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Background information

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On this page, we give you background information about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, including the historical context of the play.

The genre of Macbeth: drama

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a drama, or play. This is relevant to your analysis in several ways. Firstly, a play has no narrator. This means that we do not have access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Instead, we must analyze the characters and their motives based on what they say (their dialogue) and what they do (their actions). For example, when Macbeth starts seeing a floating dagger, it tells us something about his mental state.

Secondly, you should remember that when a play is staged, its interpretation relies on the decisions of the director and actors (and not just the text itself). So if you are working with stage versions of Macbeth, this is important. This study guide, however, only focuses on the play as a text. This is typically the way we work in English class: text-based.

More specifically, Macbeth is also a tragedy. Tragedies follow a central character who goes through struggles caused by fate and a tragic flaw within the character himself that he cannot overcome, making him a tragic hero. These elements can be found in Macbeth, as in other Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet

The genre of tragedy was first invented in Athens in Ancient Greece. When watching a play about human suffering, the audience both empathizes with the hero and feels a sense of relief that they are not in his shoes. 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 have just gone through a bit of catharsis. 

The historical context of Macbeth: the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras

Shakespeare’s literary production spans 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 Sco...

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