William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Setting 1 key example

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Definition of Setting
Setting is where and when a story or scene takes place. The where can be a real place like the city of New York, or it can be an imagined... read full definition
Setting is where and when a story or scene takes place. The where can be a real place like the city of New York, or... read full definition
Setting is where and when a story or scene takes place. The where can be a real place like the... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth takes place in medieval Scotland and is loosely based on the life of a real king who ruled the country from 1040 to 1057. Although the play is far from accurate, numerous characters and locations are drawn directly from Scottish history.

While Shakespeare's protagonist presides over the small village of Glamis, the historical Macbeth was Earl of Moray, a massive semi-autonomous kingdom in northeastern Scotland. Macbeth gained the throne by killing his own cousin, who had previously been responsible for the death of Macbeth's father.

Duncan I of Scotland—who, unlike Shakespeare's Duncan, was a young and unsuccessful monarch—died during a 1040 invasion into Moray, after which Macbeth became king. Although Shakespeare portrays him as a short-lived tyrant, the real Macbeth ruled peacefully for 17 years, and was, by all accounts, quite popular.

In 1054, English troops invaded Scotland on behalf of Edward the Confessor. Siward, the Earl of Northumbria, defeated Macbeth's forces at Dunsinane Hill, and the retreating king was later killed in action by Duncan's son, the future Malcolm III. Malcolm later assassinated Macbeth's stepson Lulach and usurped the throne. Shakespeare departs from the historical record by depicting Macbeth as childless and Malcolm as a peaceful noncombatant.

In 1527, Scottish historian Hector Boece published his History of the Scottish People, in which he altered historical facts about Macbeth in order to strengthen the claim of House Stuart to the Scottish throne. Boece invented the witches and the character of Banquo (who he claimed was the ancestor of House Stuart) and included a prophecy that Banquo's descendants would be the rightful kings of Scotland.

Boece's History served as inspiration for Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which added the character of Macduff to the narrative. Shakespeare's Macbeth mostly follows Holinshed's account, though there are some key differences: in Holinshed's Chronicles, Macbeth and Banquo conspire together to revolt against the unpopular Duncan, and Macbeth rules Scotland effectively for ten years, only becoming a tyrant late in his reign. 

Shakespeare combined this story with Holinshed's account of King Duff, who ruled Scotland from 928 to 972. In this account, a thane and his wife murder the sleeping Duff while he is a guest at their castle in Forres. Several omens ensue: horses eat each other, an owl kills a hawk, and there is an extended solar eclipse.

Macbeth may take place in 11th-century Scotland, but it also reflects the era in which it was written. James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, was the target of numerous assassination plots. Macbeth, with its themes of treachery and regicide, embodies a society anxious about the safety of its monarch. By depicting Banquo as the noble ancestor of James I's house, Shakespeare affirmed the legitimacy and security of the king's reign. The play also satisfied the king's obsession with the supernatural—James I believed in a connection between treason and witchcraft and personally oversaw the torture of several women accused of practicing black magic.

The physical locations in Macbeth also help to illustrate the play's themes. Many scenes occur outside, and the majority of the action takes place at night. The "blasted heath" where Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches and where numerous scenes of battle occur reflects the play's grim and violent mood. Thunderstorms rage throughout the play, illustrating how political disorder has thrown nature into chaos. Finally, the fact that most scenes happen at night signifies that characters are not sleeping when they should be and that the acts they are performing are illicit and unnatural.