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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Macbeth was first performed in 1606, three years after James I succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne. By that time, William Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in England, and his company, which had been called the Chamberlain's Men under Queen Elizabeth, was renamed the King's Men.
You can see from the subject and content of Macbeth that Shakespeare was writing to please the new king. At the time James became James I of England, he was already James VI of Scotland, so a play like Macbeth about Scottish history was a tribute to him. This play was especially flattering because James was of the Stuart line of kings, and supposedly the Stuarts were descended from Banquo, who appears in the play as a brave, noble, honest man. Also, James wrote a book called Demonology, and he would have been very interested in the scenes with the witches.
It is not unusual that Shakespeare would have written Macbeth with an eye toward gratifying his patron. Shakespeare was a commercial playwright-he wrote and produced plays to sell tickets and make money.
One of his early plays-Titus Andronicus-was popular for the same reason certain movies sell a lot of tickets today: it is full of blood and gore. The witches and the battles of Macbeth, too, may have been there in part to appeal to the audience.
It was Shakespeare's financial success as a playwright that restored his family's sagging fortunes. John Shakespeare, William's father, was the son of a farmer. He opened a shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and eventually become one of the town's leading citizens.
John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father's landlord. Mary was a gentle, cultivated woman, and their marriage helped John socially in Stratford.
William, their first son, was born in 1564. It seems that by the time he was twenty his father was deeply in debt, and John's name disappeared from the list of town councillors. Years later, when William was financially well off, he bought his father a coat of arms, which let John sign himself as an official "gentleman."
So Shakespeare was no aristocrat who wrote plays as an intellectual pursuit. He was a craftsman who earned his living as a dramatist.
We don't know much about Shakespeare's life. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was twenty-six. They had three children, two girls and a boy, and the boy, Hamnet, died young. By his mid-twenties, Shakespeare was a successful actor and playwright in London, and he stayed in the theater until he died, in 1616.
Macbeth was written relatively late in Shakespeare's career- when he was in his forties. It was the last of what are considered the four great tragedies. (The others are Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.) Macbeth is one of the shortest of Shakespeare's works, and its economy is a sign that its author was a master of his craft. You are amazed at the playwright's keen understanding of human nature and his skill in expressing his insights through dramatic verse as, step by step, he makes the spiritual downfall of Macbeth, the title character, horrifyingly clear.
All Shakespeare's plays seem to brim over with ideas-he is always juggling several possibilities about life. England, too, was in the midst of a highly interesting period, full of change.
Queen Elizabeth was a great queen, and under her rule England had won a war against Spain, which established it as a world power. America was being explored. Old ideas about government and law were changing. London was becoming a fabulous city, filling with people from the countryside. Even the English language was changing, as people from distant areas came together and added new words and expressions to the common language.
More than a half-century earlier, Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England. Forty years later, in the middle of the 17th century, King Charles I would lose his head, executed by the Puritans in a civil war.
Elizabeth was not as secure on the throne as you might think. Though her grandfather, Henry VII, had stripped the nobles of England of much power, Elizabeth still struggled with them throughout her reign. She had to be a political genius to play them against each other, to avoid the plottings of the Roman Catholics and to overcome the country's financial mess created by her father, Henry VIII.
A lot was "modern," a lot was "medieval" about the way people thought in Shakespeare's time. People were superstitious, and the superstitions became mixed up with religion. Things that nobody understood were often attributed to supernatural forces.
You can feel some of these things moving behind the scenes as you read Macbeth. But none of this background-not the influence of James I or the intrigues of Elizabeth's court or the superstitions of the times-should determine the way you read the play. It has a life of its own, breathed into it by Shakespeare's talent and art. It stands on its own and must be evaluated on its own terms. So now let's turn to the play itself.