Macbeth Historical and Social Context
by William Shakespeare

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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 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 entire section is 876 words.)