Last Updated on July 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
Humanism and the Early Modern Renaissance: Shakespeare wrote in the late 16th, early 17th century when humanism was a dominant philosophical ideology in England. The humanism cultural movement turned away from medieval, religious scholasticism to revive ancient Greek and Roman literature—which focused on human thoughts, feelings, and motivations rather than divine or supernatural matters. Many of the allusions in Macbeth reference Greek and Roman mythology and figureheads, despite its inclusion of supernatural elements:
- Bellona (act 1, scene 2): Bellona is the Roman goddess of war, and Macbeth is said to be like her husband, suggesting that he is gifted in battle.
- Tarquin and Lucrece (act 2, scene 1): In Roman mythology, Roman Prince Tarquin rapes Lucrece, a woman married to Collantine, a soldier. Lucrece commits suicide because she has broken her vows to her husband. Her death incited revolt that led to the banishment of the monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Republic. The reference to Tarquin’s “ravishing strides” allude to his stealthily creeping to Lucrece’s chamber in the middle of the night, where he was careful to wake no one.
- Neptune (act 2, scene 2): Neptune is the Roman God of the sea, which is his domain. Because he is a god, Neptune is said to control the ocean and its waves.
- Oedipus (act 2, scene 2): Oedipus is character from Greek tragedy who murders his father and marries his mother because he tries to escape his fate, which has been prophesied. Due to intense guilt over fulfilling the prophecy, he stabs out his own eyes. Macbeth alludes to do doing the same as punishment for killing Duncan.
- Hecate (act 2, scene 2; act 3, scene 5; act 4, scene 1): As the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and necromancy, Hecate is appropriately mentioned in conjunction with approaching night, a time when nefarious acts would likely occur (act 2). She also appears directly to the witches, chastising them for not keeping her informed of what they’re telling Macbeth. She predicts Macbeth’s personal failing that will be his undoing—his overconfidence (act 3). Again she returns to praise the witches’ efforts as they sing around the cauldron, showing their supernatural power (act 4).
- Gorgon (act 2, scene 3): A Gorgon was a monster with hair made of snakes whose stare could turn a person to stone. Macduff claims that the sight of the king’s body will freeze a person in their tracks with shock, not unlike a Gorgon’s stare.
- Mark Antony and Caesar (act 3, scene 1): Julius Caesar defeated Antony in civil wars throughout the Roman Empire. Macbeth compares himself to Antony, whom he views as lesser, and Banquo’s potential to Caesar, who overshadowed Antony’s accomplishments.
- Acheron (act 3, scene 5): Also called the “river of woe” in Greek mythology, Acheron was one of the five rivers of the underworld. It’s an appropriate place for the witches to meet with Hecate, their hellish patron.
- Roman Fool (act 5, scene 7): This refers to a folktale in which a Roman soldier killed himself to avoid facing his enemies. Macbeth still believes he is unbeatable, despite two of three aspect of the witches’ prophecy of his downfall having come true. He sees suicide as beneath him.
The Gunpowder Plot: In 1605, a group of Catholic dissenters attempted to assassinate King James I by plotting to blow up the House of Lords, England’s Parliament. The scheme aimed at creating a Catholic head of state by installing Princess Elizabeth, James’s daughter, on the throne. An anonymous letter was sent to authorities, who then discovered thirty-six barrels of gunpowder below Parliament and thwarted the plot.
- “An equivocator” (act 2, scene 3): Father Henry Garnet knew about the gunpowder plot but failed to come forward. When he finally confessed, he claimed that he could not tell the truth because the plot had been revealed in confession, where he was bound to keep silent. He became known as the “great equivocator” and was hanged. The Porter references letting this historical figure, who would have been known to Shakespeare’s audience, into hell.
- “The innocent flower, but be the serpent under it” (act 1, scene 5): This image is a reference to the medal that King James created to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. It pictured a snake hiding amongst flowers. Lady Macbeth advises her husband to appear pleasant and normal in order to fool the king and his men that he has no nefarious plans.