Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

"Macbeth, King James, and biting the hand that feeds you?" by Benjamin Hudson, author of "Macbeth Before Shakespeare" published by Oxford University Press

Macbeth, King James, and biting the hand that feeds you?

Possibly the most dangerous play William Shakespeare wrote was The Tragedie of Macbeth.  The drama is packed with illegality: assassination of kings; prophecies about kings; supernatural women; and necromancy. To add to the danger, Shakespeare’s employer, King James, was a prickly patron of the performing arts and notorious for his sensitivity to slights, real and perceived.

Patrons of the theatre can have a confrontational attitude to the world of the stage and one such patron was King James VI of Scotland and I of England. James enjoyed plays and, prior to his elevation to the English throne, he kept abreast of English works as well as those in Scotland. Foreign observers considered the theatre to provide a valuable insight into the thoughts of King James, so much so that George Nicolson, the English agent at the Scottish court, gave his employer, the Secretary of State Robert Cecil, a list of plays. James was aware of the political implications of plays and also was sensitive to what he considered abuse or insults. A message from Nicolson to Robert Cecil’s father William, Lord Burghley on 15 April 1598 pleaded with his lordship: 

It is regretted that the comedians of London should scorn [King James] and the people of [Scotland] in their play; and it is wished that the matter be speedily amended lest the King and the country be stirred to anger.

James also used the theatre in his contest for power with the church and the towns. The next year Nicolson wrote on 12 November 1599 to Robert Cecil that the ministers of the churches were forbidding their parishioners to attend theatrical performances. Furthermore, the bellows-blowers were claiming that two English actors named Fletcher and Martin were English agents who had been sent to sow discord between the king and the Church. King James responded by directly ordering the Edinburgh city council and the churches to reverse their bans and allow people to attend performances. 

When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England on 24 March 1603, he extended his patronage to the English theatre. In a royal patent of 19 May 1603 the troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s men became the King’s Men. The first name on the patent for the actors was Lawrence Fletcher (died 1608), apparently the same Fletcher who is mentioned in George Nicolson’s letter of November 1599. The very next name is William Shakespeare. 

The King’s Men discovered that plays referring to Scottish events did not always meet with their royal master’s approval. There was, for example, the Tragedie of Gowry that the company performed twice in August 1604. This was otherwise known as the “Gowrie Conspiracy,” which was a supposed attempt on the king’s life in August 1600. When hunting near Falkirk, the king was approached by Alexander of Ruthven, the brother of the Earl of Gowrie, who said that a man with a pot of gold coins was at his residence called Gowrie House. James rode to the house and came to a room in a turret where there was an armed man. The king dashed to a window where he shouted “Treason” and his entourage broke into the house. Neither the assassin nor the man with the pot of gold coins was found and that led many people to question the king’s account. A generous interpretation is that there was an attempted assassination by Alexander Ruthven who wanted revenge for the execution of his father ordered by James’ regency council. The controversy might explain the cold reception the King’s Men received. A letter of 18 December from John Chamberlaine to his friend Sir Ralph Winwood noted: 

The Tragedy of Gowry, with all the Action and Actors hath been twice represented by the King’s Players, with exceeding Concourse of all sorts of People. But whether the matter or manner be not well handled, or that it be thought unfit that Princes should be played on the Stage in their Life-time, I hear that some great Councellors (sic) are much displeased with it, and so ‘tis thought shall be forbidden.

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that the Tragedie of Macbeth was performed so soon afterwards. Many critics believe that the play was written during the winter of 1606 and performed for the first time in the summer when James entertained his brother-in-law King Christian of Denmark. The play had many topics of possible offense to King James; so why did Shakespeare write Macbeth?

One possible answer is that the Tragedie of Macbeth told history the way that King James wanted it to be told. The drama was based on the historical record. All the main characters and the progression of events—murder of Duncan, flight of Malcolm Canmore, and his eventual triumphant return—are historically attested, with one exception: Banquo. The murder of Duncan by Macbeth could have been seen by James as parallel with the murder of his father Henry Darnley, while the victory of Malcolm was similar to his triumph over the Scots and English nobility. James’ fear of witches can be judged by his Demonology of 1599, where he sees them as enemies of humanity. Even prophecy was dubious and, since the fifteenth century, any prophecy that juxtaposed royalty with chronology was illegal. In the play, however, all these unsavoury elements are destroyed. The prophecies are shown to be deceitful and the witches deliberately mislead Macbeth. Finally, the world is put right when Malcolm avenges his father.  

Like Robert Cecil, William Shakespeare understood how the theatre offered an insight into the mind of a prince. The Tragedie of Macbeth was drama of the sort that King James wanted and for which he paid.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.