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The Real King of Scotland

The name Macbeth is most famously associated with the Shakespearean play. Known to a lesser extent is the true Macbeth, a Scottish king who ruled from 1040 until his death in 1057. In the tragedy, Macbeth is portrayed as a killer who murdered to become and stay the king of Scotland. He was married to a manipulative and overly ambitious woman. People unfamiliar with the real Macbeth often question how much of William Shakespeare’s play was a true reflection of the history of the man, and how much was a work of fiction written for entertainment purposes. In reality, Macbeth the man was much different from the fictional king.

Macbeth Before Becoming King

Macbeth’s full name was Macbeth mac Findlaech. He was given the name Macbeth, which means “son of life” in Gaelic and the mac Findlaech describes him as the son of Findlaech mac Ruaidri. His father had the status of a subject king in Moray and was known as Mormaer of Moray. In the year 1005, Macbeth was born in Moray during a time of civil war. Fifteen years after his birth his father was killed, and Macbeth was given refuge by his grandfather, King Malcolm of Scotland. In 1034, 14 years after the death of his father, Macbeth’s grandfather passed away, leaving his throne to another grandson by the name of Duncan. Duncan became deeply involved in Anglo-Norse affairs and was involved in many failed conflicts against England. The reality of Duncan differs from the Duncan portrayed in the play Macbeth, who was written as being both gentle and wise.

Another difference between the play and the actual history is how Duncan died and Macbeth became king. In Macbeth, Duncan was repeatedly stabbed to death. In reality, Duncan died by Macbeth’s hand during battle and possibly also with the help of Thorfinn, his cousin. The annals of Tigernach state that Duncan was “slain by his subjects.” It is believed that Macbeth was able to overthrow and succeed Duncan because of the disillusionment of his people who backed Macbeth.

The Reign of Macbeth

Historical experts hypothesize that Shakespeare derived his knowledge of the history of Macbeth from works such as History and Chronicles of Scotland by Hector Boerce, and Chronicle of Scotland by Raphael Hollinshed. The credibility of Hector Boerce’s work as a historical account is considered to be questionable, at best. Shakespeare appears to have shaped his view of Lady Macbeth from Boerce’s work, which invented the image of her as an evil woman.

Macbeth’s real wife was a woman named Gruoch, whose lineage is disputed. She was, however, the widow of a man named Gillacomgain, whom either Macbeth or his people had previously killed. Her marriage to Macbeth was in all likelihood motivated by politics, a move intended to create peace between rival clans.

Boerce’s depiction of her was likely to be inferred from the animosity she might have felt toward Macbeth as a result of the death of her husband. Furthermore, there have been stories that suggest she conspired to kill her own husband so that she could marry Macbeth and place Lulach, her son, in Macbeth’s place after he died. There, however is no real evidence to support this theory.

The Death of Macbeth

In the play Macbeth, Macbeth dies at the hands of Macduff, a nobleman and the Thane of Fife. After Macbeth murdered Duncan, it was Macduff who discovered the body. Later his wife, Lady Macduff, was murdered by Macbeth. Macduff encourages Duncan’s son Malcolm to return from England to Scotland to take the throne from Macbeth. Upon returning to Scotland, Macduff confronts Macbeth and kills him.

Macbeth’s death in the play differs from Macbeth’s actual death in several ways. In reality, Malcolm had fled to England after the murder of his father and had become Edward the Confessor’s protegé. Edward sent Malcolm and Earl Siward back to Scotland to take the throne from Macbeth. It was Edward’s intention that Malcolm become the new, client King of Scots. Although they met in battle, Macbeth still lived, and the battle is thought to have come to a stalemate with no clear victor.

In August 1057, the two eventually met again in battle in Lumphanan. It is here that Macbeth was gravely injured by Malcolm and, as a result, died on August 15, 1057. He was succeeded by his stepson Lulach, who was murdered by Malcolm less than a year later.

Shakespeare and Macbeth

Over five hundred years after the death of Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote his play entitled Macbeth. He created his own version of Raphael Hollinshed’s Chronicle of Scotland, but wrote Macbeth as the villain in order to appeal to the king who was of the Stuart family. This attempt to please the king is obvious in that the villainous Macbeth murders Banquo who founded the house of Stewart and that the rightful heir is Fleance, Banquo’s son. It is then revealed by the
three witches that the descendants of Banquo would rule what is implied to be a combined England, Scotland and Ireland while Macbeth’s royal line ends.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare writes about three witches who deliver prophecies to Macbeth. In reality, there were no witches, prophecies, or proof that Macbeth delved into the supernatural or the occult. Some, however, believe that his funding of the monastery on Loch Leven might have been a sign that he believed in ghost prophecies. Shakespeare’s addition of the occult into Macbeth was influenced by the works of Andrew de Wyntoun. It was Wyntoun’s stories of the “weird sisters” in Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland that are believed to have inspired the inclusion of the witches in his play. In fact, Shakespeare refers to the witches as the weird sisters.

They are more closely related to prophetic Norse women than they are to anything Celtic. During that time, the word “weird” had a different meaning than it does today. Prior to the 18th century the Anglo-Saxon version of the word was “Wyrd” which meant fate.

With that in mind, the three weird sisters were probably in reference to the three Norns, who were named Wyrd, Skuld, and Verdandi. In Norse tradition, these three women, or Norns, spun mankind’s destiny from where they sat beside the World Ash Tree, or Yggdrasil. As a result, some believe that this implies that the Orkney Jarls, who were enemies of Macbeth, may have somehow influenced the telling of his history.