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 the Scots in the mid-eleventh
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 young son. 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 of 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.
Fordun accuses MacBeth of usurping the crown.
Both these 'anglicised Scotsmen' – to quote Peter Beresford Ellis,
...almost totally removed, linguistically and
culturally, from the eleventh century Scotland of which they were
Wyntoun makes the first references to the later
prophecies in the play concerning the fate of MacBeth, but neither
he nor Boece or Bellenden attribute these prophecies to the three
However, by the time Boece's history appeared in
Bellenden's Scots recension, the 'weird sisters' had materialised
into physical entities to become Shakespeare's 'secret black and
midnight hags'. These fourteenth century 'Histories' were the first
to disparage the legitimacy of MacBeth's succession and brand him
Andrew of Wyntoun, however, despite being the
source of the supernatural elements of the play, cannot be lightly
dismissed as he was the prior of that same monastic foundation at
Loch Leven which was so generously endowed by MacBeth some three
hundred years earlier. He would therefore have had a special
interest in his own church, together with previous benefactors.
Wyntoun's Cronykil does imply some knowledge
of the more kindly disposed earlier sources:
...many pleasant acts in the beginning of his
reign under colour of justice, but at last showed his cruelty and
perverse mind, set to shedding of blood more than to any zeal or
In view of Wyntoun's appointment to a church of
known association with the historical MacBeth, there is a likelihood
of his having had access to monastically-preserved information which
was not necessarily available to other historians. He clearly states
MacBeth's firm belief in 'ghostly prophecies'.
Could it be that Wyntoun had access to recollections
of such an unusual personality trait, recorded in the monastery
However, bearing in mind the obvious disapproval
with which the church held all forms of superstition, coupled with
the complexities of Celtic Christianity versus Roman, one might
regard Wyntoun's testimony as suspect – at best a red herring, at
worst biased reporting.