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The Real Macbeth

Macbeth Essay

In this Macbeth essay, I’m going to discuss the real Macbeth. Most people know the character Macbeth from William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. What some of the bard’s fans might not realize, however, is that Macbeth was an actual person. Ole Will took a lot of “artistic license” when he wrote his play, and in fact, the real Macbeth was much different in real life than he was depicted in Shakespeare’s work. The plot in the Macbeth play is also somewhat different than what actually happened, historically speaking.

Scottish history is confusing. For one thing, the term “king” or “kingship” didn’t mean what it means now. In Macbeth’s day, Scotland was tribal. Each tribe had its own “righ,” or leader. Over all the righs, an ard righ, or high king, ruled. The righs and tribes often fought with each other, and even most high kings ruled for just a few years before being overthrown. Another confusing element is the names of the men and women who played a part in the historical events. History wasn’t always well documented in the 11th century, either, so please keep that in mind as you read this Macbeth essay.

Along with Hamlet, the play Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.

Along with Hamlet, the play Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.

Macbeth's Early Life

The character we know as Macbeth was born Mac Bethad mac Findlaich, sometime around the year 1005, in Moray. Moray is in northeastern Scotland, on the Moray Firth. His father was Findlaech mac Ruaidri, a Scottish lord. Many historians believe that Macbeth’s mother was Donada, the daughter of Malcolm II, high king of Scotland from 1005 until 1034. As was a custom of the nobles at the time, Macbeth was probably sent away at the age of seven to be educated and to be trained for battle. He would have returned to Moray at the age of seventeen.

Macbeth came from a family of rulers. His father was mormaer of Moray. The mormaer was the ruler of a region. Macbeth’s grandfather, Ruadhri, had also ruled Moray.

Macbeth had a castle at Inverness.

Macbeth had a castle at Inverness.

As king, Macbeth helped promote Christianity in Scotland.

As king, Macbeth helped promote Christianity in Scotland.

King Malcolm II and Duncan

King Malcolm II had no male heirs. He broke with tradition in two ways when he chose his grandson, Duncan, as his successor to the throne. Before Malcolm’s rule, only the male line could be selected for the throne, and the successor was chosen by tanistry. Tanistry required that the heir-apparent be chosen by an assembly, alternating the throne among different royal lines. The elected heir, called the Tanist, would be the next in line to be king. Duncan wasn’t selected by tanistry – he was chosen by Malcolm. Malcolm II was the first Scottish king to introduce achieving the throne directly through heredity.

Even though Malcolm’s choice of Duncan broke with tradition, the selection of Duncan as king seemed to be accepted. He was crowned in 1034, following the death of Malcolm. Duncan I wasn’t the aged king depicted in Macbeth. He was probably about thirty-three years old when he became king. He had two sons – Malcolm and Donalbane. Little is recorded about the first five years of Duncan’s reign, but in 1039, he and his army attacked Durham, a Northumbrian city in northeastern England, and the king barely escaped with his life. Thousands of his men were killed in the battle, which didn’t set well with the Scottish people.

Macbeth was crowned king in 1040.

Macbeth was crowned king in 1040.

King Macbeth - The Rise to Power

Remember – Macbeth was the son of the Mormaer of Moray, and Macbeth had been groomed to be a ruler and leader in his own right. When Macbeth was in his teens, his father’s role as mormaer was challenged by two kinsmen. Findlaech was killed, and his nephew, Malcolm (not King Malcolm), became mormaer. Malcolm died in 1029, however. Another of Macbeth’s cousins, Gillecomgain, became Mormaer of Moray. Gillecomgain’s rulership was cut short when he was killed in a fire, and Macbeth became Mormaer of Moray. Interestingly, Macbeth not only assumed Gillecomgain’s position, but he also married Gillecomgain’s wife, Gruoch.

Macbeth was one of Duncan’s dukes, and many have speculated that Macbeth wielded a lot of power. In 1040, Duncan led his army into Moray, which was Macbeth’s territory. Duncan was slain by Macbeth in the battle, and Macbeth became king. Malcolm, Duncan’s oldest son, was too young to be crowned, according to Celtic law. He was only nine at the time, and the minimum age required for kingship was seventeen.

According to most historical accounts, Macbeth wasn’t the dastardly villain depicted by Shakespeare. On the contrary, he appeared to be brave, reasonable, and generous. Under his rule, Scotland enjoyed law and order and stability. As a follower of Christianity, Macbeth made at least one pilgrimage to Rome during his reign, and while there, he gave large amounts of silver to the poor.

Macbeth died of battle wounds in 1057.

Macbeth died of battle wounds in 1057.

The Death of Macbeth

At some point after Duncan’s death, his widow and her sons left Scotland and went to England. We know that the oldest son, Malcolm Canmore, wound up in the court of the English King, Edward the Confessor. Malcolm came around to believing that the Scottish throne was rightfully his, and when he became old enough, he raised an army to challenge Macbeth’s reign.

In 1054, Malcolm and his uncle, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, and their armies arrived in Scotland on ships and on horses. The two divisions converged on the Plains of Gowrie to meet Macbeth’s forces, and Macbeth was defeated. This is where it gets really confusing. Some historians believe that the Malcolm with Siward at the time was not Malcolm, son of Duncan. Either way, it appears that Malcolm was made king of southern Scotland, while Macbeth retained rule of northern Scotland.

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In 1057, Macbeth and Malcolm met in battle again, this time at the Battle of Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. Macbeth was seriously wounded and died several days later as a result. Upon the death of Macbeth, his stepson, Lulach, was crowned king. Shortly thereafter, Lulach was killed by Malcolm Canmore, and Malcolm became King Malcolm III.

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Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on November 08, 2019:

Tonia, I think I got it from Photoxpress.

Tonia on November 08, 2019:

Is the picture of Swallow Castle free of royalties? I would love to use the silhouette of it in the background of an enchanted forest oil painting I will soon attempt.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 30, 2017:

No, Eric, that's not Macbeth's castle. I just used it as an example of a castle. Thanks for reading!

Eric James on July 30, 2017:

Surely the castle with the caption 'Macbeth had a castle in Inverness' is not in Scotland. It appears to be the so-called "Swallow Castle" in the Ukraine.

Heather on August 23, 2016:

The castle depicted is the Swallow's Nest which is located at Gaspra, a small spa town between Yalta and Alupka, in Crimea, and built around 1911.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on April 21, 2016:

I didn't have a photo of Inverness, which is why I left the pic's caption rather vague. I didn't say that castle was at Inverness. I would love to see Inverness! What was it like?

Mari Ann Bell on April 21, 2016:

In no stretch of your imagination is the picture of the castle Inverness.I have been there and this is not it .

Droenna on August 24, 2015:

I was about to write that the castle is not in Scotland but have just noticed the remark above. Rb is correct, it's Swallow's Nest and I've been there. It does make me wonder how things end up on the net and lots of people are none the wiser. It's probably been reposted thousands of times. How can it be taken off?

Rb on February 22, 2015:

The castle you posted is called the Swallow's Nest, and it's located in Sevastopal, Crimea, Ukraine

Tina on March 24, 2012:

I need to know how Duncan abbarach mcgregor was related to rob Roy mcgregor thanks! Please help

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on February 07, 2012:

Great article, you learn something every day. What a fascinating man, just a small part of Scotland's illustrious history. Voted up.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 03, 2011:

Danielle, nice to meet you! You're right, of course - most folks wouldn't be interested in Macbeth at all if it weren't for Shakespeare's play. Thanks for visiting!

Danielle Farrow from Scotland, UK on October 03, 2011:

Great to see this clear account - thank you. I'm a Shakespeare fan, but his main source, Holinshed, already cast Macbeth in a bad light (including with evil witches), and the Bard certainly didn't tell history in his play - brilliant though it is.

I wonder if anyone would have an interest in Macbeth, let alone Gruoch, if it weren't for Shakespeare, though?

As for the age question - Macbeth would have been the same age or older than Duncan when he became king so whatever is said of one could be said of the other.

It is very interesting to consider Lady M as mother when she speaks of dashing her babe's brains out. This is often played as referring to a dead child of Macbeth, but history casts a different light on that: the taunting of a woman who has proved herself to a husband still without issue! Of course, without any reference to this, it is nigh impossible to play in practice.

Brilliant to find another fan of the play who also knows the history - thanks again!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

drbj, thanks for the tidbit about Gruoch. I had no idea! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

MM, thanks so much for reading my Macbeth essay. I almost feel like I'm back in front of a class! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

Thanks, Clover. I really miss teaching British lit!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

Hi, Rob! I knew about the Macbeth-bad luck thing, but thanks for reminding me.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

Helengi, I thought about the age thing, too. The thing is, though, that back then, some people did live to be 70 or 80. It's just that the average life span was very low because so many died as infants and children. At least, that's what I read. Wow - I envy your visit to Inverness!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 27, 2011:

Thanks, Cardisa. I've always enjoyed history, but I like literature even more. That's how I became interested in Macbeth.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 22, 2011:

Somewhere, Holle, Macbeth is smiling as he reads this genuine history of his reign that you so well describe. Just one addition though. Gillecomgain's wife's name, Gruoch, was based on her disposition. What a grouch! Just thought I'd set the record straight. Heh, heh.

MM Del Rosario from NSW, Australia on September 22, 2011:

Thanks for the history lesson, well done for the research.

Cloverleaf from Calgary, AB, Canada on September 21, 2011:

Hi Habee,

Ah, Macbeth...your hub takes me back to my school days in English Literature class. You've done some impressive research here, well done.


Rob from Oviedo, FL on September 21, 2011:

Hi Habee; I've also heard that the real macbeth was a good king, not the schemer and murderer that he was portrayed as by Shakespeare. As much as I love Shakespeare, its a pity that the real Macbeth will carry that stigma forever.

Parenthetically, did you know that stage actors won't say the name Macbeth because they think it's bad luck to say it aloud?


Helengi from London, England on September 21, 2011:

A very interesting read. I had a thought though that circa 1020 a man in his 30s might be considered old. I've been to Inverness and to Drumnadrochit (apparently the best place to spot the Loch Ness Monster - I did not spot it) and there is a castle which looks out over the Loch. I have never been so cold in all my life and even in the covered rooms it was still freezing. It really is no wonder that they didn't live very long! I have lived in England for 14 years so thought it would be ok but no, it was absolutely freezing!

Carolee Samuda from Jamaica on September 21, 2011:

You really know your stuff. I'm not very good with history myself but I do like literature so I was interested to know about the real Macbeth.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 20, 2011:

Many thanks, Homestead!

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on September 20, 2011:

I don't even like history, and I enjoyed your hub. It was very interesting and very well presented.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 20, 2011:

Hi, Larry! Many thanks for your kind words. I love Scottish history because my family came from Scotland. Actually, I guess I find just about all history interesting. lol

Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on September 20, 2011:

Hi Holle...Wonderful capture the essence of history with clear and concise writing that holds the readers attention to the very end...

History is my passion, and to read your well-constructed essays is always a pleasure...

Scottish ( and Irish ) history is very confusing because of the poorly written records that survive...Ambiguity, dishonesty, and jealousy were the main culprits for this confusion...And, as we know, history is written by the victors...Voted up and interesting...Thanks, Larry

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on September 20, 2011:

Thanks, Dusty. I became interested in Macbeth because I taught the play in my Brit lit class.

50 Caliber from Arizona on September 20, 2011:

Holle, a great history lesson that is well written [you knew that already I'm sure] I have little knowledge of the history of the kings and queens, you just upped my brain into an interesting topic. Pretty cool and different from my cowboy and wild west studies. You could sway me into these histories easily! voted up



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