William Shakespeare

James I

After Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland was named her successor, and became King James I of England. His new subjects were relieved to avoid civil war and invasion. Shakespeare welcomed his new king with Macbeth (written around 1606). Macbeth is set in James’s native Scotland, and portrays the king’s real-life ancestor Banquo as a good man destined to have monarchs among his descendants. Macbeth’s famous witches also appealed to the king’s interests. James had a longstanding fascination with witchcraft, and considered himself an expert on witches. In 1597, he wrote a book about witchcraft, Daemonology. He also believed witches had conspired to kill him when he had been King of Scotland and had tried to sink a ship in which he had been travelling. In 1604, the year after he became King of England, James passed an act broadening the penalties for witchcraft to death without a clergy member present. Shakespeare borrowed from Daemonology to create Macbeth’s spells.

James’s greatest ambition was to unify his two kingdoms, England and Scotland, into a single country, which he wanted to call Great Britain. Shakespeare contributed propaganda to the king’s cause in his plays King Lear (written around 1604) and Cymbeline (around 1610). Both plays are set in the ancient and semi-mythical period in which England and Scotland had been a single country known as “Britain.” In King Lear, the decision to divide Britain into three separate kingdoms has terrible consequences, supporting James’s vision of one unified country. King Lear also explores one of James’ intellectual interests. James had published two books, The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and Basilikon Doron (1599), which try to define monarchy. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear is stripped of everything that makes him a king except his title, which asks the audience to question what monarchy is and where it comes from.

James was unsuccessful in his efforts to unify Great Britain, but he achieved his second political goal when he ended England’s war with Spain. Peace made it easier for English ships to supply colonies in North America, and in 1607 the first successful English colony in the Americas was founded at Jamestown, Virginia. In the years that followed, many accounts of colonial life were published in England. Particularly sensational were descriptions of “savage” indigenous Americans who worshipped pagan gods, lived in harmony with nature and paid no regard to European sexual morality. The Tempest (written around 1612) is set on a remote and bountiful island that is home to the “monster” Caliban, who worships the pagan god “Setebos.” Caliban attempts to rape the European character Miranda, and when Miranda’s father confronts him he shows no remorse: “I had peopl’d else/This isle with Calibans.” Caliban is also in tune with the natural world of the island, which to him is “full of noises[…]that give delight and hurt not.” English colonists’ accounts showed that they felt justified in mistreating indigenous Americans, and Shakespeare dramatizes this too. The Tempest’s main character, the Italian magician Prospero, enslaves Caliban and punishes him for disobedience with cruel physical tortures.