Why did Shakespeare write Macbeth?

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a tribute to King James I, who became king a few years before the play was first performed. Shakespeare also wanted to caution against abuses of power and the instability which follows from political violence.

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It is often thought that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth specifically for King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England. There is a tradition that the play was first performed at court before the king, though there is very little evidence for this. What is clear is...

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It is often thought that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth specifically for King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England. There is a tradition that the play was first performed at court before the king, though there is very little evidence for this. What is clear is that the play was designed to appeal to the new King of England in a number of ways. It deals with two characters he believed to be his ancestors: Banquo and Fleance. Banquo is presented in a very positive light, as a noble foil to the villainy and treachery of Macbeth. James was also a learned authority on witchcraft, having published a book on the subject in 1597.

The appeal of a Scottish play, catering to the interests of the new king and featuring an account of how his ancestors came to power, seems clear enough for Shakespeare, who had made his reputation under Queen Elizabeth and was doubtless eager to secure the patronage of the current monarch, who was interested in literature and theater. However, it is important not to be too dogmatic in assigning to Shakespeare reasons for writing one of his greatest plays. He knew a good story when he saw it, and must have realized as he read the account of Macbeth's career in Holinshed's Chronicles that this could be adapted into a peerless psychological study of ambition, as well as a thrilling drama full of action and excitement. One of Shakespeare's most compelling reasons for writing Macbeth must have been that by this stage in his writing career, at the height of his powers, he was confident that he could create a masterpiece.

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Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a tribute to King James I, who had been crowned king of England three years before the play was probably first performed in 1606. The play is both laudatory towards James and a cautionary tale that can be described as an "advice to princes."

The Scottish setting is a tribute to James, who was king of Scotland before becoming England's king as well. James, who believed he could heal people of diseases such as scrofula with his royal touch, was flattered by being likened in act IV, scene 3 to King Edward the Confessor, another healer who was one of James's ancestors. James was also flattered in being a descendant of the "good" leaders like Malcolm, who defeated the tyrant Macbeth.

But the play also cautions the king not to become a tyrant. By 1606, it was clear that James I was not going to continue the policies of Elizabeth I which, while repressive by our standards, allowed people as much freedom as possible given the time period. As a woman and the daughter of a queen many thought was illegitimately placed on the throne, Elizabeth knew she had to tread very carefully to maintain public support. James had none of these compunctions and took a much more aggressive attitude towards his powers, leaning into the then-current idea of the divine rights of kings. This ideology offered him the maximum power to claim ownership of property and to rule without the advice of parliament. Shakespeare is warning James I through this play that tyranny breeds revolt and instability. Shakespeare was right: under James's son, the country would erupt into civil war over monarchial excesses.

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The primary purpose of Shakespeare's writing of Macbeth was most likely to warn his fellow countrymen of the dangers of violent regime change.

Just a year before the play was written, a group of terrorists had come close to wiping out the entire political establishment, including the royal family, by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

Had this audacious terrorist act succeeded, there's little doubt that England would've been plunged into chaos and bloodshed. Shakespeare didn't want that to happen, so he used his extraordinary skills as a playwright to drive home the message that changing the political system by force can come to no good.

That indeed is precisely what happens in the play. After Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne, Scotland becomes a blood-soaked tyranny in which no one is safe from Macbeth's wrath and paranoia.

Had the natural order of things been allowed to take its course, with Duncan passing away and being succeeded by his son Malcolm, then none of this would've happened. A peaceful transition would've occurred between one reign and the next, ensuring the political stability that would've benefitted the people of Scotland as a whole.

It is precisely this kind of peaceful transition that Shakespeare himself endorsed for his native England, and whose importance he wished to convey in Macbeth.

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Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a tribute to King James, the new monarch of England at the time.  When Shakespeare wrote the play, he included several elements that would have appealed to the king: witchcraft and ancestry.  First, King James was previously interested in demonology, including witchcraft.  Several witches had been foiled in their attempt to place on a curse on James when he was king of Scotland.  As a result, James wrote a text entitled Demonology, which was offered to the public as his treatise on witchcraft among other things.  Clearly, Shakespeare uses this information as the basis for his 3 witches in Macbeth.  Next, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to praise King James and his ancestry.  The character of Banquo was the ancestor of King James; you can observe this in Act IV when the witches show the apparitions of the 8 kings descending from Banquo.  The final king holds a glass in his hand.  In the staging of this scene, the final apparition would have held a glass (mirror) up towards James so that when James looked down at it, his reflection was seen in the mirror - thus insinuating that he was in the line of kings descending from Banquo and paying homage to James' lineage.

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Shakespeare wrote "Macbeth" specifically for King James I. The king was a large supporter of the theater, and Shakespeare's company even became known as "The King's Men." King James I was king of Scotland and eventually became King of England; his ancestry could be traced back to Banquo, which was documented in the "Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland" by Raphael Holinshed (1587). The "Chronicles" were a primary source for Shakespeare throughout the course of his career.

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