Nine hundred forty-six years ago come Thursday, Macbeth, thane of Glamis and Cawdor, slew Duncan, king of Scotland, not in his bed, as Shakespeare tells it, but as he fled the field of battle. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a courageous yet irresolute, ambitious yet gullible, violent yet not unremorseful man; his Duncan, a venerable monarch. Inspired by witches and goaded by his wife, Macbeth, in the play, murders his liege and executes his grooms, assassinates an ally, and slaughters the wife and children of an enemy. As if that were not enough, he tipples.
Yet the real Macbeth was no more a covetous regicide than the real Duncan was a beloved patriarch. Macbeth (Duncan's senior, in fact, and of roughly equivalent nobility) was an able general, a rightful claimant to the throne, for 17 years a benevolent monarch and early benefactor of the Church of Scotland. When he died, having "scattered money like seed to the poor" in Rome, he was buried with honor on the sacred isle of Iona. Duncan, by contrast, was known even in his own day as "a faint-hearted milksop, fitter to govern idle, lazy monks . . . than such stout and valiant men as the Scots."
Never was a man worthier of vindication than Macbeth.
Conjure up the Scotland of 1031, the year of Macbeth's first mention by ancient chroniclers. Harassed from the north and western isles by Vikings and from the south by what then passed for Englishmen--Angles, Saxons, Northumbrians, and Danes--Scotland was one-third its present size, the middle third, from the Firth of Forth west to the Firth of Clyde and north to the Firth of Moray, a feudal jumble of fiefdoms, of big and little kings. In that year, Cnut, Danish ruler of England, led an expedition to southern Scotland against bloody King Malcolm II. Macbeth, a lesser king, witnessed his liege submitting to the invader and as vassal was forced to submit as well.
Submission was anomalous for a Scottish king since military might was the very premise of Scottish sovereignty. Scottish crowns descended by election to those ablest to defend the realm, a reasonable practice, known as tanistry, in a land continually besieged. Because the future king was chosen during the reigning king's tenure, he was more likely to be a royal brother or adult nephew than the king's son. And in fact, tanistry tended to produce a race of ambitious, bloodthirsty nephews. Malcolm murdered his uncle Finlay, Macbeth's father, and ultimately was cut down himself at Glamis in 1035 by kinsmen angered when he placed his callow grandson Duncan on the throne of Strathclyde (southwestern Scotland) in defiance of the rule of tanistry.
These then are the characters Shakespeare chose: Duncan, an untried, yet bellicose adventurer; Macbeth, a noted general, neglected prince--and newlywed; and Lady Macbeth, granddaughter of a murdered king of the south, widow of a murdered king of the north, and sister of a nobleman murdered by Malcolm to make way for Duncan.
In 1040, the fifth year of Duncan's reign, according to the chronicle of the Northumbrian monk Symeon of Durham, "Duncan, king of Scots, came with enormous forces and besieged Durham (in northern England), and laboured greatly to reduce it, but in vain. . . . A great part of his cavalry was slain by those who were besieged; and he fled away in confusion, and in his flight lost all his infantry killed."
Duncan was at war simultaneously with Thorfinn, thane of the northern highlands. As a neighboring thane, Macbeth had much to fear from Thorfinn and so allied himself with his detested cousin Duncan, then on Aug. 14, 1040, slew him as he fled under Thorfinn's attack. Seven of nine kings preceding Duncan were slain; in context, Macbeth had shown admirable restraint for years. Impelled by ambition and revenge to murder, he had guarded his dagger; compelled by law, he did not so much usurp another's throne as claim his own for the good of Scotland. Thus, the tragedy.
Why wasn't Shakespeare satisfied?
History is but the telling of events, not the events themselves. Shakespeare's principal historical source was Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicle of Scottish History" (1577). By turns sublimely silly and richly stirring, Holinshed's tales are of their day. In the reign of the Stuart kings, 500 years after his death, Macbeth was customarily maligned, routinely characterized as a usurper in a line that led from Malcolm II to James VI. To this calumny, Holinshed added some properly Jacobean witches prophesying the flourishing line of Banquo, the fictional progenitor of the Stuarts. All this Shakespeare adopted.
But history alone was not on Shakespeare's mind. Scholars have demonstrated that his greatest tragedies were topical, that "Hamlet" and "King Lear," as well as "Macbeth," are larded with contemporary events, prominent among them, the ascension of James in 1603 to Elizabeth's throne, thus fulfilling Merlin's prophesy of the united crowns of England and Scotland.