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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Macbeth: Shakespeare versus Scottish History

Was the real Scottish king, Macbeth, the ambitious cousin-killer of Shakespeare's play?
Was the real Scottish king, Macbeth, the ambitious cousin-killer of Shakespeare's play?

I love Shakespeare’s plays. One of my favorites is Macbeth which, of course, is set in Scotland. Macbeth was a real Scottish king as was his cousin, Duncan, whom he kills. Shakespeare wrote several historical plays—Henry IV, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar, among others—and he did a fair job at being accurate. His writing was a bit slanted at times to please—or at least, not offend—whoever was on the throne. For example, he made certain the title character of Richard III (whom her grandfather slayed in battle to obtain the throne) was portrayed as an utter villain. So, was the real Macbeth as ambitious and ruthless as Shakespeare portrayed him?

The Play

If it’s been a while since you’ve read Macbeth (or if you’ve never had the chance to), here are the salient details of the plot. Macbeth and his wife are cousins of the ruling King of Scotland, Duncan. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is Thane (a type of lord) of Glamis. On a journey home, he encounters three witches who greet him by his current title then prophesy that he will become Thane of Cawdor (an honor the king is about to bestow on him), and they add “Thou shall be king hereafter.”

Delighted by the prediction, Macbeth shares it with his wife. As the king is coming to spend the night with them, Lady Macbeth suggests to her husband that they hurry the fulfillment of the prophecy by hastening Duncan’s death.

Stand by Ukraine and against Tyranny.
Stand by Ukraine and against Tyranny.

Under any circumstances, murder is a heinous act, but Macbeth himself admits killing Duncan is a particularly treacherous act. First, Duncan is family. Secondly, he is a guest in Macbeth’s castle. The Celtic laws of hospitality required a host to protect his guest from all harm, even at the cost of his own life. In murdering Duncan, Macbeth and his wife will be doing the opposite. Additionally, they will be committing treason. Nevertheless, they decide to kill the king in his sleep and frame his guards.

At first, Lady Macbeth says she will do the act herself, but she can’t bring herself to go through with it, saying Duncan looks too much like her father. Macbeth then goes into the room and stabs Duncan and the guards (whom his wife has already rendered unconscious by way of alcohol).

Almost immediately, Lady Macbeth goes mad, but Macbeth proclaims himself king and, after a show of mourning, begins to indulge in throwing banquets and enjoying being king. But he is haunted by the ghost of his former friend, Banquo, who functions in the play as Macbeth’s conscience.

At first, Macbeth worries that someone may follow the pattern that he has set and murder him in order to become king. But the witches make another prediction that allays his fear. They proclaim:

Laugh to scorn / The pow’r of man, / For none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth

This prophecy leads him to feel invincible, but this is a fatal mistake. Late in the play, Macduff brings an army to overthrow the tyrant Macbeth. When Macbeth encounters him, he tells Macduff not even to try to fight him as he cannot be defeated. “I lead a charmed life, which must not yield / to one of woman born.”

But Macduff replies:

Despair thy charm / And let the angel whom thou still hast served / Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d.

As the play ends, Macduff presents Macbeth’s head to Malcom, Duncan’s son (who had fled Scotland at his father’s death) and rightful heir to the throne.

For the character of Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, who was charged with planning to poison the king.
For the character of Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, who was charged with planning to poison the king.

The Historical Facts

It’s a great story, but far from historically accurate. Both Duncan and Macbeth were 11th century Scottish kings. Macbeth’s reign followed immediately after Duncan’s, and Macbeth did kill Duncan before ascending to the throne. But from there the details of story and history diverge.

A grandson of King Malcolm II, Duncan ruled for about six years, from 1034-1040 AD. According to, at the time, the kingship was supposed to alternate between two branches of the family Alpine, and Malcolm violated that system by making Duncan his heir. Duncan became king, but Macbeth had a stronger claim to the throne. Despite being portrayed in the play as a wise, beloved king, sources say he actually was weak and an ineffective leader.

Macbeth, Duncan’s cousin and a leader of the northern Scots, joined together with another cousin, the Earl of Orkney, and they brought an army against Duncan. In 1040, their army met Duncan’s near Elgin. Duncan was killed in the battle. His son, another Malcolm, fled, and Macbeth was crowned king.

Most sources say Macbeth was a good ruler. He possessed strong leadership qualities and gained a reputation as a wise king. Macbeth reigned for 17 years, keeping Scotland at peace throughout most of that time. But in 1054, Duncan’s son, Malcolm, began a military campaign to take the throne. He defeated Macbeth’s army at the Battle of Dunsinane. In response, Macbeth gave Malcolm some lands, but Duncan’s son still had his eyes on the throne. Finally, in August of 1057, he defeated and killed Macbeth in a battle in Aberdeenshire, then proclaimed himself king.

So, while Macbeth did kill his cousin, it was on the battlefield. He did not treacherously murder Duncan while he slept. For the sake of good drama, Shakespeare has besmirched the name of a king Scottish history says was relatively decent. And his poor wife…well, let’s just say there’s nothing in the history to suggest she was scheming, homicidal, or mad.

Two Characters of Glamis Castle

Macbeth neither owned nor lived in Glamis Castle but some of its history may have ended up in the play.
Macbeth neither owned nor lived in Glamis Castle but some of its history may have ended up in the play.

In the play, Macbeth is Thane of Glamis, and the is a Glamis Castle in Scotland, but the historical Macbeth had no connection to the castle. Strangely, a king was murdered in the castle, but he was not Duncan. The king murdered in the castle was his grandfather, Malcolm II. While the details of his vary and are a bit unclear, one thing remains consistent: it was a violent death.

Another interesting detail in the history of Glamis Castle that is reminiscent of the play is that there was a Lady of Glamis who appears to have been homicidal. Janet Douglas married John Lyon, the 6th Lord Glamis, in 1492. In 1528, John died, and Janet was charged with poisoning her husband. That charge ultimately was dropped, but then she was charged in 1537 with planning to poison the king. He accused her of witchcraft and imprisoned her in the dungeon of Edinburgh Castle while her family and servants were questioned via torture. By July 1537, when enough “evidence” had been collected, Janet was convicted and burned at the stake. Perhaps Shakespeare used her as a model for Lady Macbeth.

So, there you have it, the truth and fiction of Macbeth. Which story do you prefer?

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Slan go foil!

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