Behind Macbeth Part 3

I’ve played the role of King Duncan, the noble patriarch foully murdered in his sleep with poison in his ear and a dagger across his throat. His brave and resourceful young son Malcolm vows revenge and leads a conveniently agreeable English army into battle to regain his rightful throne.

In my previous post I examined the true Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who were transformed into the ‘evil monsters’ of the Scottish play.

Now I’d like to shine the light of history on Macbeth’s predecessor and successor on the Scottish throne of the 11th century. They’re not quite the men Will told us about.

King Duncan. The son of Bethoc, who was the daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland, Duncan was actually cousin to Macbeth. Macbeth’s mother was Malcolm II’s younger daughter Donada.

Duncan was a far less competent ruler than his grandfather. He ascended the throne in 1034 when he was probably no more than thirty years old. While he had military ambitions, he dithered while England was in turmoil after the death of King Canute. Thus he missed whatever chance he had of taking advantage of the argument over succession there.

He bungled attempts to invade Northumbria to the south and Caithness to the north before turning his attentions even further north. He set out to battle another of his cousins – Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney.

It didn’t go well. Back on the Scottish mainland in retreat from Orkney, Duncan and his army literally ran into that of Thorfinn’s ally Macbeth. Duncan was killed in battle at Pitgaveny on 15 August 1040.

The story of his being murdered in his sleep is a total fiction. He was a ruthless but incapable king whose death was not widely mourned, despite his self-appointed title of ‘Duncan the Gracious’.

Malcolm. When his father Duncan was killed in battle in 1040, eight- or nine-year-old Malcolm was whisked away to be raised in the court of the English king Edward the Confessor (‘pious Edward’).

In 1054 Siward, Earl of Northumbria, was ordered by King Edward to invade Scotland in support of young Malcolm. The following year Siward’s and Macbeth’s armies battled at Dunsinane in Perthshire. Macbeth was defeated but escaped the battlefield to return north to Ross.

Malcolm sat on a throne that was recognised by the English but not the Scots. That recognition didn’t come until after the deaths of Macbeth in 1057 and Lulach in 1058, at which point his legitimate place in the line of succession was recognised by the council of thanes and he became Malcolm III of Scotland.

He’s described as “a swaggering bully who rapidly earned himself the nickname of Malcolm Canmore, or Malcolm the Bighead”.

Malcolm Canmore proved to be a treacherous ingrate. No sooner was he recognised as king, than he began making raids into Northumbria and pillaging Siward’s lands. He even violated the long-standing and revered Peace of St. Cuthbert in Holy Island.

By 1066 Malcolm had allied himself with the Norwegians who were supporting a revolt against the English (Saxon) king Harold, who had succeeded Edward. The revolt was led by Harold’s brother. The third warring faction of 1066 were the Normans under William. Both Harold and William had actively supported Malcolm at different times, and neither was pleased to find him now allied with their common enemy.

William was the ultimate victor in 1066, earning the title of The Conqueror. In 1072 he forced Malcolm to sign the Treaty of Abernathy, regarded by later English kings as signifying the ‘conquest’ of Scotland. (That claim wasn’t accepted north of the border.)

Malcolm III remained a persistent irritant to William, making and breaking alliances and mounting small fleeting raids south. Both Malcolm and his eldest son Edward were slain in a battle on the Alne on 13 November 1093, after an ignoble reign of thirty-six years.

Shakespeare’s depiction of who were the heroes and who were the villains in the Scottish court is warped, whether by design or convenience or insufficient knowledge.

It’s said that history is written by the survivors, or by the victors. What’s been written by a playwright half a millennium after the fact isn’t history at all. It’s still a bloody good story, mind you.

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!