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Macbeth: what is its relationship to Scottish history?

In 1577 Raphael Holinshed published his Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. This became Shakespeare’s favorite source for the history of the British Isles. Early in his career Shakespeare wrote a series of plays about English history largely based on Holinshed. Later, he returned to Holinshed for the stories of some of his greatest tragedies. Macbeth is one of these.

All of the major characters in Macbeth are historical with the exceptions of Banquo and his son Fleance. Shakespeare got Banquo and Fleance from Holinshed, who reported them as real historical persons. However, modern history considers them to have been a myth promoted by the dynasty which ruled Scotland during Holinshed's, and Shakespeare's, time. The King of England at the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth was James I, but he is also known as James VI of Scotland. He was a Stuart which meant he was descended from a Norman named Walter FitzAlan, who was a steward to King David I of Scotland. The first Stuart King of Scotland, Robert II, was descended from the old Scottish royal family through his mother. This was a bit of an embarrassment, so a myth arose which said that they were really descended from "Banquo." Banquo was a Thane of Lochaber in Holinshed. Lochaber, located in the western Highlands of modern Scotland, was not part of the kingdom ruled by Duncan or Macbeth.

Kenneth MacAlpin founded the kingdom which we know as Scotland in 848 when he moved the Stone of Scone to Scone from Dalraida. In the nearly two centuries that followed, no King of Scotland was succeeded directly by his son or grandson. Scottish succession at the time went to the strongest member of the royal family. Each king was succeeded by a nephew or cousin, the new king often having murdered the old king. This began to change with Malcolm II (reigned 1005-1034). He became king by the approved method of killing his uncle. Then, he set out to make his grandson the next king. He did that by killing as many potential rivals as possible. So, in 1034, Duncan became king.

One rival not killed by Malcolm II was the Mormaer of Moray, Macbeth. The name "Macbeth" means "Son of Life" and was Macbeth’s Christian name. It is probably a reference to Macbeth’s Christianity. Both he and his wife, Gruoch, were descended from Scottish kings and, therefore, had as much right to the throne as Duncan. Macbeth became Mormaer of Moray by killing the previous Mormaer and marrying his new widow. He held Moray for his stepson, Lulach, the son of Gruoch and the previous Mormaer. Lulach is not mentioned in the play except where Lady Macbeth (her name, Gruoch, is also not mentioned in the play) talks about giving suck. Since Macbeth is notoriously childless, this reference to Lady Macbeth as a mother has caused much trouble to commentators.

In 1040, Duncan, who was a weak king, decided to exert his authority over Moray by invading it. Macbeth defeated Duncan with the help of Thorfinn, the Norse Earl of Orkney. Either during the battle, or shortly after it, Macbeth killed Duncan. Holinshed says "killed." There is no mention of murder. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were not guilty of the murder of Duncan as portrayed by Shakespeare. Shakespeare got the story of the murder from Holinshed, but, in Holinshed, it is the murder of King Duff by Macdonwald and his wife.

Macbeth had a long, fairly successful, 17 year reign. In 1057, Duncan’s son Malcolm (known in history as Malcolm III "Canmore"--"Big Head") defeated Macbeth in battle. Macbeth fled but was killed by MacDuff, the Thane of Fife, in revenge for the killing of his family by Macbeth a year earlier. Macbeth was succeeded as king by his stepson, Lulach, but Lulach was defeated and killed by Malcolm after only a few months.

Malcolm III is pivotal in Scottish history. He came back from his long exile in England with a taste for things southern. After 1066, the remains of the Saxon royal family fled to exile in Scotland as Malcolm had fled to England a quarter century earlier. Malcolm married Margaret, known in Scotland as St. Margaret, a Saxon princess. Therefore, all of Malcolm’s descendants are descended from both the Celtic and Saxon royal families. One of Malcolm and Margaret’s daughters married Henry I of England. Therefore, all English kings starting with Henry II are descended from the Celtic and Saxon royal families. Margaret suppressed the native Celtic Christianity which had come to Scotland from Ireland with St. Columba and replaced it with Roman Christianity. Malcolm ruled for 34 years and was succeeded by his brother, Donalbane (Donald the Blond), who had remained in exile in Ireland throughout Macbeth’s and Malcolm’s reigns.

So, where do the witches come from. They’re in Holinshed and appear to be an old story. My guess is that Malcolm’s wife, Margaret, started the story in order to discredit both Macbeth and Celtic Christianity. Or, perhaps, Macbeth, who was at least partially Norse, may have been open-minded about the old Norse gods.

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Copyright © 2002 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for shakespeare.com