Where and when is the play Macbeth set, and were the characters real people?
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Although written in 1606, this play takes place in the Scotland of medieval times, probably around the 11th century. There is also one scene that takes place in England. Much of the action takes place at Macbeth's castle in Inverness, an area in the Scottish Highlands (north Scotland).
The character of Macbeth is based on a real historical figure that Shakespeare read about in the Holinshed Chronicles. The outline of the story is based upon this real king - according to the Chronicles, a king by the name of Duncan was killed by the king Macbeth.
The play is set in Scotland during the mid 11th century. Most of the characters really lived. Duncan was king of Scotland from 1034 to 1040, and Macbeth ruled 1040-1057.
Malcolm, Donalbain, and Macduff were real people also. Macduff did kill Macbeth in battle, but there is no recorded evidence that Macbeth murdered Macduff's family.
The real Lady Macbeth's first name was Gruoch. Maybe that's why she was so grouchy!
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Shakespeare's Macbeth is a stark reminder how illusions of grandeur and a false sense of security, can shake even the most solid foundations, such as the marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, a marriage so destructive from both sides that disaster is assured. Macbeth recognizes his own dark and "horrible imaginings," (I.iii.138) and Lady Macbeth wishes to be "top-full Of direst cruelty," (I.iv.40) in ensuring that their ambitions are realized. Shakespeare makes full use of his poetic licence in creating the setting for Macbeth and his characters are dramatic, contradictory in nature and easily manipulated or manipulating.
He bases his characters on real-life Scottish royalty, about whom he has read in the Holingshead Chronicles, the respected source of information in its day. Shakespeare then and mixes this reality with a sharp dose of imagination, setting out to teach his audience a stark lesson on the devastating effects of "vaulting ambition," (I.vii.27) and to suit the theatrical environment.
There was indeed a real Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth), who ruled Scotland in the eleventh century, after defeating Duncan in battle. Already there are differences in the plot as Shakespeare's Macbeth kills Duncan through dishonorable means, while he sleeps. In fact, Macbeth "does murder sleep," (II.ii.37). On the battlefield, however, the real Macbeth would have been a hero, destroying the perceived enemy, a vicious and unrelenting king Duncan, not the kind and "meek" Duncan who has been "so clear in his great office," ((I.vii.17) in Shakespeare's play.
Shakespeare would also have been very aware of his allegiance to King James I of England, previously king of Scotland, apparently descended from the Scottish kings, in particular Banquo's line, and so would not have wanted to create an image of an evil king, except Macbeth, and risk upsetting his most honored audience member and, indeed, Elizabethan society.
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