Hello again readers.
Enjoying my retirement in the Derbyshire hills, I have joined a society for grey panthers like myself. I became a member of a history group and in my first session heard a very interesting critique of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Now this really excited my interest for Macbeth was one of the plays I studied at school and it has long been one of my favourites. What surprised me though was that I discovered that north of the border, it is not so popular. Despite it being known as “The Scottish Play”, many Scots consider Macbeth to be quite duff! MacDuff in fact!
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and tells the story of a brave Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia, and he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler as he is forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath swiftly takes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of arrogance, madness, and death.
Shakespeare’s source for the tragedy is the account of King Macbeth of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland and Ireland familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Now this is where the controversy begins for the source does not chronicle the true history of the Scottish kings Macbeth and Duncan. In particular some Scots are angry that an Englishman ( Shakespeare!) has hugely disrespected one of their kings. Not only that but Scots consider Macbeth one of their better rulers!
Shakespeare used the revised second edition of the Chronicles (published in 1587) as the source for most of his history plays, the plot of Macbeth, and for portions of King Lear and Cymbeline. Shakespeare also used it as a primary source for the historical events of Henry V. Several other playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe used The Chronicles as a source. The overall plot that would serve as the basis for Macbeth is first seen in the writings of two chroniclers of Scottish history, John of Fordun, whose prose Chronica Gentis Scotorum was begun about 1363 and Andrew of Wyntoun‘s Scots verse Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, written no earlier than 1420. These served as the basis for the account given in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), on whose narratives of King Duff and King Duncan Shakespeare in part based Macbeth. Macduff first appears in Holinshed’s narrative of King Duncan after Macbeth has killed the monarch and reigned as King of Scotland for 10 years. When Macbeth calls upon his nobles to contribute to the construction of Dunsinane castle, Macduff avoids the summons, arousing Macbeth’s suspicions. Macduff leaves Scotland for England to prod Duncan’s son, Malcolm, into taking the Scottish throne by force. Meanwhile, Macbeth murders Macduff’s family. Malcolm, Macduff, and the English forces march on Macbeth, and Macduff kills him
While Shakespeare used Holinshed’s work extensively in Macbeth, it is clear that he re-worked some of the content. One such instance would be the witches. Holinshed describes the witches as “creatures of the elderwood … nymphs or fairies.” Nymphs and fairies are generally viewed as beautiful and youthful, however, Shakespeare describes the three witches in Macbeth in a different manner, casting them as ugly, dark, and bizarre. It is believed that those changes were made to heighten the suspense and darkness of the play. As well, the Chronicles were lacking in description of Macbeth’s character, so Shakespeare was forced to improvise on several points. The characters Banquo and Fleance were taken from Holinshed’s works, but they are now considered by many historians to be mythical, created by the rulers of Scotland at the time of the Chronicles publications
Now let us consider the very real Macbeth. Mac Bethad mac Findlaích anglicised as Macbeth, and nicknamed Rí Deircc, “the Red King” was King of the Scots (also known as the King of Alba, and earlier as King of Moray and King of Fortriu) from 1040 until his death in 1057. Now let us look at the real Duncan. Far from being the aged King Duncan of Shakespeare’s play, the real King Duncan was a young man in 1034, and even at his death in 1040 his youthfulness is remarked upon.
Because of his youth, Duncan’s early reign was apparently uneventful. His later reign, in line with his description as “the man of many sorrows” in the Prophecy of Berchán, was not successful. In 1039, Strathclyde was attacked by the Northumbrians, and a retaliatory raid led by Duncan against Durham in 1040 turned into a disaster. Later that year Duncan led an army into Moray, where he was killed by Macbeth on 15 August 1040 at Pitgaveny (then called Bothnagowan) near Elgin.
Macbeth ruled for 16 years but did not survive an English invasion, for he was defeated and mortally wounded or killed by the future Malcolm III (“King Malcolm Ceann-mor”, son of Duncan I) on the north side of the Mounth in 1057, after retreating with his men over the Cairnamounth Pass to take his last stand at the battle at Lumphanan. The Prophecy of Berchán has it that he was wounded and died at Scone, sixty miles to the south, some days later. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach mac Gille Coemgáin was installed as king soon after
Unlike later writers, no near contemporary source remarks on Macbeth as a tyrant. The Duan Albanach, which survives in a form dating to the reign of Malcolm III, calls him “Mac Bethad the renowned”. The Prophecy of Berchán, a verse history which purports to be a prophecy, describes him as “the generous king of Fortriu”, and says:
The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.
Just as with his other works, Shakespeare took an existing written account and then turned it into a play, adding his own touches and flourishes. There is however another possible reason why he chose to write a play about the struggle between Scottish kings. It is believed the play was written between 1603 and 1607. It was most likely written during the reign of James 1 who had been James VI of Scotland before he succeeded to the English throne in 1603. James was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, and of all the plays Shakespeare wrote during James’s reign, Macbeth would seem to be the one play written specifically to excite the interest of the ruling monarch. James had a particular interest in or should I say fear ofthe supernatural and in particular witches. In 1597 he wrote the Daemonologie which opposed the practice of witchcraft and which provided background material for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. James personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches.
So let us now return to the proud Scot and the stain on Scottish history. Seems that poor old Willi Shakes is not guilty. He was not the writer of Holinsheds Chronicles. Indeed as the Chronicles are based on the accounts of native Scots,no English man is really culpable. In trying to please his patron Shakespeare created an incredible play but it was not based on truth. His patron was then King James 1st, formerly King of Scotland who would surely have known the history of his own country. As Shakespeare was allowed to keep his head we can but conclude that the most powerful Scot of his generation was not too displeased. Maybe King James realised that, after all, Macbeth was only a play and not a true account of the line of kings in his native country?
The information presented here was culled entirely from Wikipedia and I have included a hyperlink to the main article, note other wiki pages were used. The illustration of Macbeth also comes from Wikipedia.
These are the writings of researcher and aspiring writer Michael Sheridan who will be back soon with a blog about King James 1st and witches ….