As regards the theatre there were two opposed views of its effectiveness. The one view stressed its capacity to instruct the populace – often, and quite explicitly, to keep them obedient. Thus Heywood in an Apology for Actors, claimed that plays were written and performed to teach ‘subjects obedience to their king’ by showing them ‘the untimely end of such as have moved tumults, commotions and insurrections’. The other view claimed virtually the opposite, stressing the theatre’s power to demystify authority and even to subvert it.

(Dollimore and Sinfield 1996: 8)

Bakhtin and Medvedev in their essay “The Object, Tasks, and Methods of Literary History” argue that any “literary work is an immediate part of the literary environment” and this literary environment, in its turn, is an inseparable element of a general ideological environment of a given epoch and this latter one, finally, is a part of the socioeconomic environment. Therefore, to study a work of literature, they believe, all these conditions should be observed (cf. Newton 1988: 31-34).

This essay aims to investigate these conditions in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, focusing on Macbeth in particular, and to show that theatre of the period was, in effect, an official institution at the service of legitimizing and perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class.


The Medieval period, which is sometimes called ‘the Age of Faith’, was a period in which religion functioned as an ideological instrument. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy says that politicians “make religion mere policy, a cloak, a human invention; nihil aeque valet ad regendos vulgi animos ac superstitio [nothing is so effective for keeping the masses under control as superstition]” (cf. Dollimore 2004: 13). Using religion those who were dominant in society tried to maintain their dominance. People had a fixed and stable role in society and any attempt to disrupt the status quo was considered a mortal sin and rebellion. In one of the late medieval sermons such an attitude can be seen:

each man’s first duty – be he knight or priest, workman or merchant – is to learn and labour truly in the things of his particular calling, resting content therewith and not aspiring to meddle with the tasks and mysteries of others. The social ranks and their respective duties, ordained by God for humanity, were intended to remain fixed and immutable. Like the limbs of the body they cannot properly exchange either their place or function.

(Owst 1933: 557 qtd. in Kinney 2002: 54)

Throughout centuries such attitudes permeated all levels of society and people believed in such an order in society. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), an influential thinker during the Renaissance, whose ideas were accepted by many intellectuals, and so by the masses, believes that religion – which he often equates with superstition – was not only an instrument of power but an indispensable one. Religion had become a tool for social domination.

The first legislators of commonwealths, ‘whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace’, took care to achieve three things, says Hobbes. First, they ‘imprinted’ in the minds of the people the erroneous belief that religious precepts came not from them (the legislators) but the gods. Second, they ensured that ‘the same things were displeasing to the gods, which were forbidden by the laws’. Third, they prescribed rituals and sacrifices to appease the gods, and led the people to believe that both general misfortune (e.g. the loss of a war) and private misery were the result of the gods’ anger. ‘By these, and such other institutions’ says Hobbes, ‘the common people . . . were the less apt to mutiny against their governors’ and ‘needed nothing else but bread to keep them from discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the state’ (chapter 12 [of Leviathan (1651)]).

(Dollimore 2004: 13)

The Elizabethans lived under the influence of such a long tradition. For them, therefore, any change to the order of society could have unforgivable results. On the other hand, in the sixteenth century many parts of Europe witnessed a development from feudalism to the absolutist state. Under feudalism, authority was distributed among institutions such as the church, estates, assemblies, regions, and towns; and the power of king was often little more than nominal. In the absolutist state, however, power became centralized in the figure of monarch, the exclusive source of legitimacy (cf. Sinfield 1992: 76). When James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England as King James I, he tried to unite England and Scotland together as ‘Great Britain”. For him the emergence of ‘Great Britain’ “seemed to be the fulfillment of an Arthurian dream of an interdependent and unified island. ‘Great Britain’ was also viewed as a restoration of the lost order originally given to the nation by its mythical founders, the followers of the Trojan refugee prince, Brutus” (Sanders 1999: 85). Thus, bringing about a sense of unity between the two nations, namely England and Scotland, was important for him. He also believed in the ‘divine right’ of monarchs, according to which a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from God; any attempt, then, to depose the king is against the will of God and is considered an act of treason. In a speech before Parliament James I declared:

The State of MONARCHIE is the supremest thing vpon earth: For Kings are not onely GODS Lieutenants vpon earth, and sit vpon GODS throne, but euen by GOD himselfe they are called Gods. There bee three principall similitudes that illustrate the state of MONARCHIE: One taken out of the word of GOD; and the two other out of the grounds of Policie and Philosophie. In the Scriptures Kings are called Gods, and so their power after a certaine relation compared to the Diuine power. Kings are also compared to Fathers of families: for a King is trewly Parens patriæ, the politique father of his people. And lastly, Kings are compared to the head of this Microcosme of the body of man.

(qtd. in Kastan 1999: 155)

The ideology of absolutism, which insisted increasingly on the ‘divine right’ of the monarchs, represented the English state as a pyramid any disturbance of which would end in disaster. This system was said to be natural and ordained by God.

Ideology and Interpellation

The word ideology originally means the study of ideas, or more generally, ways of thinking. In a general sense it refers to a set of beliefs that people consciously hold. M. H. Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms defines ideology as “the beliefs, values, and ways of thinking and feeling through which human beings perceive, and by recourse to which they explain, what they take to be reality” (2009: 181). However in Marxism, or more accurately in political discourse, ideology does not simply means a set of beliefs, but a deliberately manipulative set of ideas that benefit the ruling classes and encourages the majority of people to have a false understanding of social reality. Abrams in his book continues, “[a]n ideology is, in complex ways, the product of the position and interests of a particular class. In any historical era, the dominant ideology embodies, and serves to legitimize and perpetuate, the interests of the dominant economic and social class” (Ibid.). It can be claimed, therefore, that ideology makes us believe the values and beliefs of the ruling class as natural. “If we succumb to ideology we live in an illusory world” (Bertens 2005: 85), in what Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) described as “false consciousness”.

In the second half of the twentieth century, some Marxists refined the notion of ideology. Louis Althusser in his influential essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1971) developed a new definition of the word. He proposed two theses in his essay. His first thesis declares that “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (In Rivkin and Ryan 2000: 294). In other words, ideology is not only a real but an imaginary relation to the world – real in the way that people really live their relationship to the social relations which govern their existence, but imaginary since it discourages a full understanding of their condition of existence (cf. Belsey 2002: 48). His second thesis which says: “Ideology has a material existence” (In Rivkin and Ryan 2000: 296), connects ideology with its social sources. Althusser believes that ideology works through some ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ which all are subject to the ruling ideology. These ideological state apparatuses or ISAs include schools, churches, media, and in short, all institutions that shape our consciousness. In contrast to ISAs, Althusser talks about ‘Repressive State Apparatuses’ or RSAs. RSAs are ways in which the state controls people directly through established and institutionalized means such as police, army, the penal system, and so on. Whereas RSAs use force to control people, ISAs act indirectly and shape the world view of the people in a way that they accept the beliefs and values of the ruling class and consider them as quite natural. ISAs, therefore, help to perpetuate the dominant ideology and to reproduce it by situating human subject as ‘subject of ideology’. This is done by a process Althusser calls ‘interpellation’. “[A]ll ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (Ibid.: 301 emphasis original). For Althusser, literature is also a semi-autonomous institution or an ideological state apparatus. Michael Hattaway in Renaissance and Reformation shows that, among 2000 plays composed between 1590 and 1642, there is evidence of censorship being exercised on only about thirty occasions, and few of these were directly political interventions. This suggests that author and playing companies were given to self-censorship, that the theatre was not perceived as an important threat to the political and social order.

(2005: 58)

This shows that ideology has done its task to turn the people into the ‘subjects of ideology’ who, by self-censorship, are in the service of the dominant ideology.


Two important Renaissance critics, E. M. Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell, demonstrate unquestionably that there was an ideological position and that it is a significant presence in Shakespeare’s plays (cf. Drakakis 2005: 209). In many of his plays, Shakespeare depicts a world which seems to be in the service of legitimizing and sustaining established authority and its values and beliefs. In Macbeth, for example, Duncan’s gracious sovereignty is shattered and replaced by the evil Macbeth, but Scotland is eventually released from the nightmare of Macbeth’s rule by an army of English troops. With Malcolm’s restoration of the line of Duncan, the forms of power are returned to legitimate hands and the royal house and sovereignty itself successfully renewed, “and once again ‘the time is free’ (V. ix. 21). Apparently this is a world in which ‘things’ can ‘climb upward / To what they were before’ (IV. ii. 24–5)” (Dutton and Howard 2003: 16). This is exactly what the dominant ideology of the period wants.

For the Elizabethans, living for years under the influence of ‘Great Chain of Being’[1] and ‘divine right’ of kings, it seems quite natural, and of course predictable, that when Macbeth murders the king – who was considered as the shadow of God – and usurps his divine position, the society will be in a mess.

Alas, poor country!

Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot

Bee called our mother, but our grave; where nothing,

But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;

Where sighs, and groans, and shrieks that rend the air

Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems

A modern ecstasy: the dead man’s knell

Is there scarce asked for who; and good men’s lives

Expire before the flowers in their caps,

Dying or ere they sicken.

(IV. iii. 164-173)

In the play we see that Macbeth’s ambitious violence subverts his world’s natural order and the result of it is the ruin of himself and those around him. By consulting the evil spirits Macbeth perverts the plays religious order; like Adam he undermines the patriarchal order by giving in to his wife’s temptations; he also violates the political order by regicide and tyranny, and he violates the moral order with lies and murder. The consequences of these disorders are inescapable and are manifested in insanity and military defeat.

Ideology, in fact, functions at the deep structure of the play to make the audiences ‘subjects of ideology’; and this is done through ‘interpellation’. People should be encouraged to believe that any challenging of the status quo is a great loss, and anyone who disrupts the social order should be considered as enemy, and this is exactly in line with the demands of the dominant ideology. In this regard, the play, or in a broader sense, the theatre, functions its task as an ‘ideological state apparatus’.

Furthermore, when Duncan’s sons flee Scotland they seek protection from Edward the Confessor, whose royal touch enables him to cure those “All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye, / The mere despair of surgery . . . and ’tis spoken / To the succeeding royalty he leaves / The healing benediction” (IV. iii.151–156). To this “most miraculous work in this good King” (147) is added “a heavenly gift of prophecy, / And sundry blessings hang about his throne / That speak him full of grace” (157–159). Malcolm manages to overthrow Macbeth and retain his crown with the help and military support of “this good King”. It seems that such scenes are intended to evoke a sense of unity between the people of the two countries, which was in line with the state’s ideology to unite the two countries under one flag, as James I wished.

Macbeth, like Shakespeare’s other plays, can be seen as an ideological support for the beliefs that our social order and established authority is fair and that those who threaten it deserve whatever punishment and suffering they get. This kind of ideology creates in people, especially those who suffer due to society’s socio-economic inequalities, an attitude of passive resignation and it encourages the opinion that change is undesirable and, even if attempted, unlikely to succeed. Maybe this is the reason that Shakespeare throughout the history has become such a great dramatist; the ruling class always seeks new ways to maintain their dominance over the ruled, and Shakespeare’s plays are really suitable for this purpose. Thus, in this view, the growing tendency toward Shakespeare’s plays after industrialization, and hence his popularity, can be justified. Of course, it can be the subject of another paper.


Throughout the Middle Ages people were influenced by religious ideology which had imprinted in the minds of people that the social order is ordained by God Himself and any attempt to change this order is against the will of God and has unforgivable consequences. This kind of belief, of course, was a means for perpetuating the power of ruling class. During the Renaissance period there was a development from feudalism to absolutism, and this shift, to some extent, strengthened the belief that the social ranks and positions are unalterable. By investigating the theatre of the period, it can be claimed that theatre was a semi-autonomous ‘ideological state apparatus’. It means that theatre was at the service of perpetuating the power of ruling class. When Macbeth, for instance, kills the legitimate king of Scotland and usurps his divine position, the result is only misery and calamity for the country. It is exactly in line with the dominant ideology: any attempt to disrupt the order of society, especially deposing of a monarch which is the shadow of God on earth, will have disastrous results. The plays of the period, in effect, interpellate or hail the audiences and turn them into ‘subject of ideology’.


Primary Sources:

  • Shakespeare, William. 1999 [1623]. Macbeth. Malaysia: Longman.

Secondary Sources:

  • Abrams, M. H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. 2009. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
  • Althusser, Louis. 2000 [1971]. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In: Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell. 294-304.
  • Belsey, Catherine. 2002 [1980]. Critical Practice. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Bertens, Hans. 2005 [2001]. Literary Theory: The Basics. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield (eds.). 1996 [1985]. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan. 2004 [1984]. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Drakakis, John (ed.). 2005 [1985]. Alternative Shakespeares. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Dutton, Richard and Jean E. Howard. 2003. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Tragedies, Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Kastan, David Scott. 1999. Shakespeare after Theory. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Kinney, Arthur F. (ed.). 2002. A Companion to Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Medvedev, P. N. and M. M. Bakhtin. 1988. “The Object, Tasks, and Methods of Literary History.” In: K. M. Newton (ed.). Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader. London: Macmillan. 30-34.
  • Sanders, Andrew. 1999. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. London: Oxford.
  • Sinfield, Alan. 1992. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[1] According to the concept of ‘Great Chain of Being’, which has pervaded philosophy, literature and scientific thought from the time of Plato and Aristotle onwards, all that exists in the created order is part of natural hierarchy, a scala naturae from the lowest possible grade up to the ens perfectissimum (cf. J. A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms).

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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