Sources: history?

OK, folks, we all know how Shakespeare picks and chooses (a) from whom he steals, (b) how much he steals, and (c) how much he massages those stolen goods. And that’s in his fictional plays. In the histories, he’s been known to compress time, changes ages, and make wholesale changes to his sources. Macbeth, though a tragedy, is no different.

Now, having already taken a look at his borrowings from Holinshed for the human characters and Scot for the not-so-human,  let’s take a look at the “real” history, shall we?

Once upon a time, in not-so-merry ol’ (what is now known as) Scotland, there was a king. But how he (or any other king, for that matter) became king was not direct line of succession. Instead, by rules of tanistry, any of the sons of any other previous kings could become king (and that doesn’t even count straight-out usurpation). Which led to a whole lotta killing to become king.

Now, this king in question, let’s call him Kenneth II, was born sometime before 954, became King of Scots in 971, and ruled until his death in 995. He had at least two sons: Malcolm and Boite mac Cináeda. During his reign, he wanted to change the rules of succession so that the next king would be the son of this king–so Malcolm would become king under the new rules. Rule-maker or rule-breaker, you decide. Either way, according to legend (and let’s face non-facts: all of this is pretty much legend), Kenneth II was killed through treachery and deceit–though how and by whom is a matter of argument.

Not up for argument? The fact that he was NOT succeeded by his son Malcolm. Nor his other son, Boite mac Cináeda. No, by the still ruling rules of tanistry, he was succeeded by Constantine III, who was succeeded by Kenneth III, who was THEN succeeded by Kenneth II’s son Malcolm, henceforth known as Malcolm II. By this time, it’s 1005. Malcolm II would have a fairly long reign, during which he would father at least one daughter (named Bethoc); he most likely fathered two, maybe even three. He died fighting bandits in 1034, leaving no son behind. But there was Bethoc, who by this time has married Crínán of Dunkeld, and they had a son, Duncan. And it was this son who took the throne as Duncan I.

He’s the Duncan in our play. And he reigned for six years, from 1034-1040. Now if you’re thinking, whoa, wait a minute there, Bill. Duncan was old in the play…You’d be right. But in real life, he died at the age of 39. So Willy Shakes is playing with time here for dramatic purposes.

Remember how Lady Macbeth says that had Duncan not resembled her father she would have killed him herself? Well, that’s the beginning (or rather the middle) of another tale. Think back to Boite mac Cináeda, the second son of Kenneth II (and brother to Malcolm II). Well, Boite mac Cináeda fathered a daughter named Gruoch. She would marry Gille Coemgáin who governed over a section of Scotland called Moray; Gruoch bore him a son named Lulach, before Gille Coemgáin died in a tragic food hall fire in 1032. The arsonists were never found, but there were two major suspects:

  • The first was good ol’ Malcolm II, Gruoch’s uncle, knocking off anyone who might endanger his soon-to-end reign, or the soon-to-begin reign of his grandson Duncan.
  • The second suspect was a possible distant cousin of Coemgáin’s (or maybe even a nephew of Malcolm’s–remember it’s unclear how many daughters he had and legend… well, you know), a guy by the name of Macbeth.

Macbeth swoops in, marries Gruoch, and becomes the leader of Moray, which contained Inverness.

The plot thickens.

A year later, Lady Macbeth, née Gruoch, loses a male relative–in most accounts her brother–murdered by Malcolm II in the last year of his reign. You could see why she might have something against Malcolm II…and his descendants…like Duncan I. You could see why she would want to kill him under her own roof, as in the play.

Only that’s not how Duncan died. He died leading a military expedition into Moray, Macbeth’s territory, killed on the battlefield if not by Macbeth then by his troops in 1040. At this point, Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donald(bain) were 9 and 7 years old, respectively (Willy Shakes playing with ages again). With sons so young, and a death under questionable rationale on the battlefield, Macbeth becomes king in 1040.

Macbeth makes it sound like a fairly short reign. It wasn’t. He reigned for a total 17 years. Lady Macbeth died of unknown causes on an unknown date (though most estimates put it around 1054), and his reign continued for three years after her death. According to records, he was neither a despot or tyrant. As in the play, though, Malcolm does invade from England with an army to take back the throne, and Macbeth is killed in battle by Malcolm, who would become Malcolm III.

But not immediately.

Lulach–remember Gruoch’s son from that first marriage?–becomes king next. Macbeth still had enough support in Scotland to put Lulach on the throne. But by all accounts, he was a lousy king.

So Malcolm had him assassinated and usurped the throne, finally becoming Malcolm III. His reign was a long one: 35 years, from 1058 to 1093, when he was killed by an English ambush. His brother Donald(bain) would succeed him and rule for another six years to the turn of the century. Donald III would be succeeded, in succession, by three sons of Malcolm III.

So needless to say, much like King Lear not following the history, neither does Macbeth. It’s more tragic this way, I guess.