In 1610, King Henri of France was murdered, prompting a wave of publications obsessed with regicide, darkness, deception, and a devilish, witch-like enemy of kings and kingdoms– the Jesuits.
In 1611, in the midst of these responses, a play was performed in London which incorporated these same concerns, and even used the same language: the question posed by one pamphlet 'What Nation ever received such a blow, and was strucken into such amazement'? was answered in the staging of a similar 'blow' that 'Might be the be-all and the end-all'. Yet Macbeth was not written alongside these eerily corresponding pamphlets, but several years earlier. So how was this play's performance so spookily suited to the 'cultural moment' of 1611? This is something I recently researched as part of my thesis, and I was struck by how studying the relevance of Shakespeare's plays in his lifetime could illuminate their continuing relevance today.
Many suggest that Macbeth was heavily influenced by the gunpowder plot, but however much the play was shaped by the cultural moment of its creation, it is not called The Gunpowder Plot; even possible references to the event are couched in terms later applicable to Henri's murder – the 'blow' that 'Might be the be-all and end-all'.
Given the proximity of this event chronologically, Henri's death provoked conscious comparisons (despite the many differences between the two incidents), resulting in the revival of very specific concerns from 1606, notably the Jesuits – so we might expect the same play to re-emerge as relevant.
However, Macbeth does not directly portray the Jesuits either, but rather creatures who play a similar role to theirs in the popular imagination: the weird sisters are a force working against political and personal stability, embodying the deception of equivocation, the witchy-ness of Jesuit rites, and the darkness of their service to the devil. More broadly, they are something we are afraid of but fascinated by; something we do not fully understand.
Crucially, Macbeth did not depict the actual events of the gunpowder plot, but rather included elements of the human response to it; in 1611, Macbeth was not narratively relevant to the actual events of Henri's death, but it was painfully relevant to people's reactions to it, their fears, hopes, and attempts to understand it.
Five years later or 400 years later, human beings and human societies everywhere not only see comparable events, but most importantly, respond even to different circumstances in comparable ways, whether we are scared of Jesuits or al-Qaeda – or whatever personal monster we picture hiding beneath our bed.
Shakespeare will always be relevant because at the heart of his plays are emotions that all humans feel, expressed in an incredibly emotive way. Just as Shakespeare did initially with the story of Macbeth, just as the literature of 1611 did with the gunpowder plot, and just as Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad will do, their emotional crux is what allows us to apply the different stories of Shakespeare's plays to our world.
Chloe Orrock, Aged 21, Leamington Spa