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Contemporary References to King James I in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1605-06)

One can connect Shakespeare's patron, King James I, to almost every significant dramatic alteration Shakespeare made to his source material on the historical Macbeth, as we can see in Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth. But fascinating contemporary references and compliments to James also are found throughout the play.

The two-fold balls and treble sceptres (4.1) is a reference to the double coronation of James, at Scone and Westminster, and the most overt homage to James in the play. The balls or globes "were the royal insignia which King James bore in right of his double kingship of England and Scotland, and the three sceptres were those of his three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland" (Lilian Winstanley, Macbeth, King Lear and Contemporary History).

Another obvious tribute to James is Malcolm's reference to the evil (4.3) or scrofula, which James believed he could cure by his touch; a power supposedly inherited from Edward the Confessor.

A probable allusion to the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate James can be found in Lady Macbeth's words, look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't (1.5) and even more riveting is an allusion to a Jesuit priest named Father Henry Garnet, who had concealed his knowledge of the conspiracy:
Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator. (2.3)
Macbeth also, more so than any of Shakespeare's works, is overflowing with Biblical imagery, and, of course, one of King James's great passions was Scripture, culminating in the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. Another of James's interests was witchcraft, and woven into Macbeth are portions of James's own book on the subject, Daemonologie.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare aimed to please James. Shortly after his arrival in London, James insisted that Shakespeare's troupe come under his own patronage, giving them unlimited opportunities and making Shakespeare a wealthy man. More on the King's Men...

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Contemporary References to King James I in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 20 Nov. 2011. < >.

Winstanley, Lilian. Macbeth, King Lear and Contemporary History. Cambridge: The University Press, 1922.


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