The famous opening scene of The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare begins with the speeches of three witches. They predict what will happen in the play, but they are more than a dramatic device. They were a very pointed and obvious political statement.
That statement — something of a cheerleader’s “We’re with you all the way!” shout-out — was pointed directly at King James I.
We remember King James as the man who authorized the most famous translation of the Bible in history — the King James Version. He not only authorized it; he sent some specific directions to the translators and monitored its progress, and that work can easily be compared to the work of any modern best translation services agency.
But there is another side to James that we forget today. He believed in witches and witchcraft and did his best to stamp it out both in Scotland, where he reigned as James VI and in England after he was crowned as James I in 1609.
James’ belief in witchcraft and his campaign against it is outlined in an interesting article in HistoryExtra, the website of the BBC History Magazine and BBC World History Magazine. The article is Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King James’s witch hunts and was written by Tracy Borman), who has authored a book about King James’s attitude toward witchcraft. (Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts )
James’s obsession with witchcraft can be traced back to his childhood. The violent death of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, seems to have inspired a dark fascination with magic. “His Highness told me her death was visible in Scotland before it did really happen,” related Sir John Harington many years later, being, as he said, “spoken of in secret by those whose power of sight presented to them a bloody head dancing in the air”.
The article is a fascinating account of the James we may have thought we knew.