Behind Macbeth

I’ve had quite a bit to do with Shakespeare’s Scottish Play over the years.

I’ve played various roles in various incarnations of the play: conventional, broad comedy, film and even a rock opera version.  What intrigues me most, though, is the real history behind the play.

It was, in effect, the political cartoon of its day. The crowd watching at The Globe, especially the mob we’d now call the Great Unwashed, could barely read, if at all. The theatre was the chance for common folk to laugh at posh people, and for the writer and performers maybe the chance to inform and even influence.

When Macbeth was written, James I had just taken the throne of England. The former James VI of Scotland was a largely unknown quantity in his new realm, but his patronage was vitally important to the running of the theatre.

The real Macbeth lived and died in the first half of the 11th century. That’s six hundred-odd years before the bard wrote the play, which was four hundred-odd years before I was treading the boards. So Shakespeare’s distance from the historical figures was considerably greater than ours is from him.

We know a lot less fact about Shakespeare, James and the early 1600’s than we think, although rumour, legend and theory fill in a lot of gaps. It’s hard to know just what research the playwright could or did do about the events of the 1040’s and 1050’s.

But William’s main aim wasn’t historical accuracy. The main aim was endorsing the rule of the new king (and flattering him at the same time was a diplomatic idea).

The very first scene of the play – the three witches on the blasted heath – had dialogue drawn from a book written by James himself on the history and practice of witchcraft. There’s a good way to stroke the new boss’s ego – the first words he hears on stage are ones he wrote himself!

There’s a story that I love but have never been able to confirm. Do you remember the scene where the murdering monarch is confronted by a succession of ghostly crowned figures: the descendants of Banquo? According to obscure legend, when Macbeth was first performed the last of those apparitions was played by James himself, wearing his own crown.

For the audience, here was their new ruler getting the Big Tick that he was the Rightful King, with generations of history behind him.

The depiction of Banquo is an excellent example of the playwright turning history on its head (or inside out) to suit his own ends.

Banquo really existed, but hundreds of years after Macbeth and a similar period before Shakespeare.

He held the hereditary position of Thane of Lochaber around 1350. The Stuart bloodline begins as a Royal Family in Scotland some generations later when a childless king bequeathed his throne to his eminently capable (and thus widely acceptable) steward, the Thane of Lochaber. So Banquo was never king, but he begat them – just like in the prophecy.

Not enough is known of the original 14th century Banquo to be sure if the playwright was being accurate, generous or terribly misleading in his construction of the character.

Unfortunately we do know that, in playing fast and loose with history in order to make his new king happy Shakespeare left us with some very distorted views of Scottish royalty of the 11th century. There are some records of the time, and with the technology we have it’s probably easier for me to unearth the real stories than it would have been for Stratford-on-Avon’s most famous son.

Next post, I’ll try to set the record straight for you and talk about the historical figures behind the characters!


One thought on “Behind Macbeth

  1. Very enlightening. I studied Macbeth at school and some since. Gilchrist de Menteith (Earl of Menteith, 1140-78) was, fittingly, the only decent one in the story. However, I await your exposition of the real characters to enlighten my perhaps naive interpretation.

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