A thought about The Scottish Play
[Sorry for the delay in posting new things. January has distracted me from writing. I have a few short pieces that I want to post before I launch a big thought.
I watched the first episode of UNCONVERED SHAKESPEARE on PBS last week, the one with Ethan Hawke discussing MACBETH. It was pretty good, an interesting conversation about the play, lot’s of examples, nothing that I screamed about, it made me want to see the play again.]
Many think that if it weren’t for the witches planting the seed of what could be in Macbeth’s brain, he might have lived more peacefully and become King in his own time. For threat of foreknowledge of what is to be is that it will change how you act. While this in itself is an interesting topic, you must notice other political situations forced Macbeth’s hand as much as the witches’ prophesy. Act I, Scene 4 holds the key to Macbeth’s ambition.
The scene begins with King Duncan asking if the execution has been done on the Thane of Cawdor, who is being put to death for aiding and abetting the Norwegian’s assault on Scotland. The Scots led by Macbeth and Banquo rebuffed the attack and decimated the traitors. The Thane of Cawdor was captured and Duncan immediately sentenced him to death. Duncan then sent the Thane of Ross to greet Macbeth with a new title, the Thane of Cawdor.
Malcome, King Duncan’s oldest son, reports that someone told him that Cawdor has been executed and that he died nobly as if he were prepared for death. This very description annoys Duncan who probably wanted Cawdor to die painfully in retribution for his betrayal. He says:
King. There's no Art,
To finde the Mindes construction in the Face:
He was a Gentleman, on whom I built
An absolute Trust.
Duncan bemoans his inability to look at a person and know their mind. He had put his complete trust in Cawdor. If he couldn’t trust Cawdor, who he could trust? This creates a doubt that leads to his next major action.
Macbeth and Banquo arrive from the battle field where they had been greeted by the three wyrd sisters, often called witches, who had greeted Macbeth as the Thane of Glamis (his current title), the Thane of Cawdor (the title of another man, who Macbeth didn’t know was on his way to execution and that this title had already been awarded to him) and finally as the King, hereafter. They also greet Banquo as the father of many kings[i] (Banquo was the patriarch of the line of Scottish Kings represented by King James. Macbeth and Banquo consider this all a joke until the Thane of Ross arrives and greets Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth and Banquo are warmly greeted by Duncan, who celebrates their success, hugs them and promises to reward them more for their service. His joy at their service is tempered by his sorrow over the betrayal by the late Thane of Cawdor.
King. My plenteous Joyes,
Wanton in fulnesse, seeke to hide themselves
In drops of sorrow.
He then makes a sudden announcement:
King. Sonnes, Kinsmen, Thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know,
We will establish our Estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolme, whom we name hereafter,
The Prince of Cumberland: which Honor must
Not unaccompanied, invest him onely,
But signes of Noblenesse, like Starres, shall shine
On all deservers.
He briefly and with great authority states that his son, Malcome, will inherit his throne, title, lands and power. The title of King will pass from Duncane to his son, Malcome.
For those of us who expect the monarchy to fall from father to son, this would be obvious and most productions treat it as such. However during this age, the crown of Scotland did not always fall to the first born son. While it tended to stay in the family, the most capable was usually elected, appointed or grabbed the throne. Prior to this battle, the Thane of Cawdor might have been considered the next in line to the throne over Malcome.
The King says he will ride to Inverness, Macbeth’s house, to stay the night. Macbeth tells him he will ride ahead to tell his wife to make the house ready. The King bids Macbeth farewell by calling him by his new title: “My worthy Cawdor.” It should be a tender moment of thanks.
Prior to his exit, Macbeth speaks directly to the audience:
Macb. The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step,
On which I must fall downe, or else o're-leape,
For in my way it lyes.
Starres hide your fires,
Let not Light see my black and deepe desires:
The Eye winke at the Hand; yet let that bee,
Which the Eye feares, when it is done to see.
Rhyming couplets no less. The line is emotionally charged and like a spell he conjures.
Macbeth is clearly thinking about becoming King. And why shouldn’t he? Even without the seeming prophesy by the wyrd sisters: he’s in the family, Duncan is his cousin ;he’s just proven himself as the greatest warrior in the country; and with Cawdor out of the way, he should be next in line. Malcome is still a young, untried boy. However, Duncan’s decree has made Malcome a step that will either trip Macbeth causing him to lose the throne or someone to leap over to get to the throne.
It is important to note, that Macbeth already decides to seize the throne prior to writing or conversing with his wife. People like to blame Lady Macbeth, but Macbeth was well down the road prior to her encouragements.
The witch’s prophesies start to look less like true prognostication and more like educated political guesses. If they had heard or known that Cawdor was supporting Norway, it is not a big leap to expect him to be executed and for the title to fall on Macbeth. If Macbeth became Cawdor, he would move up in the line to the throne. A lot of magic is just awareness and intuition. There might not be as much magic going on here as it seems at first blush.
Everyone in Elizabethan England was very concerned about succession. Queen Elizabeth was getting older and the “Virgin Queen” did not have an heir. The next in line to the throne was King James of Scotland, though his claim was convoluted. James was a Catholic, like his mother Queen Mary I of Scotland. People feared he would force a return to Catholicism causing severe unrest as Queen Mary I of England had a few decades before when she tried to switch the country back to Catholicism after her father, Henry VIII, and half brother, Edward VI, had made the country Protestant.[ii] [iii]
The question of succession or “who should rule us” comes up in over half of Shakespeare’s plays. And it’s not just the Histories, but it appears in the Tragedies and Comedies as well. During the 1590s, it seems that Shakespeare often argued that the best man, even though he might not be next in line or even a bastard, should be the leader. And while some of his choices were politically necessary in an England where the censor approved every script and where upstart playwrights might be imprisoned or mysteriously die in a bar fight, he leans more toward the better man rather than the next in line.
His change in Macbeth is interesting. Of course, it would have been politically stupid to continue to suggest the better man should gain the throne over the next in line with King James I in power. However in Macbeth, Shakespeare seems to come down against the ambitious claiming a throne that should rightfully go to someone else. Shakespeare represents Malcolme, though untested, as the better man to lead.
Macbeth had a legitimate claim for the throne that might have happened naturally, but when Duncan proclaimed Malcome as his heir it forced Macbeth to take the throne rather than wait for it. For me, this few line exchange changes the entire trajectory of the play even more than the witches prophesies.
[i] Banquo became the patriarch of the line of Scottish Kings that included King James VI of Scotland who was King James I of England when the play was first performed. There was a little pandering to the current king going on in this play.
[ii] Am I the only one who constantly gets Queen Mary I of Scotland and Queen Mary I of England mixed up? English Mary reigned after her half brother Edward VI died. She was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. English Mary swept away Edward VI’s dying attempt to have the crown go to Lady Jane Grey, a cousin who was the daughter of Henry VII’s youngest daughter and farther down the line than Scottish Mary, English Mary or Elizabeth. Lady Jane Grey “ruled” for nine days prior to being taken out by English Mary. Mary returned the country to Catholicism and had a lot of people executed winning the title of “Bloody Mary.”
Scottish Mary claimed the throne of England over Elizabeth because her mother was Henry VIII’s sister. When Mary I of England died, Elizabeth grabbed the crown even though the Scottish Mary claimed it. She returned the country to being Protestant and had a bunch of Catholics killed. Later, when Scottish Mary was kicked out of Scotland, Elizabeth arrested her and eventually had her put to death. Though in the end, Elizabeth supported Scottish Mary’s son’s claim to the English throne making James VI of Scotland James I of England and Ireland.
[iii] I visited Salisbury Cathedral once after visiting Stonehenge. I was struck by the sarcophagus of the Bishop of Salisbury, John Capon, in the mid-Sixteenth Century. The note over his grave said that he was named the Catholic Cardinal of Salisbury under Henry VIII. He supported Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and retained his title when the Henry created the Church of England. When Queen Mary I returned the England to Catholicism, he switched back to being Catholic. He died before Elizabeth switched it again. How wild that must have been: I’m Catholic, I’m Protestant, I’m Catholic again, whoops now I’m Protestant. And, we think our country is confused.