Scholars believe Shakespeare’s play to have been written sometime after Elizabeth 1 died in 1603. It is generally accepted that he wrote Macbeth sometime between 1604 and 1606, after James I of England and VI of Scotland had ascended the English throne.
What better way than to take old Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and propose a Scottish play. Add a bit of artistic license to incorporate witches because James I and VI was known to be interested in such things having written a book on spirits and witchcraft in 1597 called Daemononlogie. Witches and portentous pronouncements would be just the ticket.
Woo has always been part of the backstage world of the theatre. Macbeth the play has developed a reputation and is held to be cursed and instead of calling it Macbeth, it is called the Scottish play.
As for the personalities of the two main characters, Duncan and Macbeth, again Shakespeare’s portrayal is not historically correct although indubitably politically sound.
In the play Duncan is portrayed as a strong, wise and elderly king whereas in reality he was a young, weak and ineffective ruler. He made unsuccessful raids into England and in raiding Durham lost most of his cavalry and infantry. He was eventually either murdered by Macbeth or, more likely, killed in battle near Elgin. In any case, his cousin, Macbeth became King in 1040. Macbeth was king of Moray at that time as well. He ruled, apparently successfully and with generosity to the poor until 1057 when he was killed in battle by Duncan’s first son Malcolm.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has virtually no legitimate claim to the throne whereas the real Macbeth had a respectable claim through his mother’s side – indeed both Macbeth and his wife were descended from Kenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scotland. Shakespeare also gives Macbeth the title ‘Thane of Glamis’ but in fact Glamis was not known as a thanage in the 11th century.
In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s friend Banquo is portrayed as a noble and loyal man, resisting evil, a contrast to the character of Macbeth. In Holinshed’s Chronicles however, Banquo is shown as exactly the opposite: he is an accomplice in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan.
The new king, James I of England and VI of Scotland, claimed ancestry from Banquo through the Stewart line of kings. Shakespeare could hardly portray Banquo in the way Holinshed described him and who knew whether Holinshed was right anyway. Apparently there is debate as to whether or not Banquo actually existed in an historical context.
To portray Banquo as a murderer of kings would not have brought the preferment from James that Shakespeare wanted and probably needed.
All in all, the confusing mix of fact and fiction which runs through the play is bewildering when you try to unravel it all. So much is lost to antiquity and those recording what is known have different tales to tell. Even the different links I have provided are disparate in their relating of the history.
Contemporaneous or not so contemporaneous ‘histories’ as we should know from the ‘sainted’ Sir Thomas Moore are quite often written from hearsay accounts and presented as though the ‘historian’ were actually at the scene so to speak.
The name of Dunsinane Hill evokes magic as the witches intone:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
Going to Dunsinane (in reality Dunsinnan Hillfort in the Sidlaw Hills) by car from where we live is only a hop, skip and a jump (for an Aussie). However I have yet to make the trip and it is now snowing with the drifts around the car about 12” deep. So I did some searching around on the net and came across Stravaiging around Scotland – a delightful blog of one Andy Sweet. He has taken some absolutely marvellous photographs of ancient historic places in Scotland. His photo gallery is a treat.
Dunsinnan Hill is north of Fife in Perthshire and houses the remains of the fortified castle in which Macbeth lived. Andy had a great photograph of the Hillfort.
And the place where Malcolm Canmore (Cenn Mor) Duncan’s son and rightful claimant did defeat (but not kill) Macbeth in 1054. Malcolm was then invested as the ruler of Perth and Fife. It was 3 years later, in 1057, that Macbeth was killed by Malcolm at Lumphannan in Aberdeenshire. For a short time of 8 months, Macbeth’s stepson was king of Scotland – apparently a very young, somewhat simple-minded and hopeless ruler.
Malcolm eventually killed Lulach after his 8 month mis-reign and was invested as Malcolm III of Scotland.
However it has to be asked – who would have heard of these two Scottish kings had it not been for Shakespeare and the ‘Scottish Play’?