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What is the relationship between Macbeth and events in Shakespeare’s time?

In a sense, all art is a reflection of the world of its creator. Shakespeare’s plays may be set in ancient Rome, Denmark, or Renaissance Italy, but all relate to the world of Shakespeare and his London audience. This is particularly true of Macbeth. The play is set in medieval Scotland, but it was written in response to events in 17th century England. It is quite likely that Macbeth was written in 1606. Two events in particular occurred just before Macbeth was written and are reflected in Shakespeare’s play.

The first of these events was the death of Queen Elizabeth on March 24, 1603, and the crowning of her successor, James I. That is, he is known as James I in England. In Scotland he was James VI. His family was known as the Stuarts and had ruled Scotland for several generations. James was a theater fan, like Elizabeth, and he became the sponsor of Shakespeare’s acting company which was known thereafter as The King’s Men. One reason for believing that Macbeth was composed in 1606 is because, in that year, King Christian IV of Denmark visited James and his wife, Queen Anne. Christian and Anne were brother and sister. Many scholars believe that Macbeth was written for performance before the royal brothers-in-law.

Macbeth is very complimentary to James. It’s about his ancestors, for one thing, both the fictional Banquo and Fleance and the very real Duncan and Malcolm. Shakespeare portrays all of James ancestors, both real and imaginary, in a positive light and portrays Macbeth, their enemy, as a monster. Two passages in Macbeth contain gratuitous compliments to James. One passage is in Act IV, scene i, where Macbeth is shown the eight kings that follow Banquo. These are the eight Stuart kings of Scotland (ignoring Mary Queen of Scots, James’s mother). The last king, an actor portraying James himself, holds a mirror in which Macbeth sees many more kings. These represent all the kings which will come after James. Elizabeth II, her son, Charles, and her grandson, William, are all descended from James. A second passage very complimentary to James is in Act IV, scene iii, where touching for the "King’s Evil" is mentioned. This was particularly complimentary to James since, as the King of England, he supposedly inherited the power to cure by touching.

Witchcraft was a hobby of James. He wrote a book about it. (He was against it.) Witchcraft was in the Macbeth story before Shakespeare used it, but it may have been witchcraft, and James’s interest in it, which drew Shakespeare’s attention to the possibilities of the Macbeth story in the first place.

The other great historical event of Shakespeare’s time which influenced Macbeth was the Gunpowder Plot. This was a plot by Guy Fawkes and other radical Catholics to blow up Parliament and the King on November 5, 1605. The plot was discovered and foiled just hours before it was scheduled to go off. It’s hard to overestimate the shock this had on England. It was the September 11 of the era. The plot failed, Parliament and the King weren’t blown up, but the whole idea was shocking--diabolical. It launched a holiday in England, Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, marked by bonfires and the hanging of straw "Guys" in effigy. It was celebrated for centuries and may still be celebrated in England.

The trials of the conspirators, before they were bloodily executed, were equally shocking. Equivocation, a notion that one could lie honestly under certain circumstances, became a major issue. The mention by the Porter, in Act II, scene iii, of equivocation probably reflects the prominence of the term in the trial of Father Garnet, one of the conspirators.

Garry Wills in his Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth argues for an even greater influence of the Gunpowder Plot than the mention of equivocation. He cites several passages that quote from the speech by James to Parliament which outlined the plot. Also, several other plays written at the time featured witches, apparently a reflection of the "diabolical" origin of the plot.

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