KING JAMES OF GREAT BRITAIN
(And the design of Macbeth for his approval.)
The late 16th century was a time of massive change for England, as old traditions were being discarded and new concepts discovered; in science, commerce, religion, technology – and perhaps most prominently, the arts.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, the major instigator of this change, died. James I, who until then had reigned Scotland for 36 years as James VI, succeeded the throne; combining the Scottish and English empires to form what was eventually called Great Britain.
A sufferer of chronic illnesses all his life, James had been a king since he was 13 months old. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was beheaded in 1587, and his father, Lord Darnley, was killed by an explosion for which James held the Roman Catholic Church in contempt. James publicly despised the Catholics, and they did him, trying to assassinate him numerous times - the most famous of these being the Gun Powder Plot of 1605, led by Guy Fawkes.
King James also held strong views about “The Divine Right of Kings”. Although this concept had been founded long before, it became almost exclusive to James, who tenaciously believed he was God’s chosen representative on earth, and that any act of treason or treachery against him was a mortal sin against God. This conformed to the foundation belief of society at that time, called “The Great Chain of Being”. In this, the King was ranked just below God, and was followed by nobility, then commoners, slaves, animals and plants. Any disruption of this order was believed to cause chaos in the universe, bringing with it disease, darkness, and evil.
A third aspect of James’ life, which he explored mostly outside his kingship, was his passion for education. James was extremely fond of literature, and actually became a writer himself – his major works focussing on kingship, the supernatural, and issues of the church.
This personal passion immediately put William Shakespeare, London’s most famous playwright at the time, in James’ favour when he began his rule in England. It was not long before took Shakespeare’s troop, “The Chamberlain’s Men” under his wing, renaming them “The King’s Men”.
An intellect himself, Shakespeare recognised the auspicious position he was in, and began to further this in his writing, by designing his plays to suit the new King.
Macbeth was one such play. Performed just three years after James had commenced his reign in England, its popularity with the King was vital for Shakespeare’s reputation, and hence, career.
With this in mind, and recalling the piece I just performed, it would appear that Shakespeare’s choice to base the play around the plotting and killing of a king was unwise, to say the least - especially when considering James’ sensitivity to the issue, with the Gun Powder Plot occurring less than a year before. However there is evidence to suggest that despite this risky element, Shakespeare did form the play on James’ approval.
The first of such evidence is found in Duncan’s remark in the first lines of Act One Scene Six:
“This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.”
The play is set in Scotland, homeland of the king, which is clearly referred to in a charming manner - an unusual occurrence in an English theatre, as tension between Scotland and England was fierce. Also, geographical names are used, such as Glamis and Cawdor, and one would assume that the King would have delighted in following the characters around the places he knew so well.
The second factor that seems to have been designed for James is the character of Banquo.
Shakespeare’s main source of research for Macbeth was based on Holinshed’s text of 1587. In this script, Banquo was actually an accomplice in Duncan’s murder. However, Shakespeare altered Banquo’s character to one of honesty, loyalty, and goodness. Research into this found that not only Banquo, but Duncan, Malcolm, Siward and Fleance – all notably good characters in the play - were direct ancestors of the Stuart line of Royalty, the very same family from which James came.
In fact, it is said that in the third apparition of Shakespeare’s performance of Macbeth, the final mirror of Banquo’s line of kings was designed to point directly at King James, so that in it he saw himself.
Third is the topic of the supernatural, a prominent theme of the play. James was so interested in this subject he wrote a book about it, titled “Daemonologie”, so the appearance of the weird sisters in Act One Scene One would have intrigued him immediately. Also, Shakespeare’s association of evil with these forces agreed with James, who introduced the mainstream practice of burning witches at the stake.
The fourth idea relates to the King’s chronic illnesses. James could not remain sitting in one place, in the view of the public, for long periods of time. Subsequently, Macbeth was the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. This assured the King would not be in pain or ill-natured by the end of the performance.
The final point, which is also designed to leave James satisfied, is the play’s resolution., in which James’ theories of the “Divine Right of Kings” and the “Great Chain of Being” are left settled - Macbeth, the violator of Natural Order, dead; and the rightful king Malcolm finishing on the throne.
Once brought to attention, the inclusions of these several elements into the play are quite obvious in their intent. In the end, they were clearly successful – King James enjoyed the play so much, he even wrote Shakespeare a letter of acclamation following the experience.
Word Count: 948