“I thinke ye take me to be a Witch my selfe”
King James I, Daemonologie
Scottish King James VI succeeded Elizabeth I and became King James I of
I assumed a leading role in witchcraft persecution. John S. Melbane , in
his book entitled, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age,”
contends that he did this, “largely because of his vision of himself as a
philosopher-king and religious teacher. Witches were the ultimate traitors
to both God and the state, and their ranks constituted a counter-kingdom of
perversion and disorder” (106), the author continues by quoting a Professor
Larner: “ the prosecution of witches was a form of social control [ …]; the
witch became a personification of all forms of deviance and revolt” (98).
Lillian Winstanley, in Macbeth, King Lear & Contemporary History
further develops this theory by stating that, “these evil practices were
supposed to be largely in the hands of Catholics and to be aimed against James
in his capacity as Protestant heir to
King James took the throne, he became the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company
and changed their name from the Lord Chamberlain’s Company to the King’s Men.
Not long after, all playing companies licensed to perform in
most famous work, Daemonologie, was written while he was Monarch in
A crucial aspect of Shakespeare’s plot in Macbeth is the prophecy theme. James makes his opinion very clear about oracles and seers and states that all manners of prophesy are forbidden, as they are tricks Satan uses to manipulate his subjects. He writes: “since the comming of Christ in the flesh, and establishing of his Church by the Apostles, all miracles, visions, prophecies, & appearances of Angels or good spirites are ceased. Which serued onely for the first sowing of faith, & planting of the Church” (Daemonologie Book III, Chapt II). However, James himself reportedly admitted to seeking council with a seer to Harrington. Harrington states that James consulted with “those whose power of sighte presentede to them a bloodie heads dancinge in the aire,” (vii) referring to the death of the Queen. Harrington continues to report that James, “then did remarke much on this gifte, and saide he had sought out certaine bookes a sure waie to attaine knowledge of future chances. Hereat, he namede many bookes, which I did not knowe, nor by whom written, but advisede me not to consult some authors which woulde leade me to evile consultations” (vii).
From these accounts it is clear that James had an interest in obtaining not only the knowledge that seers and oracles may have of the future, but also in obtaining those powers for himself. His study of demonology allowed him to use his knowledge as a means to support his right to the throne (which was often disputed) and head of the Anglican Church through divine-right kingship (Masks of Macbeth 29). The following quote from the play describes Shakespeare’s depiction of the English King as possessing the miraculous power of healing through use of the King’s Evil by “Hanging a golden stamp about their necks” (4.3.154), a rite James I also performed. In Macbeth, the English King also “hath a heavenly gift of prophecy, /And sundry blessings hang about his throne, / That speak him full of grace” (4.3.158-160). This could very well be seen as an attempt of Shakespeare to flatter the King and endow him with the supernatural power he wished to possess.
the theory of a Divine Right inherent in James’s rule would be strengthened
if it could prove that secular prophecy had also foretold his advent to the
throne” (Winstanley 49). According to the Merlin prophecies, as interpreted
by the Tudor bards, the Arthurian Empire was to be restored and the unity
He chid the sisters
When first they put the name of king upon me,
And bade them speak to him: then prophet-like
They hail'd him father to a line of kings: (3.1.58)
It is interesting to note how Shakespeare has the witches prophesize the succession. Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to support the King’s views on witchcraft and demonology by showing a man’s tragic fall because he was successfully tempted by the powers of Satan. However, by having witches proclaim the prophesy of Banquo’s bloodline, Shakespeare is making a personal statement about the prophesy that foretold James’s claim of decent from Banquo. If Shakespeare believes, as James did, that all prophesies made by witches are false, by dramatizing the Banquo succession as revealed by witches, he may also be inferring that James's claim is false.
depiction of the Pageant of Kings “is the only substantial element in the
play that may be taken specifically to relate to King James […] (because)
a living king is not likely to be represented on stage, especially in a play
about the killing of a king, even in a masquelike interlude […]. Since James
could not be shown, the eighth, holding a “glass” (mirror) would be held up
for James to see himself. (The glass in Shakespeare’s time could also mean
the kind of magic crystal John Dee and other sorcerers used.)” (
In Macbeth, the character Macbeth tries to destroy the Banquo line and prevent the Merlin Prophesies from coming true. However, the Prophecy prevails with the death of Macbeth which enables the succession of Fleance to the throne. “The character of Macbeth was really the person who brought about the fulfillment of the Merlin prophecies. It was just precisely his murder of Banquo and his attempted murder of Fleance which cause the flight of Fleance to Wales and his union there with the princess of the ancient British line brought the blood of that British line into the veins of the Stuarts and so to the throne of Scotland” (Winstanley 40). The witches' prophecy comes true in the end of the play. One may argue that the witches used Macbeth to destroy the other possible claimants to the throne in order to secure the Banquo line’s succession. If a reader were to interpret the text in this way, it would be clear that Shakespeare was an artist not only of the theater, but also in the art of diplomacy by being able to satisfy the King while at the same time maintaining his own artistic integrity.
Harrison, G.B Introduction. Daemonologie. By James I of . England New York: Barnes andNoble, 1966. v-viii.James I of . Daemonologie. Ed. G.B. Harrison. 1924. Reprint. England New York: Barnes andNoble, 1966.- - - ,“On the Divine Rights of Kings” Extracts from a Speech to Parliament 21March 1609. The Paths Separate: The Age of Absolutism, theRise of Constitutionalism in Englandand The , and the Era of Enlightened Despotism. Ed. Linda Moss Mines. Dept. of Social Sciences, Netherlands GirlsPreparatory School, http://staff.gps.edu/mines/Age%20of%20Absolu-0James%20I%20on%20Divine%20Rights.htm. Chattanooga, TN.Kernan, Alvin. Shakespeare: the King’s Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613. New York: Yale Universty Press, 1995.Mebane, John. Renaissance Magic & the Return of the Golden Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1989.Rosenberg, Martin. The Masks of Macbeth. New Jersey: University of Delaware Press, 1978.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 2nd ed.
Chicago: Pearson, 2005. 715-747.Winstanley, Lilian. Macbeth, King Lear & Contemporary History. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1922.