In our last Shakes-in-context blog post, we wrote about the Great Chain of Being and how, in the play Macbeth, the Chain is disturbed by Macbeth murdering the rightful king and blaming the king’s sons, leaving only Macbeth to rule over Scotland. Historically speaking, this is actually only partly true. The real Macbeth, from 11th century Scotland, is not much like Shakespeare’s version. Shakespeare learned most of his information about Macbeth from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which might have been the cause of some of the discrepancies (also, let's be real: Shakespeare had poetic license to change whatever he wanted).
Born around 1005, the REAL Mac Bethad mac Findláich (“Macbeth” in English) was essentially the equivalent of a Scottish Earl. He actually had a legitimate claim to the throne of through his mother’s side, as she was related to King Malcolm II, and since Macbeth's family was so close to the throne, they often fought internally for the highest positions. Macbeth’s father Findláich was killed by his nephews, one of whom Macbeth most likely killed in revenge. He went on to marry Gruoch, that nephew’s widow, but just like in the play, the couple had no biological children - only Grouch’s son Lulach, who then became Macbeth’s stepson.
King Malcolm II had been a ruthless king, but he managed to unite much of Scotland under one throne. After his death, he was succeeded by his grandson, Duncan I. Nearly the opposite of his predecessor, Duncan (Macbeth’s cousin) was viewed as being weak, ineffectual, and an incompetent military leader for the most part, and he was not well-liked. Macbeth, on the other hand, had become a prominent and popular political figure in Scotland throughout his mid-twenties. He acted as one of Duncan’s military commanders, like in the play, but eventually he joined Duncan’s opposition. Instead of killing Duncan in his sleep, Macbeth killed him in the midst of battle before claiming the crown - which was apparently entirely legit, especially because of his family’s connections.
Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years, from 1040-1057, and was believed to be a fair and wise king who bravely led his army to battle with England. He was also well liked because he encouraged Christianity throughout his lands. According to the official website of the UK’s royal family, Macbeth was “known for his generosity to the Church. He made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, ‘scattering money like seed.’” Sounds pretty nice. He also enacted and enforced a number of new laws, like one that allowed daughters the same inheritance rights as sons, and one that required court officers to defend women and orphans. So, arguably, a much more decent dude than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Like in Shakespeare’s version, however, Macbeth was challenged by forces attempting to return Duncan’s son Malcolm (now Malcolm III) to the throne. Malcolm led an army against Macbeth with the support of the English Siward, Earl of Northumbria, and they managed to defeat Macbeth at the battle of Dunsinnan (Dunsinane in the play) in 1054. This didn't end Macbeth's reign, though; he remained king until 1057, when he was killed by Malcolm (not Macduff) at the Battle of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach took the crown but was killed shortly thereafter during an ambush in 1058, at which point Malcolm III finally ruled.
As far as we know, there were no witches or witchcraft involved.
Cool, huh? We thought so. You can look forward to another historical snippet in our August blog post. And speaking of August - auditions for Macbeth are August 4 & 5. Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to receive the sides to prepare for auditions, if you’re interested!