Needless to say, Shakespeare's portrait of an obsessive killer, driven
by an ambitious wife to usurp the kingship by means of bloody murder, can
find no supporting evidence in the earliest and most reliable historical
record of the MacBeth mac Findlaech who reigned as high-king of Scots in
the mid-eleventh century.
The bard portrays this noble Scottish king as an ambitious
megalomaniac steeped in blood, firstly through the hideous murder of 'good
king Duncan' - at the instigation of Lady MacBeth; secondly through the
murder of his friend Banquo (who is unknown to history); and lastly, when
evil has him firmly in its clutches, the murder of Lady MacDuff and her
MacBeth is seen as being almost in league with the malevolent forces
of the supernatural – a veritable agent of Satan!
Perhaps Shakespeare should be regarded as a victim of his own sources,
as he based much of his 'Scottish Play' (1606) on the chronicles of
Raphael Holinshed (1580s). Holinshed in turn based his work on John
Bellenden's prose rendition (1536) of the works of Hector Boece (1527). A
tortuous route indeed!
Boece (Boethius) was an historian whose works are regarded by today's
scholars as notoriously unreliable and largely fictional – the Scottish
equivalent of Geoffrey of Monmouth perhaps?
Shakespeare may therefore be acquitted of inventing the libel on a
Scottish king. With hindsight he is certainly guilty of unwittingly
There were other culprits who could be brought to book – such as John
of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun, the latter being responsible for the
introduction of the supernatural element and the accusations of murder.