Macbeth, the Jacobean Scot, and the Politics of the Union
Alker, Sharon, Nelson, Holly Faith, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
The nation, Benedict Anderson tells us, is an imagined community, constructed by individuals and social groups immersed in the shifting historical and political moment and not a static, harmonious entity. (1) It must of necessity be a site of competing voices whose plurality is reflected in the cultural products that emerge from each moment, particularly those that surface during times of transformation--periods of devolution or union. The first decade of the seventeenth century was such a transformative time in the discursive formation of the British nation. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 initiated a reconsideration of national identity, a process complicated by "the residual hostility and prejudice of the two nations towards each other." (2) In a speech to his first English parliament on 19 March 1604, James VI/I used commonplace biblical, familial, and physiological metaphors to capture his vision of a monarchy that could overcome such prejudices, pronouncing: "I am the Husband, and all the whole Isle is my lawful Wife; I am the Head, and it is my Body; I am the Shepherd, and it is my flocke: I hope therefore no man will be so vnreasonable as to thinke that I that am a Christian King vnder the Gospel, should be a Polygamist and husband to two wiues; that I being the Head, should haue a diuided and monstrous Body; or that being the shepheard to so faire a Flocke ... should have my Flocke parted in two." (3) James envisioned an integration of the two kingdoms that far surpassed the unity brought about by the Union of the Crowns in 1603. This vision was not fulfilled. Instead, the renegotiation of the nation that took place in Parliament over the next four years was marked by dissension culminating in the failure of the Union project in the summer of 1607.
Shakespeare's Macbeth, generally thought to have been performed in the latter half of 1606, emerged at a critical juncture in the development of the unification project. (4) In December 1604, a parliamentary commission comprised of both English and Scottish representatives presented a list of proposals to James that made initial gestures toward extending the Union of the Crowns into a national Union. These recommendations--on issues of border laws, trade and customs, and naturalization and offices--were highly contentious and had been widely debated in tracts and treatises printed throughout the latter half of the year. (5)
As Bruce Galloway has ably demonstrated, three models of the Union were proffered in these documents. (6) Many English tracts maintained that if there must be complete integration, then Scottish sociopolitical institutions and practices should be united with those of England, as--in the words of Terry Eagleton in regard to the union of Britain and Ireland--"a fish can be said to be amalgamated with a diner through the act of eating." (7) Those who held this position constructed histories centered on acts of homage by Scottish kings to England; since Anglo-Scottish history recorded a relationship of suzerainty, English systems and institutions should be dominant throughout Britain. The second model, promoted primarily by Scots, argued for a union of equality in which some institutions (particularly legal and religious) would be maintained separately in each kingdom, while others, though merged, would reflect the parity of both north and south Britain. A third type of tract, associated specifically with supporters of James VI/I, foregrounded not the contentious gritty details of Union but rather its mythology and divine origin--"the need for a unity in the hearts and minds of the two peoples." (8) The parliamentary committee's list of proposals, formulated by carefully negotiating these contradictory opinions, was expected to be discussed in Parliament in early 1605, but was eventually deferred until November 1606.
Macbeth was performed in this gap between the crystallization of potential policies and the formal debate on their acceptability, a moment when the matter of the Union was surely prominent in the minds of the governing bodies and the people, for the public spectacle of unity was already underway. The name of Great Britain was proclaimed at a royal ceremony in October 1604. New coinage stamped with "symbols of both nations" was introduced the following month, and in April 1606 a new flag combining St. George's cross of England with St. Andrew's cross of Scotland was presented to the nation. (9) Macbeth emerged in a transformative moment in the establishment of a communal identity, containing and negotiating various contradictory positions related to the Union.
The relationship of Macbeth to the sociopolitical events surrounding its initial production has been the subject of recent debate. Critical analyses of the Scottish play that deal with its topicality spend considerable energy debating the political positioning of the play in relation to the Stuart monarchy. For example, Grace Tiffany argues that the play supports the mythology crafted and promoted by the king. She observes that "the Scottish play was diplomatically designed to reflect James's own carefully fashioned public image: that of an English 'Duncan' or Scottish 'Edward,' whose coronation augured healing paternalism and peaceful expansion." (10) On the other hand, Arthur Kinney claims that "Shakespeare is using his play to warn James VI and I of the inherent dangers of imperialist and absolutist thought," while Steven Mullaney posits that Macbeth represents "a Scotland rapidly succumbing to misrule ... a Scotland interfused with contemporary concerns of the English Court ... [an] unsettling prospect ... from the vantage point of the throne." (11)
Though the mythology promoted by James VI/I and his supporters should not be dismissed, the emphasis on the relationship between the center of political power--the Court of King James--and the production of drama should not be overestimated, for, as Paul Yachnin argues in Stage-Wrights, "[t]he acquisition of their own theaters had the peculiar effect ... of reducing the playing companies' dependence upon their aristocratic sponsors ... so freeing them to address a variety of topics in an objective spirit." (12) The commercial position of the theater, claims Douglas Bruster, ultimately determined the nature of dramatic productions: "the tendency ... of Shakespeare's plays to offer (even affirm) simultaneously, without contradiction, contradictory themes, messages, and ideological stances--was ... ultimately a product of early modern market forces which shaped dramatic commodities to answer the various manifestations of social desire." (13) We hope to demonstrate that Shakespeare's Macbeth does not present a particular position on Anglo-Scottish politics that defines itself in relation to the belief system of one small political body; rather, we read the play in light of the three models of the Union recorded in the pamphlet literature of the period. The construction of the drama as a whole--the configuration of character, elements of form and genre, and even the use of geographical space--will be seen to produce a number of colliding and contradictory positions on the Union, reflecting the complexity of its relationship to the Court and the marketplace.
At first glance, the character of the murderous Macbeth seems to indicate that Shakespeare was directing various discourses within the play toward a specific position on the Union, one that we might expect an English playwright to favor--that of a Scotland subordinate to English rule. On one level, Macbeth does appear to be a conventional barbarous, disloyal, and duplicitous Scot, and his ultimate defeat by Malcolm, a Scot whose actions imply consent to an English hegemony, suggests that Scotland's barbaric impulses need to be contained by England's civilizing forces.
Before 1603, "the Scots" had frequently displayed their barbaric ways on the English stage, along with representatives of other potentially hostile foreign nations. (14) Violence, particularly against the weak, was a central marker of Scottish character in Elizabethan history plays and comedies. For example, in the Pinner of Wakefield (ca. 1587), attributed to Robert Greene, the Scottish king, having been slighted by a married Englishwoman, threatens to slaughter the woman's young son if she does not comply with his desires. Similarly, in Greene's James IV (ca. 1591), the lovesick king tries to have his wife, an English princess, murdered by a French assassin so that he might win the love of a Scottish noblewoman. (15)…
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Publication information: Article title: Macbeth, the Jacobean Scot, and the Politics of the Union. Contributors: Alker, Sharon - Author, Nelson, Holly Faith - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 47. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2007. Page number: 379+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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