were heightened. The trial that followed and the public execution of those deemed responsible captivated the public.

People realised that making clear, direct statements could potentially implicate someone in treason or other crimes, possibly leading to their execution. Therefore, many people were encouraged to use vague language to avoid revealing the truth. This notion is repeatedly emphasised throughout the narrative of Macbeth. For example:

  • Early in the play, King Duncan comments on how difficult it is to read someone’s true intentions from their face, referring to the original Thane of Cawdor who betrayed him.
  • Lady Macbeth advises Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t.” Here she is explicitly encouraging Macbeth to hide his murderous intentions under a mask of innocence.

Cultural Context

The play explores the cultural fascination with witchcraft and other supernatural elements during this era. King James I had a deep-seated belief in the sinister and destructive capabilities of witchcraft. This conviction even motivated him to write a detailed analysis on the subject, called “Daemonologie,” in 1597.

His belief in the existence and danger of witches manifested through his active participation in witch trials in Scotland. There, he supported the harsh punishment of those accused.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare delves deeper than ever before into the supernatural realm, mainly through the introduction and development of the witch characters. These entities not only represent the fears and fascinations of the time but also question how much control individuals have over their own destinies.

They even suggest that the supposedly divine right to becoming king could potentially be swayed or altered by supernatural forces. These aspects in the play mirror King James I’s intense focus and fears regarding witchcraft and the supernatural during his reign.

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