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The historical background of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

a) real history

  • the plot of Macbeth was firstly mentioned in „Scotichronicon“ by Joannes  de Fordun, later by Boethius; Holinshed picked up the story
  • Shakespeare relied for his historical frame mainly on Holinshed, but adapted it rather freely
  • Werbung
  • set in the 11th century
  • Scotland at that time was a violent and troubled country
  • feuding (in Fehde liegen) families and clans fought in order to control trade and territory
  • castle was center of each rival aristocrat’s (thane) power
  • political murder and revenge killings were not unusual means to gain power
  • plundering Vikings and Norsemen attacked Scotland constantly
  • Macbeth was - due to the legend - born in 1005
  • son of great family that ruled Moray and Ross
  • his father was murdered by his cousins
  • Macbeth married Gruach, granddaughter to a High King of Scotland
  • no children of their own
  • no historical evidence of Lady Macbeth´s influence on her husband
  • Duncan´s reign had been ineffective and unpopular
  • he was 38 when he was killed, possibly by Macbeth
  • M. ruled for 17 years (elected High King of Scotland in 1040); for the first 10 years he was a competent King who reformed the country
  • gave Scotland a long period of comparative peace and stability
  • no evidence that Macbeth devoted his attention to witchcraft
  • strong supporter of the church
  • Duncan´s son Malcolm invaded Scotland in 1054, supported by the English King Edward the Confessor
  • Macbeth was killed on August 15th, 1057, at Peel Ring, Lumphanan in Mar
  • buried at Iona, the sacred burial place of the kings of Scotland

b)  Shakespeare’s history

  • Macbeth was most likely written between 1605 and 1606
  • followed the succession of James the Sixth of Scotland (member of the Stuart dynasty) to the English throne, as James the first of England in March 1603
  • it  is very likely that Shakespeare chose a Scottish subject because of that event
  • play was certainly written with James in mind and there is a story that he even wrote a letter of acknowledgement to Shakespeare

  • patronage (a writer composes one of his works for a king, a queen or another rich or important person) - play pays tribute to the interests and knowledge of James:
    "witchcraft (Act I and Act IV), apparitions (Erscheinungen) and ghosts (Act II and Act III) and the King’s Evil (Act IV) were areas of great concern to James, he even wrote a book (Demonology, 1597) on the subject - the play compliments James by making Banquo (who is said to be his ancestor) a hero in the play, because he does not - unlike Macbeth - fall into evil; Banquo historically never existed; in Holinshed’s play he was an accomplice in the murder of Duncan (a reminder of this would not have pleased James!) - play contains the issue of kingship and loyalty, which were of great importance to James - had survived an assassination attempt early in his life - his father, Lord Darnley, had been murdered his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed as a traitor - the questions of the role of the monarch and the duties of their subjects towards them were always of major importance to him; he believed that the monarch has the same position as a god and voilence against him is an act of blasphemy - play propably refers to the topical (aktuell) events of the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th 1605 (a conspiracy against teh king and the Parliament) and the following trials of its conspirators (Act II, Scene 3); Shakespeare himself almost certainly knew some of the conspirators (they were from his home county Warwickshire) - equivocation (Zwei-/Mehrdeutigkeit) is a major theme of the play, the Jesuit Henry Garnet confessed it in his trial in 1606 (after the Gunpowder Plot); helped to fix the date the play was written - Malcolm’s gift of earldoms at the end of the play alludes to King James’s liberal giving of English titles to his Scottish supporters - the world Shakespeare lived in was very different from today’s:      the political issue of succession and order was of major importance
  • England was not the industrial, scientific and urban society that it is now; belief in witchcraft was widely spread
  • in 1604 the practise of witchcraft became punishable by death, because it was believed that it attempted to change God’s natural order

Sandra Burmeier