John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Background

January 28, 2011 in Essay

Interestingly, this play that refers to time constantly is Shakespeare’s shortest. And it is perhaps Shakespeare’s shortest play for a practical reason. It was written for King James, and James did not like long plays (if they went on too long he was liable to have drunk himself to sleep before the fifth act).

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, the English crown went to the Scottish King James, and Shakespeare’s acting company, formerly The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men, and on ceremonial occasions would dress in special red livery to signify their status as the King’s servants. All their public performances were officially just rehearsals. While they actually made much of their income from these Globe Theatre performances, the fiction was that they needed the Globe only so that they would be ready to perform at royal request, which they often did. No company performed for James as much as Shakespeare’s.

Many scholars think Macbeth was first performed in the summer of 1606, when King James’ brother-in-law, Christian IV, King of Denmark, brother of James’ wife Anne, came to visit. It was a summer of revelry, with many plays. Macbeth, even more than the rest of Shakespeare’s plays was probably written quickly (another reason it’s so short), and specifically to please the king.

King James was fascinated by witches and the occult. He even wrote a book on the subject called Daemonology, where he argued that not to believe in witches was a step towards atheism. And James wasn’t just an intellectual believer in witches. James was sure that he and his wife-to-be had once been cursed by a large coven of witches, perhaps as many as 200, as has recently been discussed at length by Stephen Greenblatt.

It was 1589, and a marriage had been arranged between the Danish Princess Anne and the Scottish King James. Anne of Denmark was supposed to sail to Scotland from Denmark, but a violent storm forced her ship to dock in Oslo, where James soon sailed to and married his bride. When he was finally able to return to Scotland with his wife, he decided that the storms had been the work of witches, set on by the devil (who hated the rightful king of Scotland).

Women were interrogated and tortured, often with the King as a witness. Confessions were obtained. One woman admitted that on Halloween she and a great many other witches had sailed to a small Scottish town in, of all things, sieves. Shakespeare picked up this detail for one of his own witches, who says, “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,/ And like a rat without a tail/ I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll d.” (I.iii.8). In this town they entered a church, dancing to music provided by a trumpet playing witch named Geillis Duncane. (Many of the witches’ names have survived.) The witches then showed their allegiance to Satan by kissing Satan’s bare buttocks, then, much like Macbeth’s witches with their cauldron, they used toads, cats, and dead men’s body parts to enact a ritual against the king’s ship, trying to prevent its return from Oslo. James was fascinated by the story, and he even insisted that the trumpet-playing witch come play her demonic dance music just for him.

Now King James wasn’t a totally irrational man. He knew that women under torture might be willing to confess anything, but he was convinced of the witches’ veracity when one of them told him in private conversation the exact words he and his bride had exchanged on their wedding night. James was convinced. They were witches, and they would be executed.

So in putting witches into Macbeth, Shakespeare was including material he know would interest the King. And he seems occasionally to allude to the tempest caused by James’ witches: “thunder lightening, and in rain” (I.i.2) and “Though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest tossed” (I.iii.25-6).

And in Act IV when he brings the witches on stage one last time, the last witch concludes,

Come sisters, cheer we up his sprites,
And show the best of our delights
I’ll charm the air to give a sound
While you perform your antic round
That this great king may kindly say
Our duties did his welcome pay. (IV.i.127-32)

And so the witches do their demonic dance (to music played by the first witch—I’d like to think she played a trumpet), then they disappear (at the Globe it would have been by way of the trap door near the center of the stage). This witches’ performance was all done presumably to entertain the great King Macbeth, but another great King, James, would no doubt have been quite entertained as well. He had a long interest in witches. (And most audiences have been fascinated by the weird sisters, so much so that some subsequent productions, such as that staged by Shakespeare’s godson William D’Avenant after the Restoration, didn’t content themselves with a mere three witches, but peopled the stage with weird women.)

James was also a famous insomniac, so Macbeth’s beautiful invocation of the powers of sleep (denied Macbeth and his wife), might also have been designed to appeal to the king:

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast. (II.ii.36-39)

And no doubt the character of Banquo was included as a compliment to King James, for James claimed to be descended from Banquo. In the history found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Shakespeare read, Banquo is Macbeth’s accomplice in the assassination of King Duncan. Shakespeare wisely removed this stain from James’ ancestor, making Banquo innocent. And Shakespeare included an explicit tribute to James as king in the final witches’ scene, where the eight kings who descended from Banquo are shown, the last one representing James himself because this one, we are told, holds the orbs and scepters of Scotland and England—James was king of both England and Scotland. This last king tellingly holds a mirror, which, one critic has suggested might have been used in the first performance to show King James his own reflection. King James would have looked in the mirror as it was brought up to him and seen himself, the most recent king in the line descended from Banquo.

Finally, there are contemporary associations in one of the central words/themes of Macbeth: equivocation. When the porter, pretending to be the porter of Hellgate, lists the sinners he will be letting in to hell, he 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” (II.iii.8-11). Shakespeare’s audience would have seen “equivocator” as a reference to the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, who had recently been executed for his supposed role in the Gunpowder plot. This plot, engineered by Guy Fawkes and other Catholics in protest of the discrimination against Catholics, was to blowup with explosives the King and Parliament on November 5, 1605 (In England November 5 is still celebrated with fireworks as Guy Fawkes Day).

The controversy over father Garnet was that he was the author of a book carried by one of the plotters, a book called A Treatise of Equivocation. This book instructed priests under interrogation how to lie without really lying. Ambiguous double meanings were excused. When asked if someone spent the night at your house, you could say, “He did not lie in my house,” meaning “he told the truth in my house” (even though he did sleep there). Catholics were allowed “securely in conscience” to give such answers with “a secret meaning reserved in mind.” People were shocked at this defense of equivocation, for they took lying under oath more seriously than we seem to these days. And that Garnet wrote the book on the subject, undercut any claims he could make about his innocence (and he probably was innocent).

Macbeth is full of Garnet-like equivocations or “ambiguous double meanings,” so much so that Macbeth exclaims in despair when he hears that Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane,

I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane:’ and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane. (V.v.42-6)

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