King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

James I and Macbeth

Opening from the Second Booke of Daemonologie, discussing witches’ actionsOpening from the Second Booke of Daemonologie, discussing witches’ actionsThe item featured here was lent for the original 2016 exhibition by kind permission of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library. Image also supplied and reproduced for this online exhibition with kind permission.

Belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was still prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, despite a growing scepticism associated with the rise of empiricist and humanist philosophy, and was not restricted to the unsophisticated: it was the age of John Dee, astrological adviser to Elizabeth I, and university men still studied magic, alchemy and occult philosophy.

Shakespeare makes great use of the supernatural, from the fairy kingdom of A midsummer night’s dream and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to the sorcery of Prospero in The tempest, but it is Macbeth which is most associated with the malignant powers of witchcraft in the shape of the ‘Weird Sisters’. The famous opening scene establishes the baleful tone of the narrative, and the obscurity of the witches’ prophecy becomes clear as Macbeth faces defeat in battle.

Macbeth (ca 1606) was written soon after the accession of James I of England and VI of Scotland to the throne of a united kingdom, and addresses issues of succession, ideas of kingship (including the divine right of kings) and the role of the monarch, all topics on which James had published works.

Another of James’s abiding interests was witchcraft, and his Daemonologie (1597) stemmed from a personal involvement in the North Berwick witch trials of 1590-2. The book takes the form of a philosophical dialogue examining the practices and rituals of witches, and was a direct source for Shakespeare’s depiction of the Weird Sisters. It has long been supposed that the play was written partly to flatter James’s interest; in fact, this had shifted significantly, and by 1606 he had grown much more doubtful, personally intervening on the side of scepticism in several English witch trials.

In this exhibition

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