Essay, Research Paper: Macbeth And King James

Shakespeare: Macbeth

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(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.
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