Bard at the Box Office

Shakespeare in the 21st Century

The History of Macbeth

James I, painted by Daniel Mytens, for whom Macbeth was written.

James I, Shakespeare patron and alleged descendant of Banquo. Painted by Daniel Mytens.

With the last two posts being about how Macbeth has had an influence on modern culture, I thought I’d take a step back in time and look at the culture that influenced Macbeth. Not only are there several instances of brown-nosing  the king, there are also several points of the play that portray Scotland in a negative light, something that is still alive and well today. 

The play of Macbeth is an excellent example of how writers in Medieval and Renaissance England curried favor with the monarch through their works. According to James VI of Scotland and I of England, he was descended from the character Banquo. Thus, the fates’ prediction that Banquo would be the father of kings, but that he would not be a king himself.

If there were ever an obvious nod to a reigning monarch in a play, it would be hands-down the portrayal of James I at the end of the parade of kings. It’s almost as though Shakespeare is saying: “and just in case you missed it, your highness, here, look, I’m totally flattering you, here.”

Now, it might seem counter-intuitive to speak poorly about the reigning monarch’s home country. However, many of the slights against Scotland are such that it could be staged without them being overtly recognizable.

It is worth noting that the Scots are portrayed as being superstitious in this play. Now, this was a time when superstitious meant consulting with witches and demons. Most people, to be fair, did believe in those things, back then. King James himself wrote a book called Daemonology and avidly studied ways to identify those who associated with the occult.  There is even a nod to a time when James believed he and his wife had been affected by the curse of a group of witches, when one of the weird sisters speaks of bringing about storms at sea.

This is exactly what James believed happened to his wife on her way from Denmark to Scotland. Her ship was caught in a treacherous storm, and she and her retinue were forced to veer off course and land on the Norwegian coast. After he heard about her misfortune James personally sailed from Scotland to Norway to bring Anne to Scotland. His own voyage to Oslo was uncommonly rough, and James, being a very superstitious man, afterwards launched an investigation/witch hunt for those who were responsible.

It has been speculated that Shakespeare included the witches as a way to appeal to James’ ego, since the king considered himself something of an expert in the field. However, it bears consideration that during the history of Anglo-Scottish relations prior to that time, Scotland was regarded by the English as something of a cultural backwater. So, it would make sense for Shakespeare to play to the perceptions of his audience. Thus, his incorporating of the three witches both makes for a compliment to the king, and is at the same time playing to a negative cultural stereotype that was held about the king and his home country.



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