16th Century Attitudes

i am doing an assignment at school on Macbeth and I have to find out about the religious structure of Monarchy in the 16th century. First question, were Kings in those times very religious? I assume that the less educated people were very religious, but what about the nobles?. If a person kills another (e.g. person kills king and then he takes his place on the throne) what would be his motivation, if he was religious and all? Obviously this happened alot during those times, but what I have to try and explain is why would they abandon their [strong] beliefs for revenge or to become King?

Some were religious, some weren’t. Scotland was very different from England, which was very different form France and so forth but the rich of European countries intermarried very often.
But Macbeth was a real person and he was earlier than 16th Century. In the Middle Ages most took religion much more seriously than today, because life was short and eternity was near. There were also fewer distractions. Macbeth means “son of life” and was apparently a nickname. There is no evidence he was a cold-blooded killer, any more than most soldiers of his times.

While the real King Macbeth, nee Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, lived at the turn of the first millennium, the play about him was written by Shakespeare in the 16th century. You cannot read Shakespeare as history. He never let the truth interfere with a good story. I understand he did a particular hatchet job on Richard III as well. There is a well researched novel about King Macbeth by Dorothy Dunnett called King Hereafter that you might be interested in reading.

As others have noted, obviously the historical MacBeth lived some centuries earlier (and was not quite as treacherous as Shakespeare’s character–he rebelled and killed Duncan in battle, I believe). However, obviously people did wicked things in the sixteenth century. Why do you assume that religious people did not do wicked things? They do wicked things now. Why would they have been holier four hundred years ago?

Indeed, I’d argue that they were much less so–religious people, I mean, not people in general. Today, the fact that someone is very religious usually means that he or she is unusually concerned with spiritual and moral questions. But in an era where it is simply assumed by most people that there is a God and that miracles happen, etc., that becomes just one more fact about the universe. It hopefully will have some impact on people’s lives, but the impact is relatively limited, unfortunately. Either people justified what they did, just as people do now (have a look at the thread on using the atomic bomb in WWII–questions of when it was right to use violence in the sixteenth century were no simpler then than such questions are now, although they may appear so to us because we don’t have to wrestle with their complexities); or they gave in to present expediency with the hope that at some time in the future they would find it possible to repent; or they simply succumbed to overwhelming temptation knowing that they would probably be damned for it. People’s moral behavior is rarely based on a simple calculation of self-interest.

For a really good example of a sincerely Christian character in Shakespeare who has done something very wicked, see the soliloquy of Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3. Note that at the beginning of the scene Claudius is taking measures to ward off the danger represented by Hamlet (who has figured out that Claudius killed his own brother and Hamlet’s father) and preserve his position as king. Then, when alone, he admits that his “offense is rank, it smells to heaven,” and tries to repent. But he realizes that he can’t sincerely repent while remaining in possession of the kingdom (and wife) he has acquired by murder: “my crown, my own ambition, and my queen.” So he tries to pray anyway, but it doesn’t “work.”

In the same scene, we have the disturbing spectacle of Hamlet deciding not to kill the king, because killing him at his prayers would mean that he would go to heaven, and Hamlet wants to make sure he goes to hell. This is an even more striking example of how sincere religious belief can be completely disconnected from Christian morality.

In Catholic theology, both Claudius and Hamlet presumably have “unformed faith”–faith, that is, that is not formed by charity. Evangelical Protestants would say that in that case they do not have genuine supernatural faith at all, but merely adhere to the prevailing religious opinions of their culture.


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