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Macbeth - Context

This GCSE English Literature quiz tests your understanding of the context of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. In a work of literature, the term “context” means the environment in which that particular text was written, especially including when and where it was composed and any political or social events of that time. This means that context can sometimes be confused with setting. It might be helpful to think about context as the author’s real-life “setting” and a novel or play’s setting as its fictional “context”. Authors very often respond to political or social events in fiction; their personal views have an impact on the text and these, too, are elements of a work’s context.

How to write about context

Context always has some effect on meaning. When you analyse a work of fiction, it is important to study its historical context too.

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The relationship between meaning and context is not straightforward, however. Be careful not to oversimplify either in discussing the context of a text, or in analysing the text as the author’s response. Try to be aware that the influence of context on an author and a work of fiction is complex. Authors respond creatively to their world while also being influenced subconsciously. The plot of Macbeth is loosely based on historical events while also responding to events of Shakespeare’s own time.

Always be sure to pay especially close attention to the text when writing about context, rather than making assumptions about history. Research the time when the text was composed. Can you see how the themes of the text might be related to political events, debates, or other issues? How do the important issues of the text relate to events which took place during the life of the author? The life of a text continues beyond its context, very often remaining relevant in times and situations not envisaged by its author. Do you think Macbeth is still relevant today? How? Does Shakespeare’s portrayal of those who are willing to sacrifice everything in order to gain power, only to end in tyranny and failure, have anything to say to modern audiences?

Research the context of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, remembering everything you have learned in English (and, perhaps, history) lessons, and try these questions to see how much you know.

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  1. When was Macbeth written?
    The date of the first performance of the play is uncertain
  2. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's....
    Macbeth's downfall is brought about by his own ambition and by his arrogant inability to fully understand the prophecies he chooses to act upon
  3. Who ruled England at the time the play was written?
    James I of England (King James VI of Scotland) was Elizabeth I's heir. The era of his rule is known as 'Jacobean'
  4. Which of the following events took place the year before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth?
    The Gunpowder Plot refers to the attempt to blow up the House of Lords on the 5th of November, 1605 as the initial stage in a plan to install a Catholic monarch in place of the Protestant James I. Macbeth demonstrates a contemporary concern with treasonous plots
  5. Which invented character was claimed as an 'ancestor' for James I?
    The witches promise Banquo that his line of descendants will include kings
  6. The ruler of England at the time Macbeth was written was which of the following?
    James I was also James VI of Scotland. His mother was Mary Queen of Scots, cousin to Elizabeth I. Many of the English were unhappy at having a Scottish - or foreign - ruler, since the two countries were not joined in union at the time
  7. In which of the following is found the history of Macbeth?
    Holinshed's Chronicles was Shakespeare's most significant source text. In the Chronicles Banquo participates in Macbeth's treachery
  8. How did Mary, Queen of Scots and mother of James I of England, die?
    Elizabeth I ordered Mary to be executed for her part in encouraging plots to overthrow Elizabeth. The regicide (murder of the king) and concern with treasonous plots in Macbeth draw both from historical events and from more contemporary concerns of James's court
  9. Which of the following was supported by James I, but defeated in Parliament?
    In 1604 Parliament refused James the title of King of Great Britain and continued to resist his efforts to create a Union of the two countries
  10. Which of the following is correct?
    The historical Macbeth won the throne in battle, rather than by treason

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