Behind Macbeth Part 2

In the early 1600’s Shakespeare won the favour of his new King James I by recasting Scottish history to give his monarch the stamp of divine authority as the latest in a glorious line of prophesied rulers.

(He stroked the royal ego in other ways too – check out my previous post if you missed it.)

But in doing so the Bard rewrote the record books, drastically changing the natures and histories of his key characters.

It’s impossible for us to know now what research Shakespeare did. What sources were available to him, writing in London about events in the north of Scotland nearly six hundred years earlier? How much attention did he pay to those sources anyway, given his primary objective of pleasing the former James VI of Scotland, descendant of the 14th century Banquo?

Whether by design or genuine ignorance, he left us with literary figures massively different to their historical counterparts. Here are the true stories of two. Next post, I’ll introduce you to more.

Macbeth. Born in 1005, Macbeth was by birth the Thane of Ross. As Malcolm II’s grandson he had a legitimate claim to the throne, a claim strengthened by his marriage to the grand-daughter of the previous king, Kenneth IV.

With that marriage he also became Thane of Moray until his stepson Lulach would come of age to take on that title.

When Duncan died in battle in 1040, Macbeth was correctly next in line for the throne. He was formally elected to the kingship by Scotland’s council of thanes “without contest or opposition”.

Macbeth was described as “a tall man with ruddy complexion and fair hair.” He ruled strongly and wisely for fourteen years without major mishap.

He was regarded as a generous and pious ruler, undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 and “giving kindly” to the poor both at home and along the way. He was the first king of Scotland whose name appears in the ecclesiastical records as a benefactor of the church.

In 1055 he was defeated in battle at Dunsinane by the army of Siward, Earl of Northumbria. He managed to escape the battlefield after what official records of the time called “many displays of courage”. Unfortunately we’ve got no details beyond the estimate that three thousand Scots and fifteen hundred Englishmen died during the battle!

Siward returned to Northumbria, while Macbeth went north to his ancestral lands. Despite the defeat, Macbeth remained king of Scotland, albeit harried by Duncan’s son the pretender Malcolm, who was ‘recognised’ as king by the English court but not his own people.

Macbeth was killed in August 1057 at Lumphanen, either by Malcolm or one of his personal guards. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach, by then 25 and Thane of Moray, ascended the throne.

Lulach in turn was killed in battle at Essie in March 1058. His body was interred along with that of Macbeth at Iona on the island of Mull. This was for many centuries the common sepulcher of the Scottish kings.

Lady Macbeth. Lady Gruoch (to give her correct name) was the daughter of Boedhe, son of King Kenneth IV of Scotland. First married to Gilcomgain, the Thane of Moray, she bore his son Lulach.

Gilcomgain died shortly after Lulach’s birth. Some time later Lady Gruoch remarried, this time to Macbeth, Thane of Ross. Thus the Moray title passed to her new husband until her son achieved his adulthood.

It seems very likely that Macbeth’s description as “the friend of the poor and benefactor of the monks” owes more than a bit to Lady Gruoch’s influence. She was quite a wealthy woman in her own right, especially after Gilcomgain’s death. It’s known that she donated part of her own lands at Moray to the Church for the construction of an abbey and other shelter and facilities for the monks.

I find myself wondering if the well-known ‘curse of the Scottish play’ actually has anything to do with the outraged shade or shades of the real Macbeth and/or his wife being rightfully upset at the besmirching of their good names and reputations.

Perhaps the wrath of a woman scorned really can extend over the centuries!

Next time – Shakespeare’s other Scottish kings.

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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!