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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth and the Murder of Darnley


King James's father Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was murdered on 10 February 1567.

Shakespeare was only 3 years old at the time, but later in his life he would hear this story and it would inspire some of his greatest plays.


A poster seen in Edinburgh after the murder, implicating Mary (the Mermaid)
and Bothwell (the Hare)


Darnley was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. They were first cousins, and since they were both descended from King Henry VII, they both had very strong claims to the English throne.


Mary and Darnley


Any child of theirs would have an even greater claim to the throne. Their son, James, would in fact become king after Elizabeth died in 1603.

Darnley and Mary did not get along very well. It would appear that she did everything to put him down and weaken his position as the husband to the Queen of Scotland. He was the king consort, which meant that he was the king but he had little to no actual power.




She also had an affair with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. It is possible that her son James was in fact Bothwell's son. There is a certain logic to it. Why would she name the child James, when her husband's name was Henry?

Not long after the child was born, Darnley was sick. He retired to an estate at Kirk o' Field, in Edinburgh. In the middle of the night there were two explosions, and his body was discovered in an orchard.

He was dead.

His body showed no signs of injury from the explosion of the two barrels of gunpowder hidden under his bedroom.

It appeared that he had survived the explosions, but was strangled to death in the orchard.

It is possible that the illness he was suffering was due to poisoning.

Mary and Bothwell were both accused of murdering Darnley. Bothwell and Mary went on the run (although some say that she was kidnapped) and were eventually caught.

Bothwell was found not guilty and while Mary's investigation and trial dragged on, she was found guilty of plotting the death of Queen Elizabeth, and Mary was executed.

Such an exciting story as this would have amazed any man or woman in Europe.

William Shakespeare heard these stories and they were especially important for him since he had the opportunity to write and perform plays for Queen Elizabeth and later King James.

It is very clear that Shakespeare's Hamlet is inspired in part by the story of Bothwell, Darnley and Mary.

Bothwell kills Darnley, sick with poison, in an orchard, and then marries Mary. Claudius poisons King Hamlet in an orchard, and then marries Gertrude.

The boy James would therefore be a model for Prince Hamlet.

Many years later, in 1605, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth.

It is a story set in Scotland of Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth who plot together to kill, in order to seize power.

It is rather clear that Shakespeare was thinking of Bothwell and Mary when he wrote these characters.

It is important to keep in mind that James never knew his parents. He may have lived his entire life not understanding who and what they really were.

Shakespeare, in a rather bold gesture, gave King James a story that would help him understand his bloody Scottish past.


Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in Macbeth


Would James have been offended by Shakespeare's rummaging around with the skeletons in James's closet?

Probably not. He was very sophisticated, and from what I have learned about him, there was little that would shock him.

There was a reason that he made Shakespeare and his company into the King's Men, his royal acting troupe. Shakespeare didn't play it safe, and the king must have enjoyed and appreciated that fact.

And who wouldn't be flattered to have Hamlet written for him?

Cheers,

David B. Schajer


Related Articles:

Something Rotten in the State of Scotland

Mary Queen of Scots, Henry Stuart and Shakespeare

BUY from Amazon