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King James I and Macbeth


By Kathryn Neves

It’s commonly held that Shakespeare wrote his plays for the monarchs of England. There are many stories, mostly apocryphal, that connect this play to that monarch; for example, one popular story says that Queen Elizabeth, upon learning that John Falstaff dies in Henry V, demanded that Shakespeare write a new play for Falstaff, one in which he falls in love— resulting in The Merry Wives of Windsor (whether or not this is a true story, it’s definitely entertaining). But there’s one play that was clearly written with a monarch in mind. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was pretty obviously a nod (and not a subtle one) to King James I.

There are a lot of reasons to say this. For one thing, the play is entirely set in Scotland, based on Scottish history and legend, and populated with Scotsmen. James I of England was actually from Scotland as well; he ruled over both England and his own home country, where he was called James VI. Though there are other Scottish characters in Shakespearean plays, there are none with so many as in Macbeth.          

Then there’s all the supernatural elements. James I was an avid scholar of all things strange, weird, and superstitious. In 1597, the king published a book called Daemonologie; it was a study of witchcraft, necromancy, demons, werewolves, vampires, and all sorts of other spooky things. In fact, much of the witchcraft in Macbeth was actually taken directly from Daemonologie, probably as a form of flattery to the king himself. It goes further than that, though. Witchcraft seems to have been a real obsession of James, as he was heavily involved in a series of witch trials in 1590. Supposedly, a coven of witches were trying to personally attack him, which was high treason, so James had them tracked down, forced them to confess to witchcraft, tortured them, and had them burned at the stake. So it’s no wonder that the witches in Macbeth are so demented and evil! Shakespeare wanted to make it clear that he was on the king’s side in the whole witch debacle.         

King James was widely considered paranoid (can you tell from the witch thing?). Throughout his whole reign, he was terrified that he would be assassinated. He was very harsh with treasonous criminals and he constantly seemed to fear usurpation. And to be fair, he had some real reasons to be afraid of all of that. When Queen Elizabeth I died, she left no children behind, which meant England fell into a crisis. The English throne only came to James because he was technically the closest relative. Even so, Elizabeth never formally acknowledged him as her heir, so he never felt fully secure on the throne. Not only that, but Elizabeth had executed his mother years before, so he had more reason to fear the English. In 1605, James uncovered an assassination attempt against him: the Gunpowder Plot. The plan was for a group of dissatisfied Jesuits to blow up the House of Lords when James was there. After discovering the plot, James arrested and executed the conspirators. The whole incident only served to feed the fire of his paranoia.          

Because of the Gunpowder Plot, most scholars today date Macbeth to 1606, just after the plot. There seem to be a few references to it in the play: for instance, the porter at Macbeth’s castle, in a little joke to himself, says “Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator” (2.3.7-12). Equivocation, which is both lying and telling the truth at the same time, was used as a defense by one of the conspirators at the Gunpowder Plot trial, so Shakespeare could easily be alluding to that in order to get further into the king’s good graces (Globe Research Team, “The Gunpowder Plot and Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s Globe Blog, November 5, 2014).        

Besides that, Macbeth is full of other references to James’ fears. King Duncan, a beloved, good king, is assassinated by one of his noblemen— something that seems to have been a great fear for James. Not only that, but the nobleman was consorting with witches and demons— another fear. So Shakespeare punishes Macbeth for his treason and evil behavior in the play; Macbeth himself becomes increasingly paranoid, he gets haunted by the ghosts of those he’s wronged, and he ends up beheaded and hated by all of Scotland. Shakespeare wanted Macbeth to get his just desserts so that James would be appeased.

Scottish history and legend contain a real life King Duncan, who was really murdered by Macbeth (the real Macbeth apparently was a decent king— that wouldn’t have really worked for Shakespeare’s play though). Banquo, too, was apparently a real figure. King James claimed descendance through him, so in Macbeth, when the Weird Sisters tell Banquo that “thou shalt get [beget] kings, though thou be none,” Shakespeare was really trying to help legitimize James’s place on the Scottish throne— he was saying that Banquo’s descendants deserve to be king, therefore James has a rightful claim to the throne.

Even though Macbeth was written for King James I, it’s really for all of us. The themes of triumph over evil, of greed and ambition, and of tyranny are all very important— they were relevant in Shakespeare’s day, and they’re relevant now. The reasons it was written aren’t nearly as important as the words themselves. So don’t miss your chance to see Macbeth this summer at the Festival. It’s bound to be an amazing experience.


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