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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shakespeare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Lady Glamis


At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth play, Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis.

A thane is the chief of a clan, and one of the king's landholding barons.

Glamis is small village in Angus, Scotland.



Glamis Castle, rumoured to be haunted



But the real historical Macbeth was NOT the Thane of Glamis.

So why did Shakespeare make it up?

Did it have anything to do with Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis?

On 17 July 1537, she was burned at the stake... for witchcraft.



Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

For many long years, King James V of Scotland hated Janet Douglas and her entire family. He fought them and persecuted them over the years.



King James V of Scotland, ca. 1536



She was charged with poisoning her husband. The murder charge was dropped and she was free to marry her second husband.

Almost immediately she was accused of plotting to poison the King. She and her husband were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He was later killed, after he escaped from the dungeon.

To convict her of the charges, her family and servants were questioned and tortured.

She was convicted and executed, on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle. Her son was made to watch while she was burned alive.




It would seem that the charges of witchcraft were entirely false and fabricated.

She is believed to be one of many ghosts that haunts Glamis Castle.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare and his Macbeth play?

Shakespeare wrote this Scottish play for the Scottish king: the new King of England, James I, who had been King James VI of Scotland beforehand.



King James I of England and VI of Scotland
around the time Macbeth was written in 1606


King James was fascinated by witchcraft, and it would seem that Shakespeare was trying entertain his new monarch with a subject he had an interest in.

King James had conducted very famous witch trials while he was King of Scotland, and many of these witches were executed at Edinburgh Castle, too.

But King James was also the grandson of King James V, the king who had persecuted the Douglas family and had executed Lady Glamis.

It would appear that Shakespeare is making a connection between Lady Glamis’s execution for witchcraft and King James’s witchcraft trials.

If that is true, then is Shakespeare making a connection between King James V and his grandson King James VI?

If so, what is Shakespeare saying about the king for whom he wrote the Macbeth play, King James VI?

Is Shakespeare comparing King James VI to the blood-thirsty Macbeth, whose ambition drives him to murder and ultimately to his own bloody end?

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the nightmarish period after the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholic conspirators tried to kill the king and blow up Parliament. There were many trials, and many people were executed, including priests.

Is Shakespeare making a comment that the blood that was on King James V's hands was like the blood on Macbeth's hands, and perhaps that King James VI had the blood of the Gunpowder plotters on his hands as well?



Alan Cumming in the recent Macbeth on Broadway



Did Shakespeare think that the souls of the executed would haunt
Whitehall Palace in London in the same way that Lady Glamis haunted her castle in Scotland?

It has often been written that Shakespeare made a connection between King James VI and the good character Banquo, from whom it is believed that James was descended, in order to flatter this new king.

That may be true.

But it would seem, with this little curious clue, in calling Macbeth the Thane of Glamis, Shakespeare might be saying something else entirely.

What do you think?

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

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