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1. Introduction

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    Getting Oriented: Author & Text

    Who is William Shakespeare?

    Title page of William Shakespeare's First Folio (1623) featuring engraving of the author by Martin DroeshoutBorn in 1564-- William Shakespeare’s birthday is commonly celebrated on April 23rd, which is also believed to be the day he died in 1616. While his plays seem to be the cornerstone to his legacy, Shakespeare was a prolific poet whose sonnets remain well known to this day. After completing his schooling in Stratford, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582. Shortly thereafter, though, Shakespeare seems to drop off the historical record until he publishes his first work in 1593 (the poem, “Venus and Adonis”). He continued to regularly produce other poems and plays for the rest of his life. Once he was established on the theater scene in London, he founded an acting company called ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ and tasked himself with writing and producing roughly two plays every year for this group to perform (while with this company, for example, Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous works such as King Lear, The Tempest, and even Macbeth). The acting company earned Shakespeare a considerable amount of fame and fortune as well as the outlet to perform his original works. In 1603, the company was renamed ‘The King’s Men’ as it had caught the attention of King James I. 

    The opportunity to have such a prosperous career in the arts allowed Shakespeare to rise in fame and fortune for most of his adult life. With the close relationship he developed with King James I through his support of the acting company, Shakespeare found a considerable amount of material to reference and use in his own writing. Macbeth is just one example of Shakespeare’s ability to pull from political and social events happening in the world around him and turn it into something of a social commentary. Shakespeare’s ability to use language and the stage to highlight political happenings and his thoughts on the matter fueled his success and sealed his fate as one of the greatest playwrights in history. 


    The Globe & The King's Men

    As mentioned above, in 1599 Shakespeare and his company—The Lord Chamberlain’s Men—opened the Globe Theater and used the space to perform their original works. This theater was incredibly unique: its open-air design meant there was no roof, and seating was divided into different sections based on the patrons' socio-economic status (and their ability to pay for pricier seats). In fact, the cheapest seats available weren’t even seats at all, since theatergoers on a budget could pay a penny and stand in the pit of the theater…creating essentially a mosh-pit directly in front of the stage! There were also stadium-style seats in three balconies that were reserved for more aristocratic and wealthy patrons of the arts. The Globe theater is also circular which meant that, unlike today’s theatre experience, there were seats facing perpendicular to the stage. The original Globe theater burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt the following year. A replica of the Globe was built in the 1990s near the original site, allowing modern day audiences to experience Shakespeare in the same environment that audiences enjoyed 400 years ago.

    Shakespeare was already a notable actor and playwright when James ascended to the throne, fame that continued to grow as James’ wife loved theater and would in fact request to view so many plays that Shakespeare and his troupe actually ran out of new material. The troupe Shakespeare belonged to was patronized by the royal family, so when James became king he also became Shakespeare’s biggest benefactor… so big a benefactor that the troupe was actually renamed “The King’s Men”. Shakespeare and his troupe would actually travel to the palace to perform for the King in his own home, and this relationship with the monarch provided Shakespeare with inspiration for more material. In 1606, just a few short years after James ascended to the throne, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. All three of these plays are tragedies, however Macbeth is the most closely associated with James I. 

    Summary of Macbeth (spoiler alert!)

    Macbeth was written and first performed in 1606, though it was not published until seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1623. The play itself centrally concerns the actions of its title character, Macbeth, and his wife, Lady Macbeth. After hearing the prophecy of three mysterious witches claiming Macbeth will soon be named Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, Macbeth and his wife seem motivated to ensure this promotion occurs under any circumstances. Together, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth seek out a way to the crown which they feel the prophecy declares as rightfully theirs. The path to royalty, however, comes at a price that Macbeth seems to regret having to pay. Macbeth must deal with not only the personal responsibilities that come from the prophecy but also the impacts such a role will have on his friend Banqo and determination of his enemy Macduff. Can Macbeth keep his composure long enough to see this plan through, or will the crown appear too heavy a weight for his head to bear?  There will be blood, betrayal, and battles that ensue as a result of Lady Macbeth’s ambition and the eventual undoing of everything she and her husband worked to build.

    History Lessons: England, Scotland, and Kingship

    James I portrait (1605) by John de CritzThe Transition of Power

    Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (1606) at a very interesting point in English history. After more than four decades of rule under a single female monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, the year 1603 raised a key question: who would inherit the English throne? For nearly half a century, Elizabeth I deftly resisted marriage as a means of retaining her power as monarch without becoming subservient to a husband. She characterized her singleness as an asset, arguing that it made her a better ruler since she was “married” to the English people and did not have to divide her attention by being a queen, wife, and mother. While Elizabeth I is regarded as one of the most successful and influential monarchs in English history, she was, nonetheless, without a direct heir. 

    Just prior to her death, Elizabeth named her successor: James VI of Scotland, son of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The next in line was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James Stuart who was King of Scotland after his mother abdicated the throne when he was just an infant. While James ruled Scotland as King James VI, he took the English throne as James I (don’t worry, despite the two names it’s the same James). James’ rule in Scotland was through a series of regencies for the first 15 years. Regents are adults tasked to rule in place of a monarch usually because the monarch is a child, absent from the throne, or unable to rule because of illness. Even though his mother was alive for his adolescence, James had little interaction with her as she was imprisoned shortly after he was born. While Mary was being tried for the plot to assassinate Elizabeth, James renounced his mother so that he could remain in Elizabeth’s favor and keep his name in the running to be the heir. 

    James’ first few years on the English throne were nothing short of turbulent. He was lauded as the king who would finally unite England and Scotland, turning the two countries into Great Britain. However, Scotland notoriously did not care for England— in fact in the few centuries before James took the throne Scotland and England were frequently at war with one another. England wanted Scotland as part of their territory, but the Scots preferred their independence. While James technically did unite Scotland and England, it was because he wore two different crowns… one as the King of England and one as the King of Scotland. Although he would call himself the King of Great Britain, England and Scotland remained distinct until the 1700s. 

    With his ascension to the throne in 1603, James’ rule marked many shifts: from the House of Tudors to the House of Stuarts, from a female monarch to a male king, and from an English ruler to a Scottish one. All of these changes sparked  something of a national identity crisis. In short, James did not have an easy transition of power. Elizabeth’s successful reign as the head of a male-dominated government left James with the unique task of legitimizing a male ruler in England. To do so, he positioned himself as a benevolent father figure, one that was married (to Queen Anne) and could therefore produce an heir. At this time there was also a national religious divide, as tensions between Protestants and Catholics remained strong after Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church in 1534. 


    The "Scottish" Play: Macbeth and King James

    As a Scot, James also brought about the unification of England and Scotland who were previously locked in a contentious relationship. However, unification did not mean that these two countries suddenly got along. James still needed to win the trust of the English people and legitimize his rule. In some ways, Macbeth asserts James I as the rightful ruler of England, but not without reinforcing some Scottish stereotypes along the way. This play, first performed in 1606 (just three years after James became king), would have been heavily influenced by the new king--who just so happened to serve as the patron and financer of Shakespeare’s theater company, renamed “the King’s Men” from “the Queen’s Men” under Elizabeth I. Since the King was financing his career, many academics argue that Macbeth was written to argue in favor of the new King and influence the public’s perception of him.

    Plays weren’t only for the enjoyment of royalty; they were also powerful tools which invited common people to reflect on their own opinions of politics and society, including sentiments toward the King. Readers can see the political undertones of many of the characters in Macbeth. Macduff is a benevolent father figure that rescued Scotland from a tyrannical leader, who could be interpreted as James. The play also demonizes women through the characterization of Lady Macbeth, who subverts her femininity in favor of power and control over her country and her husband. Her monologue in Act 1 Scene 5 portrays her as violent and unfeminine, as she asks to be “unsexed” and rejects traditional confines of femininity. In Act 1 Scene 7, she tells Macbeth that she would kill her own son for political gain if it was necessary. Her lack of feminine ideals combined with her violent behavior and rejection of motherhood can be interpreted as the societal response to the negative portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, as both queens were not typically “feminine” per society’s standards and were childless. 


    By Grace Maher & Elizabeth Ferry

    1. Introduction is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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