Historical Background

Shakespeare drew from many sources when he wrote—the Holingshed Chronicles of England was one of these. From this source he drew much of his historical knowledge, as Holingshed was the definitive historical source of that time. The story of Macbeth comes from this source. However, Shakespeare changed several characters to meet the theatrical purpose of the play. In Holing¬shed’s account Macbeth is older than Duncan, but Shakespeare reverses their ages and Duncan is portrayed as the older of the two.

Macbeth was written especially for James I and was performed in 1606. James I was King of Scotland when he came to the English throne; his descendants can be traced back to Banquo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, often referred to in theater circles as “The Scottish Play,” Banquo is portrayed as an honorable man who promotes goodness and fairness. In this way, Shakespeare was keenly aware of his audience and his political responsibilities. His plays reflect not only timeless conflicts and resolutions, but a view of the Elizabethan society.

The society in which Shakespeare lived was reflected in the characters he wrote about. London was a crowded city teaming with aristocrats, working class people, and indigents—it was a hub of activity. By today’s standards the sanitation was very poor, and there were frequent epidemics of the plague. The city was infested with rats, and the fleas on the rats caused the Bubonic plague. There were no sewers, only open drains in the middle of the street. The conditions were difficult; however, the spirit of the people prevailed. It was in this society that Shakespeare wrote and created his characters.
Shakespearean Theatre

The support of theatre in England varied depending on who was the reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603) was the monarch when Shakespeare came into the public eye. Elizabeth supported the theater and the company performed at the castle on a regular basis. She reigned until her death in 1603 when James I became ruler.

James I was also an avid supporter of the theatre. Shakespeare’s company, “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” came under royal...

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Macbeth Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Scotland. British country north of England that historically had its own language, monarchy, parliament, and culture. In the period in which Macbeth is set, 1040 to 1057, Scotland was beginning to form as a nation, building on its Viking and Saxon tribal nucleus, while constantly wracked by bloody internal disputes and wars with England. Shakespeare’s choice of this period in Scottish history is far from accidental, as it pertains to the origin of the two Scottish royal lineages—those of Malcolm and Banquo—through which James I constructed his successful claims to the thrones of both England and Scotland. Shakespeare even stages the constitutional shift from feudal elective monarchy to patrilineal inheritance and the construction of “divine right” (to which James constantly referred), when Duncan names Malcolm as heir and prince of Cumberland.

By the seventeenth century, Scotland was usually described in the English cultural imagination as wild and ungovernable because of its difficult topography, harsh weather, and uncivilized people. Images of Scotland, like those of Ireland and Wales, suffered from English Tudor nation-building—that is, “England” was constructed negatively, by defining what it was not. Hence, Shakespeare’s Scotland becomes England’s antithetical Other, a nightmarish land of barren heaths and misty crags, populated not only by aggressive clansmen and regicides but also by supernatural forces and demoniac spirits. The play’s “England,” on the other hand, is depicted as graciously ruled by a “good king,” the saintly Edward the Confessor, who heals with a royal touch and possesses a “heavenly gift of prophecy.”

This imaginary rugged Scottish landscape, with its crags, hollows, and storms, is symbolically central to Shakespeare’s depiction of a turbulent political structure. Consequently, in the play’s denouement, as the nation is returned to “natural” order, the wild countryside itself seems to rise up against the murderous Macbeth, as Birnam Wood comes toward Dunsinane, in the shape of Malcolm’s camouflaged troops and in accordance with the weird (or wyrd) sisters’ prophecy. Simultaneously, the disruptions of the natural world, the “hours dreadful and things strange” with cannibalistic horses and “strange screams of death,” which accompany Macbeth’s regicide and rule, are apparently purged as health is restored to the “sickly weal.” However, the replacement of one regicide by another reveals the similarities between the regimes, staging the play’s equivocal wordplay and eliding the differences, as each term becomes “what is not,” both “fair” and “foul,” like the landscape itself.


Heath. Fictional Scottish wasteland of uncontrollable natural and supernatural forces. As inhabited by the three weird sisters, the “blasted heath” is a symbolically liminal site of transformation and equivocal multivocality, in which weather is both “foul and fair,” where the sisters are both “women” and bearded males, who can appear and disappear, and where prophecy is both “ill” and “good” as language subverts sight and meaning. In addition, the sisters’ presence gives Scotland gender as (super-)naturally “female” in its uncontrollable wildness throughout the play, in contrast to Scotland’s strongly masculine warrior culture.


*Scone. Ancient castle and holy site, immediately north of Perth and thirty miles north of Edinburgh. The Pictish capital of the early Scots, Scone became the traditional site for the “investment” or crowning of new monarchs, who sat on the Stone of Scone, a legendary symbol of nationalism that traces back to the eighth century. The stone was seized by England’s Edward I in 1296 and removed to London, where it remained for many centuries.


*Inverness. Scottish town on the Moray Firth, at Loch Ness, about thirty miles west of Forres and about ninety miles north of Fife. Inverness is the site of the Macbeths’ feudal castle, located on the northern edge of Duncan’s territory and strategically placed to guard against incursions from northern Europe. However, this distant frontier also makes it an ideal place for rebellion against a centralized government, as evidenced by Cawdor’s insurrection. The town of Cawdor is only ten miles east of Inverness.

*Dunsinane Hill

*Dunsinane Hill. Thousand-foot-high crag, part of the Sidlaw hills and less than ten miles north of Scone. The site of Macbeth’s military fortress and last stand, the daunting hill faces a forested area which stretches twelve miles northwest to the town of Birnam. It is through this “wood” that Malcolm and Siward make their final, disguised attack.

Macbeth Modern Connections

The witches, or weird sisters, of Macbeth have remained one of the most popular aspects of the play. The three witches, the first...

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Macbeth Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1905. A classic study. Chapters on Macbeth deal with fundamental issues of evil, flawed nobility of character, and tragic choice; Bradley’s eloquent prose helps the reader appreciate the grandeur of the subject.

Harbage, Alfred. William Shakespeare: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963. An excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s plays, accessible to the general reader while providing masterful analyses of selected plays. Discussion of Macbeth gives a scene-by-scene synopsis, illuminated by wide-ranging, sensitive, analytical commentary.

Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Informative, readable discussions of Shakespeare’s major plays based on a series of educational television lectures. Introductory chapters provide a good background to the beliefs and values of Shakespeare’s times. The chapter on Macbeth discusses elements of the play such as theme, characterization, atmosphere, and imagery.

Long, Michael. Macbeth. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to the play as well as original critical commentary. Includes chapters on stage history, literary counterparts and antecedents, and dramatic symbols, as well as scene-by-scene analysis. Long characterizes Macbeth’s tragedy as both Christian and classical, a story of radical isolation from humanity.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Alan Sinfield. Houndsmills, England: Macmillan, 1992. Contains a dozen articles on Macbeth that together provide a good idea of the intellectual issues, political concerns, and style of postmodernist criticism not only of this play but also of literature in general. Includes a useful introduction and summative chapter endnotes, plus an annotated bibliography.

Wills, Garry. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This study of Macbeth reconstructs the political and historical context of Shakespeare’s dark and troubling play, suggesting the links that its first audiences would have perceived between the Gunpowder Plot and this imaginative text.

Macbeth Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Adventures in English Literature. Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth.”...

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