How does Shakespeare explore the nature of kingship in Macbeth?

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William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 when the concept of kingship in Great Britain was very much up for consideration. James I had just assumed the throne after his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, died without leaving a clear line of succession. Many were concerned about the establishment of the Stuart...

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William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 when the concept of kingship in Great Britain was very much up for consideration. James I had just assumed the throne after his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, died without leaving a clear line of succession. Many were concerned about the establishment of the Stuart dynasty and the end of Tudor rule. Furthermore, James was suspected to have Catholic sympathies, something that was quite divisive at the time. Many in England were also uneasy with the idea of having a Scottish-born ruler.

Amidst this background, Shakespeare set out to explore kingship and what gave a monarch legitimacy. When the play begins, Duncan is the king of Scotland. He is kind and respected by his subjects. He rewards their loyalty. However, he fails to remain the king because he is too trusting of Macbeth and is murdered. Macbeth is the opposite of Duncan in that he is paranoid, tyrannical, and cruel. Both kings meet a violent end. Shakespeare invites his audience to consider what makes these two kings different. Considering that they both meet similar ends, we have to ask if one was a more successful king than the other.

Shakespeare also explores the notion of the Divine Right of Kings. This was the long-held belief that monarchs were given their legitimacy by God. This was an important way for monarchs to hold on to power. It helped prevent people from thinking that a king could simply be overthrown and a new one crowned. Duncan has the divine right to rule. By killing him and taking the throne, Macbeth violates divine will as is duly punished.

Shakespeare was a supporter of King James. The witches' prophesy that Banquo will sire a line of future kings helps make the point that the Stuarts are destined to rule, as James was a descendant of Banquo. Just a year before this play was written, the infamous Gunpowder Plot nearly killed the king and members of Parliament. The conspirators were captured, tortured, and executed. Shakespeare wanted to make the point that anyone who would seek to overthrow divinely appointed rulers will be punished in life as well as after they die. Even Macbeth realizes this. As he is considering his plans to murder Duncan, Macbeth says,

But in these cases / We still have judgment here, that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague th’ inventor. (act 1, scene 7, lines 7-10)

Macbeth recognizes that Duncan is the rightful king. If he commits regicide, he will be punished by those loyal to Duncan and then by God. Shakespeare is making the point that if anyone were to actually kill King James, they won't hold on to power long because James' supported will simply overthrow any pretender to the throne.

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