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The Renaissance, Shakespeare and Macbeth

Background information to prepare you for reading Macbeth
by

Bethany Gerlach

on 9 March 2011

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Transcript of The Renaissance, Shakespeare and Macbeth

Scotland 1044 A.D. Not the same as the Renaissance, during the 1600's, when Shakespeare wrote the play, Macbeth. In Scotland, there was a King Duncan, born in 1001 A.D. He became king after killing his grandfather, Malcolm II. A spoiled man, Duncan tried to gain respect by invading Northumbria. He failed, and when he returned home, he was even more unpopular. His lords, including his cousin,
Macbeth, Lord of Moray, revolted. Macbeth assasinated him, and took the throne, and his wife, Gruach.
Duncan's sons fled. One son, Malcolm, escaped to England; while
the other son, Donald Ban fled to Ireland. But wait - there's more. Gruach had been formerly married, not only to Duncan, but previously, to Gillecomgain, Duncan's brother, and had a son, Lulach. Gillecomgain and Malcolm had killed Macbeth's father. Gillecomgain was later burned alive in his fortress in revenge along with fifty other people. Surprisingly, Macbeth reigned for 17 years.
He did a good job. He and Thorfinn "Raven-Feeder"
united North and South Scotland, and organized a
military patrol that enforced law and order
throughout the country. But Malcolm returned with an army, and defeated Macbeth at the battle of Birnam Wood. Macbeth escaped and continued his reign for three more years until Duncan's son Malcolm killed him. Macbeth's stepson, Lulach, ruled for about seven months, but was ambushed and killed by Malcolm. Malcolm went on to rule, married Thorfinn's widow, and had a son, Duncan II. He also married Margaret, of a royal English family, and had three more sons.
(She is actually fleeing from the Normans in 1066 A.D. and an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II.) Malcolm was eventually killed, by a solider who put a spear through his eye socket. Renaissance 1606 A.D. Shakespeare wrote his story based on the "Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland," written by Raphael Holinshed. And yes, there was an invasion by the king of Norway, but that happened later. So, we know where the story comes from, but what about the structure? Shakespeare's works can be divided
into three main categories:
Comedy, History and Tragedy. Macbeth is, by all accounts,
a tragedy, following the same format
used for hundreds of years. Like most Renaissance writers,
Shakespeare relied heavily on classical
Greek and Roman forms. Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philospher, defined tragedy for centuries to come. By definition, according to the Poetics, part VI, "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions." Tragic Hero Noble in stature, often royal. Must be high in society, because fall must be significant, in order to arouse pity. Tragic flaw (hamartia) such as hubris, or excessive pride. The flaw means he is responsible for his own downfall. - FREE CHOICE. Misfortune is not wholly deserved, and the punishment may exceed the crime. Hero accepts fate, and gains wisdom. Audience experiences catharsis. But a tragic figure - too bad for him.
Really, why do we care that one person is so tragic? Because they believed in something
called the Great Chain of Being. Basically, it meant that there was a hierarchy of people, and of people over animals, and animals over plants, and this hierarchy was ordained by God. Also, people believed that if anyone or anything
tried to change the chain, it would upset the balance. Thus, if someone wanted to move into a higher class, or if someone consorted with lower classes, there would be signs of nature getting upset. The greater the infraction, the more upset nature would get. Hence, when Macbeth kills Duncan, there are earthquakes, a solar eclipse, and horses eating each other. A sign of a serious infraction . . . While they liked their world in a strict order,
words were a different matter, or at least for Shakespeare. No, people didn't really talk this way in real life. But Shakespeare changed the order of words to create a specific poetic rhythm, to emphasize a specific word, or to give a character personality. It still makes sense. For example:
I ate the sandwich. Ate I the sandwich.
The sandwich I ate. I the sandwich ate.
Ate the sandwich I. The sandwich ate I. Frequently, Shakespeare puts the object of the sentence before the verb and the subject, "The sandwich ate I." To understand Shakespeare's language, look at the words, and put them in the order that makes the most sense. Thus, the sentence means "I ate the sandwich." Shakespeare also has a habit of omitting, or leaving out letters. So "in the habit" becomes "'i th' 'abit" and "often" becomes "oft" reflecting how people really talk. We do it too. Imagine the conversation:
"Have you been to class yet?"
"No, I have not yet been to class.
I heard that Mrs. Ulen is giving a test today."
"What is the purpose of that?" Really, what you would
hear is probably closer to this:
"Been to class yet?"
"No. Heard Ulen's givin' a test."
"Wha'sup wi'that?"
Full transcript