Historical perspective

Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be related to its historical context, the Elizabethan era. The play is believed to have been first performed in 1606 and was probably written shortly before that. This places Macbeth somewhere between two historical contexts: the Elizabethan era, named after Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and the Jacobean era, named after the Scottish King James VI (reigned 1603-1625). 

This means that the play would have been highly influenced by the ideas of the Elizabethan era, which is why we refer to the play’s historical context as mainly Elizabethan. However, the play also seems to comment on the politics of the Jacobean era, such as King James’ right to the English throne.

The Elizabethan era existed within the wider European historical period called the Renaissance and was naturally influenced by it. The period marked a break with the so-called “dark” Middle Ages which came before. Renaissance means “rebirth” and was inspired by classical ideas from Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly in art, philosophy, and literature. 

However, many things were still fairly conservative, at least by present-day standards. Many Elizabethans were superstitious and believed in witchcraft. This is why the witches in the play may have seemed very real to some. Also, the role of women was very different from what it is today: Women were generally expected to be submissive, which is why a strong woman like Lady Macbeth would have seemed unnaturally masculine to many at the time. Female actors were not allowed, which is why all female roles in Macbeth would have been played by young boys. 

In the play, we also see the Elizabethan world picture, which was generally a mixture of older medieval ideas and more modern Renaissance ideas. Paradoxically, the Elizabethans believed that humans had been given free will by God while also being influenced by fate. Everyone was thought to be part of a universal hierarchy called the Chain of Being which kept everything in perfect balance - unless it was disturbed, which is exactly what happens in Macbeth.

We advise you to check out our Background information for a detailed understanding of the historical context of Macbeth.

Literary perspective

Shakespeare’s Macbeth can be related to the literary era it was part of. Overall, English literature in the Elizabethan era was influenced by classical European literature, such as the tragedies of Ancient Greek writers like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. However, English liter...

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