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William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the small village of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. The place of his birth is far less important to Macbeth than the era in which he was born. The historical period into which Shakespeare was born is relevant to Macbeth in a number of ways, including the following:
- Shakespeare lived in London during the final twenty years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the first ten years of the reign of King James I. This was the period in which professional theater was essentially born in England and in which the first truly professional theater-buildings were constructed. Shakespeare had the good fortune, then, to be living and working in London at precisely the time when professional playwrights were genuinely needed and when professionally staged plays were really coming to be valued. If Shakespeare had been born a hundred years earlier, he never would have had the kind of career he had, since such careers were simply not possible at that time.
- Shakespeare lived during an era – the so-called “English Renaissance” – that helped shape the values implied in Macbeth. Elizabethan tragedies almost always dealt with serious moral themes, and indeed most literature at this time was thought to have a serious moral and even spiritual purpose. The main figures in tragedies of this period tended to be kings or other powerful persons, and affairs of state were often highly important in such plays. Christian assumptions and values had an especially strong influence at this time. In all these ways and many others, Shakespeare is a writer of his time and Macbeth reflects many of the preoccupations of the era in which it was written.
- In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by her Scottish relative, King James VI of Scotland, who now also became King James I of England. A strong case can be (and has been) made that one of Shakespeare’s motives in composing Macbeth (a play set in Scotland) was to please the new king, whose own ancestors are depicted in the drama. In addition, Shakespeare may also have been trying to appeal to another of James’s interests by featuring witches in this work, since James had a real interest in the whole issue of witchcraft and had in fact written a book on the topic.
- King James was especially interested in uniting England and Scotland into one nation (“Great Britain”), and indeed this issue was being much debated at precisely the time that Shakespeare’s play appeared. It hardly seems surprising, then, that Shakespeare presents English and Scottish forces fighting together to defeat the tyrant Macbeth. At one point, Malcolm notes that
. . . Gracious England hath
Lent us . . . ten thousand men
to help topple Macbeth (4.3.189-90).
In all these ways, then, and many more, Macbeth is very definitely a product of the era into which Shakespeare was born.
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