Shakespeare’s plot is only partly based on fact. Macbeth was a real eleventh century Scottish king, but the historical Macbeth, who had a valid right to the throne, reigned capably in Scotland from 1040 till 1057. He succeeded Duncan, whom he had defeated in battle, but the real Duncan was a weak man, around Macbeth’s own age, not the respected elderly figure we meet in the play. In reality, Macbeth was succeeded by his own stepson, not by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who came to the throne later. The Stuart kings claimed descent from Banquo, but Banquo is a mythical figure who never really existed. Shakespeare found his version of the story of Macbeth in the Chronicles of Holinshed, a historian of his own time. Holinshed does include a Banquo in his version, but he is also a traitor who assists Macbeth in the murder. As a tribute to the Stuarts, and James in particular, Shakespeare presents Banquo as a wise, noble and regal figure who arouses jealousy in Macbeth as much for his own good qualities as for the promise the witches make to him of founding a dynasty.
Eleventh Century Scotland
Both our modern view of Scotland and Shakespeare’s are very different than that of the actual eleventh century. To begin, “Scots” was a general term for the Irish and Irish immigrants to Britain, while “Scotland” did not exist (Woolf). Duncan I, MacBeth Macfinlay and Malcolm III were kings of Alba, as the kingdom was then known (in fact, this is the namesake of the later British Duchy of Albany and of our local city)(Woolf). Each king held court in one of several large castles, receiving revenues from around Scotland (Barrow 5). Due to dense forests, wetlands, and cold weather, Scotland was an inhospitable land; as a result, the Scottish population was much more concentrated in a few areas than it is today.
Thanes and Mormaers
The thanes served as local royal authorities that controlled a shire consisting of a stronghold and surrounding villages (Barrow 5). While Fife was one such shire and the location where our Malcolm would reside during his later reign, Cawdor and Glamis were later inventions and not titles that Macbeth could have held (Barrow 25, Aitchison 111). In fact, there is no evidence of thanes existing prior to the twelfth century, so what Shakespeare calls “thanes” actually would have actually been mormaers. These were more like regional kings than thanes, and while they still answered to the king, the mormaers controlled a regional power base and ruled with some independence (Aitchison 18). The most autonomous of these regions was Moray, which Macbeth ruled as mormaer at the time he became king, uniting the two offices (Aitchison 18). Moray was the region of Scotland most exposed to violence, alternately at war with invading Vikings and rebelling for its own autonomy (Aitchison, 30).
Wars with the Orkney Vikings were a major feature of this time period; they controlled the regions of Caithness and Ross during this time period, and it is likely that Macbeth allied with them in some form in order to take the throne from Duncan (Aitchison 70). This lends a certain irony to Ross’ description of Fife as the land “where Norweyan banners flout the sky and fan our people cold”. Historically, Ross’s own mormaership would have been the disputed territory. Certainly, a major part of the mormaers’ position would have been leading soldiers into battle, and the boundaries of Scotland (or Alba) were always changing.
Little is known about the church at this time, although it appears that churches were widespread and only loosely united (Aitchison 25). Each church was led by a cleric, a fairly secular rank which did not require celibacy, was inherited through the family, and often carried some local administrative duties as well (Aitchison 26). Also of note, one reliable source claims that Macbeth made a pilgrimage to Rome during his reign, suggesting that there was relative stability during parts of his 17 year reign and that the church may have been a major influence in his life (Aitchison 77). One interpretation of this pilgrimage is that Macbeth felt so much guilt over the murder of Duncan that he felt compelled to make a 1200 mile journey in penance and to seek the Pope’s pardon.
From 843-1097, the Scottish crown remained within one family, but kingship was not inherited father to son in the traditional sense. Instead, it tended to alternate between family lines such that the new king would inherit the throne from his cousin or uncle, and no new king was the direct descendent of the immediately preceding king until Duncan took over the throne from his grandfather, Malcolm II (who was also probably Macbeth’s grandfather). During this 254-year time period, there were 23 kings, or an average of 12 years apiece, with eleven kings being murdered by their heir (it is highly probable that an heir, or tanaise, was in fact named by the previous king). Historically, Macbeth’s original crime of murdering a cousin to take the throne is somewhat the status quo.
Macbeth and Duncan ruled at a time when this was changing, however; during the play, Duncan names his son as heir for the first time in Scottish history. Furthering this, the long line of Banquo’s descendants down to James I indicates Shakespeare’s desire to establish that an inherited crown as the natural, proper state of Scotland as well as England. For the play to work, and for Shakespeare to condemn regicide, Macbeth’s actions need to be a major transgression against nature, but also not entirely unheard of. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth quickly figure out that killing Duncan is the next step, too quickly for the crime to be unthinkable, yet it is still the major turning point of Macbeth that upsets stasis and creates the unnatural setting of the play.
Aitchison, Nick. Macbeth: Man and Myth. Sutton Publishing, 1999. Print.
Barrow, G. W. S. Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306. Ed. Jenny Wormald. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981. Print.
Woolf, Alex. From Pictland to Alba: 789-1070. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Print.