New Historicist reading of Macbeth

Seniors,

On Tuesday we talked more about these “lenses” or “filters” with which we can study literature. We’ve already used a Freudian/Psychoanalytical lens to study the minds of Macbeth and his wife, and today we talked about New Historicism, which “reopened the interpretation of literature to the social, political, and historical milieu that produced it…New Historicists look at literature alongside other cultural products of a particular historical period to illustrate how concepts, attitudes, and ideologies operated across a broader cultural spectrum.” In other words, as we wrote in our notes, if we read a text with a new historicist lens then we would have to take into account the context of when it was written and the biography of who wrote it.

To look at Macbeth like a New Historicist, we studied the history of the real Macbeth from the 1000s and the political climate when Shakespeare wrote the play for King James in the early 1600s. For those of you who missed class Tuesday, these are the texts we looked at: Macbeth real life carousel.

On Friday we learned about King James’ history as king of Scotland and England — he’s the guy who Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” for.

For Monday, in the comments below explain how looking at Macbeth as new historicists can help us have a deeper understanding of the play and its characters by contrasting it with the real history of Macbeth and the time period in which Shakespeare wrote the play. Take a look at this article by Wiatt Ropp: New Historicist Criticism Macbeth, which discusses why Shakespeare made some of the choices he did while writing the play and goes deeper into beliefs held by New Historicists. As always, include evidence from the texts and provide an analysis that goes beyond what we’ve discussed in class or from the readings. Think about what the Ropp says about power and King James’ ancestry.

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31 thoughts on “New Historicist reading of Macbeth

  1. As a new Historicist and based on the original story of Macbeth and Banquo, it is very clear why Shakespeare had written the story of Macbeth the way he did. By the order of King James, Shakespeare had almost rewritten history by the popularity of his story. Due to the time period, being a descendent of the person who killed a king was not a very popular campaign move. Fearing the people’s reaction to the actions of King James’ ancestor, Banquo, James had given commands to Shakespeare to lessen Banquo’s involvement in the killing of King Duncan and uprising of Macbeth.
    In “Macbeth”, Shakespeare attempts to hide Banquo’s role by using Lady Macbeth to help assist Macbeth in killing the king. Contrary to actual history, it was actually Banquo who led the assistance of the murder of King Duncan. Little by little, Shakespeare begins to modify small details from the actual history just for one specific purpose. Based on Shakespeare’s adaptation of the story, it is seen that Banquo had a very limited role but still relatively true to actual history. For this to actually work, Shakespeare reduced Banquo’s role by increasing the role of the other characters, such as Lady Macbeth. Relative to real history, Banquo is still slain by Macbeth in both adaptations and he is still portrayed as Macbeth’s right hand man.
    This deeper understanding of the play and its characters, based on the real history, tells us that the play was created for only one reason. Although it is titled, “Macbeth”, it was truly about Banquo, and restricting his role in history. The title, “Macbeth” also serves to further minimize Banquo’s character. Essentially, “Macbeth” is just a story; an alteration of actual history to help hide King James’ unfortunate past. The original question was: “Why did Shakespeare change what truly happened in ‘Macbeth-ian’ history?” It was because of King James’ will. For him to become and stay King, the people ought to not have known what his ancestor had done 600 years ago.

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    • Good response, Johnny, though where did you find information that said King James instructed Shakespeare to tone down the Banquo-ness of his history? Shakespeare probably did that on his own, though knowing he kind of had to. I like what you said here though: “Although it is titled, ‘Macbeth’, it was truly about Banquo, and restricting his role in history. The title, ‘Macbeth’ also serves to further minimize Banquo’s character.” New historicism is all about analyzing not onlly the text but also the outside world around it, which means the two are wound together. Analyzing one means we have to analyze the other.

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      • I assumed that based on the discussion in class about King James’s direct involvement to Banquo and the creation of “Macbeth”. He knew that remaining king would go awry if the people knew that his ancestor once killed a king. But I understand your point, Shakespeare was very smart and he knew that he would have the King breathing down his neck if he did not write this accordingly.

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  2. New historicism provides a new method to literary analysis by putting a piece of literature, in our case Macbeth, into temporal, societal, and social context. A new historicist does not seek meaning, but relevance. It is through this that new historicism can help us understand the motives behind the creation and structural make-up of Macbeth. For example, in “Macbeth real life carousel” we see several historical incongruities to the real Macbeth in the early 1000’s and 600 years thereafter; like how “Shakespeare’s play takes place over a year whereas in reality, MacBeth ruled for 17 years,” or how King Duncan’s character in Shakespeare’s play was highly averse to his historical counterpart. In the play Duncan is portrayed as elderly, wise, intelligent, and noble, whereas historically his characteristics appear quite antonymous as young, not intelligent or well respected.

    These incongruities further clarify the opaque window of motive. Through historical analysis, we can proceed to understand why these choices were made within the play. First, any successful play has to appeal to the audience in order to truly be effective. “The primary audience member for Macbeth was King James I.” (Macbeth real life carousel). Thus the play did not accurately represent the incompetent nature of King Duncan so as to appeal to King James himself. This also was the motive behind implementing the Witch characters. Furthermore, the play needed an expedited form of history, so Macbeth only rules for one year instead of the actual 17. Ropp adds unto these ideas by stating that the principal characteristics behind Macbeth indirectly complement King James and, demonstrate not only the need of a “good king”, but the consequences of greed, treason, and evil that Macbeth is made to embody. Ropp also describes power as psychologically relative, and directly related to our perception of current or impending danger, but that it is in fact, illusory. Ropp, providing the currently relevant example of military or political power more aptly states “Military or political power is strengthened, not weakened, when it has some kind of threatening subversion of contain.” Applying this to Macbeth, the character of Macbeth is allegorical to this danger, and thus paradoxically only augments the main power of King Duncan, or James, that serves as an indirect complement. Ropp validates this view stating “The consequences of Macbeth’s regicide and tyranny illustrate the kinds of disruption that were prevented by the peaceful ascension to the throne of James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots.”

    Ultimately new historicism grants us new insight into the motives of literature, and a larger understanding of the piece, beyond the complex surface of meaning.

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    • Good summary at the end: “Ultimately new historicism grants us new insight into the motives of literature, and a larger understanding of the piece, beyond the complex surface of meaning.” I also like that you quoted Ropp here, especially in regards to power. Under a new historicist lens, Shakespeare’s play channeled any ideas of rebellion into the stage, removing it from being an actual threat to King James’ rule.

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  3. Looking at Macbeth through the new historicist lense can help us understand the play better because it gives us the purpose for writing the play. It gives us some background because as far as I know Macbeth was just a fictional story. I believe that the purpose of the story was to make people become bias or persuade epoples mind to mold into one shape. In the article, New Historicist Criticism Macbeth, it says “some outside forces orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing power structures” (Ropp). That means Shakesphere was hired by the “power structures” a.k.a King James of Scottland to make the Scottish throne look innocent and trustworthy. In the real events of history, Macbeth killed King Duncan with the help of his cousin Banquo, who also happens to be King James ancestor. So to make himself look good to the citizens he used the media (the play) to portray it as if Macbeth’s wife helped him kill the king long ago. He did not want people to know of his ancestors involvement in the murder of the former king. I think that King James was paranoid that people would want to rebel because they think he comes from a family of murderers. I would call this propaganda in a way beacuse it persuades people in favor.
    Also this play portrays King Duncan in such a good way when in reality he was said to be a bad king. So the play was biased to King Duncan. In real life Duncan had some sort of claim to the throne through his mother but in the play he had no relations to Duncan besides friends. Making Macbeth friends with Duncan in the play makes Macbeth look even worse that he killed his own friend.

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    • Nice work, Tina. This sums up your response nicely: “In the article, New Historicist Criticism Macbeth, it says “some outside forces orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing power structures” (Ropp). That means Shakesphere was hired by the “power structures” a.k.a King James of Scottland to make the Scottish throne look innocent and trustworthy.” New historicism is all about how the text relates to real life, and how they influence each other.

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  4. Looking at it through this point of view, the New Historicists, it can be helpful to have a deeper understanding of the play because it shows why they, the writer, changed the appearance of a characters personality. For example, in real life, Macbeth served for 17 years and was a good king while written he only ruled for one and did not do a good job at his role. Also, King Duncan was approached oppositely. It was made so that however he was viewed as in the life of King James, now he was the opposite so that the life before led up to the moment then in 1603. The play is biased towards King Duncan because it gives him such a good reputation even though that is not true.

    This view is almost persuading people to favor a side and be biased. They make it so that it seems as though one side is more effective. King James was a descendant of Banquo and in real life, Banquo, being cousins with Macbeth, helped with the murdering of King Duncan. He asked Shakespeare to switch the roles of Macbeth and Banquo. Having this reputation that someone in your family murdered the king is something that nobody is going to forget so Shakespeare changed it up to make it seem more ideal. Instead it is Lady Macbeth who assists Macbeth and this is why in the play, they appeared to have a more negative persona towards the reader.

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  5. Looking at Macbeth through a historic “filter” makes the book a lot more easier to explain. I want to focus on one thing about the correlation with the history and Banquo’s story. We all know who wrote “Macbeth”, but why or what inspired him to write it. It was King James who instructed shakesphere to write it for all his people, so they can enjoy the story, in a thearatical view. King James is in the family line (related) to Banquo, the man who helped Macbeth kill the respected king Duncan. Let me remind you that King James is related to a king killer. This was in the 1600s so being related to a “king killer” would destroy your “name” and respect. Now having banquo as an ancestor was probably rough. King James told Shakespeare the story and since banquo wasn’t the best character in the story, his role in the story changed. Instead of being this brutal murderer he became this noble man who seems very humble and barely has to do with the murder of the King Duncan.

    Seeing this make so much sense why banquo comes of as such a great charecter in the book. The story of “Macbeth” written by Shakespeare was very popular and now everyone is going to forget this king killer and remember this new banquo. This also takes the heat off of King James as well. Having filters make the story a lot clearer, and makes things easier to understand.

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    • While it’s true that white-washing Banquo’s character “takes the heat off of King James,” as you said, why else would this play take the heat off of James’ kingship? What parallels can we find between James and the aftermath of Duncan/Macbeth’s rule?

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  6. Reading the article you posted and think back to the play and notes we took it makes sense why Shakespeare did it in this form. He had rules that he had to follow to meet the kings standards.”The very existence of the theater helped keep the threat of rebellion under control by providing people with a legitimate, though restricted, place to express otherwise unacceptable ideas and behavior”(ropp). The reason they made this story was to give us more of an understanding of Macbeth and his journey. But also made people understand that Macbeth was a whimp when he actually did all the awful things , and made him have a cover up so people won’t see the true colors.But they also tried to show in the article that he was in seek of power , “Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetic style and skillful characterization, Macbeth is revealed as little more than a petty tyrant. Like Machiavelli’s Prince, Macbeth seeks power as an end in itself and sees any means as justified provided it helps him achieve his goal”(Ropp). This article shows the insecurity that king James had which was people knowing that Macbeth blood runs through him. “As a consequence of their new feelings of insecurity, people desire that their leader remain in power and even increase his power so that he can better defend them from their new enemy”(ropp). It shows the reality that king James wanted to express and cover up with the help of Shakespeare’s poetic style/gift. There people who tried to change people mind set and sell to them there made up story to cover up the reality. They tried to portray that Macbeth was good that it wasn’t him who killed Duncan, they also tried to portray that King Duncan was a good king when people of that time said that king Duncan was not a good king at all. They also portrayed that lady Macbeth was an awful person. I just think this all some really cheap white out that didn’t cover up what it was suppose to cover up and left a trail.

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    • Good response, Ada, you’ve identified some of the most significant passages from the Ropp article (but make sure you know it’s Banquo’s blood that runs through James, not Macbeth’s).

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  7. Looking at Macbeth as new historicists helped me truly gain understanding of the play and its characters. I realized that Shakespeare wrote this to satisfy the ears of King James and his supporters. Just like the media now a days there are many false rumors and accusations but most of the time it’s not true. The reporter’s are just like Shakespeare, they write or display what pleases the people. King James asked Shakespeare to a write a play that would make his time of ruling look flawless. King James who in real life was a descendant of Banquo asked Shakespeare to display Banquo as Macbeth’s cousin who was a innocent loyal wingman. But in reality Banquo helped Macbeth kill King Duncan, in the play Shakespeare replaces Banquo with lady Macbeth as the person who help plot and kill King Duncan. If people were to find out that King James was a descent of a killer then it’ll ruin his reputation which is why King James had Shakespeare to write him a play that’ll cover things up in order to keep his reputation. As a new historicist it helps show the real story and true colors of the characters depicted in the play. Sometimes they’re not whom they seem to be.

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  8. After gathering all my thoughts from the past week and reading this article, how looking at Macbeth can help us have a deeper understanding of the play and its characters by contrasting it with the real history of Macbeth is by Macbeth is a brave soldier and a powerful man, but he is not virtuous. This is because in the play he is easily tempted into murder to fulfill his ambitions to the throne. Which is the complete opposite than what happen in real life. I noticed that after he committed his first crime, his other murder come with ease and doesn’t think about the situation more than what he use too. Lady Macbeth became a bad influence for him which strived his actions through out the play. Macbeth cannot maintain his power because his brutal actions make him hated as a tyrant making him a bad king. Macbeth is never comfortable in his role as a criminal. I say this because at the beginning of the play he shows that he knows what is right wrong and chooses to do wrong without being able to justify it to himself. He can even explain to himself why he chose to do wrong from good while in real life he knew why he does good and why he has his power since the people he is a great king. This situation connects to what Wiatt Ropp wrote in his article which states “It is almost as if some outside force carefully orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing power structures. Consider, for example, a military leader who becomes afraid of the peace that undermines his position in society.” which leads to what is happening to Macbeth, such as questioning himself for his wrong doings that he already done. In real life the characters killed themselves, it wasn’t because Macbeth killed them all with his partner in crime Lady Macbeth. Being portrayed as bad king in the play and a good king in real life. This leads me to the understanding of Lady Macbeth a little bit more because Lady Macbeth is a deeply ambitious woman who lusts for power and position and do what ever she can. Such as becoming king in the play which has more power than a queen which she was portrayed in real life. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth apparently feel quite passionately for one another, and Lady Macbeth demonstrates her sexual attraction over Macbeth which it intrigues which persuades him to commit murder. As they continue this relationship it felt like it did not bring them closer together, but further apart and it seemed to numb their feelings for one another. Like for every villain, two villains at the end of the day don’t get along and end up killing each other so I think this is what is going on with their relationship. Looking deeper into Macbeth showed me a more understanding of the play and the situation plus their actions they chose.

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    • Eddie, excellent response! I really like how you addressed the power side of this — that new historicism examines the power of structure in a society as well as the context from when the text being analyzed was written.

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  9. Looking through different lenses, it is starting to make sense how twisted the play is contrasting what actually happened. It is perceived to be an opposite of what actually occurred. In the article by Wiatt Ropp, he said, “Within the walls of the theater, it is acceptable to mock the actor playing a king, but never the king himself; it is acceptable to contemplate the murder of a theatrical monarch, but never a real one,” explains the timeline of events of how things happen and how they are translated to be made into a theatrical sense in order to make fun of, or portray a fictional truth. For example, in real life king Duncan is king for 6 years and is really bad it, and then Macbeth is called to the throne. Shakespeare probably thought it was boring, and so he added some action. In the play Macbeth had to kill Macbeth in order to get access to throne. That’s sketchy if you ask me.
    New historicists want us to open our minds and connect things differently than what actually happened. They want us to understand what happened in a way we don’t understand, if that makes sense. Macbeth is portrayed as such an ambitious bad guy, while in real life he was a great king and in the play we haven’t really introduced Macdonald yet, , but as everything else in the play Macdonald will probably be a good man. It’s wicked isn’t it. A good civilian will be portrayed as a victim and vice versa.

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    • Karen, I like your thoughts on new historicism in general (remember though, this new guy is named Macduff) but I think there’s more going on with what Shakespeare did than just that the original history is boring. Think about it like a new historicist – how does the history help us analyze the play better?

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  10. Jean R
    The different that I seen is that in the book Duncan is king and then Macbeth want to be king and Macbeth was a bad king. Macbeth rule for one year . what we understand is that there 2 way of view to understand the play and the movie because the book Shakespeare can be doing something else but in the movie they do something else and then it hard to understand the different about the book and the movie .and the different about the movie is that Duncan is a bad king later lady Macbeth want to be queen and Macbeth is a good king. Then England helps to take over throne. But Banquo dies. In the movie Macbeth has claim to throne. So that is the different about the movie and the play.

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  11. the difference i see in this book to the real life of Macbeth is the Macbeth is a good king both times but Duncan was a bad king in real life and in the book Duncan was a great king also Macbeth only was king for one year in the book that it says also in real life Macbeth killed Duncan with his cousin and in the book Macbeth killed Duncan killed with lady Macbeth but it was more lady Macbeth.

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    • Yep, those are differences, but how does this lens of new historicism help us understand the play better? How does knowing the real life stuff help us learn more about the characters in the play?

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  12. Macbeth was made with a clear understanding of limitations of what could and could not be mentioned during the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Wiatt Ropp’s stated an interesting idea of theater “The very existence of the theater helped keep the threat of rebellion under control by providing people with a legitimate, though restricted, place to express otherwise unacceptable ideas and behavior.” This allows us to think of Macbath “as little more than a petty tyrant” but something deeper that relates to what people where thinking in that time period and extended to norms to be pushed.
    By knowing the history behind Shakespeare’s time of writing it we get a better understanding of what Macbeth’s message is and the direction it is going to. For example, Ropp wrote that “The consequences of Macbeth’s regicide and tyranny illustrate the kinds of disruption that were prevented by the peaceful ascension to the throne of James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots.” and that Shakespeare wrote it with the intent of making Macbeth look bad. In conclusion Macbeth itself was made to be the exact opposite of what happened in history, putting a new lens of what could have been, making what turn out to be look better.

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    • Nice use of quotes from the article – what do you mean by “putting a new lens of what could have been, making what turn out to be look better” though? Are you referring to King James’ ascension to the English throne?

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  13. looking at it from this perspective gives you a whole new look on the play because now you see the facts and the foundation of this play. you now see why it was written and the influences that plagued this writing for example how banquo was portrayed as a good civil person the reason for that being was the king james who knew the soon to be author of macbeth was a descendent from banquos blood line and was known as the same blood line of a king killer so shakespeare was famous and he wanted him to write something changing perspective on banquos role within the killing of king duncan. shakespeare did it to gain fame with the king but you see the play from a different perspective because you now know why its written and the reason for every body being the way they are they should rename the play to the blood of the king layeth were

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    • Your last sentence left me hanging! Sure, now we know the difference between the play and real life and why Shakespeare made the changes he did, but what about power? And how does this help us analyze the play differently?

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  14. Looking at Macbeth at a new historicist perspective, it is clear that there was some influence by King James on Shakespeare as he wrote the play. Contrasting the theatrical display of Macbeth and the real history, you can understand why some of the scenes are written in such way to portray a different objective. Since King James of Scotland shared a family tree with Banquo, who assisted with the assassination of King Duncan, it was important to not let his reputation be ruined so famous Shakespeare must write a play to flip some roles and facts. New historicists gives us a better understanding by looking at the setting, scene, and character traits in contrast to the real history. Wiatt Ropp said, “Macbeth deals with the murder of a king, but Shakespeare turns that potentially subversive subject into support for his king, James I. Queen Elizabeth (King James’ aunt) died without a direct heir.” And, “If Shakespeare had not known the boundaries of the acceptable, or had not conformed to the demands of power, he would never have become a successful playwright.” This showed that Shakespeare had don’t this under the provision of someone with higher authority. Mentioned in the criticism, leaders are stronger when an enemy or threat is proposed, and this made Macbeth a strong leader. To make the murder of Duncan less intentional, he is portrayed as a strong leader, said in the real life carousel, “In the play Duncan is portrayed as a strong, wise and elderly king whereas in reality he was a young, weak and ineffective ruler.” The purpose for this play to be written 400 years after is for the public to “accept the cultural limitations” and reveal less just like censorship.

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  15. Looking at Macbeth as new historicists can help us have a deeper understanding of the play and its characters by contrasting it with the real history of Macbeth and the time period in which Shakespeare wrote the play because through lens it gives us a deeper understanding of the standpoint in life at the time the play was written, it gives us a idea of why the author chose to write the play It gives us some background to compare it with the real history of Macbeth, who served for 17 years whereas in the play he only ruled for 1. Shakespeare was very famous and his play will get out causing everyone to think of that at first thought rather than the real Banquo. King James had a relation to Banquo, and he didn’t want a bad rep, so the play helped influence new beliefs to forget the real actions. New historicists helps break down and observe time, place, and character.

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  16. I think that if we look at how the real history of how Macbeth came to power as well as how Shakespeare chose to write the play for James I, who was the king of England and Scotland at the time and wanted to foster the goodwill he felt toward his subjects. Many people in the United Kingdom at the time were uneasy about having the English and Scottish thrones as one because of the increasing tensions that James was a Scottish king ruling over England as well, so we see how the animosity towards the two nations are boiling over. As the time period shows us, we can be very inclined to see if people who have power turn out to be tyrants, we often support a very heinous act of suppression to defeat the ruler in charge that was abusing their own people and that’s what we see here with The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shakespeare writes the play for James I and portrays Macbeth as a savage tyrant who only wanted power for himself and the English invasion to throw him out was only a subtle was that Shakespeare used to unify Scots and Angles by showing that they were under King James’ bosom. We don’t even realise that when we allow another ruler to kill a tyrant, thinking it’s for the better, the rulers have even more power over our lives, because we gave them the support to overthrow and kill another bad ruler, which makes them wonder that they can appear to be the hero, when in reality, they are trying to oppress people.

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  17. Pingback: Seniors – test prep | Did We Do Anything In English?

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