Updated: Apr 11
Macbeth, otherwise known as the Scottish Play, has been a crowd-pleaser for over 400 years. But more than that, it is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and one of his most politically infused plays. So if you are tasked with the job of presenting or studying Macbeth, you need to understand the politics of the time and the history leading up to them. Even if you are setting your production in another time period other than the one it was written in, the themes that were influenced by Shakespeare’s time are still entrenched in the action of the play.
Most scholars agree that Macbeth was written in 1606, only a few years after Queen Elizabeth I died and King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, landed the additional title of King James I of England, thus uniting the two kingdoms. A full 100 years of bloody battles involving religion, gender equality, primogeniture, sex, and intrigue prefaced this monumental event. After researching them all, I have gathered the most relevant events in order to make your job easier.
Here are some themes that you should be applying to your performance and the historical reasons that Shakespeare included them in the play.
Duh, right? It’s obvious that there is a theme of witchcraft in Macbeth. But what’s important is why Shakespeare chose to include it. Well, it’s hard to overstate how freaky King James was about witchcraft. He even wrote a book about it in 1597 called Daemonologie. In fact, he was the primary reason that the small nation of Scotland had nearly twice as many witch trials than any other nation in Europe. In his book, he declared that witches must be aggressively persecuted, and any and all manner of tortures to draw confessions were encouraged. He was true to his word, too. He personally tortured a woman named Agnes Sampson in 1590 until she “confessed”. She was accused of witchery because, when bringing his new bride from Denmark, a seastorm had nearly capsized James’ ship. He figured that the storm must have been conjured by witches, and went on a witch-hunting rampage.
Apparently, his fascination with witchcraft had begun when his mother was executed in 1587 in England. He claimed that her death had been foretold in Scotland by those with “power of sighte.” Never mind that his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been imprisoned by Elizabeth I for 19 years before Elizabeth finally decided to get rid of her. To James, magic was real and serious business and, just like Macbeth, one foretelling that came true made his belief in all the other ones absolute.
Now, admittedly in the 16th century, there were many people who believed in magic. But skepticism about witchcraft had been growing. Elizabeth I had outlawed torture and convicted witches were hanged, not burned, a kinder death for the time. Elizabeth was a pragmatist in everything and, after 44 years of her rule, James must have looked pretty irrational.
I’ve often wondered if Shakespeare meant for the witches to be simply ordinary women in disguise. It wouldn’t be too hard to find out before Macbeth himself that he was being promoted to Thane of Cawdor. And it’s easy to see that someone as egotistical, power-hungry, and impressionable as Macbeth would only need a little power of suggestion to lead himself on a course of doom.
The succession of rulers in England during the 16th century was as convoluted as a Jerry Springer episode. Let me explain. In 1485, a little over a hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, Henry VII became the first king in the Tudor dynasty. He and his wife Elizabeth of York had four children that survived childhood: Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary. Arthur, as the eldest son, was raised to be the king’s successor, but died at the ripe old age of 15, six months after he married Catherine of Aragon, a member of the Spanish monarchy. The next oldest surviving son, Arthur’s younger brother Henry, then became the heir apparent. He was in love with Catherine of Aragon and petitioned the Roman Catholic Church for permission to marry her. Catherine claimed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so her marriage to Henry was approved. This had the added benefit of retaining the Spanish alliance that her first marriage had obtained for England.
Henry VIII and Catherine were married for around 20 years and had one surviving child, Mary Tudor. But Henry was disappointed that Catherine had been unable to give him a healthy son. What happened next had repercussions for England through many generations. Henry met and fell in love with Anne Boleyn. He couldn’t divorce Catherine because Catholic doctrine forbid it. He would have to get an annulment. So he petitioned the Pope to give him one, citing two verses from Leviticus that made his marriage to his brother’s wife divinely unlawful. The pope refused, so Henry declared his supremacy over the Church and did it anyway. That was the beginning of the Church of England and for the rest of Henry VIII's reign, Protestantism was the official religion. Eventually the Pope ceded the annulment, but not until after Henry and Anne were already married. This is really important to the rest of the story. If Henry’s marriage to Catherine was indeed legitimate, as Catholics believed, then Mary was the heir and Anne was not a queen. Therefore, the child of Henry and Anne’s marriage, Elizabeth, was illegitimate. On the other hand, if Henry and Catherine’s marriage was illegitimate, as Protestants believed, then Mary was illegitimate, Anne was the true queen, and Elizabeth was the heir. This bit of drama would cause both girls to be declared illegitimate by Parliament at different times according to whether Protestants or Catholics were in power at the time. So who would inherit the throne?
Eventually Elizabeth did. However, she had no children to inherit the throne after she died. James VI of Scotland could claim succession through extended family, so he was declared King of England. But this was in spite of the fact that Henry VIII’s will had specifically stated that no foreigner could become king.
What does all of this have to do with Macbeth? Look closely. Macbeth does not earn the title of king through primogeniture. His rule is tumultuous. But Duncan’s natural successor, Malcolm, brings peace and stability. Was Shakespeare trying to say that a king who was not a natural successor was doomed to failure? Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that would tell us for sure, but given the circumstances of the time, succession of the monarchy was certainly a big deal.
3. Gender Equality
To understand how important this theme is, we have to go back to Henry VIII. Henry wanted a boy really badly. So, when Anne Boleyn couldn’t produce a son, he decided to get rid of her and try once more with someone else. Since an annulment had been so hard to procure with his first wife, he decided it would be easier to send Anne to the executioner to get her head chopped off. Then, with Anne out of the way, he married his next wife, Jane Seymour. Jane was the only one of Henry’s wives that was able to give him a son. That son, Edward VI, inherited the throne at the age of nine. However, he got sick when he was 15 and, when it became obvious that it would be terminal, he had to name a successor. That was a big problem.
Why? There had only been one queen in Britain’s history, Queen Matilda in the 12th century, and that had resulted in a bloody civil war. And now, for the first time, there was not a single male in line for the throne.
It wasn’t just because Henry only had Mary and Elizabeth. That would have been easy. One of Henry VIII’s siblings would have provided a male heir. But Henry’s sister Margaret had a sole female heir, Mary Queen of Scots, and his other sister Mary had three female heirs, the oldest of them being Lady Jane. Well, actually her mother Frances would have been queen before her, but Edward didn’t like Frances. So, the options were Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth, or Lady Jane. No male in sight.
It was argued that Mary, Queen of Scots should have become queen of England because her grandmother Margaret had been Henry VIII's older sibling. But Mary Queen of Scots was Catholic, and Edward didn’t want that. He used the excuse that she was a “foreigner”, which violated Henry VIII’s will. Likewise, his half-sister Mary Tudor was Catholic. He could plausibly count her out because she had been declared illegitimate, but when he did that, he had to rule out Elizabeth too because she had also been declared illegitimate. So that left Lady Jane, a fanatical 13-year-old Protestant. However, Lady Jane’s hold on the throne was weak, and after nine days, Mary Tudor ousted and executed her, gaining the throne as Mary I.
Mary I had a short bloody reign. She was as fanatical a Catholic as Lady Jane had been a Protestant. So she went around killing all the Protestants that she could, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary.” She married Philip of Spain, but never had children. Then she died of an unknown reproductive disease only a little over 5 years after she became queen.
After Mary I died, it was Elizabeth’s turn. She had a lot to prove. The first three queens had been disasters. So Elizabeth I made sure her reign was long and relatively peaceful. She finally managed to prove that a woman could rule England and do it well.
Compared to life before and after Elizabeth, it was a great time to be a woman, especially a woman of means. Education for women had been improving since Catherine of Aragon had encouraged it years earlier, and now there was a female ruler. Women still couldn’t go to a university, but they could be educated at home. Some women started wearing trousers, cutting their hair, and discussing changes to women’s property rights.
Then came James. James was a misogynist. He had been separated from his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, at a very young age and had been taught by Protestant regents to hate her. And even though he was married and produced heirs, there were substantial rumors that he was a gay man. So his disinterest in women was legendary and his persecution of them through accusations of witchcraft was downright scary.
So in portraying Lady Macbeth the way that he did, it seems that Shakespeare was exploring the emerging belief that maybe women weren’t so much the innocent “fairer sex”, but could be responsible for their own actions. In fact, both Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are portrayed as strong women. But on the other hand, Shakespeare was also exploring the connection between women and witchcraft. It is in Lady Macbeth’s very first scene that she invites evil spirits to “fill” her.
Here’s another thought. Women at the time could not own property. Anything they had was considered to belong to their fathers or their husbands. There were only two exceptions. They could own property if they were a widow or if they were the queen. Perhaps Lady Macbeth’s obsession with becoming queen is tied into this. If things had worked out differently, is it possible that she may have gotten rid of Macbeth once he was king? If she did, she would be both queen and widow, a very powerful position for a woman.
It’s obvious that Macbeth’s tyranny is his undoing. He is so unpredictable and heavy-handed that there could be no peace in Scotland unless he was deposed. Shakespeare contrasts him with both Duncan and the English king who are not tyrannical and reign in peace. Again, we can find this theme of tyranny in Shakespeare’s current events.
The Scottish nobles of Shakespeare’s day were notoriously unruly. Mary Queen of Scots had been unable to control them, and that was her undoing. But her son James believed in absolute monarchical control. He believed that as king, he and only he knew what was best for his people and if they didn’t like it, well, they could go hang themselves. Or he would do it for them. It didn’t matter how unreasonable his actions were, in his mind they were justified just because they came from him. So he was able to get the Scottish lords in line because of his tyranny.
Could it be that Shakespeare was in a sense saying to James, “Don’t bring your crazy down here. We have enjoyed peace and want to keep it that way.”? Maybe.
Shakespeare didn’t leave us any personal writings that would give us insight into what he was thinking when he wrote Macbeth. However, in many of his plays he references current events. So understanding the current events that surrounded him at the time of his writing can give us a lot of clues to his motives. Watching Macbeth is no doubt entertaining, but if we don’t explore it’s deeper meaning, we are missing the full experience. So whether you are involved in a current production of the play, or you are just studying it, I hope this helps you bring the characters to life.
And as they say, there is more to the story. More than I can include in one post, anyway. So here are my sources if you want to get more of the juicy soap opera that was the Tudor dynasty.
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