William Shakespeare’s most iconic and violent tragedy, Macbeth, is without a doubt a product of brilliance. An intense and profound story of an initially valiant and admirable Scottish general under the reign of King Duncan who succumbed to the pressures of the dark external forces such as the three witches’ prophecy and the deadly ambition of his wife as well as the darkness already inside of him which eventually drove him to a murderous rampage in order to become the king of Scotland, Macbeth is certainly a memorable play. There are many apparent themes, some of which include ambition, betrayal, violence, and reversal. Nevertheless, the one commonality these themes all have is the contribution of Christianity.Order now
In fact, Macbeth cleverly veils references of verses and stories featured in the Bible. Many of these references reflect the views that of King James I, the new ruling monarch of England after Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603. A shift in rule meant a shift in England in 1603 as well. While some consider the notion that King James I’s rule and beliefs influenced Macbeth to be “old” (Cox, 225), the elements of Christianity and biblical teachings that were prominent in society because of King James I’s reign profoundly aid in conveying the moral of the story and the main themes of Macbeth, paying homage to the new leader, King James I, and reminding the predominantly Christian audience to resist temptation by emphasizing the importance of the role of evil in Macbeth’s downfall. First, the killing of King Duncan contributes to the Christian message of resisting evil forces by the act signifying the crucifixion of Jesus and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Macbeth is the most “explicitly religious” play of all of William Shakespeare’s plays (Cox, 225).
When comparing the text of Macbeth and the Holy Bible, one can see the remarkable and unmistakable similarities. For Example, in the beginning of the play, there is a reference to the violent death of Jesus. In Act one Scene two, the Sergeant says “Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, Or memorise another Golgotha” (Shakespeare). This is in reference specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus. Golgotha is where the crucifixion of Jesus took place. Essentially what the Sergeant was saying was that the battle that they had just faced was as brutal and violent as the crucifixion of Jesus. This not only sets the violent and bloody tone for the rest of the play, but it also foreshadows the violent acts that will take place at the hands of Macbeth. To elaborate further, there is a connection between the murder of King Duncan and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Macbeth, with whom King Duncan shared trust, murders his king. Judas was under the influence of Satan when he betrayed Judas for thirty pieces of silver, for Satan “entered Judas” (New International Version Bible, Luke 22:3). In other words, Judas, much like Macbeth, had bad, selfish intentions and because of the darkness already inside of him, he was vulnerable to external evil pressures. This is similar to Macbeth being vulnerable to the pressures of temptation via the three witches and the words of his wife, Lady Macbeth (her confidence is “derived from her faith in the three witches prophecy (Jack, 182).
The connection between the betrayal of Jesus and Macbeth’s decision to murder King Duncan sets the tone for the rest of the play and provides one of the most significant examples of religious elements in Macbeth. Additionally, after the deed of killing the King is done, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to wash his hands in Act two Scene two. This is significant because this directly references Pilate. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate washes his hands to symbolize that he is not responsible for the death of Jesus and passing the blame to the crowd which he was referring to (New International Version Bible, Matthew 27:24). In order to fully comprehend the complexity of Macbeth, it is imperative that the connection between Macbeth and the Devil is noted. There are many parallels between the tragic tale of Macbeth and the evolution of Satan. The story of how Satan became a fallen angel is quite similar to the Story of Macbeth — it entails the story of an angel whose pride and ambition to be god instead of a servant to god was so overpowering that he was the first angel to be banished from heaven. Macbeth is the story of a once honorable man’s fall from grace as his ambition to become king instead of continuing to loyally serve his King.
The story of Macbeth is a loose allegory for the downfall of Satan, showing the mostly Christian audience in the Shakespearean-era English Society that if they are not cautious of temptation, they will succumb to the pressures of evil. This connection was directly referenced in the text, with Malcolm stating that “Angels are still bright, though the brightest fell” (Shakespeare), a reference to Luke 10. 18 — Christ who says to his disciples, “I sawe Satan, like lightning, fall downe from heaven” (Baynham, 22). Additionally, in act 4, Malcolm says that he shall “tread upon the tyrant’s head.” Matthew Baynham elaborated, linking the connection between that statement and Genesis 3:15 — “He shalle break thine head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” He then says that the statement makes it clear to mean that while Satan will challenge the people, the people will prevail. The connection between King James I’s interest in witchcraft and the incorporation of witchcraft is incredibly important to note as well, for the role of the supernatural in the creation and evolution of Macbeth is significant. Religion in Macbeth includes witches, prophecy, and arcane details of demonology; these elements were included as the reigning monarch found them fascinating (Cox, 236).
This interest in the supernatural is why the witches were written in the play, as well as the ghost of Banquo. The ghost of Banquo is significant to the story and ample proof that this story was written in part to pay homage to the new King James I because Banquo is the ancestor of King James I. When King James I came to rule England, he made a claim based on his “birthright and lineal descent,” saying his descent should be “maintained and the heritage of the succession of the monarchy which hath been a kingdom to which I am in descent 300 years before Christ.” He is referencing King Fergus I, who ruled in 330 B.C. (Williams, 18). King James I was so proud to be a descendant of King Fergus/Banquo, he had not only English Society believe this to be true, but the line from Fergus to Banquo was blurred for many generations, with it now debunked as false. To further analyze the idea that King James I helped mold Macbeth significantly, one must look at English society/life with a new ruling monarch. A change in leaders meant a change in religion as well; Queen Elizabeth was an Anglican and King James I was a Protestant who was raised Catholic, sympathized with Catholicism, and secretly followed the religion.
William Shakespeare, who had been living and writing during the Elizabethan era for the entirety of his life at the time, was in Queen Elizabeth’s good graces. The shift in monarch proved to be especially significant for Shakespeare and his livelihood, for King James I adopted his acting company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, renaming it The King’s Men and giving it his royal patronage. Additionally, they marched in King James I’s coronation (Williams, 12). With that being said, it would be completely logical to assume that William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for King James I and to make the transition of power more smoothly. Finally, the symbolism of light and darkness used in Macbeth reflects the beliefs of King James I, demonstrating that the tragedy Macbeth is a product of its times. When analyzing the text of Macbeth, the motif of lightness and darkness can be very easily seen. To put it into context, in act one, Banquo says “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence” (Shakespeare).
Essentially what he is doing is warning Macbeth not to be deceived by others or to be tempted by darkness, thus inadvertently foreshadowing the future actions and downfall of Macbeth. Moreover, when Lady Macbeth talks of killing King Duncan, she says “Come, thick night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark To cry ‘Hold, hold!’” (Shakespeare). By saying this, we see the overly ambitious, murderous, dark side of Lady Macbeth, essentially saying that the murder will be so dark that the knife could not see the wounds it cut open. The metaphor of lightness and darkness being so laden in the text reflects the views of King James I, as Jack elaborates that his view of life as a war between grace and the devil in concurrence with his knowledge of the scripture led him to symbolize darkness and lightness, which indirectly led Shakespeare to do the same in Macbeth.
In the final analysis, the story of Macbeth is legendary and iconic because of the influence the times had on Macbeth and Shakespeare himself. We can see that the use of Christian elements to be incorporated in all of the central themes and motifs, as well as the beliefs of King James I had a profound impact on the creation of Macbeth. We can see the impact through the connection between the murder of King Duncan and the betrayal of Judas, the connection between the downfall of Macbeth and the Devil, King James I’s interest in the Supernatural, Shakespeare’s practical need to pay homage to a new ruler, and the symbolism of lightness and darkness within the text.