Introduction to Macbeth. Concept of World Order Witches Historical connection Treason. Elizabethan Beliefs. Life in Elizabethan England could be cruel and hard; starvation, plague, torture and religious persecution were commonplace.
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Concept of World Order
Life in Elizabethan England could be cruel and hard; starvation, plague, torture and religious persecution were commonplace.
People were able to make sense of their existence through their beliefs.
These included both Religion and the Chain of Being.
This theory is based on the Greek philosopher
Aristotle’s concept of the universe. Elizabethans
inherited this concept in an attempt to give “order” to
the vastness of creation.
According to this idea, everything in the world had its
position fixed by God. Everything has a strict
hierarchy in a “chain”.
God is the most significant and it stretches down to the lowest things in existence.
Humans occupied a place in the chain below angels but above the animals and plants. Some humans were also higher than others.
The monarch was the highest, nobles and churchmen followed and finally the common man. Women were obviously inferior to men.
Any attempt to break the chain of being would upset
the established order and bring about universal
disorder. Accepting one’s place in the chain was a duty
and would be rewarded by God in heaven.
Therefore, if the king’s position were violated, such as
rebellion or assassination, it would bring strife and chaos
to the world. It amounted to rebellion against God, the
creator and author of this ordered universe
Essentially, it was committing a sin against God.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the first half of 1606; his play would have reflected the fears of the English people at this uncertain time.
As you read Macbeth, watch how the Elizabethan Concept of World Order functions in the play.
Throughout history, witches and witchcraftwere a common belief. In 1604, witchcraft became a capital offence.
Elizabethans, especially the groundlings, were no different. Shakespeare drew on the popular traditions of his time and used them for his own purposes.
He wanted to entertain his audience; therefore, he included them in Act I, scene I to set the mood.
For the people of Shakespeare’s time, the devil was very real who they believed spent his time trying to trap men and women into his power.
Witches were supposed to be capable of doing all the things that the three weird sisters are said to perform in Macbeth.
It was believed that they could: see into the future, create storms, hail, thunder and lightning, they were able to sink ships, dry up springs, stop the sun and change night into day and day into night.
For a king like Macbeth to visit and have dealings with witches would have seemed both a crime and a sin.
Macbeth is easily captured by their power and prophecies. They never tell him a lie; however, they do allow him to deceive himself and become consumed with power and ambition. The devil does not lie...but leads us into temptation.
As you read Macbeth, explore the influence the witches have on the characters and the events in the play.
Elizabeth I was dying, childless, and she named James VI of Scotland as her successor. He became James I of England. He reigned for 22 years (controlling Ireland, Scotland and England) and had several conflicts with parliament and religious groups.
James I became obsessed with witches after his ship was almost sunk returning from Denmark with his new wife, Queen Anne. He believed the storm was the work of Satan.
James was instrumental in the major witch-hunt where, over the next century, 1000 “witches” were killed.
In 1597, James I published a book that he had written on the subject of witches, his Daemonologie. He interrogated people he thought were witches and had them burned at the stake.
By the time Macbeth was performed, James I had changed his tune and began defending those wrongly accused. Shakespeare knew James I was interested in witches; therefore, he included the supernatural to please the new monarch.
In August 1606, King James was entertaining his brother-in-law from Denmark at Hampton Court. A new play was to be performed – Macbeth. It is the only Shakespearean play set in Scotland and was short as the King disliked long theatre performances.
James I was familiar with the storyline because it was about his ancestors Banquo and Fleance. He was a descendent of the “Real Macbeth” who was a 11th century Scottish King.
Shakespeare found a story in The History of Scotland, by Raphael Holinshed and made several changes as not to upset King James.
In the true story, Banquo helps to murder his King.
Clearly, it would be tactless to suggest the new King descended from a regicide – the murderer of a king
Therefore, Shakespeare made Banquo’s character innocent and a loyal subject of King Duncan.
In 1605, there was a treasonous event known as the Gunpowder Plot. A group of catholic rebels tried toblow up parliament and the British Monarchy.
The Gunpowder Plot was discovered just in time- Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the building with twenty barrels of gunpowder, but the attempt shocked the people of England. At that time the king was regarded as God’s ruler on earth, and thus to kill the King was murder and sacrilege; a crime against something holy.
Macbeth is a dark play both literally and symbolically. The tone of the play is sinister and its central characters are evil. Wicked witches and the supernatural influence the action which is characterised by bloody death.
Shakespeare changed several key aspects of the original story, either to intensify his drama or to ensure political correctness.
Shakespeare's Macbeth, who commits the greatest of all crimes by murdering his king, finds he cannot live with himself and the consequences of his actions. He has rebelled against God, the order of creation and his crime is rightly punished by his death.
Sit back, relax and we’ll watch Act I, Scene I