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Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the historical and cultural context of William Shakespeare's play Macbeth.

Macbeth | Context


Historical Influences

Scholars do not list Macbeth among Shakespeare's history plays, which include Henry V and Richard II, but there is a historical basis for the play. The actual Macbeth ruled Scotland from 1040 until 1057 and killed his predecessor, Duncan I. However, this killing took place on a battlefield near the Scottish town of Elgin, rather than under Macbeth's own roof. Macbeth later married the granddaughter of another king, Kenneth III, and defeated Duncan I's father in battle in 1045. Historians characterize the real Macbeth as a fair and law-oriented king who encouraged the spread of Christianity in Scotland. This description, too, is a sharp contrast with the "tyrant" of Shakespeare's play, who is obsessed with occult visions and prophecies.

Macbeth fought against Siward, Earl of Northumbria, when Siward attempted to bring Duncan I's stepson Malcolm to the Scottish throne in 1054. However, Macbeth rebuffed this challenge and ruled three more years before Malcolm defeated him at the Battle of Lumphanan to become Malcolm III.

Shakespeare's version of Scottish history was likely inspired by one of his own contemporaries, Raphael Holinshed, who published his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1577. Holinshed's version includes the witches, or weird sisters, and makes Banquo a coconspirator with Macbeth. The House of Stuart, James I's family line, claimed Banquo among its ancestors, which explains why Shakespeare changed Banquo into the tragic victim of his friend's treachery and why the play emphasizes Banquo's role as the father of many kings.

The play includes other elements arguably designed to appeal to James I. Macbeth is defeated by a unified army of English and Scottish soldiers, significant because James I was the king who united England and Scotland under one crown. The defeat of the usurper is important as well, because James I was the target of a number of plots early in his reign, most notably the Gunpowder Plot (1605), a failed attempt to destroy the Parliament and assassinate James I.

Finally, James I was known for his opposition to witchcraft and the supernatural. He presided over a few witch trials and, while king of Scotland, published a paper called "Daemonologie," which claims witches are a serious threat to Scotland. Accordingly, the witches in Macbeth are presented as a malicious force bent on creating chaos in the land.


Because the play depicts a regicide, it was banned after the execution of King James's son, Charles I, in 1649. Its treatment of witchcraft has also created controversy. Legend has it that a coven of witches cursed Macbeth after its early performances, ostensibly because they didn't want their secret incantations going public. Whether or not this story is true, a superstition took hold in the theater community that forbade performers and crew members from speaking the play's name aloud. Even today, many performers refer to the work as "the Scottish Play" in an effort to keep the curse at bay.

There have been notable instances of bad luck associated with performances of Macbeth, such as falling equipment and actors falling from the stage. One of the best-known instances was a 1849 riot in New York City's Astor Place, which was sparked by fans of two different actors performing the title role in different venues. Twenty-two people were killed during the riot. Despite these incidents, Macbeth has remained one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed works.

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