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Macbeth - Scottish King

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Nicol Williamson as Macbeth in the BBC Televison Shakespeare adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. But was the play an accurate depiction of the facts?
Tyrant, show thy face!
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V Scene vii

Mac Bethad mac Findlaích stands out from history as the principal character of William Shakespeare's play, Macbeth. Although many of the play's characters are based on actual people, it is not a historically accurate work. In almost all aspects, especially concerning the treatment of characters and the events which lead Macbeth to be king, Shakespeare's narrative is considerably distant from reality. The real story of Macbeth's life is one of drama, violence and intrigue; but not that told by Shakespeare.

The Life of Macbeth

Born in the early 11th Century, Macbeth came from a noble background. His father, Findlaech mac Ruaidrí, was king of Moray, and Macbeth himself was probably the nephew or grandson of Malcolm II. In 1032, after his cousin Gille Comgáin and fifty of his followers were burned to death, Macbeth became king of Moray. Although evidence is very limited, it is easy to see Macbeth as having had a role in the burning: in one fell swoop the killer of his father and the major barrier to his taking of the kingdom was conveniently removed. After his cousin's death, Macbeth married Gruoch, Gille Comgáin's widow and the granddaughter of Kenneth II. In suspicious circumstances, indicating ruthlessness on Macbeth’s part, he had taken his rival's life, crown and spouse.

Although weighed down by the growing power of the Earl of Orkney, Macbeth was able to put up a steady defence against the aggressions of Duncan I. The latter's attack against Moray in 1040 ended with Duncan's death in battle, probably at Pitgaveny on 14 August. It should be noted that there is no indication that Duncan was killed by Macbeth personally, as occurs in Shakespeare's play.

Macbeth's accession to the crown of Scotland does not appear to follow the Machiavellianism of the play, in which the crown is violently and opportunistically seized. Instead, Moray's increasing Scottish hegemony should be considered. Both Macbeth's father and cousin, while never kings of Scotland, had sometimes been dignified with the title 'king of Scotland', as a mark of prestige. Macbeth himself exerted influence beyond the Moray area: his wife's good lineage was appreciated nationwide, and there is evidence that he owned land elsewhere and was able to grant estates in West Fife.

Following the defeat of a rebellion by Duncan I's father in 1045, a degree of stability appeared to return to Macbeth's kingdom. In 1050, Macbeth became the only reigning king of Scotland to make a pilgrimage to Rome - his ability to leave his kingdom for an extended period of time, and to give money away generously in Rome, suggests neither domestic political or economic instability. However, in 1054 Malcolm Canmore, son of Duncan I, began the military campaign that Macbeth made famous. Supported by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, Malcolm was able to force territorial concessions from Macbeth at the bloody battle at Dunsinane on 24 July, 1054. With Malcolm now in a strong position, Macbeth was killed on 15 August, 1057 at Lumphanan. He was succeeded by his step-son, Lulach.

Pre-Shakespearean Representation

Some historians have identified Macbeth with MaelBaethe, one of the three kings who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, submitted to Cnut in 1031. A considerable amount of debate has taken place over this issue, which has been complicated by the inconsistency of spelling in early sources, to a large degree as the result of the use of several different languages between parties.

In the early 15th Century, Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil traced a history of Scotland from Biblical times. In early chapters its historical value is highly limited, and only becomes more useful as the narrative approaches the centuries immediately before the work's production. Importantly, the metrical poem describes several of the mythical events that were to filter down to Macbeth, via the work of Hector Boece and Ralph Holinshed. The famous encounter with three 'weird sisters', which has no documentary basis, is so effective in Wyntoun's poem that it is present in much the same form in Holinshed's work and Macbeth itself.

Thre werd sisteris like to be.
The first he herd say gangand by:
"Lo, yonder þe thayne of Crumbaghty!"
The toþer sister þe sister said agane:
"Off Murray yonder I see þe thanyne"
The third said: "yonder I se þe king."

Despite embellishing the narrative with information of spurious veracity, the Cronykil does recount events which have been identified by modern scholarship. Macbeth's pilgrimage to Rome is mentioned:

In pilgrimage þidder he come,
And in almus he sew siluer

As stated in the authoritative 2004 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Macbeth certainly did visit Rome in the early 1050s and was able to freely distribute alms. Of course, it should not be thought that where Wyntoun is factually correct he had conducted proper research, and that his errors are the result of laziness or ignorance. With no convenient DNB, or indeed any printed work, to consult, his poem is a compilation of information of indiscernible reliability. As with most mythology, only advanced study can separate the factual basis from the fictional embellishment. Wyntoun's work, then, is not entirely divorced from actual events, but strays from accuracy due to the nature of his sources. The Cronykil is one of the earliest examples of the mixing of mythical and downright fictitious information with the rather meagre factual details of Macbeth's life. This blend endured, and was expanded by other additions, until Shakespeare's work itself.

Hector Boece's Scotorum Historiae, published in 1526 and translated from the Latin into English by John Bellenden in 1535, was a key 16th Century historical text. As well as being the first text to incorrectly describe Macbeth as thane of Glamis and Cawdor, it was a major influence on the work of Ralph Holinshed. Holinshed's writing is discussed below.


Shakespeare should not be criticised too heavily for misrepresenting historical events. His plays were works of fiction and entertainment, intended for performance in a specific arena and written according to a rigid style and structure. Even if Shakespeare had sought to produce a play with historically accurate content, to write one about Macbeth would have been impossible: historical writing was nowhere near academically rigorous enough to allow the reliability of printed history to be discerned. Indeed, Shakespeare's work does stay reasonably close to the historical writing of Ralph Holinshead; unfortunately, the latter's work is almost as far from actual events as Shakespeare's. When reading or watching Macbeth, we should think of the actual life of Mac Bethad mac Findlaích as forming little more than a creative stimulus to Shakespeare's imagination.

Shakespeare's Sources

The primary reference work used by Shakespeare was Ralph Holinshead's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, first published in 1574. This itself was derived from a number of equally unreliable sources, particularly that of Hector Boece. Holinshead's work is large and difficult to read, with text printed in two columns of gothic type.

The 'Mackbeth' chapter in Holinshed's Chronicles contains many of the features of the Macbeth story. Three witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo, who are returning from battle:

...the first of them spake and said; All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The Second of them said; Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder. But the third said; All haile Makbeth and he'ereafter shalt be king of Scotland1.

The speech of the three witches in this scene is highly similar to the famous Act I Scene iii of Macbeth:

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, thou shalt be king hereafter!

Holinshed also wrote of how the 'weird sisters' predicted that Banquo would father many kings, as Act I Scene iii states. Gruoch is given the evil attributes of Lady Macbeth, and is described as 'verie ambitious, burning in an unquenchable desire to beare the name of a queene'. Much as in Macbeth, Holinshed depicts her as the principal driving force behind Macbeth's personal killing of King Duncan.

Shakespeare does not provide an accurate retelling of Holinshed's account, however. Particularly, the Chronicles clearly states that Banquo knew that Macbeth was going to murder Duncan; in Macbeth, the title character's fear that Banquo may expose him is an important part of the story. Furthermore, Holinshed does not portray Macbeth as a ruthless tyrant. He writes that his effective punishment of rebels and those committing crimes against society made him 'accounted the sure defence and buckler of innocent people; and hereto he also applied his whole indevor to cause young men to exercise themselves in vertuous manners'. While frequently erroneous contemporary history was of much greater influence on Macbeth than the course of actual events, Shakespeare's selective reading of the resources available to him firmly roots his play in an entertaining, primarily fictional, arena. The Macbeth play is even further distanced from the real course of Macbeth's life described above.

Shakespeare's Motivations

Written circa 1606, the content of Macbeth was greatly influenced by the context in which it was written, and contains many allusions to contemporary events. This rather self-aware grounding in an early Jacobean context, in which attempts at didacticism and at pleasing the king are clear, helps minimise the play's role as a historical work.

Shakespeare's decision to write a play set in Scotland and featuring witchcraft appears to be a clear attempt to please James I of England. James's interest in witchcraft was commonly known; indeed, he wrote a book about it, Daemonologie, in 1597. As he was also James VI of Scotland, the setting of Shakespeare's play was an easy choice. With this in mind, it seems rather likely that Shakespeare had already decided the general content and setting of his play, and used Holinshed's Chronicles as a source of inspiration and to provide some quasi-historical details. From another perspective, one can see Shakespeare's desire to produce a play that was pleasing to the king, not as an explicit attempt to curry favour, but as necessary to avoid the problems that could come from writing a play critical of monarchic power. In 1601, supporters of the rebellious Earl of Essex had paid for a performance of Richard II on the eve of an armed rebellion - subsequently, parts of the play were cut from its next three editions. With this, and the political aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in mind, it is understandable that Shakespeare would wish to keep a story of regicide and the corruption of power safely within the bounds of royal acceptability.

There are numerous other examples of the influence of the early 1600s on the play. In Act IV Scene i Macbeth is shown a vision of eight kings, whom he says are 'too like the spirit of Banquo'. This association suggests that the apparitions are the kings that are to be Banquo's descendants: the unbroken Stuart line, of which James I was very proud. Macbeth says,

What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Another yet! A seventh! I'll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry:

This passage is a rather thinly veiled attempt at pleasing the monarch. The eight king, appearing with the glass, is James VI and I; Shakespeare is suggesting that the power of the Stuart monarchy will endure, for a very long time. 'Two-fold balls' takes this compliment further, arguing that some of James I's descendants may rule a united England and Scotland. 'Treble scepters' implies that later kings will rule a united England, Scotland and Ireland. This passage would surely have been appreciated favourably by a monarch who was proud of his dynastic connections, but also slightly insecure about his position on the English throne and was reported to have feared assassination. Unlike Richard II, which many interpreted as being critical of Elizabeth I as a weak, childless monarch, it would be hard to label Macbeth as seditious or critical of James I when it contained such direct references to the stability of his rule.

Ross: Ah, good father,
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, 'tis day

- Act II Scene iv

As occurs in many of his plays, Shakespeare thought nothing of introducing an audience-pleasing joke into the most tragic of contexts. In Macbeth, there is the humorous 'porter scene2' and the much more subtle reference to the theatre - with its 'heavens', 'acts' and 'stage' - quoted above. The addition of such extraneous dialogue helps support a crucial point: Shakespeare's motivation, the same as many playwrights, was to please his audience, not to provide them with excessively serious and accurate description. This awareness, of audience and of context, helps keep the play rooted as a work of theatre with the purpose of entertainment and profit, and not one of the intellectual study of history.

As popularity brings money and power, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for the pleasure and enjoyment of a diverse Jacobean audience; although a tragedy, it is consistently an entertainment. Its self-awareness of this, in its references to the theatre and contemporary political events, firmly establishes the play as a work of drama. Quite evidently it is not a work of history, but a play that attempts to have a basis in actual events. With only poor research material available, Macbeth's 'factual' grounding is highly limited.

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters

If it were not for Shakespeare's play, 'Macbeth' would be no more than an inconspicuous apparition in a backwater of history. As much as Mac Bethad mac Findlaích is indebted to English Literature's greatest playwright for raising him from historical obscurity, Shakespeare has done Macbeth a great disservice by disseminating so many incorrect ideas about his life. Although Macbeth is one of the most exciting and chilling plays ever written, it is not one of the most historically accurate. The cost to Macbeth of becoming famous, has been to unfairly become notorious.

1See the penultimate paragraph of the second column of page 170 of Holinshed's Chronicle of Scotland.2Act II Scene iii.

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