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Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Staging the King: The Specter of James I in Macbeth

[Winner of the 2022 William J. Connelly Award • MTSU]

For Kings being publike persons, by reason of their office and authoritie, are as it were set (as it was sayd of old) vpon a publique stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders eyes are attentiuelie bent, to looke and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest driftes.

—James VI & I, Basilikon Doron

THE PLAYWRIGHT, like any seasoned performer, knows when and how to play to a crowd, that is, how to draw from them a kind of sympathetic resonance, conscious or subconscious, by means of the familiar, the soft ping of recognition. It is an intimacy of a kind, at times pleasant, at times not so pleasant—the charmed in the power of the charmer. This paper will explore certain topical elements in Macbeth, specifically those that have some identification, however remote or figurative, with James I. Some are subtle, phantomlike. Others are not. But all were fashioned by a master craftsperson, an artist who not only understood the risks of portraying his sovereign upon a public stage but exercised an economy and stealth sufficient to do so. Topicality in Macbeth, it should be noted, has been a convention of general scholarship for some time. While this paper will cite common examples, the hope is to suggest new possibilities, topical elements that may have been overlooked, underprized, or not yet introduced into the larger conversation.

It was no small thing to impose the image of a monarch into a play, however remote or ghostlike his or her presence. To be overbold, that is, to say too much, to say or to imply the wrong thing and disparage one’s sovereign was considered lèse-majesté, “a crime committed against a monarch or other ruler; insult of or affront” (Oxford English Dictionary). There were powerful rules against, and serious consequences for such offense. One writer used the word “tightrope” to describe the delicacy that topical wordplay demands, most particularly in the presence of majesty (McEleney 45).

James Shapiro suggests that because of its “striking topicality” (308), Macbeth was written in 1606 in the fallout of the Gunpowder Plot. Questions exist among scholars concerning the precise date of its first performance, but late 1606 seems probable, and most likely before the King. The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by English Catholic conspirators to assassinate James, his family, and members of Parliament on 5 November 1605. The plot failed, but according to historian David Willson it left a stain on the psyche of the King. “His dread of assassination at Catholic hands, always with him in some degree, deepened and increased until it became part of his entire being” (Willson 227). The Venetian ambassador added, “The King is in terror” (227). It is difficult to imagine otherwise, considering his family history. When James was six months old, his father, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was assassinated by an explosion of gunpowder, his house at Kirk o’ Field blown up under him while he slept. It is not unreasonable to assume the effect of the Gunpowder Plot upon James was immediate, failed or not. And though the word “regicide” is never mentioned in Macbeth, the first savage and forbidden act in the play is the willful murder of a king. For a poet-playwright determined to meddle with those “secretest driftes” mentioned in the epigraph, James was ripe for exploit. He certainly had the ear for it. And Macbeth’s meditations on the murder of Duncan had enchantments in them. Chill, dark, calculating, full of menace, and among the finest specimens of wordcraft in the entire canon.

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well

It were done quickly: if the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We'ld jump the life to come. (Macbeth 1.7.1-28)

Macbeth is deep and earthy,” Coleridge wrote, “composed to the subterranean music of a troubled conscience, which converts everything into the wild and fearful!” (Essays). Coleridge is speaking of the play itself, but the same might easily apply to Shakespeare’s royal audience of one, that in the conception and in the writing, the poet sought to evoke the “subterranean music” of the King’s own troubled conscience. More will be said about equivocation presently (one of the more conspicuous artifacts of the Gunpowder Plot), but it is worthwhile to note that the very language of Macbeth, the comingling of rhapsody and horror becomes itself a type of equivocation, if in a “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under ‘t” (1.5.65-66) kind of way. Macbeth expresses the ghastly and unspeakable with both delicacy and charm. Whether such equivocation is intentional on the part of the playwright or not, it is doubtful that the “wild and fearful” ever spoke with such flower or with a more lovely voice.

If the language of Macbeth is, in part, a study in paradox, the same may be said of King James himself. In spite of the criticism the Porter scene (2.3) generated in centuries beyond Shakespeare (e.g. Pope, Coleridge), James, who had a particular fondness for smut, filthy jest, and streams of foul language, most likely would have enjoyed it. He had long acquired what David Willson refers to as, “a florescence of obscenity that contrasted painfully with his interest in holy things” (36).

Another biographical detail about James that is rarely mentioned, if at all, in connection with Macbeth was his love of blood or blood sport. Even as the young King of Scots, James loved nothing more than the hunt, or the chase as he called it. M. de Fontenay, ambassador to Henry III of France and friend of the King’s mother, said James “likes hunting above all other pleasures of this world” (Akrigg 75). Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, the Viennese ambassador to James’s English court used the phrase “foolishly devoted” to describe the King’s passion for the hunt (Willson 180). Among his many contradictions, James was known to faint at the sight of a drawn sword or naked blade, and yet would often revel in the blood of a felled animal—slitting the creature’s throat, then its torso, sticking his hands in the warm entrails, at times “daubing the faces of his courtiers, a token of their sportsmanship and of their sovereign’s high esteem” (180). From the nave to the chops the incarnadine Macbeth is the bloodiest of all Shakespeare tragedies, the only possible exception being Titus Andronicus, whose gore and slapstick can hardly compare with the superior qualities of the Scottish Play, as Macbeth is also known.

The hunt was something James understood all too well. From childhood, he had often been the hunted himself. There always seemed to be some conspiratorial mischief afoot in the shadows of the young king. By the time he took rule of Scotland in his own power, that is, without regency, James “had survived no fewer than nine kidnap attempts” (Macleod 129). It is not unreasonable to suggest that his psychology was bound to this narrative—hunter and hunted—that his “vindictive fury in pursuing and slaughtering his game,” his general “bad manners” (Willson 181) on the chase, not to mention his foul mood if a creature escaped his shot, revealed some inner conflict akin to identification with the aggressor, or, as Coleridge suggested of Macbeth, “like delirious men who run away from the phantoms of their own brains, or, raised by terror to rage, stab the real object that is within their reach” (Essays). This is a speculative observation, though hardly an improbable one. And genius could play upon such strings.

In 1603, on progress from Edinburgh to London on his way to be crowned king of England, James stopped in many towns along the way to celebrate his inheritance. According to A true narrative of the entertainment of his royal Majestie from the time of his departure from Edinburgh til his receiving at London, a tract printed in London in 1603 (Brown 84), a cutpurse was captured in the town of Newark-upon-Trent attempting to rob those in attendance of the royal celebration. The thief “had good store of coyne found about him, and upon examination confessed that he had from Barwick to that place plaied the cut-purse” (84). The offender was taken directly to the King who then ordered the man’s immediate execution without trial. James thought it would be a crowd pleaser. Though Scottish law permitted this brand of justice, English law did not. The act sent shockwaves not only through the townspeople, but throughout the kingdom. Not unlike Macbeth, just prior to being crowned James had blood on his hands.

Upon entering his new possession, by ancient custom James was expected to lay those same hands upon those with scrofula, a “tuberculous infection of the lymph nodes of the neck” (OED “king’s evil”). Beginning with Edward the Confessor, an eleventh century English monarch, it was thought that only a monarch’s touch could heal a person of the disease. James initially dismissed the ritual. He had his reasons—the age of miracles was past; it smacked of Catholic superstition. Closer to the truth, the thought of touching the “strangely visited people, swoll’n and ulcerous” (4.3.150-151) was too much to ask of the germaphobe king. Even so, as the English king he continued the practice. The public relations minded James thought it best not to “discontinue a custom that emphasized the divine nature of royalty” (Willson 173).

In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, equivocation became a matter of heightened public interest. In 1606, Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, wrote A Treatise on Equivocation, a manuscript that instructed the Catholic conspirators implicated in the Plot how to respond under interrogation, or more specifically how to lie and remain guiltless of lying before heaven, keeping one’s piety intact. A kind of mental sleight of hand, if, for example, the accused was asked a simple question like “Did you hear mass today?” (Fraser Faith and Treason 243), they were instructed to respond by saying “No, I did not,” while at the same time thinking “No, I did not hear mass at St. Paul’s,” therefore covering, or dissembling a lie with a truth. In his Dictionary of the English Language [1755], Samuel Johnson said to equivocate was “To use words of double meaning; to use ambiguous expressions; to mean one thing and express another” (75). A prop that holds the play together, Shakespeare made good use of equivocation throughout Macbeth, with its ghostly and, at times, daring overtures toward James. Macbeth uses the word himself in 5.5.42. The Porter makes a toy of the word in 2.3.1-36. In act 4, an unsure Macbeth seeks the counsel of the Weird Sisters. The Sisters defer to their powerful masters, who appear as a series of apparitions and offer Macbeth the assurance he craves, again, not realizing, and with tragic consequence, that “the fiend that lies like truth” (5.5.42-43) is not telling him everything. The first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware the Thane of Fife” (4.1.73), that is, beware Macduff. The second then encourages him to “be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn the pow’r of man; for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80-81). What the apparition doesn’t tell him is that Macduff doesn’t fit the profile, the intelligence of which comes late, that is, at sword-point. With the unluckiest of epiphanies, Macbeth realizes he has been duped by these “juggling fiends” (5.7.19). “Despair thy charm” (5.8.13), cries Macduff, just before laying on.

The third apparition assures Macbeth that he will not be vanquished “until Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him” (4.1.93-94). It is relevant to note that this third apparition, who “rises like the issue of a king, and wears upon his baby-brow the round and top of sovereignty” (4.1.86-88), reflects King James in a more conspicuous way. On 24 July 1567, James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was forced to sign a “voluntary demission” (Stewart 31), essentially a forced abdication of the Scottish throne, her throne. Less than a week later, on 29 July, a month after his first birthday, James was crowned James VI of Scotland. This episode, like the other two “apparitions” is an invention of Shakespeare. Holinshed only mentions a “witch upon whom he [Makbeth] had in great trust” (Holinshed 274). It was she who prophesied he should “never be slaine with man borne of woman, nor vanquished till the wood of Bernane came to the castell at Dunsinane” (274). The tree in the infant’s hand not only reflects the prophecy but suggests the royal [Stewart] lineage as well. Macbeth’s lust to know, fevered and unsated, with a curse of his own and demanding to know if Banquo’s issue will ever reign in Scotland, a cauldron drops and there appears a series of eight kings. This too is the poet’s invention, and again with a powerful overture toward James and the Stewart line.

And yet an eighth appears, who bears a glass

Which shows me many more, and some I see

That twofold balls and treble scepters carry.

Now I see ‘tis true,

For the blood-bolter’d Banquo smiles upon me,

And points at them for his. (Macbeth 4.1.119-123)

The eighth king represents the eighth Stewart king which is James himself (with the exclusion of Mary Queen of Scots). The “glass” he holds is a mirror which bears the likeness of James with the suggestion of many more in his line to come after him. Wary not to present the image of a living monarch on stage, the mirror provides a convenient, that is, oblique substitute. James Shapiro suggests that King James would not only understand the image but “may have been flattered by it” (209). The image of the “two-fold balls” (4.1.121) is an allusion to the English and Scottish crowns in James’s possession, the “treble scepters” to his reign of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a “clear nod to the anticipated Union of the kingdoms and seemingly supportive of the royal position” (209).

Shakespeare’s Banquo wisely differs from the Banquo in Holinshed’s Chronicles. In Holinshed, Banquo conspires with Macbeth in the death of Duncan. “Communicating his purposed intent with his trustie friends, amongst whome Banquho was the chiefest, vpon confidence of their promised aid, he slue the king at Enuerns” (Holinshed 269). In Shakespeare, Banquo appears blameless. Every other movement of Holinshed’s narrative remains intact. It is an equivocation of a kind, equivocation by omission, Shakespeare’s Banquo being more patron-friendly.

On 27 August 1605, the King rode into Oxford with Queen Anne and Prince Henry for a three-day visit. At the gates of St. John’s College, he was met by three young men dressed like nymphs, or Sybils. The production, called Tres Sybillae, was written by Matthew Gwinn. Like the Weird Sisters, Sybils are “women of antiquity who were reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination” (OED “Sybil”). The three Sibyls recounted the historical episode of Banquo, ancestor to James. That done, the first Sibyl cried out to the King, “Hail, King of Scotland.” The second Sibyl then shouted, “Hail, King of England.” The third, “Hail, King of Ireland” (Shapiro 67). The three Sibyls then shouted together, “All Hail, who divided Britain joins into one” (67), and to the great delight of James. Antonia Fraser adds that what gave His Majesty added pleasure was that the Gwinn play was short (Faith and Treason 134), a reference to James’s inability to sit still for too long, suggesting, as well, an abbreviated attention span. Whether Shakespeare was at the event that day in Oxford as both Fraser and Shapiro suggest he may have been, is not an argument this paper cares to make, though his presence there is not improbable, being, as he was, a Groom of the Chamber.

James had what could be rightly described as a fascination for witches, albeit a paradoxical fascination, as one who thrills in the thing that terrifies him. As King of Scots, he was more the agnostic than the true believer. He observed tortures, sat in on trials, was always free with his opinion, and showed genuine brutality toward the creatures, but considered witches and all such devils as liars, and therefore held the practice of witchcraft in some measure of doubt. It wasn’t until he encountered Agnes Sampson that he was shaken into belief. In 1591, Agnes was implicated as a witch by a young servant girl, Geillis Duncan, whose capture and interrogation led to the persecution of the Witches of North Berwick (Cawthorn 161). Geillis was employed by the deputy bailiff, a cruel man named Seaton [suggestive of Macbeth’s aid, Seyton?], who, after practicing cruelties of his own toward the suspected young witch, turned her over to the authorities. A well-known, well-documented case, under severe torture Geillis named dozens of women, among them Agnes Sampson, who, for reasons known only to the King, drew particular ire from His Majesty. James had her taken to Holyrood where he could examine her himself. Denying any charges, her punishment escalated.

All her hair was shaven off, in each part of her body. The devil’s mark was then found on her pudenda. She was then fastened to the wall of her cell with a witch’s bridle. This was a metal device that was forced into the mouth, so that two sharp iron prongs stick into the tongue, while another two stick into the cheeks. She was forced to go without sleep, then ropes were twisted around her head, then jerked about in all directions causing a pain most grievous. (Cawthorn 161)

Sampson confessed being part of a group of women who, in 1586, conjured the winds against the ship carrying James’s young bride, Anne of Denmark, as she sailed from home to become Scotland’s queen, forcing the ships back to shore near Oslo, Norway. It is worth mentioning here the King’s ambitious and regicide Stewart cousin, Francis Stewart Hepburn, 5th Earl of Bothwell. Playing Macbeth to James’s Duncan, Bothwell wanted the Scottish crown for himself. It was Bothwell, James discovered, who incited the Berwick Witches against him and his new bride. One of the witches admitted James was a target for destruction, “that another might rule in his Majesty’s place and the government might go to the devil” (James VI Newes from Scotland). Lilian Winstanley argues as well that the Macbeth of Shakespeare “far more closely resembles Francis, Earl of Bothwell, than he resembles the Macbeth of Holinshed” (Winstanley 30). The poet preserved the image in rhyme. “I’ll give thee a wind . . .” (1.3.11-36). Upon confession of the charmed winds, Agnes then whispered something in the King’s ear that rattled a deep, private, and most royal nerve. James published the account in a pamphlet called The Newes From Scotland declaring the dam death of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer.

[Agnes Sampson] declared unto him the very words which had passed between the King’s majesty and his Queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage, with their answer to each other. Whereat the King’s majesty wondered greatly and swore by the living God that he believed that all the devils in hell could not have discovered the same, acknowledging her words to be most true and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared. (James VI)

In the wake of his encounter with Agnes Sampson, James wrote Daemonologie: In Forme of ane Dialogue, where he set out to prove the existence and practice of witchcraft. He considered it a branch of theology, the chief argument for which being scripture. Even the design of the iron headpiece that bit into the tongue of Agnes Sampson had its validation in scripture—mulier taceat in ecclesia, “Let the woman be silent in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34), which, according to the times, might be translated “Let the woman be silent in the presence of the male” (Held 150). James was well steeped in the misogyny of the ages, all the bigotries, hard opinion, all the usual props of Christian piety and patriarchy. There were, however, influences against which James was powerless, that leaned hard against his ambitions.

Though not present herself, Elizabeth I sent a font of pure gold for the baptism of the infant James and played godmother to the boy for the remainder of her natural life. In time, she began to play the long game of carrot-stick with the young King of Scots, a game the savvy queen was good at, holding out before him the prize of succession yet never really committing to it verbally or officially. Mary Queen of Scots, mother of the King, cousin and rival of the great Elizabeth, even as prisoner of the state refused to acknowledge her son as sole monarch of Scotland. When Mary was executed on 8 February 1587 for her alleged part in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, because of the delicate balance James had to maintain to secure the favor of the English queen, he essentially had to turn a blind eye to the death of his natural mother. What protests he made had neither conviction nor the ability to convince. Learning well from his godmother, much of this response was strategic, histrionic. Having met neither Mary nor Elizabeth, they took up residence in his head and became, like the Weird Sisters, “an emblematic state of mind” (Garber 698), commanding, again like the Sisters, “evident power over his life, his fate, and his future” (697). In like fashion, Lady Macbeth, from the first movements of her husband’s bloody ascent to the throne, bullies him into conviction and action. She makes her own incantations to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” (1.5.40-41), using her husband’s manhood as a weapon against him. Janet Adelman concludes that the play “constructs Macbeth as terrifyingly pawn to female figures” (93).

The point, both here as in all points above, is that in Macbeth, whether by intention or by those subtleties of art that often think beyond the artist, Shakespeare holds up a glass to his prince, a mirror, of which this is but a glance. There are other allusions to James in this play, including those that will, in time, be uncovered, considered, and debated. Of that, we can be certain. Genius, like the Bay of Portugal or a weaver’s dream, has no bottom. But that is a tale for another time. Either way, like the poet’s glass, this paper has labored to produce an image, a reflection—to disclose the play within the play, the king within the king. Every inch.

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Antiquities of the Borough. Quoting from “The True Narrative of the Entertainment of His Royal Majestie, from the Departure from Edenbrough; till his Receiving at London, 1603.”(London, 1603). H. Sotheran & Co. London, 1879.

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——Daemonologie, 1597.

——Basilikon Doron, 1599.

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