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The Core Curriculum

Macbeth in Historical Context

Relates to: 

The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I of England (c. 1575) (Wikimedia Commons)The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I of England (c. 1575) (Wikimedia Commons) The Tudor & Stuart Dynasties

Following the Reformation that swept through Europe and as a product of Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1527, England split from the Roman Catholic church.  This led to the eventual founding of the Church of England in 1536 with the king, and not the pope, at its head.  In the decades preceding Shakespeare’s birth, England underwent a prolonged period of religious and political tumult as the throne passed swiftly between Henry VIII’s three children—Edward, Mary and Elizabeth—swinging the country between Catholicism and Protestantism.  With each shift in allegiance came the threat of violence and persecution for those who were deemed disloyal and heretical by the ruling order.

In 1558, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, came to the throne following the death of her Catholic half-sister, Mary I.  Her 44-year reign, though not without ideological tensions and conflict, provided stability to the country, firmly established Protestantism as the state religion and consolidated England’s position as a political power in Europe.  This shift in England’s political fortunes was accompanied by a remarkable flowering of vernacular literary expression and an unprecedented increase in knowledge of the world beyond England. The Elizabethan era is considered one of the most prolific in the history of English literature, producing such poets and dramatists as Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare. 

As an unmarried queen, Elizabeth had to establish her authority in a patriarchal society and refute the widespread conviction that women were unfit to rule.  Opposition to her rule was countered by forwarding the notion of “the king’s two bodies.” As divinely ordained monarch, her person was divided between the mortal and fallible “body natural” and the immortal and infallible “body politic,” making her sex inconsequential to her ability to rule.  Possibly in order to retain her independence and political power, Elizabeth never married, skillfully prolonging marriage negotiations and playing one faction against the other.  This meant, however, that she died childless in 1603, bringing an end to the Tudor dynasty. 

The crown then passed to Elizabeth's appointed successor, James VI of Scotland, whose ascent to the English throne marked the beginning of the Stuart dynasty. During his reign, England continued to establish itself on the international stage, emerging as a colonial and trading power in the New World (North America) and in Asia.  Literary expression also continued to flourish and the 1611 King James Bible, the new English translation of the Bible, is considered to have had one of the most profound influences on the subsequent history of English literature. 

James was a prolific writer himself and much of his work centered around his political ambitions: the consolidation of absolute power in the monarchy and the union of the two kingdoms, England and Scotland, under the name of Great Britain. He did not entirely succeed on both fronts and his extravagant expenditure and continued squabbles with Parliament began a prolonged conflict between the monarchy and Parliament that would come to a head in the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the beheading of his son and successor Charles I in 1642. 

Shakespeare’s lifetime spanned the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, an era of relative stability that was sandwiched between decades of uncertainty and turmoil.  However, even during this period issues of succession and political allegiance, the threat of rebellion, the conflict between different sects of Christianity, questions of faith and morality and the perils of a rapidly shifting social landscape were all part of public discourse and were concerns that impacted and influenced the literature of the period.


London Theater & Shakespearean Tragedy

From the 1570s till their closure in 1642, theaters were a prominent part of early modern London landscape as the city grew and established itself as a center of commerce. The early modern theater industry was one that operated on the principle of profit, catering to different tastes and audiences from the royal courts to the crowded open-air venues in London’s Bankside.  It was also an industry that functioned through a process of collaboration, where plays were the property of companies rather than playwrights; the idea of an individual author as owner of his creative output was only just beginning to take shape.  Shakespeare was imbricated in this market as an actor, playwright and sharer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men under the patronage of James I), which meant that he was invested in the fortunes of the company beyond simply producing its dramatic material.

A reconstruction of the Globe theatre based on archeological and documentary evidence. (Wikimedia Commons)A reconstruction of the Globe theatre based on archeological and documentary evidence. (Wikimedia Commons) The theater, while extremely popular, faced a great deal of opposition both from city authorities and from religious anti-theatricalists.  For the former, the theaters attracted large crowds that were difficult to control, were sites for petty crime and, importantly, were identified as helping to spread the plague.  Thus, there were several long stretches of time during plague outbreaks when the theaters remained closed.  For the latter, theatrical spectacle, particularly the use of cross-dressing, was seen as inciting the members of the audience to sin. 

It is important to note that the drama of this period was primarily considered a commercial mode of entertainment and was only really fashioned as literature retrospectively.  Thus, while some plays were published, printed and circulated, their primary function was to be performed.  Some of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime in quarto form.  But his collected works were published only after his death in the First Folio (1623), which contained 36 plays divided into tragedies, comedies and histories.

On the early modern stage, on the other hand, genre divisions were far less rigid and the conventions and characteristics that defined different dramatic genres were in a state of flux.  While Shakespeare’s tragedies – such as MacbethKing LearHamlet and Othello – are now touchstones for the dramatic genre of tragedy and widely considered pinnacles of artistic achievement, he did not invent this genre.  Rather, Shakespeare developed this form over the course of his career, drawing on a number of different ancient, historical and contemporary sources and influences, ranging from Senecan tragedy to the morality and mystery play cycles of medieval England to the works of his peers, playwrights like Kyd and Marlowe.  Shakespearean tragedies intertwine the individual and the social, the psychological and the political and are an arena for the exploration of primal human desires and values—revenge, love, ambition, hatred and power.  Macbeth, the shortest of his tragedies, is emblematic of this description.


Macbeth & James I

Likely written in 1606, Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare’s most topical plays for a number of reasons.  As a dramatization of an episode of Scottish history, the play is clearly associated with the reigning monarch, James I, who was also the patron of Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men.  Specifically, the presence of Banquo in the play, a Scottish nobleman from whom James claimed descent serves to consolidate and reinforce James’s ancient and royal lineage.  The central thematic tropes in the play—the specter of treason, the psychological and social impact of regicide, the precariousness of power and the demonic potential of the supernatural—are all subjects that occupied the king.

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches. Théodore Chassériau - Musée d'Orsay (1854 ).  (Wikimedia Commons)Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches. Théodore Chassériau - Musée d'Orsay (1854 ). (Wikimedia Commons) James believed in the divine and supreme right of kingship, holding regicide to be a cardinal sin.  Simultaneously, he lived in fear of assassination and there were numerous attempts on his life. The most significant of these was the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and the failure of this plot to blow up Parliament and the royal family is still celebrated in England as Guy Fawkes’ Day.  The trial and execution of those involved in the plot occupied the public imagination, in particular that of accused conspirator Father Henry Garnet, the author of a Treatise on Equivocation (1598), who employed these principles in his defense.  Both the word and the concept of equivocation – as a form of linguistic ambiguity and evasion of the truth – runs through Macbeth.

James was also a strong believer in the diabolical powers of witchcraft. He was an author of a treatise on this threat, Daemonologie (1597), and had presided over the violent persecution of witches in Scotland.  Macbeth contains Shakespeare’s most extended engagement with the supernatural in the figures of the witches, the most prominent equivocators in the play.  The ambiguity surrounding the extent of their control over the fates of others and the implication that the divine right of kingship is susceptible to manipulation by the occult works through James’s obsession with this subject.

While it is clear that Macbeth engages with some of James’s personal preoccupations, it would be problematic to read the play as an unequivocal tribute to England’s new king.  Instead, it is the paradoxical and incongruous nature of the play—a hero who is also a villain, the competing dominance of individual agency and supernatural forces, and a pattern of linguistic and syntactical ambiguity—that makes it compelling and insures it against any such simplistic reading.


Written by Taarini Mookherjee, Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University


Works Consulted

The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus and Gordon McMullan.W W Norton & Company Incorporated, 2015

Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015