The Historical Macbeth:

  • Macbeth was king of Scotland, from 1040-1057
  • He did kill Duncan I, who was not the good soul depicted in Shakespeare’s play
  • Macbeth himself was killed by Duncan’s son, Malcolm
  • These killings were not unusual in medieval Scotland; of Macbeth’s predecessors, seven out of nine met with violent deaths.
  • Macbeth had a good measure of religious feeling, as in 1050 he made a pilgrimage to Rome and spent a lot of money trying to win absolution for Duncan’s murder.
  • Macbeth was an able and successful king; seventeen years was a long time in those days.
  • Macbeth’s wife, Gruoch represented his best claim to the Scottish throne;  she was a widow, and the couple had no children.
  • Macbeth’s heir was a stepson, Lulach, who was popularly known as “The Idiot.”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

  • The play was written for King James I of England (1566-1625) who succeeded to the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth and declared to be King on March 24, 1603.  He had been King since he was 1 year and 1 month old, when his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s sister) was forced to abdicate.
    • Queen Mary now lives in popular imagination as a ‘wronged’ queen, but it was hinted that James was possibly the child of her secretary, Rizzio
    • She connived at the murder of James’ father, Darnley, by her lover, Bothwell, whom she thereafter married.
    • The son of such a mother, reigned as a child king, who was at 17, kidnapped by rivals, and who at 20 lost his mother by execution.  James grew up apprehensive, and devious, but was an intellectual.

James was a true scholar; he was insatiably curious, and Shakespeare and his contemporaries discovered a critic as their monarch.

Hardly had he come to the throne, when he commissioned a new translation of the Bible into English; (1604-1611), and this became the Authorized Version (The King James’ Bible) still the most popular translation used today.

The Divine Right of Kings

James wrote in defence of the Divine Right of Kings;  it declares that kings are appointed by God to rule, but it is often forgotten, that it also declares that kings are thereby enjoined to rule well, or God will hold them accountable for their evil actions.

James was an authoritarian, but not a fool.  He was called the English Solomon.  He was much in favour of social reforms (e.g. he detested tobacco and wrote:

Herein is not only a great vanity, but a great contempt of God’s good

gifts, that the sweetness of man’s breath, being a good gift of God,

should be willfully corrupted by this stinking smoke.


  • Shakespeare would have been strongly aware of the King’s concern with witchcraft.  James had good cause to be concerned:  he had been the object of a plot to destroy him, by melting his image in wax; it failed.  Another witches’ plot was to poison him with toad’s venom; this also failed.
  • James wrote Daemonologie, in which he is skeptical about witchcraft, however.

Shakespeare’s Patron

  • James took Shakespeare’s company under his patronage as The King’s Men, and also named them as Grooms of the Chamber.
  • James doubled the fee they received for Court performances, and also doubled the performances.
  • The shortened text version of Macbeth that has come down to us, was probably performed at Hampton Court for James’ brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark in August 1606.
  • Shakespeare was a shrewd man, and did not spare the flattery;  he created Banquo (supposedly James’ ancestor) and it assures James that his line will “stretch out to the crack of doom.”

The Play (written in 1606)

  • Explores the growth and consequences of evil.  Man could ally himself with evil, but he was not the sole creator of evil.
  • Macbeth is nearest to the Greeks in its conception of Fate
  • In the play, the Scottish nobles speak in terms of high courtesy, and they seem to live in an atmosphere of opulence:  the throne of Scotland was worth struggling for.
  • Although the action to a contemporary audience seems ‘savage’, it is unthinkable that Shakespeare would have depicted James’ country as a domain of savages.
  • To King James, Macbeth was a regicide and a trader in evil, but he was no primitive.

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