Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. First performed in 1606, the epic tale tells the story of the infamous, eponymous thane urged by his wife to murder King Duncan and take the throne. The couple are haunted by what they’ve done and suffer the consequences: Macbeth is defeated by Macduff, Lady Macbeth takes her own life and Duncan’s son Malcolm is eventually crowned king.
However, as with so many of what have been labelled his ‘histories’, Shakespeare was known to embellish or even fabricate the truth. Unfortunately, the true story behind the events of Duncan and Macbeth’s lives are poorly recorded and shrouded in mystery. So how much of what Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth is true?
King Duncan I ascended the throne peacefully
Duncan’s Gaelic name was Donnchad mac Crinain, which is anglicised to Donald I. His lineage is unclear, but he is accepted in most accounts to be the grandson of Malcolm II, and he was King of Alba (roughly what is now Scotland) from 1034.
He succeeded his grandfather’s throne peacefully, suggesting he may have been Malcolm’s Tànaiste – his acknowledged successor. The Gaelic system of Tanistry related to the passing on of lands and titles. The word Tànaiste is retained in the Republic of Ireland’s government where the prime minister, the Taoiseach, has a deputy known as the Tànaiste.
Macbeth may have been Duncan’s cousin
In 1039, Duncan led an attack into northern England, laying siege to Durham. The campaign was a failure, and in 1040, he took another army north into Moray. This was the region under the control of Macbeth.
Macbeth, son of Findlay, is the anglicised form of the Gaelic name Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, and Findláech of Moray was Thane of Angus and King of Moray. Some sources also suggest that Macbeth was a grandson of Malcolm II, making him a first cousin to Duncan, though this is far from certain.
Macbeth may have murdered a king to gain the crown for himself
Macbeth’s father died in 1020, and two other men followed Findlay as King of Moray before Macbeth took the title back in 1032. There is suspicion that he killed the previous king Gille Coemgáin mac Maíl Brigti, and he did marry his widow, Gruoch. Gruoch inspired the infamous Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play: however, being married to Macbeth is where the similarity ends.
Records are unclear as to whether Gruoch’s father was the son of either Alexander II or Alexander III of Scotland; however, it is certain that she was of royal descent. Gruoch had a son with Gille Coemgáin named Lulach, who Macbeth accepted as his own, especially since the couple did not have children of their own.
Duncan I was killed fighting Macbeth’s forces
Macbeth is recorded as holding the position of dux in Duncan’s Scotland. This title is the root of the rank of duke, which sits between marquess and prince in the hierarchy of noble titles later in the medieval period. At this time, it was still closer to the Roman context of being a war leader. Around the same time, Godwin, Earl of Wessex was being referred to as a dux in England, so it suggests Macbeth was seen as a major power within Duncan’s realm.
When Duncan I arrived in Moray, he met fierce resistance and was killed fighting against Macbeth’s forces on 14 August 1040. Macbeth became King of Scots immediately without opposition. He and his wife Gruoch ruled for 17 years and a day, until 15 August 1057.
Duncan I’s son defeated Macbeth
Although Macbeth succeeded without a rival in 1040, by 1054 he was the target of opposition when Siward, Earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland. Incomplete records suggest that he may have had a family connection to Duncan I’s sons. Macbeth and Siward fought a battle at Dunsinnan which the Annals of Ulster reported resulted in the death of 3,000 Scots and 1,500 English. Macbeth survived the assault, but not for long.
In 1057, Duncan I’s son Malcolm led an army against Macbeth. The king made a final stand at Lumphanan where he was mortally wounded. Malcolm became King Malcolm III, known as ceann mòr, or Canmore, which literally translates from Gaellic as ‘big head’, and probably means something similar to ‘mighty chieftain’. Malcolm ruled for 35 years until 1093. He saw the Norman Conquest of England, fathered Duncan II, and was posthumous father-in-law to Henry I of England.
Shakespeare is great, but if you’re looking for historical accuracy, he has a lot to answer for!