The most widely cited historical sources for Shakespeare’s Macbeth are Holinshed’s Chronicles and two other Scottish histories, Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae and George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia.
Let’s take a look at Holinshed first…
When we were deep into the histories, we learned that Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, an early attempt at a comprehensive history of Britain, was the “go-to” source for Shakespeare in composing those plays. Holinshed was only one of a three main authors of the work (the other two being William Harrison and Richard Stanyhurst), first printed in 1577, but time has given him the main credit.
But like orange juice and breakfast: Holinshed, it’s not just for histories anymore. Our last play (The Tragedy of) King Lear drew some influences from Chronicles. And so does Macbeth. Only here, it appears that Shakespeare conflates three different stories.
The first is that of Macbeth, a valiant soldier who is commanded by his King Duncan to put down a rebellion by Macdonwald. There is a meeting with the prophetic weird sisters, but in Holinshed they are more fairies than witches. Yes, Lady Macbeth does push her husband to kill the king, but Holinshed also has Banquo involved in the assassination. Macbeth kills Duncan in battle, but not so much to become king but to end the inept reign of Duncan; in other words, Macbeth wasn’t such a bad guy in Hollinshed. Though in Shakespeare, Macbeth’s reign seems short, in Holinshed, it lasted a decade (even longer in real life, but more on that in a later entry), ending with defeat and death at the hands of Malcolm and Macduff. The second story is that of Donwald, whose family members (for working with witches, no less) had been executed on orders of his King Duff. Donwald was then urged by his wife to kill the king and is assisted in doing so by some of his servants while the King is visiting his castle. The third story is that of King Kenneth, who over his guilty conscience, could no longer sleep. By conflating the stories, Shakespeare gets his witches, the prophecy, the assassination of the king, and the killing of the king and guest.
In Scottish historian Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae, Macbeth is no longer a positive figure, but one of treachery. And in George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia, seen as an adaptation of Boece, Macbeth is even more negative, brutal, and barbaric.
There are a couple of other influences that we’ll touch upon in the next few days.