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Historical Context

Written around 1606, Macbeth is regarded as an unusually generous tribute to the current monarch at the time, King James I. In 1603, the first year of his reign, King James privileged Shakespeare's theater company (then the Lord Chamberlain's Men) above all others to be the King's Men. Shakespeare's theater company was extremely honored by the title, and Macbeth seems to be Shakespeare's most obvious attempt at expressing gratitude. There is a wealth of evidence in the play to support this claim.
Before he became James I of England, he was King James VI of Scotland. As a tribute play, it makes sense to set it in Scotland, the land of his ancestors. It is also appropriate that this play features witches and witchcraft since King James wrote a book about witchcraft. And as regicide and political murders are crucial to this play, so are they are prominent in the life of King James too - both his father and mother were killed, and a serious attempt at his life was taken in late 1605 (Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament with King James in it). Shakespeare goes further, however, to cater to King James' self-image by adjusting key details in his play.
Shakespeare draws historical information primarily from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). In Chronicles, King Duncan is a young and ineffectual ruler, and Macbeth and Banquo conspire to assassinate the king. After they succeed, Macbeth goes on to reign for ten years bearing numerous children with his wife. The story in Macbeth is altogether different - Duncan is an old and wise ruler, Banquo does not assist Macbeth in achieving the throne, and Macbeth's reign is relatively short and fruitless. Banquo is not complicit in the murder of Duncan in this play for one simple reason: Banquo is the legendary founder of the Stuart dynasty, of which King James is the last (but, of course, James didn't know this at the time this play was written). The effect of these changes for the play is profound - Macbeth seems isolated as the evil character and Banquo appears virtuous - whereas in the historical account, there is no clear distinction between good and evil.
A couple more details in the play highlight Shakespeare's debt of gratitude to King James. In Scene 4.1, the witches grant Macbeth a vision of a line of kings stemming from Banquo's son that extend to a ruler with "twofold balls and treble scepters" (IV.i.137). That is a reference to King James who was crowned twice - first as the King of Scotland and later as the King of England - and therefore carries two orbs and three scepters (since there are two scepters for the English crown). And in Scene 4.3, Malcolm describes the English king, Edward the Confessor, being able to cure scrofula with the "royal touch." It was believed that King James, too, had this divine gift to cure disease with his touch.
Clearly, Shakespeare's primary focus in this play was not to point out how magnificent King James was, but he also knew that it wouldn't hurt to sneak in a few compliments when King James had given his theater company such a big lift.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Scenes 1.1 and 1.2
Scene 1.3 - An open place
Scenes 1.4 and 1.5
Scenes 1.6 and 1.7
Scenes 2.1 and 2.2
Scene 2.3 and 2.4
Scene 3.1
Scenes 3.2 and 3.3
Scene 3.4
Scenes 3.5 and 3.6
Scene 4.1
Scene 4.2
Scene 4.3
Scenes 5.1 and 5.2
Scenes 5.3 and 5.4
Scenes 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, and 5.8
Scenes 5.9, 5.10, and 5.11


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