The real eleventh-century Scotland was a great source of inspiration with feuding clans, revenge killings and political murders, just as seen in Macbeth. Shakespeare was properly aware of the fact that wars and other historical elements are of great dramatic effect. That’s nevertheless where the historical accuracy ends. Shakespeare’s primary source is “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland” written by Raphael Holinshed and first published in 1577. The Chronicle consists of a loose collection of gossip and tales of rather mythical substance. There was nevertheless a real-life Macbeth, who lived approximately 1005-1057, and reigned a united Scotland from 1040 until his death. He was married to a woman named Gruoch, the real Lady Macbeth, who possibly was of royal heritage herself. There’s not many historical facts concerning Macbeth but rumor has it that he killed his predecessor Duncan I and consequently was killed in 1957 by Duncan’s son Malcolm, who became Malcolm III.

external image macbeth.jpg

The majority of the historical information concerning Macbeth derives from Holinshed’s chronicle. One of the many tales tells the story of Macbeth and Duncan. Duncan is portrayed as a young and ineffectual king, while Macbeth is both wise and competent. Shakespeare reverses these characteristics in his play, when Duncan becomes the wise and competent king, while Macbeth’s rule is short and fruitless. In the tale, Banquo is an accomplice in plotting the murder of Duncan together with Macbeth but in Shakespeare’s version Banquo is Macbeth’s contradiction being both noble and loyal. Another curious alteration is that three mysterious goddesses originally delivered the prophecy but in Shakespeare’s version it’s three witches. Another prominent tale from Holinshed’s chronicle used by Shakespeare is the tale of MacDonwald and King Duff, and the similarities between the tale and the play are many. Macdonwald kills King Duff, after being pushed into doing it by his wife in his own house, king Duff’s bodyguards were drugged before the murder, Macdonwald killed the bodyguards to hide his guilt and Macdonwald was prior to the murder rewarded by King Duff. The tale of Macdonwald was more dramatic and brutal than the murder of Duncan as represented in the original tale. In practice, it meant that Shakespeare changed the names from MacDonwald and Duff to Macbeth and Duncan.
external image king-james1.jpgJames I
In all, Shakespeare conflates many different tales and other mythical bits and pieces into one coherent play, and he has two unambiguous reasons. The first is to be politically correct, since King James I, who reigned around the time that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, privileged Shakespeare’s theater company. Since James originated from Scotland (he was James VI in Scotland), it was clever to set the drama in Scotland. The change of characters from goddesses to witches was again a reference to James and his interest in witches, witchcraft and other supernatural elements. Last but not least was the alteration of Banquo’s character, since Banquo at Shakespeare’s time was known to be an ancestor of James I. The second, and most important, reason is that Shakespeare is a playwright and not a historian. This means that his main goal is to achieve maximum dramatic effect, and he can intensity drama by using bits and pieces which are made for a good drama. Summing up he’s not very historically accurate, but the takes his starting point in different real historical facts and then mixes as he like with different pieces from tales, gossip and his own ideas.