Historical Background

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876

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.

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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 patronage and were subsequently known as “the King’s Men.” However, the local London government felt that actors and theater were improper. Therefore, no theaters were allowed to be built within the city limits. These restrictions did not keep the London people from the theaters, however, and by 1600 there were more theaters than ever built on the outskirts of London.

The Globe theater was built by Cuthbert Burbage in 1599 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. When Burbage could not obtain a lease for the original theater, it was moved to a new site in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames River. The construction of the Globe was a joint venture between the Burbage brothers and the actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The Globe was a three-story structure with at least five sides and no roof over the stage. The roof extended around the gallery that encircled the theatre. Each floor had seats that encircled a stage that was built in the center. Behind the stage were dressing rooms and space to store scenery and props. There were no curtains used to conceal the stage, only a curtain to separate the backstage area from the stage. Very few props were used. In the front center portion of the stage was a trap door used to enable a person to vanish (or to allow a ghost to appear.)

A flag was flown from the front portion of the roof to announce when a play was to be presented. When patrons saw the flag, they knew there would be a performance that day; there were no performances at night, as there was no artificial lighting at the Globe. The theater was small—approximately 30 feet in height, 86 feet in diameter, 56 feet for the open courtyard, and about 40 feet for the stage itself. The patrons either stood in the courtyard and watched the play, or paid more and sat in the gallery.

The actors were flexible and dedicated to the craft of acting. They actors had a major responsibility to convey the purpose of the drama to the audience. The actors supported the written word through their portrayal of the characters. The dialogue and the language supported the setting of the scene within the play, as scenery was very limited. Shakespeare’s language provided the scenery for the play. When the scene was changed to an evening scene, the actor would carry a torch in to indicate that it was night. The audience of the time was accustomed to this type of staging.

The theater was a much more intimate setting than the theaters of today. The patrons would voice their opinions during a production of a play; some even threw vegetables at the actors on the stage. The theater gained a reputation for rowdy behavior and aristocratic society did not consider theater a respectable part of Elizabethan society.

The Globe burned down in a fire in 1613, when a cannon was fired during a performance and the thatched roof over the gallery caught on fire. It was rebuilt that year, but in 1644 the structure was torn down when theatres were closed due to the government ban on theatres.

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