Mirroring the World: Kingship, History and Macbeth’s Quest for Knowledge

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Macbeth continues Shakespeare’s fascination with the politics of his own time. Macbeth has at its heart the act of regicide, the killing of a king. But the tragedy develops from an inability to attain knowledge.

The painting shows three hooded and gowned human figures, each with a finger upon its lip, and the left arm extended pointing left.
The prophecies of the three witches lead Macbeth onward to his doom, while he feels that he is gaining wisdom. (Image: Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

The Political Background to Macbeth

Elizabeth I, the only monarch Shakespeare had ever known, dies in 1603, to be replaced by her cousin, James VI, who was king of Scotland. He becomes James I of England, but his Scottish heritage was always a part of him. Indeed, Banquo was historically an ancestor of James. So, when the witches tell Banquo that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none,” they are predicting the long reign of Banquo’s line all the way to James himself.

Similarly, when Macbeth comes to the witches to demand knowledge of his fate and he asks them, “shall Banquo’s issue ever / Reign in this kingdom?”, the witches caution him, “Seek to know no more”. But Macbeth is adamant—“I will be satisfied” he insists—and so they show him a line of kings, and the last one in the line is holding a mirror in his hand.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Mirroring the King’s World

Now, the play Macbeth most likely appeared in the year 1606, just a few years into James’s reign. Just the year before, James narrowly escaped assassination when Guy Fawkes, a Catholic rebel, attempted to blow up the entire Parliament including the king.

The picture shows a page entitled 'The True Lawe of free Monarchies'.
King James wrote a tract on the Divine Right of Kings. For James, an assault on the king was the worst thing that a subject could do. (Image: James VI of Scotland/Public domain)

So, Macbeth speaks to James’ fears of assassination, but it also reassures them. It shows the evil nature and the futility of rebellion against God’s “anointed king.” As Stephen Greenblatt comments, to James, regicide “was close to the ultimate crime, a demonic assault not simply on an individual and a community but on the fundamental order of the universe.”

The chaos, madness, and disorder that results from Macbeth’s killing of King Duncan supports this same ideology, perhaps signaling Shakespeare’s own sense that regicide was a crime against the human, natural, and divine orders.

James also published a treatise on witchcraft, arguing that demonic forces sought to depose God’s kings. So, the witches and the supernatural are further elements of this play that would both confirm his fears and reassure him in his sense of the world.

Learn more about how French absolutism crafts a king as a virtual god on Earth.

Macbeth’s Thirst for Knowledge

As soon as we look for the dynamic of ignorance and knowledge in this play, we see that Macbeth is always seeking the knowledge he lacks. “Speak if you can—what are you?” are his first words addressed to the witches, followed by “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more / … / Say from whence / You owe this strange intelligence?”

When he seeks them out again, he exclaims, “I conjure you, by that which you profess, / Howe’er you come to know it, answer me / … / Even till destruction sicken, answer me / To what I ask you.”

Yet the more Macbeth seeks to know, the more mistaken he becomes—his efforts to move toward knowledge result in his growing ignorance. It’s as if there’s an inverse relationship between the seeking of knowledge and its attainment, and indeed this is one definition of tragedy: that the tragic hero cannot attain the knowledge and understanding that he seeks.

Learn more about how to approach a play by Shakespeare.

Equivocation in the Witches’ Prophecies

The most famous example of Macbeth’s failure to understand the reality of the world opposing him occurs in Act four when the witches offer three prophecies that he thinks guarantee him victory. But the prophecies are inverted.

First, they tell him to “beware Macduff.” Well, this is stating the obvious. Macbeth knows that Macduff has suspected him for Duncan’s death and that Macduff will soon go to England to unite with Malcolm against him.

Their second prophecy states that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.” Macbeth thus scorns the threat of Macduff and any other man. Only later, when he learns that Macduff was born through caesarean section—in Macduff’s words, he “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d”—does Macbeth realize the truth.

Image of Macbeth and Macduff duelling with swords.
It is only when Macbeth and Macduff face each other in battle that Macduff reveals that he was “untimely ripp’d” from his mother’s womb.
(Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith./Library of Congress/Public domain)

The witches’ final prophecy says that “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” Macbeth exults, “That will never be: / Who can impress the forest; bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?”

But then Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut boughs from the trees and hold them aloft as they approach Macbeth’s castle, so that their numbers cannot be guessed. When a servant announces to Macbeth that “As I did stand my watch upon the hill, / I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought, / The wood began to move,” Macbeth is outraged, but begins to realize that the witches have fooled him.

The prophecies mirror the events, but in reverse, as it were. As Macbeth states, I “begin / To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like truth.” That’s emblematic of Macbeth tragedy: He thinks he is on an upward arc from ignorance to knowledge, when in fact he is on a declining arc from knowledge to ignorance.

Thus, lies become truth, and truth becomes lies—fair is foul, foul is fair, or, deceitful appearance reveals a startling reality. We can see how the tools come together: the arc of character, fair is foul, appearance versus reality all mirror the same concerns in Shakespeare’s plays.

Common Questions about Kingship and History in Macbeth

Q: How was Banquo in the play Macbeth related to the King of England at the time?

Banquo is thought to be the ancestor of the Kings of Scotland. The then King of England, King James was also the erstwhile King of Scotland; thus Banquo was the ancestor of King James.

Q: How were the events in Macbeth related to the events of time when it was first staged?

Macbeth murdered the sitting king and became King himself. This was related to the fact that King James was targeted in an assassination attempt just a year before the play was staged. The now famous Guy Fawkes had attempted to assassinate the King and the Parliament by blowing up the Parliament.

Q: How does Macbeth reflect the view of King James that regicide was the worst possible crime?

For King James, regicide was a crime not only against the King, but also against the natural order. The chaos, madness, and disorder that results from Macbeth’s killing of King Duncan supports this same ideology, perhaps signaling Shakespeare’s own sense that regicide was a crime against the human, natural, and divine orders.

Q: What do the witches’ equivocal predictions tell us about Shakespeare’s plays?

The equivocal predictions of the three witches are related to the contrasts between appearance and realty, between truth and deceit, which underlie the action and central concerns of many of Shakespeare’s plays.

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