I know I’m tackling a big one here. Macbeth, the famous Scottish play is probably one of the Bard’s best known works – which is saying something for sure. There are so many different angles to the play and how you can look at it that I know I can’t cover all the bases and I’m sure I’ll probably insult someone somewhere if I try. So as someone who loves history very much, I thought in my brief reviews I’d take on The Scottish Play by way of history, and why this makes me enjoy it so much.
At its core, for me Macbeth was always about the internal struggles of two of the characters – the title character and his wife, Lady MacBeth. Both of them live in a world where magic and superstition is not to be knocked at and their fear – or belief – of such power enables them to dare push the envelope in terms of their political power and the power within themselves. I’ll start off with the fateful quote:
All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
I thought I’d dig more into the men behind the mystery. Mac Bethad mac Findlaích was indeed a King Scotland who reigned in the 11th Century, some five hundred and fifty years before the play that helped make his name. He was a lord (mormaer) of Moray and a loyal vassal of King Malcolm II but upon the ascension of Duncan I there was strife between the two and Mac Bethad killed Duncan in 1040, taking the throne for himself, thus becoming King. There’s a little strife to be sure, but hardly the mystical bloodshed we see in the play.
Scotland in this period was hardly a great unified Kingdom, and what would have been the ‘Kingdom of Scotland’ or Alba would have mainly consisted of the central South East of the Scottish peninsula – Edinburgh, Glasgow and so on. The Scots King himself would have much diplomatic friction with the people around him – Lords of Galloway, Lords of Moray, Earls of Orkney, as well as with the Anglo-Normans down south via disputes over Northumbria and the church, and Norweigan kings who also had territory in the area. Any resistance Mac Bethad would have had during his reign to his kingship would not have been surprising, and in this sense the unhappiness upon MacBeth’s ascension that we see in the play is fairly justified.
In contrast to the witch-believing lord and his lady in the play, for all intents and purpose Mac Bethad was a good Christian king who maintained good ties with the papacy. However, he was eventually killed by Malcolm III, son of Duncan I in 1057 during battle and eventually Mac Bethad’s own stepson become king after Malcom.
So far, so not the tyrannical, power hungry king we see in the play. In contemporary source’s he’s mentioned sometimes with great compliment and I can hardly find any primary sources that detail his wife.
So what exactly is Shakespeare writing about? Like many of Shakespeare’s historical tragedies, we have long learned not to take the storylines seriously in terms of what they truthfully tell us. In Holinshed’s Chronicles (which I very much recommend to anyone interested in history) we see how Shakespeare would have been influenced by this English account of what happened to the Scottish throne. Let us not forget that at this point in time the English and Scottish were hardly best of friends – the issue with Mary, Queen of Scots and her ‘treachery’ would have been well remembered and long had the stereotype exsisted that those of Celtic heritage were in some inferior and more barbaric than the English.
It is therefore clear that the issues of the time help frame play. Take Lady Macbeth too: since Mac Bethad’s existence in the 11th Century England had witnessed a large number of power wielding women, and ones that were very much despised for doing so – from Margaret of Anjou to Isabella ‘She Wolf’ of France. On the off chance that the Elizabethan population didn’t remember them, they most certainly remembered Queen Elizabeth’s sister ‘Bloody Mary’.
So even though we don’t learn much ‘literal’ history from watching Macbeth, I think we still learn a lot about history in general. How Shakespeare adapted plays for their purpose: the Globe was not a Elizabethan documentary house. He wrote plays for a reason, spinning details and adaptations of details in a manner not so alien from the big Hollywood houses today. His tale of power, intrigue and living with one’s actions speaks as loud and clear in todays world as it probably did back then. I feel I’ve outstayed my welcome on this review already but for all those not too familiar with Macbeth I say: please read or watch it again. It’s a magnificent play and I’ve yet to meet some who didn’t come away from it having their eyes opened to something new.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Something wicked this way comes.
(photo credit: aintitcoolnews.com)