The real King Macbeth
Not just a figment of Shakespeare's imagination
Shakespeare's Macbeth is one of the most iconic characters ever created. But few people realise that Macbeth was also a real man, a king of 11th century Scotland who led a life filled with as much murder, treachery and drama as the tragic hero of Shakespeare's play.
Macbeth is one of the greatest dramatic works in the English language. But the play departs heavily from its historical source which tells a very different story to Shakespeare's.
The man behind the myth
Shakespeare depicts Macbeth as noble warrior brought low by his manipulative and ambitious wife who goads him into committing regicide, setting off a bloody chain of events which leads to their downfall.
In reality, Macbeth had a royal lineage dating back to Malcolm I. His father was Findláech (Findlay), Mormaer of Moray, and his mother a daughter of Kenneth II. He therefore had a legitimate claim to the kingship which he won, not by murdering an elderly King Duncan in his bed, but on the battlefield. And Duncan, far from being an old man, was in fact ages with Macbeth.
A long and prosperous reign
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest works. In the play Macbeth's reign is brief, bloody and disastrous - perhaps no longer than 10 weeks - during the course of which he orchestrates the murder of his closest ally and confidant Banquo, as well as the innocent family of his rival MacDuff.
The real Macbeth's reign lasted for 17 years, a remarkable feat that is testament to his strength and competence as a leader. As for Banquo and MacDuff? There is no historical evidence for either of them.
Like his fictional counterpart, Macbeth met a violent death. But as ever, the climax of the play deviates considerably from historical record. Shakespeare has Macbeth slain by MacDuff at a battle near Dunsinane in the wake of an invasion of Alba lead by Earl Siward of Northumbria.
While Earl Siward did lead an invasion of Alba, it was in partnership with Malcolm Canmore, son of Duncan. Defeated in battle but not vanquished, Macbeth continued to rule for a further three years before dying upon Malcolm's sword.