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Essay: How Davenant’s Macbeth reinterprets the Restoration of monarchy in England

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The Restoration of monarchy in England in 1660 followed the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and marked the return of Charles II as king. Consequentially, this led to the complete subversion of political norms and a mood of uncertainty throughout England as the population reeled after the dramatic civil war. The fall of the interregnum saw the demise of the republic. In retrospect, the period of the republican rule failed to situate a stable government and was only held together by the military approach of Oliver Cromwell’s ruling (Prof. Peter Gaunt, OliverCromwell.org, n.pag). During the restoration of the monarchy official attempts to erase all traces of the Republican period were enacted and drama was consequentially adapted to fit changing political norms and contemporary political theories. Early Modern theatre recognised that representations within drama could be used as a political commentary and drama was adapted to demonstrate the political consciousness of the body politic during the Restoration. This essay will be demonstrating how William Davenant’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth demonstrates the ways in which drama was adopted to recognise a changing political discourse and new theatrical tastes. I will be discussing how Davenant’s Macbeth reinterprets the Restoration and government praising the monarchy allegorically but also covertly indicating the tension between the different desired modes of ruling within the realm.

Generally, it was forbidden in Early Modern Theatre to ‘figure a living monarch on the stage, and some satirical referencing of influential people could prevent a play from being licensed’ (Rachel Willie, Staging the Revolution. 2015. 4). Theatre was seen as largely influential to the public consciousness and many believed theatre could upset the body politic and cause civil unrest in an already trying time of new political discourse. (Nancy Maguire, Regicide and Restoration, 1992). In 1642 London Playhouses were shut down on the basis that ‘Publike sports doe not well agree with publike calamities, nor publike stage-playes with the seasons of humiliation, this being an exercise of sad and pious soleminity’ (William Oxberry, The Theatrical Banquet, 1820. 226). Stage plays were influential to the public consciousness and were often prohibited as they were deemed improper due to the fear that old past times would lead the public into debauchery and sin. Only carefully selected dramatic representations were able to take place under the Republican rule (Willie, Staging the Revolution, 2015. 6). Scholarly works on the Restoration of the monarchy like to present the theatres as completely shut and only opening when Charles II secured his crown but this is not strictly true which consequentially leads to an alteration in Dobson’s view that Restoration playwrights, specifically Restoration’s adapted works of Shakespeare, ‘reaffirms sovereignty as the rightful mode of government’ (Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet. 1992). The Restoration period saw the legal reopening of theatres and thus drama was irrevocably linked with royalism throughout historical criticism but drama had always provided a medium of political interpretation even being used in 1645 to enact a ‘civil war re-enactment; the first dramatic reconstruction of the civil wars’ (Willie, Staging the Revolution, 2015. 2). Performances were certainly influenced by the ongoing political tensions of the period, but they were also wrongly stated to only be staged after the Restoration of the monarchy completely altering the suggested opinion that Restoration adaptations were amended to reaffirm the sovereign.

In the tone of the Restoration era, however, Shakespeare’s plays were deemed substantially problematic as Kings behaved in unkinglike ways and the forces of good appear muddled. James I famously developed his theory of Kingship in his text The True Lawe of Free Monarchies. James used metaphysical arguments to justify the divine right of kings, being appointed directly by God, and that he or she is not subjected to any earthy authority (James I. ‘The Trew Law of Free Monarchies’. Persues.tufts.edu. n.pag). Depending on your interpretation of Macbeth, Shakespeare arguably creates a play that toys with the political notions of tyranny and usurpation and questions who the rightful heir to the throne within monarchy is. Under the tanist system in Scotland, a system that appointed a King from the chosen sept rather than succession of family, Macbeth ‘would have a valid claim to the throne, following the death of Duncan’ (Paul Raffield. The Art of Law in Shakespeare, 2017. 84). As it is ‘most certain that under the tanist system his claim to the throne was stronger than that of Duncan’s nominated successor, Malcolm’ (Raffield, The Art of Law, 2017. 84). Michael Hawkins responds to the argument that Macbeth praised hereditary monarchy, and therefore the monarchy of James I’s True Lawe, by stating that the succession of Malcolm was nominated rather than inherited and therefore subverted the customary tradition in Scottish Politics to elect a king on a patrilineal or agnatic basis (Michael, Hawkins. ‘History, politics and Macbeth’, 2005. 175). Perhaps then, this subverts the theory that Macbeth was written as an ode to traditional hereditary kingship and as a response to James I’s belief’s on sovereignty and rather raises questions on the conflict ‘between different systems of hereditary rights’ (Gyorgy, Lukacs. ‘Shakespeare and Modern drama, 2009. 137). Consequentially, the play was deemed controversial by Restoration standards and adapters, such as Davenant, used radical approaches to rewrite Macbeth reshaping character arcs and resolving any ambiguous suggestions that could lead to a confused audience. Literary attributes such as the love of ambiguity had drastically changed as the radical instability of the civil war alongside the political struggles of the interregnum made permanence desirable.

Davenant’s adaptation of Macbeth is arguably more demonstrative of the positive attributes of sovereignty than Shakespeare’s. He completely alters the language of the play dispelling any sense of what once could be suggested as ambiguous to assert the divine right of kingship. Davenant’s language became more focused on the body politic and demonstrates an understanding that the theatre has an effect on the audience as he rearranges positive and negative descriptive words around the characters to assert the notion that one character is morally good and the other is overtly evil. He associates Macbeth with the language of disease and madness emitting all mention of God from his dialogue. During Act IV Scene I, Macbeth can only invoke the language of sickness when attempting to heal his wife of her failing mind and guilt. He says, ‘She does from Duncan’s death to ficknefs grieve, / And fhall from Malcolm’s death her health receive/ When by a Viper bitten, nothing’s good/ To cure the venom but a Viper’s blood’ (Davenant, Macbeth, 1674. 50). In comparison, within Shakespeare’s Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s ill health Macbeth implores the doctor to, ‘Raze out the written troubles of the brain, / And with some sweet oblivious antidote/ Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff/ Which weighs upon the heart?’ (Shakespeare, Macbeth. 1992. 95). The differences between the language here is exemplary of the negative distinguishing characters that Davenant places on the character of Macbeth within his adaptation. As we can see Davenant eradicates any idea of a ‘sweet oblivious antidote’ (Shakespeare, 95) and instead incorporates the image of a ‘Viper’ (Davenant, 50). Jean Marsden comments that Davenant appropriated ‘whole scenes from the original […] but the words themselves are [his] own. […] Complex passages of [Shakespeare’s] figurative language were frequently omitted or reconstructed, containing, as they do verbal ambiguities which in turn promote ambiguities in character or thought’ (The Re-Imagined Text, 1995. 17-18). Shakespeare’s ambiguous rhetoric is completely gone within Davenant’s adaptation and Macbeth’s moral character is now made obvious by the negative dialogue that Davenant has created.

By distancing the Macbeths away from any sort of association of medical healing and enlisting only negative syntax within their dialogue Davenant is also demonstrating, more overtly, the James I ideology that a true King would exhibit thaumaturgic powers. A King, according to James I’s True Lawe, would demonstrate the capability of a saint being able to perform some miracles. James repeatedly returns to the idea of the ‘King as a physician […] speaking of the King’s unique ability to diagnose and heal’ (Alison Chapman. ‘Patrons and Patron Saints in Early Modern English’, 2012. 88). This can also be read metaphorically as a suggestion that Kings are able to perform a sense of healing but politically within the body politic rather than medically. They perform miracles by maintaining the peace and sanctity of the realm. Shakespeare seems to undermine this within the original Macbeth as the most significant political miracle within the play is when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane as the witches prophesised. The messenger remarks that ‘The wood began to move’ (Shakespeare, 1992, 98) as each soldier cuts a large branch to hide himself and the wood looks to be moving mystically towards Dunsinane. This event is not created by supernatural agency from the witches but rather by the work of the mortal soldiers. This act works to repair the political world of the play and thus Shakespeare commemorates the act of mortal men for instilling political peace within the realm rather than that of the King.

Davenant maintains this significant miracle within his adaptation but counteracts the reliance on the acts of mortal men by also heavily building on the commemoration of the redemptive powers of true Kings throughout his adaptation. He expects the reader to make connections between the analogies of characters and its historical counterpart. He parallels Duncan with Charles I, Malcolm his son with Charles II, and Macduff with General Monk. The increased presence of the Macduff’s within Davenant’s adaptation helps to counteract the moral evil of the Macbeths and show the absence of any metaphorical redemptive powers within Macbeth’s moral character as James I’s theorised that a true King would demonstrate. They are set up as a ‘rival family to the Macbeths’ (Nancy Maguire, regicide and Restoration. 1992. 79) expressing morally good qualities whilst the Macbeths maintain ambition and greed as morally bad counterparts. The Macduff’s become a representation of righteousness by avenging the death of the rightful king and vanquishing the usurper. Davenant is visibly paralleling the royalist movement and using his adaptation to validate the restoration of Charles II here. Lois Potter explains that, ‘Davenant not only enlarges the two roles with which his spectators were most likely to identify themselves but emphasises the difficulties in their attempt to maintain their integrity in an evil world’ (Secret Rites and Secret Writing, 1989. 205). In a scene created by Davenant within Act III, Macduff and Lady Macduff suggest that Macbeth is behind the murder of King Duncan:

Lady Macduff. Ambition urg’d him to that bloudy deed

May you be never by Ambition led:

Forbid it Heav’n, that in revenge you shou’d

Follow a copy that is writ in bloud.

Macduff. From Duncan’s grave, methinks, I hear a groan

That call’s a loud for justice.

Davenant, Macbeth, 1674. 30

Lady Macbeth is clearly concerned that the ambition that befell on Macbeth for the chance of becoming King will be the downfall of her husband as well. This argument perhaps puts forward an inner conflict for the audience during the Restoration era, many of whom may have been happy under Cromwell’s reign. The Macduff’s are the heroes of the play but simultaneously emphasise the moral choices that have been forced onto them by their situation similarly to that of the restoration audience who had lived through the interregnum and now faced the restoration. Davenant also seems to hint towards Parliamentarians within Lady Macduff’s dialogue as she says in reply to her husband, ‘For whilst to set our fellow Subjects free/ From present death, or future Slavery,/ You wear a Crown, not by your Title due,/ Defence in them, is an Offence in you’ (Davenant, 1674, 30). It seems Lady Macduff’s speech is simultaneously a warning to those who believe returning to a government body without a monarchy would bring political peace within the body politic and thus by defending the parliament you are truly creating an ‘offence in you’ (Davenant, 1674. 30).


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