What is the social and cultural context of the play Macbeth?

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Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to be performed at the court of King James I. James had recently become King of England. He was Scottish and had previously ruled Scotland as King James VI. Aside from enjoying positive portrayals of his homeland in general, James was fascinated by witches—he even wrote a...

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Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to be performed at the court of King James I. James had recently become King of England. He was Scottish and had previously ruled Scotland as King James VI. Aside from enjoying positive portrayals of his homeland in general, James was fascinated by witches—he even wrote a book about them! Shakespeare was pretty savvy to write a play that featured witches, set it in Scotland, and even show some of James's own ancestors in a heroic light. (The part about "twofold balls and treble scepters" when Macbeth sees Banquo's descendants is a reference to James and his dual rule over England and Scotland.) Many of Shakespeare's plays were written at least partly for court; in fact, the only reason that theatrical companies at this time had license to perform publicly at all is that their performances for the public were officially considered to be rehearsals for their presentation of the plays at court! It was important for Shakespeare to be aware of royal preference and interests when he wrote.

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This is a good question as it is important to understand the context in which Macbeth was written in order to have a full understanding of the play. The other educator answer does a great job explaining part of this context. I will go a little further into the background here.

Macbeth was written in 1606, a somewhat uncertain time in England. King James had recently come to power in 1603 amid some controversy. He was not directly descended from Queen Elizabeth I, so there were other claims to the throne at the time. Many in England were worried that there would be more contenders for the monarchy and the possibility of another royal power struggle or even a civil war was on the minds of many.

Many Catholics hoped that King James would have pro-Catholic policies, since his mother was Catholic. However, they were disappointed when James took a decidedly pro-protestant stance. There were several Catholic-led conspiracies against him in his first years on the English throne, including the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This ended with the torture and gruesome executions of the conspirators. It is likely that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth partly as a cautionary story for anyone thinking of overthrowing the lawful monarch.

Shakespeare knew that King James would probably see his play. His company regularly performed for the royal court. In fact, from 1603 onward, his acting company was known as "The King's Men." Many elements of Macbeth were meant to flatter King James. The Stuarts claimed descent from Banquo. Shakespeare makes Banquo a character in the play, in which it is prophesied by the witches that his descendants will reign for countless generations. Clearly, Shakespeare was showing his support for the Stuart dynasty here.

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Culturally this is a Jacobean as opposed to an Elizabethan Play, written whilst James Ist was king of England. James had come from Scotland, where he was king previously, and so the Scottish theme may well have looked to please him. James also believed in witches writing a book, Demonology, in 1597 that promoted the view that witches were real. He had believed himself the subject of a plot by three witches to shipwreck him by stirring up storms, so there are running themes here that link to the ideas of James himself. The way we view these aspects of the play is different to how the contemporaries would have seen them. The play touches on long lasting social issues such as the greed for power, the corrupting nature of the quest for power, the way a cycle of violence only leads to more violence and the notion of ambition and the corrupting nature of it. This social context of the play is as relevant now as then and shows why the play retains such appeal.

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