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Why Do You Dress Me in Borrowed Robes?

This paper on the historical Macbeth is the culmination of one of the independent study projects I completed while in Scotland. Several of the sources at the Inverness library were by local authors and are not available outside of the Highland Library System.

Why Do You Dress Me in Borrowed Robes? (1999) assumes that the reader is acquainted with Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Please do not quote anything contained in this paper without first asking.

Much has been written by many annalists round about the centuries from the ninth to the thirteenth, but their story is based largely on conjecture, and the authors of the conjectures differ so palpably from one another, that their ‘history’ yields but little information that is trustworthy . . . But we are not altogether without some material for the structure, no thanks to Edward I of England, who destroyed what may have existed of contemporary documents . . . Happily we have some gleaning grounds available in Norse song and story, which, along with what little we possess from Scottish sources, enables us to piece a few interesting details together.

Norman Macrae, The Romance of a Royal Burgh

The real Macbeth?

The reference librarian at the Highlands Library in Inverness is an extremely helpful man who is eager to share his encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish history. When asked a simple question about castles such as, “Who lived in them, and why?” he, in his thick, Scottish library voice (scarcely pausing for breath), launched into a twenty-minute extemporaneous lesson about the history of Scottish leadership, beginning with the Pictish matrilineal system and ending with the fact that George Washington was a direct descendant of a Scots queen.1 After listening to him answer many disparate questions from other library patrons, I was encouraged to ask him where I might find information about the real Macbeth. “The real Macbeth? Hmm.” He paused for a minute or so. “There really isn’t much information about him, and most of that is probably wrong.”

There is not a lot written, or at least not much of it has survived, about the historical Macbeth, a king of Scotland for seventeen years. Ross-shire, in the Scottish Highlands, is the home of Macbeth and the amateur historians of the region are extremely proud and protective of their native son. But their pride clouds their objectivity; since there is so little documentary evidence of Macbeth’s life, many of the accounts about Macbeth that are found in local sources can be nothing more than supposition and wishful thinking. When I asked the librarian why there were so few records of Macbeth and his reign, he answered that rulers in those days were too busy ruling their kingdoms and protecting their reigns to spend much time documenting their lives. This may be the case, but part of the blame belongs to Edward I, who had subsequent Scottish historical records destroyed to erase evidence of Scottish territories having been ruled by anyone not from his line. According to Gordon Donaldson and Robert Morpeth in Who’s Who in Scottish History, “A considerable proportion of the official record which had accumulated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was carried off to London by Edward I, and in England, most of this material subsequently disappeared.”2

Macbeth who?

The average Scot concerns himself little with his former king, Macbeth, because Scotland’s collective popular memory doesn’t extend much past 1746, when their Bonnie Prince Charlie led an unprepared band of Highlanders to Culloden and an ill-fated battle against George II’s army, led by the Duke of Cumberland. The Scots have made a hero of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a vain, pathetic man with delusions of grandeur, while at the same time all but ignoring Macbeth, who, contrary to Shakespeare’s portrayal, appears to have been an effective and beneficent ruler. Although time is partly to blame for the disparity in the Scot’s selective memory of past countrymen, this memory lapse can also be explained by the Scottish Highlanders’ penchant for idolizing the underdog. Rather than revile Prince Charles for his responsibility in the loss of the battle at Culloden – after which thousands of innocent Highlanders were hunted down and butchered by the English victors – they refer to him as Bonnie Prince Charlie, a man whose troops were “outnumbered, ill equipped, their artillery poor, their cavalry few; exhausted, having marched all night on an abortive foray; hungry, because poor staff work had left their food supplies in Inverness. They were badly led, being required to fight over ground which suited Cumberland’s cannon and cavalry and handicapped their main tactic, the charge. Yet they went into battle with a courage which has passed into legend, and which today we salute.”3 It was Bonnie Prince Charlie who “badly led” these blindly loyal Highlanders to their destruction at Culloden in a battle that lasted less than an hour, and yet the Scots worship this ineffectual leader, while all but ignoring their strong and courageous former king. Fortunately, historians and a few dedicated Scots have spent the past four hundred years countering the image portrayed by Shakespeare of their good and noble king, and one thing that most historians agree upon is that Shakespeare’s Macbeth shares little more than a name with the historical Macbeth.

Three weird women

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Scottish Macbeth is told by three weird women that he is Thane of Glamis, will be Thane of Cawdor, and then King of Scotland. Since these three women are strangers to Macbeth and have no logical way of knowing that he is currently Thane of Glamis, Macbeth pays heed to their prophesies. After his encounter with the weird women, Macbeth meets with King Duncan, who, much to Macbeth’s surprise, grants him the title Thane of Cawdor, a title that is currently held by a man under a death sentence. Two prophecies down, one to go. But then Duncan mucks about with Macbeth’s future by appointing his eldest son, Malcolm, Earl of Cumberland, thereby making Malcolm next in line to the throne and dashing Macbeth’s hopes of ascending to the throne of Scotland without resistance. Macbeth has been loyal to Duncan, which turns the prospect of fulfilling the third prophecy (by assuming Duncan’s position) into an unseemly business. Nevertheless, Macbeth, spurred on by his ambitious wife, plots the murder of Duncan and his family so that he can become king of Scotland. This story makes for good drama, but is not historically accurate.

A rightful king?

Contrary to Shakespeare’s inference that Macbeth had no claim to rule Scotland other than his murder of Duncan, he seems to have at least two claims to the throne. Says James Browne in History of the Highlands:

As several fictions have been propagated concerning the history and genealogy of Macbeth, we may mention that, according to the most authentic authorities, he was by birth Thane of Ross, and by his marriage with the Lady Gruoch, became also Thane of Moray, during the minority of Lulach, the infant son of that lady, by her marriage with Gilcomgain, the Maormor, or Thane of Moray. Lady Macbeth was the daughter of Boedhe, son of Kenneth IV.; and thus Macbeth united in his own person many powerful interests which enabled him to take quiet possession of the throne of the murdered sovereign.4

Although Browne fails to document his “most authentic authorities,” most historians agree in principle with his explanation for Macbeth’s claim to the Scottish throne.

No impression of moral condemnation

Macbeth’s reign as king of Scotland is marked by what is not written as much as by what is written. R. J. Adam, in The Real Macbeth, answers the question of how Macbeth’s contemporaries regarded him and his reign: “The argument must be one from silence; but certainly no writer of the age conveys any impression of moral condemnation.” He states that, while the records of Macbeth’s role in Duncan’s death are neutral, contemporaries of Macbeth did write of the treachery of Macbeth’s grandfather’s murder (Kenneth II), and of Malcolm’s perfidious assassination of Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, who succeeded Macbeth briefly.5 John Roberts, in Lost Kingdoms, concedes that documentary evidence of Macbeth’s reign is fragmentary at best, but says that the few accounts that do exist suggest that Macbeth was a good ruler whose reign was strong enough to thwart an invasion by the Earl of Siward in 1045, and that he was secure enough in his ability as a ruler to leave his kingdom to go on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050.6 On this pilgrimage, which some historians suggest was in penitence for his murder of Duncan, Macbeth sought the blessing of the Pope, and “scattered money like seed” to the peasants.7 In addition to Macbeth’s trip to Rome, Browne suggests that Macbeth “appears to have entertained some sentiments of compunction on account of his many crimes, for which he offered some expiation by deeds of charity and benevolence, and particularly by grants to the church.”8 Browne doesn’t catalog Macbeth’s “many crimes,” but the grants of which he writes were recorded in Notitiae of Grants to the Church of Deer, A.D. 565–1100, and include a grant of the land of Kirkness “by Macbeth and Gruoch, King and Queen of Scots, to the Church of Saint Serf.”9 The same grant was recorded in the Registry of the Priory of St. Andrews “to the culdees of the island of Lochleven for prayers and intercessions.”10

In further support of Macbeth’s reputation as a meritorious king, William Skene, in Celtic Scotland, says of Macbeth: “That he was not the tyrant he is represented by Fordun to have been seems very certain. There is no trace of it in any authentic record.”11 And in The Tombs of the Kings, John Marsden writes: “The ancient Celtic tradition reflected in the Prophecy of Berchan is quite unequivocal in its celebration of his succession:

The Red King will take the kingdom . . . the ruddy-faced, yellow-haired, tall one, I shall be joyful in him. Scotland will be brimful,
in the west and in the east, during the reign of the furious Red One.

The historical record of Macbeth’s reign fully supports Berchan’s portrait of a tall warrior king, generous and indomitable”12

A continual assault upon the nose

The society of Macbeth’s Scotland, from north of the Forth River in southeast Scotland to Caithness, the northern tip of mainland Scotland, was “profoundly Celtic in speech, culture, and social organization. . . . Alba in the tongue of its own natives, Scotland to the English speaker, Scotia in the Latin of school-bred clerks, was a land whose inhabitants, the Scots, were overwhelmingly Celtic, speaking almost universally the ‘Scottish,’ i.e. the Gaelic language, and observing social and religious customs that must be largely explained in Celtic terms.”13 Scottish society north of Caithness and the western islands was influenced by Norse settlement patterns because of the Scandinavian influx, while the territory south of the Forth was Anglo-Saxon, much like England at the time.14 The Celtic influence is seen in Malcolm’s and Kenneth’s names, the ceremony at Scone where a new king was symbolically married to his kingdom by being placed on the Stone of Destiny, and in the succession of adult males within the same generation (brothers or cousins) over sons or nephews who were underage. These Celtic rules of succession were a rejection of the traditional Pictish practice, unique to the British Isles, of restricting succession to the sons of women of royal lineage, thereby preventing a son of a Pictish king from immediately succeeding his father.15

Scotland at the beginning of the eleventh century, when Macbeth was born, was populated by people living on small farmsteads – communities of five to ten families who were isolated from the rest of the world by the lack of roads or navigable waterways.16 Describing Scotland in Kingship and Unity, G. W. S. Barrow paints an idyllic, if pungent, picture:

Scotland . . . was a wonderfully quiet country, where nearly all sounds would have stemmed from natural causes like weather and running water, from farm animals, the barking of dogs, the shouts of village children, or the songs of men and women as they worked. The loudest artificial sound familiar to ordinary people may well have come from church bells. Moonlight and starlight would have been much more keenly appreciated than they can possibly be by a generation that takes electricity and the sadly inescapable sodium lamp for granted. There would also have been an immediate and continual assault upon the nose in what was quite literally a stinking country: the warm homely smells of cattle, horses, and hay, of food cooking in stone ovens or on open hearths, mingling unavoidably with the acrid reek of peat fires, the putrid odour of rotting meat and fish or of untreated skins and hides, and in every inhabited locality the stench of animal and human odour.17

In the top tier of the free population of this quiet, stinking land were maormaers (“great officers”), who ruled the twelve administrative and socio-economic districts, or shires (much like counties), that comprised Scotland.18 The job of these maormaers, the Scottish-Celtic equivalent of a Norman-English earl, and who were blood relations of the reigning ruler of Scotland, was to keep the peace within their territory.19 Below the maormaers were thanes, who held substantial estates within the shire.20 Thanes served the ruler by exercising royal power and authority by holding court and extracting revenues (such as cattle, cereal, services, food, and labor) from the monarch’s subjects. In exchange for the revenues, a thane made certain that the people of the shire shared in the rendering of goods and services to their monarch, and ensured communal use of the common mill, common grazing rights, and rights of cutting peat to use as fuel and building material.21

Sanguinary ongoings

One way to put the historical Macbeth and his reign in context is to understand the convoluted history of kingship in Scotland. Shakespeare’s version casts doubt upon Macbeth’s right to the throne, although historically he seems to have more than one tie to the crown. Adding to the confusion of Macbeth’s right to rule Scotland is the procedure of proper succession to the throne. According to Donaldson and Morpeth, a tenth- or eleventh-century king established himself by murdering the current king, and a son never immediately followed his father to the throne. For example, Kenneth II became king in 971 after the current king, his second cousin Culen, was murdered. Constantine III, Culen’s son, reclaimed his father’s throne by murdering Kenneth II. Constantine III was then killed by Kenneth III, a nephew of Kenneth II. Finally, Kenneth III was killed by his cousin, Malcolm II, who was the son of Kenneth II. Thus, Malcolm II (who would have immediately succeeded his father, Kenneth II, under the principles of primogeniture), did not become king until after the murder of his father and two subsequent kings. Donaldson and Morpeth add: “Attempts have been made to rationalize these sanguinary ongoings by talk about ‘collateral succession’ or by reference to a law or convention that the rightful heir was the eldest, or ablest, male of the royal kin, but, whatever law or right may have existed, it is hard to see the actual events as anything else than a ‘free for all’. In these irregularities Scotland was not, of course, unique, for few countries had as yet adopted strict primogeniture.”22 Echoing Donaldson’s and Morpeth’s sentiments regarding “sanguinary ongoings,” Macrae says: “After the Norsemen lost control of the country, the Scottish national life itself was one unbroken turmoil of plot and counter plot between north and south, between territorial tribes who were the germs of the later clans, with ceaseless maraudings on the part of hillmen from the north, who made fair (or foul) game of the plainsmen of the Lowlands. It was altogether a Rob Roy state of affairs, nationally and locally, centuries before Rob Roy was born.23″

Although the battle for the throne of Scotland appears to be a free for all, it was most often a family affair, with sons and nephews killing the murderers of their fathers and uncles, and cousins killing each other. According to Shakespeare, Duncan stepped outside the Celtic practice of tanistry (where the oldest and worthiest kinsman is selected as the heir apparent), when he appointed Malcolm, his juvenile son, next in line for the throne. This attempt at primogeniture by Duncan dashed Macbeth’s hopes of becoming king without first killing someone to get there.

A proud feather in Dingwall’s bonnet

Macbeth, Macbethad in Gaelic (“son of life”)24 is believed to have been born about 1005 to Finlaech25, who was Maormaer of Ross, an area encompassing much of the Highlands. His mother is mentioned in historical documents only as the sister of King Malcolm II of Scotland.26 Finlaech of Moray was murdered by his nephews, who then ruled Ross until 1032. Macbeth became Maormaer of Moray when he avenged his father’s murder by burning his cousins to death in their hall, with the encouragement of his uncle, King Malcolm II.27 Local Ross-shire historians believe that Macbeth was born in Dingwall Castle. Dingwall, still the judicial seat of Ross-shire today, is approximately fifteen miles northwest of Inverness. In the first part of the twentieth century there were a few remnants – several stones and what could optimistically be construed as part of a doorway – of what some people believed to be Dingwall Castle, although the historic evidence of a Dingwall Castle is sketchy at best. In the enthusiastic tone characteristic of local residents when speaking of their native son, Norman Macrae, in 1923, writes in The Romance of a Royal Burgh

That the Castle of Dingwall was in existence centuries before the thirteenth may be regarded as certainty – even if we have no documentary proof of the fact. . . . There can be no doubt that some sort of stronghold existed on the spot when the Maormores ruled in Ross with headquarters at Dingwall – that was prior to the year 1000 – when for close on two hundred years the incursions of the Vikings called for ceaseless vigilance. And after the Maormores came Thorfin who, we may be sure, did not pass his time in Dingwall, or accommodate his followers there, in a collection of mud or timber huts.28


If there is no evidence of a Dingwall Castle, there can be no evidence that Macbeth was born there, but that does not stop Macrae from musing: “[Macbeth] who, if we have no proof that he was born in Dingwall Castle, must certainly have played on the banks of the [river] Peffrey when a boy. Macbeth was himself for a short time Maormore of Ross with residence in the Castle of Dingwall, before his maormoreship of Moray and his ascent to the Scottish throne.”29 Dismissing the possibility that plans or drawings of Dingwall Castle may never have existed, Macrae blames Edward I and his propensity to destroy Scottish documents for the lack of any documentary evidence of Dingwall Castle.30 Macrae claims Macbeth as a native son because there is no documentary evidence to the contrary: “Bain, in his ‘History of Ross,’ claims, what no one, with valid proof, can deny – that Macbeth was a son of Dingwall, born in its Castle on the Peffrey. To give Shakespeare one of his immortals is surely worthy of a proud feather in Dingwall’s bonnet!”31

Gossip, rumor, and anecdote

Given the nature of kingship in medieval Scotland and England, why did Shakespeare portray Macbeth as such a treacherous villain, a man who breached the bounds of hospitality by murdering his houseguest, a kindly old king? There are several possible explanations, some having to do with the sources Shakespeare used, and some having to do with the views and opinions of his patron, James VI of Scotland and James I of England, a monarch who brought the Scottish Stuarts to the throne of England, thereby uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England.

Shakespeare’s primary source was the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande . . . faithfully gathered and set forth by Raphaell Holinshed, published in 1586. To explain the difficulty in ascertaining the truth in ancient documents, Allardyce Nicholl and Josephine Nicholl, in Holinshed’s Chronicle as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays, write

that Holinshed has his grievous shortcomings need hardly be emphasized. In the first place, it must be understood that the modern ways of scholarship, although they were being dimly recognised at this period, were still confused by gossip, rumor, and anecdote, which, in the Middle Ages, had stood for history. The medieval mind was credulous; the characteristic of the modern mind is scientific acumen, and this the chroniclers of the Elizabethan period hardly possessed.32


In the Chronicles, Holinshed calls Macbeth “a valiant gentleman, and one that if he had not beene somewhat cruell of nature, might haue beene thought most woorthie the gouernement of a realme,” while he portrays Duncan as “so soft and gentle of nature, that the people wished the inclinations and maners of these two cousins to haue beene so tempered and interchangeablie bestowed betwixt these two extremities . . . The beginning of Duncans reigne was verie quiet and peaceable, without anie notable trouble; but after it was perceiued how negligent he was in punishing offendors, manie misruled persons tooke occasion thereof to trouble the peace and quiet state of the commonwealth, by seditious commotions.”33 In writing the Chronicles, Holinshed used the accounts of previous writers, including John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon. Adam says that John was one of the first scientific Scots historians, “the first writer with the historical curiosity and literary skill equal to the task of gathering together all the available evidence of Scottish history before his time – he wrote probably in the 1380’s – and of weaving it into a narrative story.” There is also, in Holinshed’s Chronicles, evidence of research gleaned from Prior Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil, the first popular history of Scotland, which was published about forty years after Scotichronicon. Neither Lady Macbeth nor Banquo are mentioned in either of these accounts, but the murder of Duncan, Malcolm’s flight to England and Donalbain’s decampment to the Isles, the expulsion of Macduff, and the expedition of Malcolm and Siward that results in Macbeth fleeing northward, are mentioned in both publications. To these accounts, Prior Andrew adds the three weird sisters, the moving woods of “Brynnane,” and the killing of Macbeth by a knight who “was nevyr borne.”34 This account by Prior Andrew of Macbeth’s death is clearly the inspiration for these Shakespearean lines:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.”35

Although Lady Macbeth and Banquo are not present in John’s or Prior Andrew’s accounts, Shakespeare did not invent these characters, for they first appear in the history of Hector Boece (“which has a well-deserved reputation for mendacity and invention,” according to Adam), who was Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen, about a century after Prior Andrew.36 In trying to relate the history of eleventh-century Scotland with the sixteenth-century writings of Shakespeare, Adam says: “Banquo is unknown to the historian, and we know nothing that would lead us to tax Gruoch with the deeds of a Lady Macbeth.”37 But these histories, which contain tales of Macbeth and his reign, were published three hundred years after Macbeth’s death. This gap between events and the chronicling of them, coupled with the lack of documentary evidence nearer to Macbeth’s time, leave the accuracy of these historical documents open to critical examination. So why, then, have such hostile legends collected around Macbeth? Adam ventures one guess: “We must remember that Macbeth was a man of Moray, and that Moray remained the great danger to the Normanizing, Anglicizing house of Malcolm Ceann-mor for almost a century after his death. It would have been surprising if memory had not, among the new ruling aristocracy, come to tinge the story of Duncan with a tragic color which contemporaries had not seen, if it had not projected on to the greatest maormaer of Moray something of the hatred and fear which the stubborn Celtic rearguard inspired.”38 Similarly, Roberts suggests that subsequent Canmore kings waged a concerted campaign to discredit Macbeth by employing their court poets to use propaganda to attack Macbeth, and that these attacks eventually found their way to Holinshed’s Chronicles.39

Accommodating a patron’s vanity

Although Anglo-Saxon dominated history has not been kind to Macbeth’s memory, Shakespeare vilified Macbeth even more so than his sources, presumably because of his patronage by James I. Just months after his ascension to the throne, King James declared Shakespeare’s acting company, formerly Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to be the King’s Men. Macbeth seems an appreciative gesture to the new king for his patronage, since King James was under the delusion that he was descended from Banquo. Shakespeare pandered to King James’s fantasy – that he was descended from a man about which there is no historical evidence of having ever existed – by altering Holinshed’s account of Banquo’s role in the murder of King Duncan by eliminating Banquo’s complicity with Macbeth. Then, Shakespeare has Macbeth kill Banquo in an effort to prevent another prophesy of the weird sisters from coming true, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none,”40 thus making Macbeth the murderer of King James’s supposed honorable ancestor. To further denigrate Macbeth’s character, Shakespeare makes Duncan a “mature and virtuous king, and Scotland under the tyrant Macbeth is in the grip of a nightmare from which it will eventually awaken into the happy rule of Banquo’s descendants.”41 With Macbeth, Shakespeare accommodated his patron’s vanity by producing an Oliver Stone-like docudrama of Macbeth’s life.

He slue the king

There are several versions of Duncan’s death, and here again Shakespeare diverged from his sources. Holinshed wrote that Macbeth, spurred into action by his ambitious wife, “burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a queene,” and with the aid of his friends, “amongst whome Banqunho was the chiefest,” killed Duncan and proclaimed himself king. 42 In Holinshed’s version of history, Macbeth was prepared to benignly wait for the weird sisters’ third prophesy to come true, until Duncan scotched his plans by making his eldest son the next in line to the throne:

Malcolme, prince of Cumberland, as it were thereby to appoint him his successor in the kingdome, immediatelie after his deceasse. Mackbeth sore troubled herewith, for that he saw by this means his hope sore hindered (where, by the old lawes of the realme, the ordinance was, that if he that should succeed were not of able age to take the charge vpon himselfe, he that was next of blood vnto him should be admitted) he began to take counsell how he might vsurpe the kindome by force, hauing a iust quarrell so to doo (as he tooke the matter) for that Duncane did what in him lay to defraud him of all maner of title and claime, which he might in time to come, pretend vnto the crowne.43

The actual killing of Duncan by Macbeth rates only one sentence in Holinshed’s Chronicles: “He slue the king at Enuerns, or (as some say) at Botgosuane, in the sixt yeare of his reigne.”44 Shakespeare’s version of Duncan’s murder is actually Holinshed’s story of Donwald’s murder of Macduff. Holinshed’s source for Macduff’s murder appears to be Boece, who recounted “the assassination of King Duff by the lord of the castle of Forres, where the details are given in almost similar terms.”45

Remarkable if it were otherwise

Far from being butchered while he slumbered, serious historians such as Barrow and A. A. M. Duncan agree that King Duncan was killed in 1040 at Pitgaveny, near Elgin, during a battle against the rebellious men of Moray, but there is not enough evidence to claim that Macbeth himself killed Duncan.46 Richard Oram, in Scotland’s Kings and Queens, says that Duncan was killed by Macbeth’s troops,47 and John Fines suggests in Who’s Who in the Middle Ages that Macbeth had the support of his countrymen during this and other battles because his claim to the crown of Scotland (through his wife and mother) was sound, and because he represented Celtic Scotland (which wished to remain independent), while the Argyll Scots sought an alliance with Saxon England.48 Even if Macbeth did kill King Duncan, it would be scarcely newsworthy, as Duncan explains: “That he was responsible for the death of his predecessor or predecessors calls for little remark in eleventh-century Scotland; it would be more remarkable if it were otherwise.”49 Macbeth’s fatal mistake was allowing Duncan’s young sons, Malcolm and Donald Ban, to escape to exile after their father was killed. Macbeth was able to fend off several attacks by sympathizers of the adolescent Malcolm, including an assault by Crinan, the father of Duncan I, in 1045. Malcolm and Siward, Earl of Northumberland (a cousin of Duncan I by marriage), defeated Macbeth in a battle in 1054, forcing him to give up some of his southern territory. Macbeth survived the battle but retreated north, where he remained ruler of Moray. It was Malcolm, as an adult, who finally killed Macbeth at Lumphanan in 1057. Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach “the fatuous,” was the new king, but Malcolm became king when he dispensed with Lulach after only several months on the throne.50

Do not dismiss the possibles in history

There is little evidence to suggest that Macbeth was the evil usurper of power as portrayed by Shakespeare and the King’s Men, and it can be construed as a tragedy that Shakespeare vilified Macbeth, maligning his good name without justification. The fragmentary documentary evidence that does exist suggests that Duncan was not an exemplary ruler, and that Macbeth’s mother and his wife provided him at least two ties to the throne of Scotland. If the absence of negative publicity can be interpreted as “no news is good news,” then he was a worthy ruler, certainly better than his predecessor or many of his successors. But if not for Shakespeare, Macbeth would be nothing more than an historical footnote to the history of Scotland, no more known to most of the world than King Edgar.51 “All publicity is good, except an obituary,” said Brendan Behan52 but even Macbeth’s obituary serves his reputation well. After he killed Macbeth, Malcolm “had the good grace to bury him on Iona, traditional resting-place of kings,”53 and Marsden sees Macbeth’s burial on Iona as confirmation of his right to the throne of Scotland.54 Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth is an enduring one, and we will probably never know much more about the historical Macbeth than we do now, but the Inverness Courier makes a valid point when it asks us to accept these historical limitations and “to accept that historic proof is a rarity, but by the same token we must be careful not to dismiss the possibles in history.”55 With such scant documentary evidence of Macbeth and his reign it is “the possibles in history” that bind the historical details into a meaningful story.