Background information

Understanding the world of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is over 400 years old and one of the most famous works of literature ever written. Because of its age, the language can be difficult, and knowing about the historical context is important for understanding the text. In what follows, we will take you though some of the most important background information for analysing the play. Even if you are just studying a short extract from the play, it will be good for you to know about the context.

The genre of Macbeth: drama

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a drama or play. To analyse a text, you need to understand its genre and the characteristics of this genre. Importantly, in a play there is no narrator: without direct access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which a narrator would normally give us, we need to work out the characterisation and motives of the characters by observing what they say (their dialogue) and what they do (their actions, as indicated in the text).

When a play is staged, its interpretation relies on the decisions of the directors and actors as well as the text itself. However, in this study guide we are going to focus on the text of the play. This is typically the way we work in English class: text-based.

More specifically, Macbeth is also a tragedy. Shakespeare wrote in various genres, including tragedies, comedies, and history plays. In general, tragedies follow a central character who goes through various struggles, often caused by fate and by a tragic flaw within the character that he or she cannot overcome. These elements can be found in Macbeth, as in other Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet and King Lear

The genre of tragedy was first invented in Athens in Ancient Greece. By watching a play based on human suffering, the audience both empathises and feels a sense of relief that they are in fact distanced from the events by their awareness of the fictional nature of the play and by the extreme characteristics of the characters. This sense of relief is known as “catharsis” and is essential to the genre of tragedy. So, if you ever felt sorry for Macbeth and his tragic end, you may just have gone through a bit of catharsis. 

The historical context of Macbeth: the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras

Shakespeare’s literary production falls across two different eras in English history. His first works belong to the Elizabethan era, named after the renowned Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) who was also called the “Virgin Queen”. His later works (including Macbeth) belong to the Jacobean era, named after the Scottish King James VI (reigned 1603-1625).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the “Virgin Queen” did not marry or produce any children, so on her death James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth’s relative, became King Jam...

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