~ Macbeth ~ Historical Background

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~ Macbeth ~

Historical Background

  • In 1603, Elizabeth I of England died without any children to claim her throne.

  • Before her death, she named James VI of Scotland as successor, and he became James I of England, the country’s first Stuart king.


  • In 1605, a group of Catholics, discontented with laws which prevented them from worshipping openly, hid thirty-six (36) barrels of gunpowder in the vaults beneath the House of Lords with the intention of killing the King when he opened Parliament and ultimately seizing power with the aid of Spain. The plot was discovered and the conspirators were hunted down and executed, as were many who were thought to have been involved in the plot.


  • James had a great interest in the theatre and quickly became the new patron of Shakespeare’s company, who changed their name accordingly from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men.

  • In August of 1606, James was at Hampton Court (a palace near London) where he entertained his cousin, King Christian of Denmark.

  • At Hampton Court, they viewed the first performance of Macbeth; it was the story of James I’s ancestors, Banquo and Fleance, through whom he had inherited the throne.

  • This accounts for the fact that Shakespeare seems to have included a number of subjects which were known to be of interest to James:

    • First of all, the play is based on elements of Holinshed's Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed, which had been published in 1587 and told of the history of Britain. To make sure that the play was not offensive to James, Shakespeare made several changes from the original text to the play. For example, in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo is said to have joined with Macbeth in the killing of Duncan. However, in the play, Shakespeare’s Banquo is innocent. This change was made because it would have been rather tactless to remind King James that he had indirectly claimed the throne through regicide (the murder of the king).

    • Also, in a court performance, the “glass” carried by the eighth king in one of the apparitions witnessed by Macbeth while in the witches’ presence might well have been held in front of James so that he could see himself reflected.

    • In addition, the “two-fold balls and treble sceptres” seem to refer to the double-coronation of James in Scotland and England, and the two sceptres used in the English ceremony and the one in the Scottish.

    • James, like all kings, had a personal stake in opposing regicide and would have, no doubt, approved of Macbeth’s ultimate downfall and the reminders of the Gunpowder Plot.

    • Malcolm’s creation of Scotland’s first earls upon reclaiming the throne paralleled James’s own generosity in giving out honours and titles.

    • James was fascinated by witchcraft.


  • It is important to understand just how seriously people viewed witchcraft in Shakespeare’s lifetime and how fascinating the subject was to scholars and to people who considered themselves up-to-date thinkers, such as King James himself.

  • In Elizabeth’s England, thousands of people (nearly all women) were executed as witches.

  • In 1590, while James was still King of Scotland, there were more than three hundred (300) witches tortured in order to extract confessions that they were conspiring against the King.

  • James took an active part in the trials himself, believing that, since the king was God’s representative on earth, he would obviously be the main target of the agents of the devil.

  • In 1604, a year after James came to power, new laws were enacted stating that practicing witches should be executed.

  • Many people felt that, if the rule of a king over his people was comparable to God’s rule over the earth, the man’s rule over the family and the head’s rule over the body (the mind over the emotions), then witchcraft tried to turn all of this upside down, so that the devil ruled the earth, women ruled the family and the emotions ruled the head.

  • James himself wrote and published a book about witchcraft in 1597, the Demonologie, in which he detailed their supposed powers of predicting the future, defying normal physical rules, affected the weather, cursing their enemies and taking demonic possession of otherwise innocent people, all assisted by their “familiars” (familiar spirits) in the shapes of animals.

  • It is not difficult to see that these beliefs appealed to people who were misogynists (women-haters) or who had their own personal interests at heart and used witches as a convenient scapegoat.

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