As with Hamlet and King Lear, the succession is a theme in Macbeth, even more so as the play was written in response to the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and others attempted to blow up Parliament with King James I in it. This event was extremely traumatic for the British, as we can clearly imagine. Macbeth is, of course, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about Macbeth’s attempt to usurp the throne of Scotland.
One theme of the play that harks back to the Gunpowder Plot is equivocation. Many of the statements in the play seem as if they mean one thing when they actually mean something else, from the witches’ predictions to Macbeth’s assurances. Equivocation was a Jesuitical doctrine that said that under examination, the truth could be substituted with “mental reservation,” in which one makes deceptive utterances but thinks the truth. It was used by Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Provincial, who learned of the plot as part of a confession. Edward Coke, a member of the Privy Council, which interrogated Garnet, called it “open and broad lying and forswearing.”
In fact, there are other references within the play that refer to James and demonstrate that the play was written in his support. Most obvious is James’s interest in witchcraft. He attended witch trials and in 1597 wrote Daemonologie, which Shakespeare used as source material for his scenes with the witches.
Banquo, Macbeth’s friend, whom Macbeth has murdered because of the witches’ prediction that Banquo will be the father of kings, was purportedly an ancestor of James I. Finally, there is the reference in the play to the healing of the king’s evil, a practice James observed that was followed after him by the British monarchy up to the Hanovers.
So, the play was written in honor of James I, to demonstrate the havoc wrought by breaking the succession. In the service of what is essentially historical propaganda, Duncan is made purer than he actually was and Macbeth more evil. The facts that Macbeth had a claim to the throne of Scotland and that the Scottish succession was not hereditary at the time are ignored. For an alternate interpretation of the story, see the wonderful King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, one of the best historical novelists of all time, in my opinion.
But these facts don’t really spoil our appreciation of the play, which is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric, with its ghosts, witches, sleepwalking, murders, and walking wood. I think I prefer the directness of Macbeth to the convoluted plots of some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. It is certainly a powerful play.