Shakespeare scholars have long conjectured that Shakespeare drew particular inspiration for Macbeth from a playlet performed before King James at Oxford University in 1605. Thomas Sackville himself hosted James’s 1605 visit as the University Chancellor!
Based on a series of topical allusions, the surviving text of Macbeth can be confidently dated to 1606—too late for the Earl of Oxford to have written it, but consistent with Sackville’s authorship (as Sackville died in April of 1608). A final point of interest is that in Macbeth and other plays, Shakespeare consistently emphasized the importance of respecting the ancient laws of hospitality due to a guest. Sackville’s friend John Florio once called him “Our England’s Hospitalis” – England’s finest host.
Thomas Sackville and Macbeth
Scholars have long debated when Shakespeare wrote his last play, but they widely agree that he was still active as a playwright in the summer of 1606. This can be established based on topical allusions to events from 1605 and 1606 in Macbeth and King Lear. Some of these allusions could be seen as coincidental, but others are specific and unique to this two-year period.
It is a commonplace of literary criticism that Shakespeare drew particular inspiration for Macbeth from a welcoming pageant performed before King James at Oxford University in August of 1605, in which three weird sisters hailed James as the descendant of the Scotsman Banquo. “The little ceremony of greeting—whether Shakespeare stood in the crowd watching it or heard about it from one of the bystanders—seems to have stuck in the playwright’s imagination,” Stephen Greenblatt theorized in Will in the World (2004).
When King James and his family arrived at Oxford on August 27, 1605, they were greeted by a short pageant composed in Latin by the scholar Matthew Gwinne. This pageant reenacted a legend about the eleventh-century Scotsman Banquo, from whom King James claimed descent. According to Holinshed’s Chronicles, one day the future King Macbeth and his friend Banquo were journeying through the woods when they happened upon “three women in strange and wild apparel” with unearthly powers. The weird women prophesied that Macbeth, not Banquo, would become King of Scotland, but that Banquo would enjoy the greater triumph because his descendants would rule Scotland for many generations.
During the 1605 pageant at Oxford, three boys dressed as “sibyls” emerged from some greenery to greet the royal party, explaining that they were the “three same fates” who “once foretold power without end” to Banquo. They flatteringly predicted that King James’s descendants would similarly enjoy imperium sine fine—rule without end—and hailed him in grand terms:
Hail, whom Scotland serves!
Whom England, hail!
Whom Ireland serves, all hail!
Whom France gives titles, lands besides, all hail!
Hail, whom divided Britain join’st in one!
Hail, mighty Lord of Britain, Ireland, France!
(Absurdly, the British monarchs clung to the official title “ruler of France” long after England lost Calais, the nation’s last military outpost in France, at the onset of Elizabeth’s reign.)
James would have enjoyed being publicly hailed as Banquo’s descendant, an acknowledgement of his long and distinguished royal lineage. A superstitious man, he also would have appreciated being reminded that the three sisters of fate had foretold his reign long ago, and enjoyed witnessing the “sibyls” issue a new prophecy that his own descendants would rule without end. Finally, James naturally preferred thinking of himself as the reuniter of “divided Britain,” not a foreign-born king.
Shakespeare seems to have known several details of this pageant. When Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the three witches on the heath in Scotland, they hail Macbeth in nearly the same fashion as the three “sibyls” hailed King James:
First Witch All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
Second Witch All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
Third Witch All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!
Although the historical Banquo had assisted Macbeth in Duncan’s murder, that would not do for a dramatic representation of King James’s ancestor. Instead, Shakespeare recast Banquo as an ally of Macbeth’s who is too noble to support Macbeth in his nefarious plans. To prevent Banquo from reporting his misdeeds, Macbeth kills him. When Macbeth later encounters the three witches, he demands of them: “shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?” The witches show him a procession of eight kings, featured like Banquo, the last of whom holds a looking glass in his hand. Banquo’s ghost follows the kings, pointing to them as his descendants. Macbeth is terribly upset at the witches. “Filthy hags! Why do you show me this?” he exclaims. “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” When he looks into the eighth king’s mirror, he sees even more of Banquo’s descendants, some carrying “two-fold balls and treble scepters.” The “two-fold balls” represent the unification of Britain and Scotland under King James, and the “treble scepters” refer to King James’s nominal title as ruler of Britain, Ireland, and France.
Another hint that Shakespeare had detailed knowledge of the 1605 reception of King James at Oxford University is found in Macbeth’s final act. After Macbeth and his wife conspire to murder King Duncan as an innocent guest in their home, Lady Macbeth cannot sleep because of her troubled mind. Macbeth asks the doctor if he can provide medicine to soothe Lady Macbeth’s mind: “can’st thou not minister to a mind diseased,” relieving her from “that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?” The Doctor answers that no medicine can relieve a troubled mind: “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”
As Kenneth Muir noted in his 1977 The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays, Shakespeare may have been consciously or unconsciously echoing a passage from Samuel Daniel’s play The Queen’s Arcadia, performed at Oxford University before the queen (but not James) on August 30, 1605. In one act, the errant shepherdess Daphne visits a quack doctor before soliloquizing: “Oh what can physic do to cure that hideous wound my lusts have given my conscience?” She recognizes that she is only “diseas’d within” her mind, not in her body. Her unquiet mind “keeps me waking,” and when she finally falls into “broken sleeps” she sees “forms of terror.” These horrible visions lay “upon my heart this heavy load that weighs it down with grief.” Daphne says that because she has “no disease…there is no cure I see at all, nor no redress.”
Because Shakespeare appears in Macbeth to have drawn on powerful dramatic moments from Gwinne’s pageant Three Sibyls (Tres Sibyllae) and possibly from Samuel Daniel’s Queen’s Arcadia—both performed at Oxford University during King James’s visit in August of 1605—one wonders whether the author was physically present at the Oxford performances, or had a particular reason to be knowledgeable about the royal visit. The Queen’s Arcadia was first printed in 1606, and Shakespeare may have had the opportunity to read it before penning Macbeth, but Shakespeare’s likely inspiration for Macbeth, Tres Sibyllae, was not printed until 1607, the year after Macbeth’s most likely composition date. Thomas Sackville was certainly familiar with the details of James’s 1605 visit to Oxford, since he himself hosted the visit as Oxford’s University Chancellor (a position he occupied from 1591 until his death in 1608)! After the King’s departure, Sackville sent “twenty pounds and five brace of bucks to the disputants and the actors in the plays before the king,” receiving great plaudits for his generous hospitality.
Scholars generally hold that Shakespeare wrote the surviving version of Macbeth not long after the sensational Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 in which a group of dissident English Catholics tried to blow up Parliament. Shakespeare alludes to the Gunpowder Plot in several different ways in Macbeth. Most obviously, the play depicts the bloody and unprovoked murder of a sleeping king of Scotland. It also alludes to the image of a snake hiding under a flower—Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it,” shortly before King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle. This very image was stamped on a royal medallion to commemorate James’s escape from harm after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Finally, the play alludes to the trial and execution of the English Jesuit Henry Garnet for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. When Garnet was tried on March 28, 1606, he used the techniques of equivocation as laid out in his own Treatise of Equivocation to give misleading answers to the government’s questions. In the drunken Porter scene in Macbeth, the Porter says, “Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” Collectively, these allusions suggest that Shakespeare completed Macbeth not long after Garnet’s execution on May 3, 1606.
The strongest indication that Macbeth was composed in the summer of 1606 concerns its allusion to a ship named the “Tiger” which has sailed to the near east en route to Aleppo, an ancient trading city in Syria. The First Witch incants, “Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger: But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” She threatens to torment the poor Tiger’s captain for a weary space of seven nights times nine and nine, or for 567 days:
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
As the scholar E. A. Loomis established in 1956, a ship named the Tiger really did sail to the Far East on December 5, 1604, returning to Milford Harbor on the west coast of Wales on June 27, 1606 after enduring many calamities. It was gone 81 weeks or 567 days, the span of time over which the First Witch threatened to wreak havoc on the Tiger.
As with King Lear, the substantial evidence that Macbeth was written in 1606 based on internal clues and topical allusions would seem to rule out the currently leading alternative Shakespeare authorship candidate, the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604. Sackville’s death in April of 1608 is consistent with his authorship of Macbeth.
One final aspect of Macbeth is of special interest from a Sackvillian perspective. Macbeth’s crime is not merely regicide: he is also guilty of the fearsome crime of murdering King Duncan while he was sleeping peacefully as a guest in Macbeth’s home. This is an extreme violation of the ancient laws of hospitality, and according the rules of classical tragedy, Macbeth and his wife must be utterly ruined by it. Shakespeare emphasizes Duncan’s expectations that he will receive the customary courtesies and safety due to a guest in several passages. For instance, when the Scottish king arrives at Macbeth’s home, he formally greets Lady Macbeth as his hostess and refers to himself as her guest: “Fair and noble hostess, / We are your guest tonight.”
Throughout Shakespeare’s works the author emphasizes the importance of treating guests with graciousness and respecting the ancient laws for the treatment of guests. The kindly old shepherd Corin, who offers shelter to Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It despite being so poor that he has no food in his home, speaks of hospitality as the path to heaven: “My master is of churlish disposition, and little recks to find the way to heaven by doing deeds of hospitality.” And Old Capulet is the most courteous of hosts as he invites Paris to a feast in his house in Romeo and Juliet:
This night I hold an old accustom’d feast,
Whereto I have invited many a guest,
Such as I love; and you, among the store,
One more, most welcome, makes my number more.
On the day that Lear arrives to visit Regan and Cornwall, they are absent from their castle—a violation of the ancient laws of hospitality, because they knew their father was coming to see them. Regan and Cornwall continue to treat Lear rudely even after Gloucester reminds them to treat Lear and himself as guests.
As a youth Sackville was so profligate that he nearly ruined himself financially, and was unable to keep a fine house in the late 1560s, but in his later decades he was known as the most hospitable nobleman in England. In the preface to a 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Sackville’s friend John Florio called him “Our England’s Hospitalis” – England’s finest host. When Sackville’s chaplain George Abbot gave his funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey in 1608, Abbot declared likewise that “No nobleman was more given to hospitality, and keeping of a great house…Who more magnificent than his Lordship in solemn entertainments?” This aspect of Sackville’s character could explain why Shakespeare’s works, including Macbeth, consistently emphasize the importance of treating guests with courtesy and hospitality.