March 21, 2013, by Nicola Royan

Rehabilitating Macbeth

Apparently inspired by the exhumation and identification of Richard III, there has been a call from a Member of the Scottish Parliament to re-examine and revise the Shakespearian view of Macbeth. This has provoked all kinds of comment, some of which you can see here, here and here That the Shakespearian image of the king does not match with what we can deduce from the archaeology and the more-nearly contemporary chronicles is well known among historians of the early middle ages: Macbeth was a king, after all, who felt secure enough to leave his realm in 1050 to go on pilgrimage to Rome, and to return to continue government, not the most obvious marker of a tyrant. (See Fiona Watson, Macbeth: A True Story, London: Quercus, 2011 for an accessible account). However, Shakespeare did not have access to these early records, and archaeology (known then as antiquarianism) was in its very infancy in the late sixteenth century, so he took his narrative of Macbeth from accounts much closer to his own time, most famously, Holinshed’s” Chronicles (1587), but also probably a Scottish account, John Bellenden’s Chronicles of Scotland (1536), and behind that a Latin account by Hector Boece, Scotorum Historia (1527). These accounts are not necessarily more accurate than Shakespeare’s, and I am not here going to discuss the relationship of Macbeth to ‘what actually happened’, as that question tells us nothing about Shakespeare and not much more about the creation of Macbeth’s reputation. Instead, I want to discuss how Shakespeare edited and reshaped the narratives he knew to create a simpler if memorable villain.

Let’s start with the other aspect of the play everyone remembers: the witches. Although it is sometimes implied that Shakespeare inserted the witches to appeal to James VI and I, they are in fact present in the Scottish narratives of Macbeth from the fifteenth century. There are usually three of them, and their sobriquet, the weird sisters, allows us to consider them as manifestations of the Fates, known in both classical mythology and also, independently, as the Norns in Norse mythology. While Macbeth dreams them in the earliest fifteenth-century account, by the sixteenth, he and Banquho meet them on the heath, as Shakespeare presents. In none of the accounts do the witches make Macbeth king: indeed, Bellenden records that ‘this prophecy and divinatioun wes haldin mony dayis in derision to Banquho and Makbeth’, and it is only when the first parts come true that Macbeth starts thinking about the throne. It is, thus, as much about psychology and prophecy as it is about witchcraft, and more like Merlin and Arthur than James VI’s published account of witch-hunting, The Demonologie.

In any case, Macbeth is moved to desire and to expect the throne, both in the histories and in the play. Similarly he is persuaded to action by his wife in all the narratives: Bellenden’s account describes her as ‘calland him, oft timis, febil cowart … sen he durst not assailye the thing with manheid and curage’, a view echoed and enhanced in Shakespeare’s verse. However, while Shakespeare opposes the Macbeths to the rest of the Scottish aristocracy, Bellenden sees wider complicity, and makes it clear that ‘because [Macbeth] fand sufficient oportunite, be support of Banquho and otheris his freindis, he slew King Duncane.’ By isolating Macbeth, Shakespeare makes him more of a usurper, and more unnatural; the Scots’ view of their own internal politics is less clear-cut and what might, just, be called Machiavellian.

Shakespeare makes his largest cuts to the narrative after Macbeth has come to the throne. It is very difficult to estimate precisely how much time passes in the play: the reign seems to plunge almost immediately into bloodshed and chaos. Bellenden tells a different story. Firstly, Macbeth buys off the nobility through the reallocation of lands, and then, suppressing  ‘his natural inclinatioun’, he wins over the people through the imposition of justice and peace, and the passing of good laws. In both cases, his strength as a king is contrasted to Duncan’s weakness, and that strength is evidently a good thing. This state of affairs lasts for ten years, and then Macbeth crumbles into paranoia and tyranny, more or less as Shakespeare presents it.  Bellenden therefore offers a view of the corruption of power rather than direct results of usurpation; he also shows that corruption in more detail, through unpredictable penalties applied to noble and common alike, and is emphatic about the destructive effect on the commonweal (a Scottish term akin to but not quite the same as ‘commonwealth’) as a whole.

Shakespeare’s final changes are more subtle. The confrontation between Macduff and Malcolm is also drawn from the Scottish accounts, where Malcolm’s own moral ambiguity is glaringly obvious (whereas it can be hidden in readings of Macbeth). However, redemption comes from different places. For Bellenden’s Macduff, Malcolm ‘is so repleit with the treasonable maneris and vicis of Inglismen, that he is unworthy to be king’, and his acceptance as leader is not without misgiving; it is the Scots, moreover, who drive forward the campaign against Macbeth with some assistance from Siward of Northumberland. Shakespeare, on the other hand, rather emphasises the Scots’ salvation through the army that accompanies Malcolm from England, a country blessed in its rule by Edward the Confessor.

In his cuts and edits, Shakespeare presents a more clear-cut tyrant and oppressor; a leader entirely focused on his own experience and responsibilities; and a realm that needs to be rescued by a less obviously violent but no less morally ambivalent prince, supported by foreign troops. The version he inherited is more concerned with the nature of a good prince, and whether the end – justice and peace – justifies the means. As literary writing, neither is wrong: both engage with significant aspects of human experience, one more concerned with self-government and the other more with national government. If you want to know what Macbeth was really like, however, look elsewhere.

Posted in Language and LiteratureOld Scots