The Politics of Prophecy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Patricia Williamson Vazquez

“I thinke ye take me to be a Witch my selfe”

            King James I,  Daemonologie

When the Scottish King James VI succeeded Elizabeth I and became King James I of England in 1603, he took control of a kingdom divided.  In order to secure his power over Church and State, he extended Tutor Absolutism and asserted his preordained status as Divine Monarch in his speech to Parliament in 1609: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth [...] Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth" (James I).  James also had an interest in witchcraft and demonology, as many scholars and innovative thinkers did during the Renaissance.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth dramatizes aspects of the King’s ideology concerning prophecy and the Divine Right of Kings in a way that outwardly supports James's opinions. For example, Shakespeare refers to the English King in Macbeth in a god-like manner by inserting the following lines spoken by one of the Lords in Act III “[…] Thither Macduff / Is gone to pray the holy king, upon his aid” (3.6.29-30). However, it can also be asserted that Shakespeare is critical of the King’s beliefs and reveals his opinions in very subtle ways in the play while seeking to remain in the king’s good favor.

King James 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 England” (44).

Soon after 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 London and play at the court came under the control of the monarchy  (Shakespeare the Kings Playwright 9-10).  “The Stuart monopolization of theater was a characteristic move, putting a powerful propaganda medium in James’s hand” (Kernan 10).  James’s knowledge of Demonology was used as a tool to promote his political agenda and create stability and order in a Monarchy split apart by strong opposing political and religious factions.  Shakespeare seems to have written, or perhaps revised, Macbeth to include elements that reflect the King’s opinions regarding the occult. Thus, Shakespeare can ensure the king’s favor by reinforcing his agenda.

James's most famous work, Daemonologie, was written while he was Monarch in Scotland and reprinted after his succession to the throne in England in 1603.  The treatise, organized into three parts, discusses at great length his view on witchcraft and all manners of the “devil’s agency” on earth.  Daemonologie probably reflected popular myth (Rosenberg 36n) and James may have chose to insert and explore popular notions of witchcraft and Satan and use them to qualify his opinions and support his status as Divine Monarch.  However, a further investigation reveals that James saw a distinction between his own interest in Demonology and other people's interest.  In Harrison’s "Introduction" to Daemonologie, he writes an account of a letter from Sir John Harrington describing his audience with the king.  Harrington states that,  “his Majestie did much presse for my opinion touching the power of Satane in matter of witchcraft”(viii).  Because he was a divine-right monarch and God’s emissary on Earth, it seems James believed that he was immune to the dangers of seeking and acquiring occult knowledge.  “Perhaps he felt that as God’s anointed he was privileged to explore with impunity those subjects which would endanger the souls of lesser mortals”  (Mebane 108).

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.

“Obviously, 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 of Britain to be achieved when the true British line succeeded to the English Throne.  Both the Tudors and the Stuarts claimed descent from the ancient British line  (Winstanley 40).  “Macbeth dramatizes the Stuart Myth […] that James had constructed and pushed as part of his cult of divine right.  He traced his line back to 330 B.C. and King Fergus, the first founder of the nation.  Although the Stewart name had historically become royal only eight rulers previously, James, by tracing his line back to Fergus, could boast in his address to his third Parliament in 1607 that ‘I am in descent three hundred years before Christ’” (Kernan 77).  “Shakespeare put this imperial boast onstage in the following line: ‘a line of Kings that stretches out to the crack of doom’” (Kernan 78).  Shakespeare continues the references to Banquo’s family beginning the line of Kings in the following lines spoken by Macbeth:         

            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.

Shakespeare’s 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.)”  (Rosenberg  520).  On one hand, Shakespeare could be using the pageant of King’s to demonstrate and reaffirm James’s assertion that he is descended from Banquo.  On a more subtle level, however, by using a “glass,” which can be seen as a tool of a sorcerer, to include the king as a character in the pageant, Shakespeare could have been making a statement about the Merlin prophesy being false or the king’s own contradictory interest in Demonology.

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. 

 Works Cited

Harrison, G.B Introduction. Daemonologie. By James I of England. New York: Barnes and
Noble, 1966. v-viii.
James I of England. Daemonologie. Ed. G.B. Harrison. 1924.  Reprint. New York: Barnes and
Noble, 1966.
-  - -  ,“On the Divine Rights of Kings” Extracts from a Speech to Parliament 21
March 1609.  The Paths Separate:  The Age of Absolutism, the
Rise of Constitutionalism in England and The Netherlands, and the Era of Enlightened Despotism. Ed. Linda Moss Mines. Dept. of Social Sciences, Girls
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: Cambridge
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