The Historical Macbeth
Shakespeare’s remarkable insight into the human condition and his sharp intellect should have made him a brilliant historian, but his portrayal of Macbeth’s life is inaccurate. To be fair, Shakespeare did not have a great deal of accurate sources to work with and, as a dramatist, Shakespeare’s first task was to entertain his audience rather than to present them with a historically accurate representation of events. Shakespeare would probably remain apathetic to any accusations of historical revisionism, but an examination of the historical Macbeth is interesting nonetheless. Also, a look at the historical sources and events which shaped Shakespeare’s writing would, undoubtedly, be revealing. Perhaps two figures can be redeemed in one essay.
Both James I and his wife, Anne of Denmark, were enthusiastic lovers of theatre. James was less enthusiastic than his wife and had difficulty staying awake through long plays. Thus, Shakespeare directed the actors to compress their speeches. This takes skill on the part of the actors and mental acuity on the part of the audience. In this way, the play was performed to perfectly suit the educated audience and the short attention span of James I. Macbeth was written and performed on the occasion of the king’s brother-in-law King Christian of Denmark’s visit in the summer of 1606.
1603 had seen the Union of the Crowns as the thrones of Scotland and England were united under James I (James VI of Scotland.) The play might be seen as a nod at this Union of the two thrones. Shakespeare picked the perfect historical event to demonstrate English and Scottish cooperation. The history of Anglo-Scots relations wasn’t exactly abounding with tales of co-operation. The Scots, in fact, were notorious for hiring themselves out as mercenaries for the French against the English. The English assistance to Malcom III, James I’s ancestor, was probably the best example of English and Scottish interests coalescing. Macbeth was perfectly tailored for consumption by James I.
Macbeathadh, as Macbeth is known in Gaelic, means “Son of Life,” an ironic name for the blood-stained murderer of Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth was the son of Findlaech mac Ruairdri, Earl of Moray, a royal-blooded member of clan Argyll. Macbeth’s father was slain by his own nephews in AD 1020, and the simmering Macbeth planned his revenge against the killers. Twelve years later Macbeth avenged his father’s death by catching one of the killers in a building and burning him to death along with fifty of his men. Macbeth assumed the title of Earl and married the executed killer’s widow, Gruoch. This marriage strengthened Macbeth’s claim to the Scottish throne, but Macbeth remained content as Earl of Moray.
So far, Macbeth seems to be the same ambitious, ruthless, and calculating character that Shakespeare portrayed; yet the events of Macbeth’s life differ significantly from the events of the play. Far from the wise and goodly king of Shakespeare’s play, Duncan was a young incompetent installed by the decree of his despotic father, Malcolm II. The ancient custom of Scotland was succession by election rather than by decree, and thus the installation of a rash and ambitious youngster inspired anger throughout Scotland. The young Duncan led a disastrous invasion of northern England in AD 1039. With one failure under his belt, Duncan turned his sights northwards and struck out against the Earl of Moray, Macbeth.
Macbeth defeated Duncan and was immediately accepted as King of Scots by Duncan’s estranged subjects. Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, fled to England while the younger son, Donalbain, fled to the Western Isles. Shakespeare was right that Macbeth killed Duncan, but the circumstances of the killing are far different than the play depicts. Rather than murdering a well-loved old monarch out of ambition, Macbeth killed a despised ruler in self defence.
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, the great general, Macbeth, has just quashed a Viking invasion in Fife. The visit of Christian, King of Denmark, did affect the content of Shakespeare’s play. Henry Paul believes that scene iii of Act I was written before Shakespeare knew that Christian would be attending the play. He argues that the metre of the speech becomes irregular in the places where Shakespeare had to quickly insert new names. The account which Shakespeare relied upon for his play records that the invasion which Macbeth thwarted was a second wave of Danish invaders. For the sturdy Scots to drive away Danish invaders in the presence of a Danish king would be inappropriate. Shakespeare diplomatically chose to change the nationality of these Danes to Norwegian. Macbeth may have turned away Viking invasions as Earl of Moray, but as King of the Scots he was unable to drive the Norse king Thorfinn Sigurdson, his half-cousin, from Scotland. Thorffin was an ugly giant of a man, a brilliant tactician who remained undefeated in battle by the King of the Scots.
Macbeth was a capable ruler who gave generously to the Church. Perhaps Macbeth was anticipating a muddying of his name as he gave many gifts to the Church, guaranteeing a certain amount of good press. His commitment to the Church seems to have been genuine, however, as a pilgrimage to Rome in AD 1050 suggests. Macbeth should have secured his kingdom and prepared for war instead of journeying to Rome to kiss the pope’s hand. Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, was in England whispering into the ear of certain powerful individuals. Influenced by Malcolm, Edward the Confessor, king of England, sanctioned the invasion of Scotland in 1054 under the Earl of Northrumbria, Siward. Once again, Shakespeare’s play contains elements of truth. Siward appears in both versions as the Northrumbian Earl who is willing to help Malcolm’s claim to the throne. Duncan’s son, Malcolm, is able to drum up forces from England and, although Macbeth follows spiritual inclinations in both versions of the story, these inclinations are not compatible. The spiritual inclinations of the devout Macbeth are far more positive than the spiritual inclinations the occult-consulting fictional king. The two Macbeths really wouldn’t have gotten along.
At first, Macbeth waged a fierce guerilla war until he was forced to pitched battle on the 27th of July. The battle, which may or may not have occurred below Dunsinane Hill, was a fierce and bloody clash which was noted in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. The nameless monk records that Earl Siward: “fought against the Scots. He put to flight their king, Macbeth, and slew the noblest in the land, carrying off much plunder.” There were heavy casualties on both sides and, unlike the play, Macbeth left the field with his head firmly connected to his shoulders. Macbeth retreated northwards to his home territory of Moray while Malcolm bided his time as he waited to seize power for himself.
In AD 1057, Malcolm felt strong enough to hunt down his father’s killer. Macbeth’s support was melting away and Malcolm surged northwards. The fugitive Macbeth was stalked to a small village and killed in a hopeless final stand. After his death, Macbeth’s severed head was presented to Malcolm on either a pole or platter. Really it doesn’t matter, the severed head appears in both accounts. Whether the historical figure of Macduff killed the historical Macbeth is unknown. Local legend supports the Shakespeare’s claim that Macduff slew Macbeth in hand to hand combat. Malcolm did not immediately possess the kingdom, however, as the remaining supporters of Macbeth declared his stepson, Lulach, to be King of the Scots. Lulach gained the rather unfortunate moniker of “Lulach the Simpleton.” Whether this mental deficiency contributed to his capture is unknown, but Lulach was killed in March 1058 in an ambush set by Malcolm. With the last of the throne’s claimants dead, Malcolm became Malcolm III, the King of Scots.
How is it possible that the tragic story of murderous ambition was hatched from the story of a capable king who reigned for seventeen years? Shakespeare was responsible enough to research Macbeth before his life on the stage. The sources that Shakespeare had at hand, it seems, tell a much different story than history. The muddying — or perhaps more accurately, the bloodying — of Macbeth’s name began early. The pro-Macbeth stories tended to generate from Moray while the anti-Macbeth stories were propagated by Malcolm’s victorious Canmore dynasty. The anti-Macbeth stories had much more power.
In 1380, John of Fordun continued the Macbeth slamming in his Chronica Gentis Scotorum. In this version of events Macbeth is portrayed as a murderous usurper of the Scottish throne. Macduff is a distinguished Earl of Fife who flees to England after his loyalty is suspected by Macbeth. Once there, he convinces Malcolm, with the help of Siward, to seize the throne from Macbeth. By 1420, a prior by the name of Andrew Wyntoun had added witches and the advancement of Birnam Wood to the story in his Origynale Cronikil of Scotland.
The text which Shakespeare depended heavily upon was the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland which relied heavily on Wyntoun’s version of events. Shakespeare was given everything he needed for a dramatic play in Holinshed’s version of Macbeth’s lifes. In Holinshed, Shakespeare read of a brave and ambitious nobleman who yields to the misleading prophecy of three witches, commits regicide, seizes the throne for himself, becomes a tyrannical leader, and is ultimately slain by his own people. Holinshed writes of how a English king, Edward the Confessor, helped a fled Scottish King, Malcolm, regain his kingdom from a tyrant. It would not be difficult, with a little detail added, for Shakespeare to show the baseness of regicide and the terrible punishment allotted for those who committed it.
James I had two attempts on his life. The first was the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600 where, James insists, the younger brother of the Earl of Gowrie attempted to stab him as they were discussing the retrieval of buried treasure. The second was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which several disaffected Roman Catholics began to gather gunpowder kegs in the cellar under the House of Lords. The conspirators hoped to light the gunpowder, destroy parliament and the king, and kidnap his daughter to raise her as a Roman Catholic.
Shakespeare was well aware of both of these plots and, thus, his emphasis on the terror of regicide resounds that much louder. The parallel between the Gowrie Conspiracy and Macbeth’s plot to kill Duncan in striking. In both cases the king’s life was threatened by his host in the host’s own home. The Gunpowder Plot, however, was closer to the writing of Macbeth in both time and place. The horror that this attempted regicide caused throughout England was deep and passionate. The judge, Sir Edward Philips echoed the sentiment of the time in his arraignment. Philips claimed the treason was “of such horror and monstrous nature, that before now the tongue of man never delivered, the ear of man never heard, the heart of man never conceited, nor the malice of hellish or earthly devil ever practiced.” In Shakespearean England, Regicide was the worst possible crime against nature. To kill the Lord’s Anointed was seen as a direct sin against God’s order and a crime with dire and far-reaching consequences. As Malcolm proclaims, the effects of such a crime will be felt even after the wrong is righted: “When I shall tread upon the tyrant’ head, Or wear it on my sword, yet my poor country Shall have more vice than it had before, More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever, By him that shall succeed” (4.3,46-50). In light of the plot and the fearful atmosphere it generated, Macbeth must have seemed the perfect play for Shakespeare to write.
Echoes of the plot are heard throughout Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor is condemned a number of times for his treasonous behaviour, most notably and ironically by Duncan’s pronouncement that “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive Our bosom interest. Go pronounce his present death, And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2, 65-68). In the wake of the trial, an atmosphere of fear permeated the English populace. A rumour that the king had been stabbed with a poisoned knife caused widespread panic in March of 1606. Shakespeare may have been reflecting on this panic when he had Ross utter these lines: “But cruel are the time when we are traitors and do not know ourselves, when we hold rumour from what we fear, yet know not what we fear” (4.2,18-20).
Shakespeare, of course, added his own dramatic touch to Holinshed’s version of events. Holinshed agreed with history in arguing that Macbeth had a legitimate claim on the throne of Scotland. By following this parallel and transforming Duncan into a wise benevolent king, Shakespeare emphasized Macbeth’s guilt and ambition. Despite proclaiming Macbeth to be a usurper, Holinshed faithfully recorded the reign of Macbeth as lasting seventeen years. Shakespeare could hardly hammer home the enormity of the crime of regicide if the monarch reigned seventeen years before justice finally caught up with him. Therefore, in the interest of keeping the elapsed time the play covered to minimum and out of concern for swift justice, Shakespeare kept Macbeth’s reign as king long enough to be tyrannical but short enough to be just.
Holinshed insisted that Macbeth’s wife was an ambitious and evil woman, but then she disappears from the pages of his book. Shakespeare’s version of events concurred with Holinshed’s description of an ambitious and wicked woman, but the conscious-pricked woman haunted by the additional murders of her husband is purely his invention. The hallucinations of Lady Macbeth may have been an attempt by Shakespeare to appeal to the interests of a prominent member of his audience, James I. In 1597, the young king had written a remarkable book on witchcraft and Satanism entitled Daemonologie. Shakespeare was aware of this book and likely included the hallucinations and the witches in his play to help capture the interest of James I.
The importance of the witches should not be underestimated. James I and his Scottish retinue were deeply concerned with witches and the subject of witchcraft. The entire play loses its power if the audience doesn’t understand the sheer terror that the Scotch witches would have inspired in their audience. The horror would have been palpable in the audience when Macbeth pursued the witches for further information and proclaimed “Would they have stayed!” (Macbeth, 1,3,82). The aghast curiosity that the audience felt towards the witches would be comparable to the morbid obsession of rubberneckers slowing down by a smouldering car wreck. In understanding the horrified interest the witches commanded from the audience, the play gains in both dramatic and moral potency.
Shakespeare was careful about the names of his characters. Some characters were James I’s ancestors while other characters who appeared were taken from a list of newly created earls made by Malcolm after Macbeth’s death. The first of these was Macduff who, as the Earl of Fife, a prominent role in both Holinshed’s book and Shakespeare’s play. The others were Levenox (Lennox), Ross, Menteth (Menteith), and Cathnes (Caithness.) Once Macbeth’s Thanes had abandoned him, he needed someone to talk to besides himself. Thus, Shakespeare took the name Seyton from Holinshed’s list of gentleman who received their surname from Malcolm III and installed this Seyton as Macbeth’s officer.
Five of the principal characters which appear in Shakespeare’s play are the ancestors of James VI. Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo, Fleance, and old Siward were all considered to be his progenitors. Shakespeare tread very carefully here, portraying all of these characters as free from any vice or unseemly behaviour. After all, the least bit of grime could not be cast on James VI’s illustrious ancestry. Shakespeare relied on the genealogical table laid down by Holinshed, and some question of the historicity of Banquo and Fleance has arisen since then.
The important knowledge here is not whether or not these two characters existed, but the fact that James VI, a genealogist in his own right, believed that they did. Holinshed recorded the murder of Banquo and Fleance by the cruel Macbeth in detail, and one can easily see the inspiration it gave Shakespeare:
. . . the prick of conscience . . . caused him ever to fear . . .The words of the three sisters, would not out of his mind, which as they promised him the kingdom, so likewise did they promise it at the same time unto the posterity of Banquo. He willed therefore the same Banquo with his son named Fleance, to come to a supper that he had prepared for them, which was indeed, as he had devised, present death at the hands of certain murderers, whom he had hired to execute that deed.
One can almost see certain words and phrases jumping off of the page and into Shakespeare’s fertile imagination. The struggle between Macbeth’s fearful conscience and his ambitious drive figures prominently in this quotation and inspired the dramatization of the tragic decline of an essentially good man into a rampaging tyrant.
Shakespeare’s tragic play was remarkably faithful to Holinshed’s account of Macbeth’s life. Shakespeare is known to play fast and loose with history in order to increase dramatic effect or to omit offense. Yet, from the sources that Shakespeare had available, he was careful to reflect history with a certain amount of faithfulness. James and his Scottish retinue were, no doubt, familiar with Holinshed’s account of Macbeth and would have been delighted to see the bloody tale told accurately on the stage. The Union of Crowns, the Gunpowder Plot and James I’s interests in witchcraft, history, and genealogy made Macbeth’s life as recorded in Holinshed an apt play. History itself, as Holinshed wrote it, seemed to play into Shakespeare’s hands and he was able to create a brilliant and unforgettable tragedy through imagination and his sharp insight into human nature. The historic Macbeth may have had little in common with the fictional Macbeth, but the play lives on as a cautionary tale of the fall of a good man.