The period before William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth was a tumultuous one in England. Early in 1603, the future of the nation was uncertain as Queen Elizabeth I was not in good health. She had no heir, thus the issue of succession was of great concern. Moreover, even if the succession was to be marked by smooth transition, whoever would take over the reins of power would inherit an England steep in debt (accrued partly due to the expensive war with Spain) and an increasing population that was growing poorer.
For Shakespeare and his company, the Lord’s Chamberlain Men, this was a period undoubtedly marked by anxiety over what the future held. During Elizabeth’s reign, the arts – particularly drama and poetry – had made significant progress. If the new ruler was opposed to freedom of artistic expression, then the death of the Queen would close the curtains for Shakespeare and his troop. Consequently, if this occurred, it would be rational to conclude that Shakespeare feared a return to the dark ages and the effect this would have on the populace.
After Elizabeth’s death on 23rd March 1603, James Stuart (son to her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots) became king of England. Shortly after, King James began to “sponsor Shakespeare and his eight colleagues, making them royal servants and renamed their company the King’s Men'. While this was prestigious and rewarding, it changed the course of Shakespeare’s work. James proved more demanding than his predecessor; for instance, the King and his court “required every night a public play in the great hall during the holiday season of late 1603”. In addition, the close association between the crown and King’s Men may have come with an element of the king’s control over what Shakespeare could or could not produce. However, whatever qualms the playwright had with the king were dealt with in 1605’s King Lear.
Macbeth, believed to have been first performed in 1606 is regarded as one of William Shakespeare’s finest works, and one of the greatest of the Jacobean era. Shakespeare based the play on Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed, and modified it in the aim of “deliberately catering to the tastes of his company’s patron King James” by “treating the subject of Scottish history with earnest seriousness, cleverly flattering the king’s distant ancestor Banquo”. Central to its plot is the titular character, who is rewarded by King Duncan for his bravery in a battle with the Norwegian army by being made Thane of Cawdor following the execution of the former Thane who was accused of conspiring with the Norwegians. While Macbeth has several admirable traits, from the very start, it is clear he is ambitious and greedy for power:
116 Glamis and Thane of Cawdor! – Macbeth makes this utterance aside, from the hearing of Banquo, Ross and Angus. While mere moments prior he audibly seemed reluctant to take up the title of Thane of Cawdor while the present thane lived. Why do you dress me In borrowed robes? this reveals him to be ambitious, a trait which coincides with secrecy that serves to mask his true nature. This is reinforced in Scene 7 of Act 1 when he says to himself , “I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself And falls on th’ other”.
However, it can be said that the three witches represent the author’s ideal. This is due to the fact that they plant the seed that spurs Macbeth’s ambition leading to his own destruction, when the second witch says “All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!” and the third follows this with “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”. To support this argument is the context in which Macbeth was written.Following the reformation, Elizabeth had outlawed Catholicism and replaced it with Protestantism, through the Church of England which she helmed. After James I succeeded her and did not reinstate Catholicism as the state religion, an assassination plot was hatched by dissidents, among them Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes. Their aim was to blow up both houses of British Parliament and in so doing kill King James, most of the royal family as well as key political figures.
As a result, Shakespeare’s Macbeth written not long after was aimed at crying out against all those who wished to bring England to ruin through their ambition for power. He stressed through this play that their end – much like Macbeth’s – would be destruction.