Will the Real Macbeth Stand Up?

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.

James I by Daniel Mytens 1621

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.

Olivier as Macbeth

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.

The Real Macbeth?

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.

Kean & wife as the Macbeths in accurate costumery? (1858)

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:

Witches in Act IV, Sc.I

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him.

Birnam Wood 1800

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.

Birnam Oak 900 yrs old?
Dunsinnan Hillfort and Forest – Andy Sweet

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’?


8 comments on “Will the Real Macbeth Stand Up?

  1. johnny wee laddy says:

    Typical – all that history and no mention of Mrs MacBeth. Stepson? “I have given suck to babes” – where are they in Shakespeare’s play? Sent to stay with their grandma, no doubt. And what about all the other wee lassies? How come they don’t get a mention? (Or is that the reason Scottish men wear kilts … to look as if the wee lassies were in attendance?)

    • Veronique says:

      Hahahahaha. There’s a great and serious study of literary criticism called ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ It was written by Lionel Charles Knights in 1933 and speculates that the characters outside what the fiction is telling us is a futile call in its criticism. I came across this paper in 1967 at UWA doing English Literature. Many of my Uni comrades knew it as well. Have you perchance seen it? I am sure that you have.


      Mind you in Shakespeare that can lead to some quite bizarre insistence that some underlying and deep motives can be uncovered. But in the theatre, actors only need to know how to portray the characters. I am sure you know this.

      However, not that I have conducted an exhaustive search, children with the exception of Lulach who was Gruoch’s son by her first husband Gillacomgean, Mormaer of Moray and Macbeth’s stepson just don’t show in history (patchy as it is).

      Sure she says ‘I have given suck, and know’ but we only know of Lulach. The speech serves to convey to Macbeth the horror of what his wife is saying and proposing. It has a quite different purpose.

      It is Gruoch’s lineage that adds to Macbeth’s claim to the throne and is why Lulach is ensconced for a short time after Macbeth’s death.

      Still and all, it is one of my favourite plays and I live in Scotland these days, so it was an appropriate choice of blog for me.

      Thank you very much for your comment. Most welcome. Do drop by again.

  2. Andy says:

    Nice article Veronique!

    Did you know that Shakespeare is reckoned to have visited Scotland, which may have inspired him to write Macbeth?

    • Veronique says:

      Maybe Andy. I tend to think that James on the throne probably had more to do with it. Shakespeare was cognisant of his need for patronage and James certainly did give him patronage.

      It seems to be popularly held that Shakespeare came to Scotland but little if any real evidence is to be found. Of course, that proves nothing about a playwright about whom little is known anyway!

      I do note this article however!! http://heritage.scotsman.com/rosslynchapel/Michael-TRB-Turnbull-Did-Shakespeare.5675473.jp

      That article indicates via the author! that Shakespeare could have visited Rosslyn Chapel during the winter months as a player in the 1590s.The article also states that James VI patronised the arts anyway. And further, that passing through Glamis may have given Shakespeare the idea of investing Macbeth as the Thane of Glamis. All a bit conjectural, but interesting as these things always are.

      Glad you liked the article. Thank you for the photograph and I hope you visit again. I write about all manner of things, hahaha – some maybe to your taste. I truly hope so. And I will get to move more around Scotland visiting places that are forged in my memory from the arts and history. Wonderful place!

  3. johnny wee laddy says:

    Tried that website on Lady M’s children – no readable version as yet! So, I’ll try the Reid Library (remember that?). I was going to write a bit of nonsense about revealing that I am descended from the bastard son of The Bard by Poxy Doll of Cheapside but got sidetracked by wondering if “Okay” isn’t a bastardisation of “Och Aye” … now I know that will tickle your fancy!

    Better go … the link here is so good, I’ve got your bloody snowflakes falling down my screen!

    • Veronique says:

      Hahahahaha. Snow is good.

      You can get the paper but it will cost you well over $100 and you would have to search. Mind you I have bought a book that looks promising about the reality (as she is known!) and the myth (as he is known) of Macbeth.

      The Reid Library will have the literary citicism as will the Battye Library. As a treatise, it is very good. Surely you remember it?

      Okay from Och Aye – you are stretching the friendship and will have a lot of pretenders snapping at your heels, my dear. I have to say though, that I quite like the eliding over.! It is not noticeable at all except for a wee bit of gutterality. Hahaha.

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