In the middle of Shakespeare’s career Elizabeth I passed away and a new monarch, James I, ascended to the throne. James was Elizabeth’s first cousin, twice removed. Elizabeth was the last of the Tudor dynasty. James was the first of the Stuart dynasty. James was already King of Scotland when he assumed the throne of England and thereby united the crown of the Kingdom of Scotland and Kingdom of England and Ireland.
As King of Scotland, James became obsessed with witchcraft and the threat posed by witches. This fear, inspired by his personal involvement in witch hunts and witch trials, caused him to write the Daemonologie in 1597, a tract which opposed the practice of witchcraft. James is known to have personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. He firmly believed in the connection between witchcraft and treason.
There was not much change in English society under the reign of James I. Like Elizabeth before him, James continued to promote the “Golden Age” of literature and drama. James I was actually a scholar who enjoyed intellectual pursuits and therefore culture continued to flourish. It is during this time that Shakespeare wrote most of his greatest plays ( Macbeth, Othello, King Lear).
Now that the Crown of Scotland was united with the Crown of England and Ireland there was an increase in the public’s interest in Scottish literature and history. Many Scots followed their King to London and attended the theatres there.
Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577). The tale chronicled Scottish history from the 11 th Century and involved the slaughter of whole armies, innocent people, and families. The assassinations of Kings, the ambush of nobles by murderers, and the execution of rebels. The tale also had stories about witches and wizards.
King James’ treatise on witchcraft Daemonologie was also used to provide background material for the supernatural elements of the play. In other words, these sources were perfect materials for a tragedy and the new King.
Holinshed included a family tree of the Stuart dynasty, showing King James's descent from Banquo. In Holinshed's Chronicles Banquo was an accomplice in Duncan's murder. He also plays an important part in ensuring that Macbeth, not Malcolm, takes the throne in the coup that follows. This was changed in the play, presumably to please King James who hated regicides and didn’t want to be a descendent of a murderer.
Macbeth is a real person. However, the historical Macbeth had a more legitimate claim to the throne than the Shakespearean Macbeth. The historical Macbeth gained the throne and ruled successfully with the help of nobles who were dissatisfied with Duncan.
Shakespeare wanted to explore events and attitudes of his own time (The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 Macbeth was written and performed in 1605-06). Altered to pay homage to his king and his country. Shakespeare was more interested in psychological truth than historical fact. The struggles of “real” people.
In earlier centuries, Macbeth was seen as a study of a heroic individual who commits an evil act and who pays an enormous price as his conscience- and the universe- destroy him. More recently, the story has been applied to nations that overreach themselves. Macbeth’s speeches of despair have been used to study late twentieth century feelings of alienation.
The line between Macbeth’s evil and the supposed good of those who oppose him is being blurred and questioned. New attitudes about witches and witchcraft are being expressed. Feminists are raising questions about the way maleness and femaleness is portrayed in the play.