Friday, 28 September 2012

Who Was The Real Macbeth?

The Real Macbeth of Scotland
Shakespeare’s play was based (and I use the word ‘based’ loosely) on an actual 11th century Scottish king, who did, indeed, murder his way to the top. 

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that regicide was not at all uncommon during this era. Subsequently,  monarchs of Europe did not usually reign for decades. In fact, they were, often, on the throne for very short periods.

How Did Macbeth Find His Way to Power?

The real Macbeth, who was known in his native 11th century Scotland as Mac Bethad and nicknamed The Red King, succeeded King Duncan, just as Shakespeare’s Macbeth does. However, unlike the old Duncan of Shakespeare’s play, the real Duncan was still called 'youthful' at the time of his death, in 1040.

This early passing occurred in August of that year, during a battle, and it was Mac Bethad who struck the fatal blow.

Shortly after Duncan’s death, his wife fled Scotland with her sons: Malcolm (who would become Malcolm III of Scotland) and Donald. Mac Bethad was crowned, without any serious opposition, although it is fair to assume that he wasn’t a popular choice with everyone - very few kings were!

The Real Macbeth’s Reign

The real King Duncan was nothing like
the old man of Shakespeare's play
Mac Bethad reigned for some seventeen years; a long time for the era. Duncan, in comparison, was only king for six measly years. In fact, Mac Bethad felt so secure on his throne that he took a pilgrimage to Rome, something no sane man would do if he feared being usurped.

Apparently, while in Rome, he was very generous, giving the impoverished Roman citizens money, ‘as if it were seed’. Something we would not expect from the despot, child-murdering, bloodthirsty Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

The truth is that no source from the period refers to Mac Bethad as a tyrant.

Even Malcolm III, who’s father was killed by Mac Bethad don’t forget, referred to him as ‘Mac Bethad the renowned’. And in Duan Albanach (a Gaelic poem written between 1058 and 1090), he is called, ‘the generous king’.

Nevertheless, in 1054, the Earl of Nothumbria, Siward, led an invasion into Scotland. There followed a conflict that waged for several years and, eventually, Mac Bethad was wounded in battle by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and died several days later in Scone.

Who Succeeded Macbeth?

It was Mac Bethad’s step-son, Lulach, (who was not graced with nicknames as favourable as his predecessor), who took the throne after his step-father’s death. 

Known as ‘foolish’, ’simple-minded’, and ‘unfortunate’, his reign was short and, probably, not very sweet. Crowned on the 15th of August 1057, he ruled for just seven months, before being assassinated. He was succeeded by Malcolm III.

Who Was the Real Lady Macbeth?

Was the real Lady Macbeth anything
like Shakespeare's? | Dame Judi Dench
Mac Bethad’s wife was a widow named Grouch. Very little is known about her life or death, except that she was married to Gille Coemgáin, with whom she had a son, Lulach. 

In 1032, Coemgáin was killed in a fire, which also claimed the lives of fifty of his men.

It has been suggested that Coemgáin was, in fact, killed by Mac Bethad in an act of vengeance for the murder of his father. Whether or not Coemgáin was responsible for the murder of Mac Bethad’s father or if Coemgáin’s death was at the hands of Mac Bethad is something we’ll probably never know for certain. 

Regardless, Mac Bethad took Coemgáin’s widow, Grouch, as his wife. 

As far as is known, the pair never had any children, but, given that Lulach succeed his step-father, it’s fair to say that Mac Bethad had a fairly good relationship with his wife’s son. 

Of course, whether or not Grouch and Mac Bethad’s marriage resembled the loving bond shared by the Macbeths (at the beginning of the play at least), is just one more thing that we’ll never know.

If you'd like to know more about Macbeth the man or the play, be sure to check out What's it All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

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