Often referred to as the “Bard of Avon,” William Shakespeare was the British dramatist and poet who produced at least 38 plays throughout his lifetime. Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and he wrote most of his dramas between the years of 1585 and 1592. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was nearly ten years older than her husband. The couple had three children. Macbeth, one of his most famous tragedies, was a play written toward the latter part of his life and career.
Throughout his lifetime, both royalty and the public lauded his creative efforts. His career spanned the reign of two monarchs—Queen Elizabeth and King James—and both applauded his work. In addition to his writing, Shakespeare is best known for his connection to the Globe Theater. Shakespeare’s playing company, known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built the theater. Though the historical records for the Globe Theater are scarce, it is known that Macbeth was performed at the theater in 1606.
In 1606, James I reigned over England; however, he had been James VI of Scotland before graduating to the British throne. King James supported Shakespeare’s writing and the performance of his plays. Macbeth clearly echoes the mutual admiration that Shakespeare shared with King James, and the play alludes to the historical lineage that King James had with Scotland. Additionally, Shakespeare based the figures of Macbeth and Banquo on historical figures. Shakespeare creatively interpreted Macbeth and Banquo, making them clear binaries of “good” and “bad” potential rulers. Those who saw the play performed at the Globe surely noticed that the character of Banquo nodded to lineage of King James throughout the Scottish throne.
Throughout the years, critics, scholars, and audiences of Macbeth have praised the play for its picture of overly ambitious rulers. The play conveys that clearly, humble rulers gain the respect of their nobles and countrymen much more easily than those who rule tyrannically. The depiction of a king who descends into madness serves as a clear warning about those who rise to power too quickly and too easily. Additionally, Shakespeare’s portrait of Lady Macbeth shows a shift in the understanding of gender norms. Lady Macbeth shows that not all ladies (and especially queens) desired to rule the domestic space; instead, Lady Macbeth shows that she, even more so than her husband, wishes to rise to power herself.
The first decade of the 17th century saw the greatest outpouring of Shakespeare’s tragedies on the English stage. Hamlet came in 1601 and was followed within a span of five years by Othello, then King Lear and Macbeth. The darker side of human nature surely occupied the playwright’s mind at this time. As his own country underwent a sweeping social, political and religious change, Shakespeare reflected in his dramas the tension between the order of the old medieval world and the relativism of the new modern perspective. Each of these tragedies examines an aspect of this tension, including Othello.
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