Thanks to poignant forms of expression, artists can provide powerful critiques of the political systems of their time. A combination of irony, wit, sarcasm, and sensitivity can frame an issue in a way that much of the public may not have previously considered. Whether or not William Shakespeare composed all of the words that bear his name, the body of work associated with him provided much commentary on the conditions faced by the English people.
One of his most famous plays deals with the treacherous ambitions of a Scottish nobleman, Macbeth, who demonstrates how power frequently corrupts those who make its acquisition their primary goal. The result is too often a case where common people are ignored or exploited while elites pursue their own agendas. This dilemma has continued even as most societies have evolved away from monarchy towards more democratic arrangements. England set a relatively progressive example of political leadership when its nobles persuaded King John to agree to the Magna Carta in 1215 that established boundaries for royal rulers. But this country would still see its share of corruption, cruelty, and selfishness at the highest levels of government for some time to come. Shakespeare’s Macbeth promotes the idea of a monarch as closer to a servant of the people than its manipulator.
Set in England’s medieval era, Macbeth provides lessons on the proper operation of monarchy that could be applied to the playwright’s lifetime of the mid-sixteenth to early-seventeenth centuries. One scholar has listed the essential traits for an effective king as one of the six most common themes of Shakespeare’s plays (Cooper). The narrative opens with Duncan on the throne of Scotland and leading so well that even the plotter of his assassination, Macbeth, has to acknowledge the ruler’s worth. “Besides, this Duncan, Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against The deep damnation of his taking-off” (Shakespeare 1.7.489-493). This powerful king has remained so humble and modest that his fine qualities will almost take on a life of their own to prevent his slaying. Lady Macbeth nurtures her husband’s ambitions while worrying that his conscience will undermine their plan.
“Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” (Shakespeare 1.5.360-362). She is so deadset on seizing power through betrayal that she prays for spirits to replace her blood with whatever substance might eliminate her humanity while the plot runs its course (Shakespeare 1.5.390-396). The potential of the quest for political power to contaminate the soul is vividly portrayed in the hours leading up to Duncan’s death. Once Macbeth has seized the throne and directed several murders to disguise his conspiracy, Shakespeare contrasts his rule with that of an English king modeled after Edward the Confessor who reigned from 1042-1066 (Lickindorf 65). Duncan’s oldest son, Malcolm, describes the English monarch’s “miraculous work” through the abilities to heal by touch and to prophesy (Shakespeare 4.3.2010-2020). While Macbeth appears only interested in self-glorification, the English people have a king who sincerely wants to provide comfort and security for others.
While planning to murder Duncan, Macbeth admitted to himself that ambition was the only reason, however weak, to commit regicide (Shakespeare 1.7.498-500). The disparity in leadership depicted by the characters of Macbeth and Edward make a compelling juxtaposition. Whereas the English king inspires subjects with his godliness and devotion to the common good, Macbeth receives obedience only because he holds the throne and can punish disloyalty. One Scottish nobleman, Angus, mocks the mirage of Macbeth’s authority when he describes the “giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief” as though his wretched king can never meet the challenges of appropriate governing (Shakespeare 5.2.2228-2231). The prospect of such a vain and heartless man ruling Scotland indefinitely literally leads Lord Macduff to weep for the fate of his country.
The political objectives behind the writing of Macbeth have been analyzed by many thinkers. The play was first performed shortly after a Scottish king, James, had accepted the throne of England when Queen Elizabeth I died without an heir. As a result, Macbeth may simply have served as a way to honor and flatter a new ruler. The process of sorting out the playwright’s intentions is particularly difficult because, as one scholar has concluded, Shakespeare was not so obvious as to use his productions as a form of “lecture” (Cooper). But one professor has argued that, since the Scots come off as “barbaric” compared to the English being depicted as the “model of civilization,” something else must explain Shakespeare’s motivation (Cantor).
The answer could be that the playwright was trying to encourage rulers to let Christian values play a stronger role in how they used their power. Paul Cantor claims that Macbeth is loaded with “tension” between pagan and Christian mindsets that help to “unhinge” the main character (Cantor). For example, the sight of Banquo’s ghost during the feast torments Macbeth in part because it suggests the possibility of resurrection (Cantor). When Macbeth tries to find the courage to kill Duncan, he essentially asks God “to kindly stop existing or at least stop paying attention to His own creation” (Curtis 85). The passages described previously concerning Macbeth and his wife trying to overcome compassionate instincts take on greater meaning if they were part of Shakespeare’s effort to use Christianity as a tool for responsible leadership. Another scholar works with the Christian aspect of Macbeth to describe Malcolm’s invasion of Scotland as an act of spiritual grace rather than merely a “Machiavellian gesture” (i.e., the ends justify the means) to take power for himself (Curtis 83).
According to this argument, Scotland needed rescuing by God, “but not necessarily through miraculous intervention” (Curtis 82). The famous philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, had explained a form of grace known as gratia gratis data or “grace freely given” in which people work together to return to God’s ways (Curtis 84). So just as King Edward could heal by laying hands on the afflicted, Malcolm intended to apply a version of therapy for his homeland (Curtis 83). Meanwhile Macbeth is taking strength from the misleading predictions of the witches in an effort to prove the irrelevancy of God (Curtis 85). In fact, their advice is a perverted form of grace that Macbeth hopes will turn himself into a kind of deity (Curtis 85).
The eventual triumph of Malcolm over Macbeth can be interpreted as a metaphor for Christianity taming some of the worst features of paganism. Powerful literature can help keep people watchful and wary about the agendas of political figures and how they wield authority. William Shakespeare employed Macbeth at least in part to suggest that ruling based upon Christian principles would make politics less about fulfilling personal desires and more about looking out for an entire society. The public would consequently receive more attention and, perhaps someday, more power.
While not advocating democracy or even a republic, Shakespeare appeared to believe that Christianity could encourage monarchs to act as something closer to stewards of the people. His insights on human nature can make political decisions and their underlying moral issues clearer.
- Cooper, Robert. “Shakespeare’s Politics.” The American Interest, vol. 13, no. 1. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/06/20/shakespeares-politics/.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “‘Macbeth’ and the Political Drama of Its Time.” New York Times, 2 December 1994.
- https://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/02/books/books-of-the-times- macbeth-and-the-political-drama-of-its-time.html.
- Lickindorf, Elisabeth. “Morality and the Politics of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Literator, vol. 8, no. 3, 1987, pp. 59-67.
- https://literator.org.za/index.php/literator/article/view/871. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.