Having been a fan of Shakespeare in high school, I was well aware that Shakespeare’s plays were influenced by his royal patrons. In my senior year of high school I wrote a research paper on how Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Macbeth to glorify King James and defend him being the new king of England as well as catering to his beliefs. Now at university we’re reading Virgil, and it seems that he did a similar thing when writing the Aeneid for Caesar Augustus. Both of these rulers were the patrons to these great works of literature.
I’ll start with Augustus and The Aeneid since historically this came first. Octavius was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and so became king after Julius was murdered by the Senate. He then declared himself dictator (having the senate title him Augustus in 27 BCE), took control of the Senate, and established a standing army. He pretty much single-handedly started the Imperial Roman Empire when before it was the Roman Republic. To commemorate the grand new state of Rome, his greatness, his right to be the pater patriae “father of the Fatherland,” and a divi filius “son of god” he asked the living legend Virgil to write an epic about Rome.
Skip forward about 1600 years, King James became the king of England after his cousin Queen Elizabeth died. Along with that, he became the new patron to the newly-named King’s Men, an acting troop supported by the monarchs in which Shakespeare was part of. James asked Shakespeare to write a play about his native Scotland so that his new subjects can get familiar with him and trust him as their new ruler.
The Aeneid and The Tragedy of Macbeth are stories from the past that foretell what is happening in the present from which they were written. Aeneas is told that he will found the race that will become the Roman Empire and is told about “Caesar Augustus! Son of a god, he will bring back the Age of Gold” (Virgil 6:914-15). Macbeth is told by the witches that Banquo’s royal line will continue for generations and they show him the line of kings, the last one being King James since he holds the emblems of England and holds a mirror that reflect more kings. Augustus and King James are both honored in these works of literature, even though they are not characters in the stories, because their supposed righteous qualities are portrayed in the good characters.
Son of a god, Aeneas is the son of Venus who protects him through his entire journey. Aeneas is basically invincible because of his mother and her influence on Jupiter. Augustus and his senate made Julius Caesar a deity, making Augustus untouchable by the people. Aeneas is loyal to the gods, his family, and his people. Caesar Augustus had these qualities because of the respect he showed his father and his belief that he did know what was best for his people. Augustus was also like Aeneas’ son Iulus/Ascanius. Aeneas was the survivor of a brutal war and his son symbolized the promise of a new era filled with the virtues learned by Aeneas. Augustus brought the new era of the Imperial Roman Empire after the war and brutality that led to the deaths of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
King James was supposedly the descendant of Macbeth’s best friend Banquo. In the play, Banquo is the one who tries to warn Macbeth of the evil that may accompany the prophecies of the witches. Banquo is honest with a clear conscience. King James believed in the Divine Right of Kings meaning that a ruler is chosen by God and any attempt to get rid of the ruler would bring destruction because it was caused by evil. In the play, Macbeth kills the kind King Duncan and becomes king, but his reign is marked only by violence and unnatural phenomena (horses eating each other, permanent darkness, etc.), which doesn’t end until he and his wife are dead. Generally speaking, Macbeth could be a warning to not kill the new king, especially since the Gunpowder Plot happened a year before the play was written.
Another thing the writers did in order to flatter their patrons was to change history. The Trojan War was in the 1200s BCE, Rome was founded in the 700s BCE, and Carthage – the land of Aeneas’ short-time love, Dido – was founded in the 300s BCE. But for the effect of the story, Virgil blended these elements of history together, making sure Aeneas was involved in these events. The real life Macbeth ruled peacefully for 17 years (from 1040-1057) until being murdered in battle. Duncan was a lot younger and an inept king, he was Macbeth’s cousin and he partook in the murder of Macbeth’s father. Banquo and Macbeth killed Duncan in battle. Shakespeare made Duncan a well-loved, elderly father-figure and he removed Banquo from any involvement in Duncan’s murder, as Duncan was supposed to be like King James and King James was a supposed descendant of Banquo (I say supposed because it is uncertain as to whether Banquo actually existed).
The writers were inspired by previous works. Virgil wanted to become the Roman Homer and so he used the character of Aeneas from the Iliad and told what happened to the Trojans, how they lost the war and what happened afterwards. He then describes a journey similar to Homer’s Odyssey in the first six books and then writes about a war in Italy in the last six books. Shakespeare’s main source for almost all of his plays was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577). In it is the story of Macbeth but Shakespeare was also inspired by the story of King Duffe, also in the Chronicles, because he was murdered in his sleep by a man who was prompted to do so by his wife. To portray the witches, Shakespeare used Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witches (1584) and a book written by King James himself back in Scotland called Daemonologie (1597).
Both Augustus and King James were pleased with the works and better yet is that we can still enjoy them hundreds of years later. Both are fascinating to read since they are brilliant works of literature but they also offer great insight on the beliefs of society at the time they were written. The Aeneid is from Ancient Rome just as they were entering the Imperial era, devotion to the state and to the gods was believed to be crucial for their country to be able to expand and become the greatest empire the world has ever known. The Tragedy of Macbeth is from the Renaissance era in Europe at the same time the British colonies in America were being settled and formed, superstition and religion ruled everyone with fear, witchcraft and ghosts were real, and the monarch was chosen by God.
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