Macbeth is one of my favourite plays. That’s saying something, because I’ve only ever seen half the play. But I’ve read the script hundreds of times, and each time is as thrilling as the time before.
Finding out the play was was based on actual history was amazing. Who was the real Macbeth? Was he as ruthlessly ambitious as his fictional counterpart?
Macbeth was born in the eleventh century. His grandfather was Malcolm II, King of Scotland. Pretty much nothing is known about his childhood. In the eleventh century, a person’s childhood was rarely considered interesting enough to be recorded.
In 1020, Macbeth’s father was killed by a man named Gille Coemgáin. How did Macbeth feel about this? Was he angry, or was he forgiving?
All that is known is that Gille Coemgáin died before 1032, burned to death along with fifty of his men. No one knows who started the fire that Gille Coemgáin died in, but Macbeth is high on the list of suspects.
Afterwards, Macbeth married Gruoch, Gille’s wife. No one knows how this marriage came about, or what Gruoch thought of marrying a man suspected of murdering her husband.
Gruoch and Gille had at least one son, Lulach. Macbeth raised him as his own.
Malcolm II died in 1034, and was succeeded by Macbeth’s cousin Duncan. You might remember him from Shakespeare’s play. In the play, Macbeth murdered him to gain the throne. But was Duncan murdered in real life?
Duncan was probably not a popular king. His nickname was ‘An t-Ilgarach’, meaning ‘the diseased’. Duncan ruled for less than a decade. For some reason, Duncan decided it would be a good idea to lead an army against Moray—Macbeth’s territory.
Unsurprisingly, Macbeth defended himself against this attack, and Duncan was killed in the process. Death in battle is a different thing from being stabbed in your sleep. In this, at least, Macbeth was justified.
Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donald were children at the time. Malcolm, it is believed, was taken to England for safety, and Donald to Ireland.
Guess who seized the throne in the meantime? Yes, none other than Macbeth himself. In the play, Macbeth’s rein is portrayed as short, a few years at most. In reality, Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years.
Then Malcolm, now an adult made his comeback. With the help of the English, he set out to regain his throne. Macduff, however, did not join Malcolm’s army. Why? Simple, really. As far as the evidence goes, Macduff never actually existed.
Records from the time claim Malcolm was the one who killed Macbeth. Although it could be that Malcolm stole another man’s glory, to make himself look better. Hard to tell, now that the battle’s lost and won.
Shakespeare’s play was based on real events—but very loosely. The facts are
fascinating, and I hope to learn more about the real Macbeth in the future.
If you have any thoughts on Macbeth you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment.