When Was Macbeth Written? - History & Author

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  • 0:04 A Brief Summary
  • 0:59 The Real Macbeth
  • 1:51 The Historical Context
  • 3:22 King James and Macbeth
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote ''Macbeth,'' which tells the story of a man who is destroyed by his own ambition. To fully understand the theme, it's important to know the history and political context surrounding the play. In this lesson, we'll discuss the play's history.

A Brief Summary

Macbeth tells the story of the Scottish general Macbeth. In the beginning of the play, he receives a prophecy from the three witches that he will one day be King of Scotland. Rather than wait for this to happen, he and his wife decide to murder his friend and leader King Duncan and just take the throne from him.

Once Macbeth commits the murder, he is overcome by guilt and paranoia. This drives him to become a cruel leader that continues to murder those who challenge him, including his close ally Banquo and his soldier Macduff's entire family. Lady Macbeth also is overcome by guilt and begins to sleepwalk, slowly becoming more mad. The play ends with Lady Macbeth killing herself, an English army attacking Macbeth, Macbeth's head being carried on stage, and Malcolm crowned the new king of Scotland.

Although gruesome, the play focuses on the themes of morality, fate, power, and ambition, including how too much ambition can destroy a person.

The Real Macbeth

Many of Shakespeare's plays are based on historical facts, including Macbeth. The real Macbeth ruled in Scotland from 1040 to 1057. Just as told in the play, Macbeth came to power by killing King Duncan. The difference was that the real King Duncan was a much younger man than the King Duncan in the play. The real King Duncan was also a very weak leader. Macbeth was later killed by an army ordered by Duncan's son, Malcolm III.

In the play, Macbeth suffers because he murdered King Duncan. However, based on what we know of his reign, the real Macbeth did not. He ruled peacefully and successfully for seventeen years. During his reign, Scotland was united for the first time. The fictional Macbeth commits many murders, killing entire families. However, it was actually the real Macbeth's family that was slaughtered by King Malcolm III to guarantee him his rise to power.

The Historical Context

Before King James came to power in England, William Shakespeare already had a relationship with the royal family. Shakespeare and his men performed his plays for Queen Elizabeth. The plays during this time period, known as the Elizabethan era, were more playful and lighthearted.

When Queen Elizabeth died, Shakespeare wanted to be sure that he and his men continued to work with the new king during the Jacobean era. 'Macbeth' was his way to gain favor with King James. This play also marked a shift in Shakespeare's work to darker and more tragic themes.

Why was this? Shakespeare's writings during the Jacobean era really reflected the uncertainty in England. When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, she had no children and no nieces or nephews. Because of this, the throne was offered to King James of Scotland, a very distant cousin of Elizabeth I, and he then became King James I of England.

This was not an easy transition for the people of England. Since he was not a direct descendant of Queen Elizabeth, many other distant relatives challenged his placement and said they had a right to the throne. King James lived in constant fear that someone would overthrow him, which often led him to violence. For example, when a plot to plant a bomb and kill King James and Parliament was discovered, King James publicly tortured and killed those involved.

Despite his paranoia, King James had a deep belief that he was supposed to be king. He believed that God chooses kings and that the throne was his fate. However, this did become one of the reasons that he ruled with fear. The people of England worried that if they questioned him, they were really questioning God.

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