Shakespeare Myth Vs Historical Fact
Unravel the man from the myth with these 10 key facts about Macbeth.
Macbeth Myths - taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, selected by Simon Sharkey, director of The Elgin Macbeth and Associate Director - New Learning at the National Theatre of Scotland.
Macbeth Facts - provided by Dr Fiona Watson, historian and writer, currently working on a book about the real Macbeth entitled Macbeth: A True Story, to be published by Quercus in 2008.
Myth #1 Macbeth murdered Duncan in bed – “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
Fact Macbeth did kill Duncan, but in a battle at Pitgaveny, near Elgin. This was the time-honoured way in which Kings came to the throne in this period, so it’s unlikely he lost much sleep over it.
Myth #2 Lady Macbeth was childless and is portrayed as a lady, not a queen.
Fact Lady Macbeth was a royal Princess in her own right, as well as Macbeth’s Queen (she’s actually the first named Queen in Scottish history!)
She had already had a son by her first husband. That boy, Lulach, became king immediately after the death of Macbeth. However, it is true that she and Macbeth seem to have been childless, though that was presumably not her fault!
Myth #3 Banquo’s sons became Kings and were the lineage to James the 1st and 6th.
Fact Banquo is not likely to have been a real historical character, though the Stuarts, including James VI and I, did believe that they were descended from him until, in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that the Fitz Alans (the original name of the Stewarts) actually came from Brittany. Banquo is first found in a literary context in Holinshed’s chronicle as Macbeth’s accomplice. This is where Shakespeare got the story.
Myth #4 Macduff was Thane of Fife and made a pact with Malcolm and his Uncle Siward to regain Scotland from Macbeth.
Fact We don’t really know much about the mormaers, or earls, of Fife during the 11th century, though they are certainly around in the following century. The MacDuffs (the family name of the earls of Fife) were supposedly descended from a 10th Century King of Scots, called Dubh (which means ‘black’ in Gaelic).
It is possible that Lady Macbeth, whose real name was Gruoch, was actually a member of the Fife family. They may have been forfeited in the reign of Malcolm II (Duncan’s grandfather) because they had a very good claim to the throne which Malcolm wanted for Duncan.
If so, it is entirely possible that members of the family were trying to restore their position during Macbeth’s reign. They certainly managed to achieve it under Malcolm III, who eventually killed Macbeth. Siward was a real historical figure, the earl of Northumbria who defeated (but did not kill) Macbeth in 1054. We don’t know that he was Malcolm’s uncle though.
Myth #5 The play is not specific about the time Macbeth spent in power but it seems to be a short reign.
Fact In reality, Macbeth reigned for 17 years, a pretty long reign, considering most were less than a decade. He also managed to leave the country to go on pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 (the first Scottish King known to do so), not something you do if you’re worried someone’s going to try to get you off the throne.
Myth #6 Duncan is portrayed as “A noble old soul”.
Fact Duncan was probably in his thirties at the time (he certainly had fairly young sons). He had proved to be a rather ineffectual King, being beaten by the English in a siege at Durham in 1039.
He then went to seek out Macbeth in his territory, perhaps because he knew that people were thinking of replacing him, or maybe because he wanted to pick on someone to show he was a strong King.
Myth #7 The battle from which Macbeth and Banquo emerge as victors is against the Norwayen fleets.
Fact The Norse were certainly a very important aspect of Scottish (and English and Irish) politics in this period.
Orkney and Shetland were the centre of Norse earldom, which also encompassed Caithness and Sutherland, the Hebrides and parts of the western Scottish mainland, as well as the east coast of Ireland and the Isle of Man.
The Norse were always looking to expand their territory, and Moray, Macbeth’s own earldom, was therefore on the frontline against them. Macbeth’s father, Earl Finlay, had certainly fought a battle against them, and it is entirely possible that Macbeth also sent his galleys north to defend Scottish territory.
Myth #8 Lady Macbeth dies after suffering madness and regret – “Canst thou not minister to a mind deseased? Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow . . . ”
Fact Sadly, we don’t know when Gruoch, Macbeth’s Queen, actually died. However, she has perhaps been maligned by history even more than her husband. We do know that, along with Macbeth, she gave lands in Fife to the monastery of St Serf’s in Loch Leven, a traditional pious thing for a queen to do.
Myth #9 Macbeth ascribes to supernatural beliefs in that he consults the weird sisters for prophecies – “I conjure you by that which you profess. How e’er you come to know it, answer me.”
Fact In the medieval Scottish chronicles, Macbeth does meet three weird sisters in his dreams. These are essentially the Norns, or Fates, who feature in Norse mythology with an ability to tell the future. But this is all part of the process of blackening Macbeth’s name by the descendants of Macbeth’s successor, Malcolm III.
Myth #10 Macduff kills Macbeth in his castle as revenge for Macbeth killing his wife and children.
Fact It was Malcolm, Duncan’s son, who is credited with killing Macbeth in battle at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire in August 1057. Malcolm then killed Lulach, Macbeth’s step-son and immediate successor, five months later, before becoming King himself.