The Importance of Time Period and Place in Macbeth

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In what ways do time and place matter to this work?

Written in about 1603-1604 A.D, Macbeth is the last of Shakespeare’s four tragedies, the others being: Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello; however, unlike these plays, it is ultimately based on the balance between the natural and supernatural worlds. The play’s protagonist, Macbeth, is a virtuous and celebrated military general, who with encouragement from his wife turns into a power-hungry usurper and kills his cousin, the noble King Duncan. It is a historical play that is set in 11th century Scotland but is different from other historical plays such as Richard III, who ruled only a century ago and about whom the audience has a general idea. People are completely unfamiliar with Macbeth, who by vague historical accounts existed five hundred years prior to Shakespeare and this gave the playwright the liberty to reimagine history- a common practice during that period.

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During Shakespeare’s time, history was not the research-based discipline it is today and historical accuracy was of little importance. It was often altered and manipulated in order to serve a political purpose. The most frequent fabricators of history were successive monarchs who ordered the alteration of historical accounts to prove their legitimacy. The clergy were another group, who would actively participate in corrupting history for the sake of maintaining religious dominance over the lives of people. Macbeth is one such play where Shakespeare deliberately alters history in part to cozy up to the status quo. The play was written at a time when a new King, James I, had succeeded to the English throne. He was Scottish and the Sovereign of Scotland prior to the Union of England and Scotland as one kingdom. His succession to the throne also marked the end of Queen Elizabeth’s several decade-long rules. She was a great patron of the arts and in particular of the plays written by Shakespeare and it was under her rule the Globe Theater flourished as a source of English literature and culture. James I, like his predecessor was a patron of the arts and in order to impress him, Shakespeare made several historical adjustments to the play’s plot and these changes had political and social significance to the King. Examples are: The Scottish setting of the play; the depiction of the rightful King Duncan as strong, wise and noble, who in reality was a young, weak and inefficient ruler; Banquo as a similarly wise and noble friend, who in reality may have been accomplice in King Duncan’s murder but since James I claimed ancestry from Banquo, it would’ve been unwise to have depicted the King’s ancestor as a murderer. Finally, it is noteworthy to see that the prophecies of the three witches form the foundation of the play. This is because James I was superstitious and believed in the existence of witchcraft as a satanic practice among certain women in the society. In fact, he wrote a book on spirits and witchcraft called “Daemononlogie” and during his reign executed scores of women on false accounts of being witches.

Apart from deliberate historical revisionism, several themes of the play also closely align with social beliefs and attitudes of the 17th century England (as opposed to 11th century Scotland). One such noticeable belief was in a religious hierarchical structure concerning all matter and life to have been decreed by God, called, “The Great Chain of Being.” The chain would start from God and progress downwards to spiritual beings like angels and demons, then to celestial bodies like the moon and the planets, then to mundane beings like the king, princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, plants, precious stones and so on and so forth. It was widely believed that any unnatural interruption in the chain would invoke unnatural consequences (which can be seen in the case of King Duncan’s assassination). The portrayal of supernatural characters such as Banquo’s ghost and the imagery of Scotland under Macbeth’s rule, defined by Ross as “shrouded and dark,” are examples of such unnatural consequences and more important examples of contemporary social beliefs being incorporated into the work.

In conclusion, the time period and place in which Macbeth was written hold tremendous significance to the play. This is evident from Shakespeare’s deliberate reimagining of historical facts, a common practice at the time, such as the factually inaccurate portrayal of Duncan and Banquo and the witches’ prophecies, to appease the new King of England, James I. Moreover the incorporation of contemporary social beliefs, such as “the Great Chain of Being,” which was a belief in the divinely ordained hierarchy of things are relevant influences in the conception of the play.

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