Although written almost four centuries ago, Macbeth is still regarded as a precious Shakespearean masterpiece that attracted, and still attracting, scores of critics to investigate the text and come up with fresh and useful interpretations. However, some other critics, like George W. Williams, consider Shakespeare's Macbeth as being merely a token of flattery meant to please King James I. It will be argued that Macbeth could indeed be held as a play fit for a king taking into consideration two major points; King James's infatuation with witchcraft and the delineation of the character of Banquo as a worthy man. In the final part of this essay the artistic side of the play will be foregrounded with special emphasis on imagery, to show that Shakespeare's Macbeth is much more than a simple work meant to please King James I thus mirroring the unrivalled artistic creativity that Shakespeare held.
In his work entitled "Biographical and Historical Essays," Thomas De Quincy broaches on the subject of the supernatural elements that are skilfully elaborated in the play Macbeth. In the part where he approaches the characters of the three witches, he states that they are used side by side with other supernatural elements namely ghosts and apparitions. What makes them unique and special, however, is that they foreground the "portentous" power Shakespeare uses to both "enchant and disenchant" his audience. It should be noted though that among the supposedly "enchant[ed]" audience was King James I himself and his entourage since the play was, first and foremost, written for a premier performance in Hampton palace them. Clearly, the occult played an important part in Macbeth and it was deliberately and keenly developed by the playwright to both impress the king and to entertain the idea of the supernatural for his entourage. Seemingly, such feat from the part of the Bard of Avon appealed to the king's infatuation with the witchcraft realm. In fact, King James's preoccupation with this domain is evident when he published a book on the subject called Daemonologie in 1597,years before becoming King of England. Moreover, while he was king of Scotland, there had been terrible witch purges and countless women tortured and forced to admit to being witches and these trials were supervised by King James himself. Therefore, William Shakespeare knew that witchcraft should feature heavily in this play so he spared no effort in doing so. As early as the first scene of the first act, Shakespeare plunges the audience headfirst into a scene of spells, magic and plotting. There is no introduction, no drawn out exposition but all of a sudden the audience are exposed to a macabre setting. When the play opens, the audience find themselves in a setting evoking a bleak mood revved up with "Thunder and lightning." (I.i.) In the midst of a deserted place, three witches appear and discuss their next whereabouts in complete equivocal and evasive words. Later on in I.ii., the very weird sister show up for a second time in a similar desolate setting talking about a mischief they are up to. In a further attempt to please the king to the fullest, Shakespeare employed other manifestations of the supernatural in the form of ghosts especially the late king's and most importantly Banquo's.
A close reading of the play makes it clear that Shakespeare placed much weight on the ghost of Banquo at the expense of Duncan's. Prior to the composition of Macbeth, Shakespeare researched Scottish history to find a tale that he could ultimately rework to reflect modern times but be firmly grounded in history. He came across the story of the Scottish king Duncan who was killed by the traitor Macbeth who took the crown for himself. Shakespeare took these historical facts from his favourite source; Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland published in 1577, which not only gave him the characters of Macbeth and Duncan, but linked James I to Banquo and Fleance all the way back through the Stewart line of ancestry. According to Holinshed's version of events, Banquo actually helps Macbeth to kill Duncan, but Shakespeare neatly altered this. He made Banquo a hero in the play, a man with high morals. Shakespeare's portrayal of Banquo as a worthy man would have been immensely flattering to James. In his article entitled "Macbeth: King James's play," George W. Williams argues that in the banquet scene where Banquo's ghost first appeared, it takes Macbeth's sit. Instead of "conjuring" the late king's ghost to metaphorically take his rightful sit, Shakespeare thought of assigning much more importance to Banquo's, thus elevating his status. Williams adds that by driving out Duncan from this scene, which is so important to the development of the tragic process, Shakespeare did it purposefully "so that James might contemplate his Stuart ancestry at its head. At this emphasis, James would have been pleased." George W. Williams provides not only a convincing approach to detect some of the latent reasons behind the departure from the original source, but also points out that such deviation affects the artistic dimension of the play when he adds that "Shakespeare has done some harm to the coherence of the legend Mackbeth." Williams' view, however, cannot be taken into consideration in any real discussion of the play mainly because it represents a reductionist view closing the door for any artistic interpretation of the play.
Shakespeare was at the pinnacle of his powers when he wrote Macbeth. It is the fourth play in a quartet of tragic masterpieces written throughout three amazing years. First came Hamlet, then Othello, King Lear and finally Macbeth. Of the four, Macbeth is the leanest, the most focused and the darkest. Darkness and blackness bring about the mysterious atmosphere that pervades the play. After receiving his promotion as thane of Cawdor and in his way to inform his wife that the king will be his guest for that night, Macbeth says "Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires." (I.iv) Here, Macbeth wishes the starlight to wear off in a way that his devilish thought of possibly committing regicide could be concealed but at the same time, he desires a dimmer light so that he can see the outcome of his deed. Darkness is also apparent in Lady Macbeth's soliloquy when she says "Come, thick night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell." (I.v.) She calls for a thick night to come, a night covered in hellish fog so that she cannot see the very daggers she will use in the murder. Nevertheless, darkness is also contrasted by light as well. It is enough to recall the opening scene of the play where the three weird sisters gather amid "thunder" and flashes of lightening when planning to see Macbeth. Furthermore, in many other scenes, we notice that characters use torches when moving at night along with the emphasis on the "taper" when Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in V.i. The richness of imagery together with the myriad motifs and symbols used in the play shed much needed light on the artistic dimension in a play which is as famous and stunning as Macbeth.
In conclusion, it does seem that Shakespeare's Macbeth could be regarded as a play fit for King James I for the reason that it met his expectations whenever the elements of witchcraft and ancestry are raised. However, such claim should not be taken into consideration in any artistic discussion of Macbeth mainly because it does not only overlook the artistic and ingenious side of the work itself but also diminishes the merit of Shakespeare as an accomplished playwright whose works still appeal to the modern reader. Stepping aside from marginal causes behind composing Macbeth, and delving deeper into its artistic elements such as imagery and themes, critics could come to the conclusion that the play is one of top tragedies that Shakespeare wrote in his heydays to the point that some critics hail it to have the same weight and importance as King Lear.