Context Macbeth Background Macbeth

Context and Background - Macbeth #

The play Macbeth was first performed for King James VI of Scotland also James I of England in 1606. It is based on Raphael Holinshead’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland dramatising the reign and assassination of the Scottish King Duncan I, in 1040. Duncan had reigned for six years before he was overthrown by one of his generals, Macbeth, who then ruled Scotland from 1040 - 1057 when he was defeated by an English force led by Duncan’s son, Malcolm III.

A helpful article that provides a generalised overview of Macbeth’s sources is Mabillard’s An Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sources for Macbeth found at

The sources she encompasses are:

– Holinshed’s Chronicles

– Boece’s Scotorum Historiae

– Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft

– King James I Basilicon Doron and Daemonology

– Erasmus’s Colloquia

Mabillard (2000) offers several speculations as to what motivated Shakespeare to appropriate these sources. She goes on to discuss “the dramatic purpose of producing a more exciting story than is found in the sources; the thematic purpose of creating a more complex characterisation of Macbeth; and the political purpose of catering to the beliefs of the reigning monarch, King James the First.”

Scotland, at that time was a primitively feudalistic society. The Rocky Highlands of Scotland were hard, primitive and full of violence. From Holinshead’s history, Shakespeare crafted a story about the usurping of a king’s throne, the ensuing violence and chaos that erupted throughout the kingdom of Scotland changing it from an historical chronicle into a sophisticated classical tragedy.

In 1603, with the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Lancaster lineage became extinct and Parliament turned to the Stuart line, King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England. James became ruler of both England and Scotland. James attempted to influence his sons, Prince Henry, Duke of Albany and Charles, Duke of Cornwall, for a Union of England and Scotland. Shakespeare was one of the first to refer to his country as Britain.

The two-fold balls and treble sceptres (4.1) is a reference to the double coronation of James, at Scone and Westminster, and the most overt homage to James in the play. The balls or globes “were the royal insignia which King James bore in right of his double kingship of England and Scotland, and the three sceptres were those of his three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland” (Lilian Winstanley, Macbeth, King Lear and Contemporary History).

Another obvious tribute to James is Malcolm’s reference to the evil (4.3) or scrofula, which James believed he could cure by his touch; a power supposedly inherited from Edward the Confessor.

A probable allusion to the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James can be found in Lady Macbeth’s words, look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t (1.5) and even more riveting is an allusion to a Jesuit priest named Father Henry Garnet, who had concealed his knowledge of the conspiracy:

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)

Macbeth also, more so than any of Shakespeare’s works, is overflowing with Biblical imagery, and, of course, one of King James’s great passions was Scripture, culminating in the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. Another of James’s interests was witchcraft, and woven into Macbeth are portions of James’s own book on the subject, Daemonologie.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare aimed to please James. Shortly after his arrival in London, James insisted that Shakespeare’s troupe come under his own patronage, giving them unlimited opportunities and making Shakespeare a wealthy man. More on the King’s Men…


Mabillard, Amanda. Contemporary References to King James I in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 20 Nov. 2011. < >.

King James is depicted in the show of Kings:

< “And yet an eighth appears, who bears a glass
which shows me many more; and some I see
That twofold balls and treble sceptres carry:

In 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament in what is known as the Gunpowder Plot – the origins of Halloween. This was a provocative terrorist act that could easily have resulted in the death of a king and chaos throughout the land. The many references .

Fintane O’Toole challenges the theory that Shakespeare is a voice for the established order:

As for Shakespeare being “the poet of the established order,” it is certainly true that he was extremely adept in his navigation of a treacherous political landscape in which his greatest predecessor, Christopher Marlowe, was most probably murdered by the state and another fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd died after torture.

He did so largely by avoiding references to contemporary England and setting his plays either in distant Catholic countries (where of course they do things no good Protestant ruler would countenance) or in the past. His political skill was rewarded.

As of May 1603, after James I’s accession to the throne, Shakespeare was an official of the court as Groom of the Chamber. He and his fellow shareholders in the King’s Men (as they were now called) were each issued with four and a half yards of red cloth for the royal livery in which they were allowed to appear on state occasions. It is hard to think of Shakespeare as a liveried servant, but for him that red coat was surely also a suit of armor that protected him from the violence of his surroundings.

The wonder, though, lies in what he did with that position. He took his royal master’s obsessions and made unprecedented dramas out of them. James was interested in witches, so they appear in Macbeth.

The king was—after the Gunpowder Plot in which Catholic conspirators tried to blow him up, along with his entire court and Parliament—worried about the way Catholic suspects under interrogation gave equivocal answers to avoid incriminating themselves.

So the Porter in Macbeth, imagining himself as the gatekeeper to Hell, says,

“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.”

As a Scot, James was anxious to establish the idea of Britain as a political union, with himself as “emperor of the whole island.” So Shakespeare shows in King Lear the terrors of a disunited kingdom.

James was fascinated by demonic possession, so Shakespeare brushed up on its alleged symptoms in contemporary accounts and has Edgar, in his guise as Poor Tom, enact them on the blasted heath.

But if these plays start with the need of the King’s Man to suck up to his royal patron, they emphatically do not end there.

A hack propagandist of the kind that Boris Johnson imagines Shakespeare to be would have shown, in Macbeth, that equivocation is just what you might expect from traitorous Catholics. Instead he makes the slipperiness of words and the inability to trust people universal aspects of life under rulers who imagine their power to be absolute. Almost everyone in Macbeth plays games with truth and lies, because that’s what you have to do in a murderous polity. Fintan O’Toole is the Advising Editor at The New York Review and a columnist for The Irish Times.

Shakespeare was not writing history, rather tragedy, and he changed and simplified much all the history to suit his purpose. The real Macbeth ruled in Scotland from 1040 -56 and for much of that time he was a good king. Only at the end when he was under threat, did he turn to tyranny.

Shakespeare did not write many light plays after 1599. The early death of his young son affected him deeply. Then in 1606, he wrote three historical tragedies following the Gunpowder Plot that targeted King James I and parliament. King James came to the throne in 1603 so do these reflect his concerns about the transition of monarchs? Many of these may have been an attempt to curry favor with King James I, while others served as warnings against poor governance and gullibility. Macbeth illustrates many of the themes of power also portrayed in other tragedies of this time.

King James I, the father of Charles I, was a Stuart who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, staunchly believing in the Absolute Power of Monarchs and the Divine Right of Kings.

This is his speech to parliament on 21^(st) of March 1610:

Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King. God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.

Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”. When an noted lawyer, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives, King James thundered “*So then I am under the law. It is treason to say that!” * Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage.

Yet 38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle. The Civil War cost tens of thousands of lives, the price paid for our inherited freedom and democracy.

Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch. Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper. In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England.

Most of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance. There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances. There are few indications of his reactions. King James granted the royal patent to the Chamberlain’s company who became known as the King’s Men.

MacBeth may have subtle cautionary messages about the limitations of the power of a monarch; they can be held to account, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.

The former play depicts a grab for power, while the latter deals with attempting to relinquish power.

Witchcraft - see side menu.