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Historical Context in Macbeth

Macbeth as Tribute to the King: Shakespeare wrote a number of historical plays about royal characters. Macbeth was largely written in tribute to King James I. Prior to serving as King of England, James I had served as King of Scotland. He took the throne in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir. Though James I was widely accepted as the new king, he was not as charismatic or endearing as the beloved queen. As the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, a woman who had been beheaded when she tried to overthrow Elizabeth’s Protestant throne, James suffered more political insecurity than his predecessor.

In Macbeth, the witches predict that Banquo will have a long line of successors to the throne was included to flatter the king. The Stewart kings, such as James I, claimed to be descendents of Banquo, even though it is inconclusive whether or not Banquo was a real person.

In the Holinshed Chronicles, from which Shakespeare got his source material, Banquo was a ruthless collaborator who helped Macbeth kill Duncan and take the throne. However, as a tribute to King James I, Shakespeare changed the character to be wise, noble, and morally righteous. This move would have endeared Shakespeare with his new king.

The Real Macbeth: Macbeth’s character refers to the 11th King of Scotland, named Mac Bethad mac Findláich. He ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057 after murdering King Duncan. However, the real Duncan was a weak man about the same age as Macbeth. He was not popular or widely respected like the king in the play. Murdering for power was also not uncommon in Scotland in those times. Of the fourteen kings who ruled over Scotland between 943 and 1097, ten were killed in attempts to seize power. Shakespeare’s themes and characterizations within this play can then be read as a reflection of his own time and political instabilities rather than a historically accurate account of Scottish history.

Historical Context Examples in Macbeth:

Act I - Scene I

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"Graymalkin..."   (Act I - Scene I)

We later learn that this is the first witch's familiar, an evil-spirit servant in the form of a cat. The word itself is likely an affectionate name for a gray cat. It was common for witches and other beings with magical power to have small animals that also had powers as companions.

"When shall we three meet again..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Some scholars argue that the witches have nothing important to communicate in this scene and that Shakespeare was instead using them as an attention-grabber. Theater audiences in his time were notoriously rowdy, especially among those who stood in the pit. This short scene is intended to attract attention, interest, and curiosity and evoke silence so that the dialogue can be heard.

"Enter three Witches..."   (Act I - Scene I)

It should be remembered that "witches" were not just a feature of artistic works. In Shakespeare's time, witchcraft and witches were a part of the real world, with people being accused of (and punished for) activity in the occult. Women in particular were thought to be more likely to be in touch with the metaphysical world and therefore more likely to come under suspicion.

"Thane..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In Scotland, thanes were feudal lords and nobleman who traditionally held lands and performed military service for the king. The title of thane is considered an honor because it symbolizes the closeness the bearer has with the king.

"That very frankly he confess'd his treasons, Implored your highness’ pardon, and set forth A deep repentance. Nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it;..."   (Act I - Scene IV)

Malcolm, Duncan's son, reports on the execution. At the time Macbeth was written, prisoners who confessed to their crimes and pledged loyalty to the king at the last minute were sometimes rewarded with pardon. The Thane of Cawdor, however, does not survive, in spite of confessing his treasons, imploring the King's pardon, and showing a deep repentance. This demonstrates the seriousness of the crime of treason against the King in the story.

"LADY MACBETH..."   (Act I - Scene V)

Lady Macbeth is the strong-willed, persuasive, and charming wife of Macbeth. Some critics have argued that the character of Lady Macbeth is constructed around patriarchal fears of women who refuse to be ruled by men. 

"And pity, like a naked new-born babe..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Macbeth’s foretelling the future consequences of assassinating King Duncan should be compared with Marc Antony's soliloquy in Julius Caesar, act III, scene I. In both, Shakespeare summarizes what actually happens by using the future tense rather than the past tense. Both Macbeth and Antony predict what will happen as consequences of wicked violence. This is a shorthand way for Shakespeare to cover years of chaotic historical events in single speeches rather than attempting to dramatize or describe them onstage.

"And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Audiences in Shakespeare's time (and indeed to some contemporary audiences) would have been especially troubled by Lady Macbeth's "rule" over her husband, as early modern men were "enjoined" to keep their women under their control, supervising both women's actions and their speech. Macbeth's failure to "rule" his wife would have been viewed as "unnatural."

"heat-oppressed brain..."   (Act II - Scene I)

In attempting to explain his vision, Macbeth wonders if his heat-oppressed, or feverish, brain is the cause. During the Renaissance, heat in the body was considered a fluid that could actually press on the brain, causing fever and delirium.

"Tarquin's ravishing strides..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Sextus Tarquin was the youngest son of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose rape of Lucretia led to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy. The adjective ravishing here is applied to the strides to emphasize how quickly Murder moves.

"Torch*..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Here, a “Torch” may indicate an attendant bearing a torch, rather than the torch itself. Since the play would have been performed in broad daylight, the "torch" would be used as a prop to suggest that it was night. Additionally, Banquo and Fleance establish that the time is somewhat later than midnight.

"How goes the night, boy..."   (Act II - Scene I)

This opening dialogue between Banquo and his son Fleance is solely intended to establish that the time is late at night. Shakespeare’s audience would have to imagine it as dark, although they would be watching the play in an open-air theater in broad daylight. Modern theater companies often perform Shakespeare’s plays in public parks in the daytime, and their audiences have to imagine this scene is occurring at night, just as was done by Elizabethans.

"hangman's hands..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Macbeth's hands are bloody from killing Duncan. While many consider hangmen as only responsible for conducting hangings, at the time they were also tasked with the bloody work of disemboweling and quartering the bodies of the executed—particularly for the bodies of those who committed treason.

"the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman..."   (Act II - Scene II)

In Renaissance England, the hoot of an owl flying over a home was considered a bad omen, and it meant death for someone inside the house. Shakespeare compares the owl to a bellman, whose job was to ring the church bell when someone in town was near death. This signal let others know to pray for the dying person. In this case, the owl's shriek represents a fatal ringing of the bell for King Duncan.

"To countenance this horror!..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Most likely what Shakespeare intended by the word countenance (to show or express) was that the people Macduff summons will appear in their nightgowns and therefore resemble ghosts, a sight that will "countenance" the horror of the King's murder. Shakespeare realized that if all the sleepers are summoned so urgently in the wee hours of the morning, they would have to appear in their nightgowns; therefore, he makes the most of the spectacle.

"here's an equivocator..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Continuing with his hell-gate fantasy, the Porter imagines the next person he would encounter. In this case, Shakespeare alludes to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in English history, when conspirators sought to overthrow the British monarchy. The “equivocator” likely alludes to a Jesuit priest named Father Henry Garnet, known as the great "equivocator" because of his ability to use unclear language to deceive others. He was eventually hanged for his role in the event.

"Mark Antony's was by Caesar..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Shakespeare learned the story of Antony and Caesar them from Plutarch's Lives, which he had read a few years before writing Julius Caesar. Macbeth's allusion to these characters represents how Caesar's genius, or spirit, overpowered Antony's even though Antony was a better man in many respects.

"Sennet sounded...."   (Act III - Scene I)

A "sennet" is a set of notes played on a brass instrument, such as a trumpet or cornet, that was used in stage directions of Elizabethan plays as a signal for ceremonial entrances or exits of certain actors—in this case, King Macbeth.

"She'll close and be herself..."   (Act III - Scene II)

This line represents a common belief at the time that snakes, even those that were severely harmed, could eventually recover from the injuries and the wounds would close. Macbeth is saying that their "snake" will return to full strength unless it is fully destroyed.

"THIRD MURDERER:..."   (Act III - Scene III)

The identity of the Third Murderer is a point for much speculation, with some even suggesting that Macbeth himself is the Third Murderer in disguise. However, this is highly unlikely, given how he knows nothing of what transpires in this scene when the murderers later tell him the results.

"Enter three Murderers..."   (Act III - Scene III)

One of the possible reasons why Shakespeare includes a third murderer in this scene as a way to ensure that dialogue takes place. Without the Third Murderer, it's possible that the other two would wait in silence for Banquo and Fleance. However, with the third, the audience is able to experience the scene in a more complete and engaging way.

"Enter the three Witches, meeting Hecate...."   (Act III - Scene V)

This scene is generally considered incongruous with the rest of the play, and the part of Hecate is omitted from some modern representations. Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley suggests that Thomas Middleton potentially included this scene at a later date, based on, for example, the fact that the two songs in the stage directions here have been found in Middleton's The Witch. Considering this, act III scene V may be skipped in its entirety and the play will easily continue without any of the information here.

"Northumberland and warlike Siward..."   (Act III - Scene VI)

This county in northeastern England once was a part of the Roman Empire and then an independent kingdom for a time. It's location between England and Scotland meant that it was a location of many battles, as evidenced by the great number of castles in the area. At the time of the play, it was ruled by Earl Siward, who was a powerful leader, and the Lord states that Macduff has gone to seek aid from Siward in the coming battle against Macbeth.

"FIRST WITCH:..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

The lines after Macbeth says "Now I see 'tis true" until the witches vanish were also likely added by a different poet. Notice that the meter of the witch's speech is like the one given by Hecate in act III scene V, and the notion that the witches would want to cheer up Macbeth with song and dance is absurd.

"eight Kings..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

These eight kings represent the eight rulers of the Scottish house of Stuart (Stewart). starting with Robert II to James VI. According to the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed, the Royal Stuarts traced their line of ancestry back to Banquo.

"the eighth appears, who bears a glass..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

The glass that the eighth holds is not a container for liquid; it is a magical looking glass that one could see the future within. The eighth king is likely James VI of Scotland who was ruling England King James I when Macbeth was written. Shakespeare's inclusion here likely represents a compliment and praise for the king and the future of his heirs.

"Finger of birth-strangled babe..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

According to Christian belief at the time of the play, a child who was born but died or was killed before it was baptized was considered damned and unable to go to heaven like the Turk, Tartar, and the Jew that the witches mention here. Shakespeare has the witches use these ingredients is to show the audience that the witches are brewing an evil and unholy potion.

"What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Macbeth's exclamation alludes to a belief during the reign of James I of England (the Jacobean era) that a thunderclap ("crack") announced the coming of Doomsday ("doom). Essentially, Macbeth thinks that Banquo's children and heirs will reign for a very long time.

"cauldron..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

A cauldron is simply a large kettle or boiler that can be used for cooking or heating liquids. However, in Western culture cauldrons have become strongly associated with witchcraft, with this scene being one of the first and most memorable instances of witches brewing a potion in a cauldron.

"Enter Hecate, and the other three Witches...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Note that similar to act III scene VI, this moment with Hecate and the other witches is quite possibly a later addition by a poet other than Shakespeare. The incongruous nature of Hecate's speech compared to the speech and meter of the other witches is one of the main reasons to suspect this character as the work of another poet.

"where violent sorrow seems A modern ecstasy...."   (Act IV - Scene III)

In lamenting the current state of Scotland, Ross states that the terrible sorrow and violence are no more important than "modern ecstasy," or a typical fit of madness. While this might seem strange, at the time madness or mental issues were not regarded with much sincerity and even laughed at.

"My countryman..."   (Act IV - Scene III)

Malcolm's ability to recognize this man as a fellow Scotchmen but not know his identity is based on the style of dress, or clothes, that the man is wearing—likely a kilt with a tartan pattern.

"the evil:..."   (Act IV - Scene III)

The disease is called scrofula, a form of tuberculosis, and was known as the "king's evil" because the English Kings were believed to be able to cure it by putting their hands on the victim. This ability to cure this disease is believed to have originated with Edward the Confessor, the current King of England in Macbeth.

"At one fell swoop?..."   (Act IV - Scene III)

While to a modern audience this phrase means "suddenly" or "all at once," Shakespeare's audience would have interpreted this original expression as a more savage extension of Macduff's bird metaphor. "Fell" can mean cruel or savage, and the word "swoop" can refer to an attack pattern from a bird of prey—such as the kite just mentioned.

"into the field..."   (Act V - Scene I)

The expression "into the field" typically refers to the field of battle. Considering what we learned about the rebellion of the Scottish nobles (alluded to in act IV scene III), it is likely that Macbeth is trying to suppress the revolt against him. Macbeth has likely done this many times in the past without his wife, but it appears to have singularly affected her this time.

"uncle Siward,..."   (Act V - Scene II)

In Holinshed's Chronicles, which Shakespeare used for many characters in this and other plays, Siward is described as Duncan's father-in-law, which would make Siward Malcolm's grandfather. The choice of "uncle" here could represent a more familial term of endearment.

"Bring it after me...."   (Act V - Scene III)

Since Macbeth called for his armor, several parts of his dialogue have alluded to stage action: "Come, put mine armor on"; "Come, sir, dispatch";"Pull't off, I say." In addition to providing stage directions in dialogue, Shakespeare also helps craft a scene illustrating how restless Macbeth is.

"They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, But bear-like I must fight the course...."   (Act V - Scene VII)

Bear-baiting was an Elizabethan "sport" or pastime in which a bear was tied to a stake and harassed by dogs. Macbeth uses this metaphor to describe his own condition: he finds it impossible to escape from the superior number of enemies and compares himself to the baited bear. Despite this, he continues to fight against all odds, holding faith in the witches' other prophesy that said no man born of woman may harm Macbeth.

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