History Files


Gaelic Territories

The Origins of 'The Scottish Play'

by Mick Baker, 2 June 2007

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 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 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 perpetuating it.

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, were:

...almost totally removed, linguistically and culturally, from the eleventh century Scotland of which they were writing.

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 witches.

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 an oppressor.

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 justice.

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 archives?

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.

Roman Polanski's MacBeth: Bamburgh Castle stands in for MacBeth's castle



Images © Caliban Films/Playboy Productions. Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.