Below, you’ll find a list of the most important beliefs of people (audience) in Shakespeare’s time. Use these to enhance your essay analysis by making deeper connections between the story and its meanings.
It’s important to read any Shakespeare play with knowledge of its cultural context. In this case, we need to understand the beliefs and attitudes of people in the Jacobean era before we can fully understand why Shakespeare created the story and characters in a particular way that he did.
Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful, you can take a look at our full online Macbeth course here. Use the code “SHAKESPEARE” to receive a 50% discount!
This course includes:
- A full set of video lessons on each key element of the text: summary, themes, setting, characters, context, attitudes, analysis of key quotes, essay questions, essay examples
- Downloadable documents for each video lesson
- A range of example B-A* / L7-L9 grade essays, both at GCSE (ages 14-16) and A-Level (age 16+) with teacher comments and mark scheme feedback
- A bonus Macbeth workbook designed to guide you through each scene of the play!
CULTURAL BELIEFS IN MACBETH
- Witches were a real fear at the time, and many people believed in magic, demons and evil. Certainly, the predominant and only acceptable religion in Shakespeare’s England was Protestantism; which had strict rules about embracing goodness and denouncing evil.
- It was widely thought that women should not meddle in professional or political affairs. Lady Macbeth resents this gender distinction and rebels against it by trying to denounce all of her feminine characteristics in order to become more masculine, which she equates with being powerful.
- Women couldn’t be actors in Shakespeare’s time, all stage roles were played by men. Usually, young men would play the female parts, so Lady Macbeth would have been a young man dressed as a woman, speaking with a high-pitched voice. This creates a kind of frightening uncanniness in female characters such as the Witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Women were associated with emotion and passion, men were associated with logic and reason (although there are many examples of men and women that challenge these stereotypes, even in Shakespeaere’s time and in his other works). Macbeth’s emotional breakdowns could therefore be interpreted as weakness, and Lady Macbeth’s desire to ‘unsex’ herself in order to be powerful can be better understood if read in a Jacobean context.
- Lady Macbeth’s wish to be more masculine would have been viewed as highly unnatural, Macbeth parallels this shift as he becomes more emotional and impulsive throughout the play, thereby displaying more ‘feminine’ traits.
- Kingship: the state of being a king, or performing acts associated with being king (ruling, decision making, diplomacy, etc). The play partially is written to explore the differences between tyranny and kingship: Duncan is a true king appointed with the Divine Right to rule, suggesting he is supported and favoured by God; Macbeth, on the other hand, is abandoned by God: ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat’. The contrast of these characters shows the difference in positive and negative leadership: a ruler should be well-liked and have his kingdom’s best interests at heart, rather than being selfishly obsessed with power.
- James I was a new king, who had only come to power a few years before the play was written (he was crowned King of England in 1603, the play was written in 1606). There was a lot of unrest and debate about his right to rule, so Shakespeare’s play has a conservative message that is intended to convince his audience not to question or rebel against the appointed monarch in power. There had already been one attempt on James I’s life at this point, with the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.