How is King James relevant to Macbeth?

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One of the most interesting elements in Macbeth that is often thought of as a loose end by modern audiences is the question of what happened to Banquo's son, Fleance. Having fled the murderers in Act III, he does not reappear at the end of the play, and the sons of Duncan, the king whom Macbeth murdered, are restored to their throne. This would seem to suggest that the prophecy of Banquo's sons becoming kings has not come true—to a modern audience.

A contemporary audience, however, would recognize that this is not what is being implied. The House of Stuart made a concerted effort to ally themselves with the legendary figure of Fleance, who supposedly fled to Wales and there founded the Stuart line. In reality, Fleance almost certainly did not exist, but his existence was very important to the Stuarts' concept of themselves as the rightful kings of Scotland. In the case of King James, the idea of the Stuarts as part of a long-deposed line who were meant to return and become king is especially important because James had recently been made king of England, uniting the Scottish throne to the English one in a move some felt was controversial. By referencing the Fleance line, Shakespeare pays homage to King James by cementing the idea that the Stuarts were always meant to return and rule, much as James had "returned" to England to become king there, too. It is a confirmation of rightful kingship.

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In writing Macbeth, Shakespeare wanted to warn his fellow Englishmen of the dangers of a violent handover of power. Although England enjoyed much greater stability under James I than it had for some time, the king's grip on power was by no means secure, as can be seen from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when James, along with the entire political establishment, came within an ace of being blown to smithereens.

According to the prevailing wisdom, there was something diabolical about assassinating a monarch. Kings and queens were widely held to be anointed by God, and to remove them from their thrones by force was seen as not just treachery, but outright blasphemy. This attitude towards monarchy is reflected in Macbeth's actively siding with the forces of darkness in his plot to murder Duncan and establish himself on the Scottish throne.

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The only surviving source of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which seems to have been adapted for a court performance for King James, is centralized around the struggles of different power dynamics. This works well in the context of interpolated compliments to King James and his right to rule.

As a nod towards King James as the rightful ruler of both England and Scotland, Macbeth transfers its power symbolically from Scotland to England. After King Duncan’s murder, his son Malcolm flees to England to ask for help. He is “received/Of the most pious King Edward with such grace/That the malevolence of fortune nothing/Takes from his high respect” (Act 3, Scene 6, Lines 27-9). King Edward is recruiting the English forces to help Scotland get rid of Macbeth, their tyrant king. “Upon his aid,/To wake Northumberland and warlike Siward,/That by the help of these—with Him above/To ratify the work” (Act 2, Scene 6, Lines 30-3). This puts the English king in the position of the divine savior. Scotland is sick, and England has got the cure. At the end, everything is put right by the power of pure England and its divine king. Holding Macbeth’s head, Macduff announces that “the time is free” (Act 5, Scene 8, Line 55). Macbeth’s evil has been swept away out from Scotland and replaced with a rightful ruler. Malcolm says, “My thanes and kinsmen,/Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland/In such an honor named” (Act 5, Scene 8, Lines 63-5). Already, the old Scottish ways are being replaced by the greatness of England. Although Malcolm is crowned at the end rather than Fleance, the witches’ prophecy was known to be true by Shakespeare’s audience, because King James was a descendant of Banquo’s.

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