The Royal Play: James I and Macbeth

Written for a class on Shakespeare.

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Macbeth is undoubtedly one of William Shakespeare’s most memorable masterpieces. But it is more than just a fascinating story — it is a glimpse into the mind of a king and the country he ruled. Although it is based on a true story, Shakespeare took many liberties with the true history in order to make the play more interesting to the king he wrote it for, James I. In this essay I will describe how Macbeth reflects James I’s personality and opinions.

James I and Shakespeare

James Stuart, the sixth king of his name in Scotland and the first in England, ascended the English throne in 1603, becoming the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland. His crowning was met with high hopes from the English; after the long and brutal reign of the Tudor monarchs, a Stuart seemed like a chance for new beginnings. They were to be bitterly disappointed. James was quickly discovered to be uncouth, ill-kempt, and more inclined to spend the people’s taxes on his own amusement than on the betterment of the realm. Though he was a generous patron of the arts and an enthusiastic herald of the new age of global exploration, James was viewed throughout his reign with a mixture of amusement and contempt.

At the time of James’s coronation, Shakespeare had been writing plays and poems for about fifteen years, during which time he had had many of his plays performed before Elizabeth I. It was for her that Shakespeare had written his famous English histories. Like all artists who enjoyed Elizabeth’s favor, Shakespeare had learned to create storylines which would please both the royal court and the common people. Such skill was even more necessary under James, who was a hard critic. Macbeth, however, pleased the new king immensely, and James went so far as to write Shakespeare a letter commending his new and impressive play.

Macbeth is believed to have been written sometime in 1606, although the first printed version appeared much later in 1623. It is commonly thought among scholars that Shakespeare had worked out a rough draft of the play some time before James’s accession and that the playwright went back and made several revisions in order to make the play more reflective of the king’s tastes.

Scotland and Scottish History

The Scots were viewed by Shakespeare’s English contemporaries the way “rednecks” are often viewed in America today: unrefined, boorish, and stupid. James, despite his education and intellect, did not do much to alleviate this view; his poor personal hygiene and rude bluntness gained him many enemies, and though his ascension to the English throne legally allied the two countries, it was to be many years before they grew comfortable with each other.

As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, Macbeth is based on a true story. There was an actual King Duncan, and he was murdered by a man named MacBeth in the 11th century AD. The real King MacBeth, far from being the greedy evildoer of Shakespeare’s play, was a firm ruler who united the country and instituted laws to organize the land. Banquo’s heirs did indeed gain the throne of Scotland after MacBeth’s demise, and James could trace his lineage back through the centuries to Banquo himself. Though the historical circumstances of the real MacBeth are fascinating, Shakespeare could not stick to the real story while simultaneously pleasing the king. The playwright had to glamourize the plot, turning it from a gory and prosaic power struggle to a more refined and philosophical history, one which would accentuate the best qualities of James’s forebears. The character of Banquo was altered from the original, for in real life Banquo had been a willing accessory to Duncan’s murder. Malcolm was turned from a man as ready as MacBeth to shed blood to a philosophizing gentleman who sought only his rightful throne. Thus Macbeth changed from a commonplace (if bloody) incident in the history of Scotland into a sanitized retelling of James’s lineage.

Witchcraft and the Supernatural

The seventeenth century was an era of extremes, both in Britain and on the European continent. The Inquisition was at its height, and witch-burnings had long been popular on the continent. The Inquisition did not, however, reach Britain, and Elizabeth I had diplomatically refrained from committing such barbaric massacres as the ones taking place in Europe. James I, however, was not willing to walk the middle ground like his predecessor. His views on religion were strong and unwavering, and he brutally punished those who disagreed with him. Under his rule, Catholics and other supposed “heretics” suffered mightily.

Like many of his Renaissance contemporaries, James I was intensely fascinated with witchcraft and the supernatural. Belief in witchcraft had long existed in the British Isles, and James was not the first ruler to take such superstition seriously. Just as he believed that kings were chosen by God and granted their throne by divine right, James also believed that the Devil and his followers sought to destroy royal power by means of evil spells. James’s beliefs are reflected in his writings and the publications he authorized; he penned a book titled Daemonologie, and the King James Bible puts a heavy emphasis on witchcraft and deviltry.

Though the Catholic Inquisition never did reach Britain, King James created his own form of inquisition. Witch hunts and burnings flourished during his reign, and the king himself personally oversaw many witch trials and executions.

The witches of Macbeth have been a subject of much scholarly debate in recent years. It has long been known that Shakespeare altered many scenes and speeches in the play to suit his royal patron, but the theory has lately been put forth that a playwright or playwrights other than Shakespeare were responsible for the addition of the witches. Thomas Middleton, author of a play called The Witch, is thought to have contributed (willingly or not) most of the songs and lines given to the three weird sisters of Macbeth. While the witches provide an interesting method of securing the audience’s attention and foreshadowing the rest of the play, they are not fully necessary to the plot and could just as easily have been left out or replaced with more prosaic characters.

It is interesting to note how the play associates witchcraft and evil with women. All the women in the play are portrayed as scheming, deceptive, and wicked. The witches do not simply prophecy Macbeth’s actions; they tempt him with promises of grandeur and tease him with riddles. Lady Macbeth is a witch who uses words and mind games instead of spells, plotting her course and driving her husband onward with bullying and coaxing. This misogynistic view of women was quite acceptable during James’s reign; the vast majority of his subjects who were tried for witchcraft were female. Women were perceived as representations of Eve, capable of learned virtue but with such weakness of mind and character that they could easily be led astray by wicked mortals or demons. James was a firm believer in the inherent wickedness of women, and so would have accepted quite naturally the dark view of women Shakespeare offered him.

The supernatural theme of the play also corresponds to James’s opinion of the divine right of monarchs. Though the witches predict Macbeth’s attempt to alter the line of succession, they know that he will be overthrown in the end and the rightful heirs reinstated to the throne. This idea runs parallel to James’s personal history; his family, being related to the Tudor monarchs of England, had long stated their claim to the English throne, and his mother had been executed for her claims. So, in a sense, the Stuarts were robbed of their English throne for a time, but Providence placed them on the throne as was their right.

Treason and Regicide

One of the most prominent themes in Macbeth is that of treason. Macbeth commits the ultimate treason, murdering a man who is both his king and a loyal friend. Later on, he begins to distrust his closest friend, Banquo, and grows so afraid of his friend that he has him murdered; since the witches predicted that Banquo’s heirs would be kings, Macbeth’s murder of the man amounts to a sort of semi-treason. He tops off his sins with the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and child, thereby murdering three persons directly connected to the throne.

James, not unnaturally, had a particular fear of regicide throughout his life. His inborn paranoia had been honed and tempered in the turbulent Scottish court, where he had grown up surrounded by allies who might, at a moment’s notice, turn into enemies. When James was thirteen years old, his mother, Mary Stuart, was executed by Elizabeth I, an act of regicide which shocked the entire European continent. Though James had never had much affection for his mother, the execution of a rightful queen — a monarch who, James would have thought, had a divine right to her throne — must have shaken him more than a little. Although James believed monarchs were chosen by God, he was not so foolish as to think monarchs invincible.

James’s paranoia was further justified in 1605, when a plot to murder him was uncovered. The plan — to blow up the king and those closest to him with gunpowder hidden beneath Parliament House — was engineered by a group of disgruntled Catholics and led by one of the king’s erstwhile favorites, Guy Fawkes. The conspiracy was discovered barely in the nick of time, and the treachery of his trusted friend left James severely shaken.

The character of Macbeth might be seen as James taken to extremes. Macbeth is a man so paranoid that he kills people before he even has proof of their wrong-doing; he kills friends, women, and children, anyone who troubles his mind. Perhaps Shakespeare is sending James a subtle warning about his suspicious nature, showing him how it may spiral out of control and result in ruin for James and his line. If Shakespeare did intend such a hint, it was perhaps too subtle for James; in the king’s view, everyone was capable of treason — guilty until proven innocent, if you will — and a monarch had every right to execute anyone he chose, with or without proof.

Although Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please his royal patron, it is a testament to his skill as a playwright that the play remains as thrilling and comprehensible now as it was four centuries ago. Through this work, we may catch a glimpse of Great Britain as it was in James’s time — superstitious, paranoid, more likely to smooth over the troubles of the past than to remember them as they actually occurred. But we can also see the good side of James’s reign — the flourishing of the arts, the intellectual and global expansions, and the sharp mental abilities of the man who ruled the realm.

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