Why did Shakespeare write Macbeth for King James?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

We don't know exactly why Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. While we have much documentary evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, all of it is business related, such as contracts and wills: we have nary a shred of paper in which Shakespeare recorded a personal opinion or thought. We can only rely on his poetry and plays and larger historical currents to guide our thinking. Therefore, the best we can do is to make an educated guess.

Macbeth was written about 1606, shortly after James I took the throne in England and became patron of Shakespeare's theater company. We can surmise Shakespeare had two purposes in writing this play: to flatter James and to caution him.

The play flatters James, also king of Scotland, by being set in Scotland and showing his ancestor, Banquo, in a positive light. An allusion in the play to King Edward the Confessor curing scrofula was also a nod to James I, who revived the idea that the royal touch could cure illnesses.

Furthermore, Shakespeare showed he knew James's story well: James believed in witchcraft and thought that witches had raised a storm that threatened him and his wife as they set sail to Denmark. Shakespeare's acknowledgment of witches and their power would have played flattering tribute to James's worldview.

More importantly than these flattering little touches, however, is the overall theme of the play. English citizens, with good reason, feared James would veer into tyranny. He took an aggressive stance on the rights and power of the monarchy in a way that unnerved many. Shakespeare's play shows the ill effects of a tyrant on a country and on the tyrant himself, and thus Macbeth acts as cautionary tale or "advice to princes"—advising James to take it easy and steer a moderate course.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

James I took Shakespeare's theater company under his patronage, and its name changed from "Lord Chamberlain's Men" to "The King's Men." Shakespeare played his political hand cleverly by writing a play that enhanced the moral virtues of Banquo, whom King James called his ancestor.

Shakespeare based his historical plays on Holinshed's Chronicles, in which Banquo is considered a historical figure. Later studies disputed such belief, but in the 17th century no one doubted that the House of Stuart descended from the first High Steward of Scotland who, in turn, was believed to have been Banquo's great-grandson. As you know, James was already king of Scotland when he ascended the English throne. 

In order to please his new benefactor -remember that Shakespeare had also found favor with Elizabeth I, James's predecessor- the Bard altered the information provided by Holinshed. While the Chronicles recorded that Banquo had been Macbeth's accomplice in the murder of Duncan and in the subsequent usurpation of the Scottish throne, Shakespeare portrayed him as an innocent spectator first and as a victim later. 

It stands to reason that James I would not have appreciated being associated to a murderer of kings. However, Shakespeare did include a hint that pointed to Banquo's devious behavior. After Duncan's death, Banquo is shown siding with Macbeth, when he should have supported Malcolm if he had been a loyal subject.

It is not clear why he did this. King James and his court did not notice the contradiction. If they had, Shakespeare's career would probably have ended then and there.   

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial