Historical perspective

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is believed to have been first performed in 1606 and was probably written shortly before that. King James I was England’s ruler as well as the financial supporter of Shakespeare’s acting company. James, who was Scottish, had taken over in 1603 after his relative Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), whose long reign is now referred to as the Elizabethan era. The Queen had supported the development of English poetry and drama as well as English exploration abroad.

However, it was still a rather conservative time. The role of women in particular was very different from what it is today: women were generally expected to be submissive and virtuous, and female actors were not allowed, which is why all female roles in Macbeth would have been played by young boys. Many Elizabethans were also superstitious and believed in witchcraft.

The Elizabethan era existed within the wider European historical period called the Renaissance and was naturally influenced by it. The period marked a break with the so-called “dark” Middle Ages which came before. Renaissance means “rebirth” and was inspired by classical ideas from Ancient Rome and Greece, particularly in art, philosophy and literature. We see this inspiration in Macbeth in the classical five-act structure of the play ending with the downfall of the tragic hero.

In the play, we also see the Elizabethan world picture, which was generally a mixture of older medieval ideas and more modern Renaissance ideas. Paradoxically, the Elizabethans believed that humans were unique creature who had been given free will by God while also being influenced by fate. Everyone was thought to be part of a universal hierarchy called the Chain of Being which kept everything in perfec...

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