The shortest, and probably the most effective piece of drama Shakespeare wrote was Macbeth. Even the least educated among us will quote from this play, perhaps without knowing we are doing so. ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ ‘And good men’s lives expire before the feathers in their cap,’ ‘Double, double, toil and trouble . . .’ ‘Ring the alarum bell! – Blow wind, come wrack/ At least we’ll die with harness on our back.’ ‘I bear a charméd life, which must not yield/ to one of woman born.’ ‘Despair thy charm/and let the angel whom thou still hast served/tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped.’ Etcetera.
Like the Bard’s history plays, Macbeth is based on historical fact, though fact may not be as dramatic as the world’s greatest playwright modelled it. Macbeth, however, was indeed a king of Scotland. According to reliable documentation he was born in 1005 and died in 1057. He was a grandson of King Malcolm II, and a cousin of King Duncan, whom he wished to challenge for the Scottish throne. He was an aristocrat, Thane of Cawdor, and Glamis, Earl of Moray. He and his wife, the unattractively named Gruoch (granddaughter of Kenneth III), did not actually invite Duncan to stay with them at Dunsinane Castle following a battle.
Macbeth went into battle with Duncan at Elgin in 1040 and defeated him as bloodily as we have come to expect from Scottish conflict. During the appalling slaughter, Duncan was himself killed, and it might well be that Macbeth did the killing. But there was no ‘knives at midnight’ about it.
Now we know from the play that Macbeth had his best friend Banquo murdered, though Banquo’s sons would go on to rule Scotland. We also know that Macbeth sent soldiers to Macduff’s castle where they murdered his wife, son and servants. What we do not learn from the play is that Macbeth and his wife actually supported the Church generously and faithfully, even going on an official pilgrimage to Rome. There is not mention of this piety in Shakespeare.
We also know from the play that the demonised arch-villain was surprised at Dunsinane by ‘Birnam Wood’ arriving before the castle walls, one of the most startling of Shakespeare’s pieces of imagery. That it is what it is – imagery e.g. imaginary In fact Macbeth went out to battle at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire, miles from Dunsinane, and was killed by King Duncan’s son, who became King Malcolm III of Scotland by right of conquest. It is perfectly possible that the lord Macduff was present, but he did not kill Macbeth in one last terrific swordfight. It is also perfectly true that Malcolm’s younger brother Donalbaine (or Donald Bane) was plotting against him in order to take the throne. He may well have consulted the same three witches as Macbeth: ‘When shall we three meet again/ in thunder, lightning or in rain?’ ‘When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won!’
Malcolm Canmore, Malcolm III of Scotland was brought up with his brother Donald Bane at the court of the English King Edward the Confessor. He was born circa 1031 which makes him twenty-six years older than Macbeth, a considerable number of years in an epoch when ‘good men’s lives expire before the feathers in their caps’ and so on.
With the assistance of English troops Malcolm defeated Macbeth, but this happened in 1054. Macbeth is not recorded as dying until. There is a gap here of three years to be explained. Did Malcom and Donald Bane keep Macbeth prisoner during these thirty-six months and then waste him?
Malcolm married an English maiden, royal granddaughter of Ironside (Edmund II) King of Wessex. He always supported the Saxons in their continuing fight against the Norsemen, not a wise political move because it indirectly led to William the Duke of Normandy’s invasion fleet in 1066. Students must never forget that Normandy though apparently a part of France, was populated by Vikings as a colony of the men of Norway and Denmark. The battle of Hastings was won by William, defeating and killing Harold Godwinson, Saxon king of England. He made himself King William I of England, and did his level best to make England purely Norman. This included forcing the Law to be expressed in Latin or Norman French, and making the Court’s official language Norman French too.
Malcolm thought it wise (at first anyway) to accept William as king. Later he decided he had been wrong, and invaded England from Scotland no less than five times. William was fed up with this lèse majesté and on the fifth occasion personally defeated Malcolm and killed him near Alnwick in 1093, twenty-seven years after the Battle of Hastings.
Visitors to Northumberland, near the Scottish border, can visit the ancestral home of the Percy family, in their castle at Alnwick, which is in such good condition it was used in many scenes in the film series Harry Potter, playing the part of the modern witches’ school headmaster’d by Dumbledore.
Richard III, an early play of William Shakespeare’s, is on the other hand almost entirely fiction, put together to form one of the most perfect pieces of stage drama ever written.
Exciting and entertaining from the opening words * which of course you all know, the play vibrates the audience in any theatre and leaves it breathless. Factually speaking, it is Tudor propaganda from start to finish, as no factual evidence exists for its theories. Like Macbeth, Richard III makes wonderful filming. Olivier’s superb celluloid pantomime made in 1956 is always worth seeing, but please, recall that Shakespeare based his play on works written by Tudor historians whose job it was to glorify and excuse Henry Tudor for his usurpation of the throne. Elizabeth I (a Tudor) was Shakespeare’s queen and occasional patroness.