Scotland’s History from an English Perspective

Ashley Tillette 2007 

Macbeth is a play about tragedy. It tells the tale of one man’s evil rise to becoming king and his tragic downfall that led to his death. Nevertheless, it is also a play about the political history surrounding that king. Shakespeare took the story of Macbeth from Raphael Holinshed’s Scottish Chronicle in 1570 and even more from the second edition, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1587. From these books he was able to take bits and pieces of history, combine events, omit others, create his own tale of King Macbeth and make it appealing to the King and people of his time.


At the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, it was the beginning of the seventeenth century. The reign of Macbeth was actually during the mid-eleventh century. He became king in 1040 after killing King Duncan who according to Fisher “was an ineffectual king” (Fisher, 43). Macbeth would then rule for the next 17 years, having appeared “to have been a good king, active and conscientious, if not always able to hold on to the whole of the territory he had gained through the murder of Duncan” (Fisher, 44). Quite the opposite in the play, Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as an evil and cruel king during the whole time of his reign. Glover points out this untruth, “Macbeth’s character has suffered unjustly at the hands of Shakespeare, as he ruled Scotland well for some seventeen years, and there is evidence that the country enjoyed some prosperity during his reign” (Glover, 39). Yet Macbeth’s reign did end in 1057 when he was killed by Malcolm, Duncan’s son, in the battle of Lumphanan. However, it wasn’t until after Macbeth’s step-son Lulach ruled for about a year, that Malcolm became king after killing him in 1058. This is where Shakespeare ends the play with the crowning of Malcolm as king. 


Using different events and people in history, Shakespeare is able to “breathe life into flat characters and unify the plot according to common themes and images” according to Nostbakken (6). Nostbakken continues to write that Shakespeare brings together two reigns of different kings for the play; the reign of King Duff (A.D. 952-967) and King Duncan (A.D. 1034-1040). Both monarchs were murdered by one of their nobles-Duncan by Macbeth and Duff by a loyal and trustworthy noble named Donwald. However, Shakespeare draws more details from Duff’s murder to create his telling of how Macbeth murdered Duncan:


Donwald becomes angry with King Duff for slaying traitors who are his kinsmen. When Donwald shares his frustrations with his wife, she persuades him to kill the king, and together the couple devise a plot, making the chamberlains drunk and sending servants to the king’s chambers to commit the murder. (6) From this story, you can see where Shakespeare got his idea to have Macbeth consult his wife and have the both of them plan to murder Duncan in a similar manner.


One person that Shakespeare builds more upon is Banquo; a character that appealed greatly to King James himself. Banquo was actually “a mythical figure whom Scottish chroniclers had actually invented to reinforce the legitimacy and longevity of the Stuart line” (Nostbakken, 28). James believed that he was related to Banquo and “accepted the lineage as true history rather than legend or myth” (Nostbakken, 28). Shakespeare also makes Banquo’s character “appear[s] much more favorably in Macbeth than in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he is as ambitious and aggressive as Macbeth” (Nostbakken, 7). Banquo is portrayed as the father of kings, making him a much more attractive figure. In Act 4.1, you can see how with the apparition that shows Macbeth of eight kings with Banquo as the last one, that this “flattered King James by reflecting the glory of his Scottish past and the hope he held for England’s future” (Nostbakken, 29).


It is also important to understand kingship during the real reign of Macbeth and during Shakespeare’s time both in Scotland and England. Nostbakken explains that during the 11 century when Macbeth reigned, the crown did not automatically pass from one king to his son in hereditary succession. Instead, kings were elected amongst families so often a nephew rather than a son succeeded to the throne. Nobles had the right to elect a new king if the one elected was incompetent or too young. It wasn’t until Malcolm became king that hereditary succession became accepted. So historically when Duncan named Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and therefore as his heir, he was not following the normal practice and tradition. This would have angered the nobles and even Macbeth who was a cousin in the royal family and who had legitimate right to the throne. Shakespeare does not include this detail of Macbeth’s family right to the throne in the play and reflects more on the ideas of kingship current during his time rather than in 11 century Scotland (31). Cantor points out that, “Duncan acts as if he were already living under a system of hereditary monarchy, as if he were in fully civilized England rather than more primitive Scotland” when he designates Malcolm as his successor (320). With this succession we can still understand Macbeth’s wanting to be king and his actions that provoked him “into murdering the king, rather thank waiting for events to propel him to the throne” (Cantor, 320).


During the time of Shakespeare, the relationship between Scotland and England was undergoing a complete transformation. Previously, both countries were continuously at war with each other. When both countries became Protestant, tensions were reduced and it helped to create peace and understanding until they were united in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. By this time, many Scots had visited England and likewise, and both had come to appreciate each other and disregard past thoughts of each other. This enabled Shakespeare to, “in 1606, write his Tragedy of Macbeth, a play with a Scottish setting and with Scottish characters calculated to arouse the emotions of any audience, not only as a flattering tribute to the new Scottish King of England, but also secure in the knowledge that his words would not fall on unsympathetic ears” (Rae, 35).


From this information you will be able to understand many things that have to do with the political history that is involved with the play. The knowledge of the real story of Macbeth and other events will help to understand how Shakespeare wrote his own “history”. The information on kingship in Scotland and England will help to explain Duncan’s error in declaring Malcolm as his heir. Learning the history of the character Banquo will show how Shakespeare targeted the play to the liking of the new Scottish king, James I of England. It is also good to know that during the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, England and Scotland were just starting to become friendly with each other. This helps in understanding why Malcolm was able to flee to England with no trouble. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is an attempt on the authors part to incorporate underlying tones of Scottish political history to impress King James who united England and Scotland.


Works Cited

Cantor, Paul A. “Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” Shakespeare as Political Thinker. Alvis, John E., and Thomas G. West, eds. Delaware: ISI Books, 2000.315 – 351.
Fisher, Andrew. A Traveller’s History of Scotland. 3rd ed. New York: Interlink Books,1997.
Glover, Janet R. The Story of Scotland. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1960.
Nostbakken, Faith. Understanding Macbeth: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Rae, T.I. Scotland in the Time of Shakespeare. New York: Cornell University Press,1965.