Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Shakespeare Wrote for a Royal Audience in Macbeth

Like so many admonitions given to young writers, “write for your audience” held true long before the phrase gained popularity in freshman composition classrooms.  Writers have always known that for a work to be moving, let alone commercially successful, the syntax, word choice, and subject of the piece should appeal to the particular audience for which it is intended. 

Shakespeare excelled at knowing and writing for diverse audiences that included apple sellers, merchants, nobility, and royalty.  Shakespeare’s appeal to so many distinct groups stemmed from his judicious choices in composition, creating characters of all socioeconomic levels, employing humor ranging from bawdy and scatological to esoteric, and featuring widely popular themes of patriotism and a national sense of superiority to England’s neighbors.  Scholars sometimes highlight Macbeth’s line “No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red” (2.3.59-61) as an example of how Shakespeare paid attention to the varied educational backgrounds of his audience by innovatively using the adjective “incarnadine” as a verb, shortly followed by an illustration of what an incarnadine sea would look like. 
King James I
Queen Elizabeth I

One of the most important audience members who saw Macbeth was King James I, the successor of Shakespeare’s former patron and monarch, Queen Elizabeth.  Scholars believe that Shakespeare took into account King James’ fears about assassination, his pride in his lineage, and his interest in witchcraft when writing Macbeth.  The play’s focus on assassinating a King dealt with one of King James’ main fears and a topical concern for the nation just a year after Guy Fawkes was thwarted in his plan to blow up King James and all of parliament in 1605.  The trauma of seeing Duncan’s regicide would have been lessened for King James by the play’s emphasis on the downfall of Macbeth, Duncan’s assassin, and the restoration of Malcolm to the Scottish throne.  King James traced his heritage to Banquo and his son Fleance, who escapes the murderers that Macbeth sends to kill him, and scholars suggest that Shakespeare emphasized Banquo’s virtue compared to Macbeth’s treachery as a compliment to the King, who saw Macbeth at his court.  

Scholars also posit that Shakespeare’s inclusion and portrayal of the witches was influenced by King James’ interest in witchcraft.  Beyond believing that witches sought to harm him at various times throughout his life, King James also wrote a book called Of Demonology, in which he asserted that witches were women who had masculine features who cursed people through their conjuring.  Banquo describes the witches in terms similar to King James’ depiction: “you should be women,/And yet your beards forbid met to interpret/That you are so” (1.3.42-44).  Shakespeare’s incorporation of elements intended to appeal to King James demonstrates his skill in writing for a royal audience.  

Submitted by Samantha Smith