Did Shakespeare Lie to Us?

Most of Shakespeare’s tale comes from Raphael Hollinshed’s “Chronicle of Scotland” (1580s) and John Bellenden’s translation of Hector Boece’s “History and Chronicles of Scotland” (1536), the only histories readily available at that time. These works were based upon the writings of Andrew of Wyntoun, who got the tale from Fordun, a Celtic historian who surely used the annals from Ireland and Northumbria as well as texts we no longer have, along with 300 years worth of folklore and legend. So the Bard did do his research. However, he exercised poetic license in painting Lady Macbeth as an evil, conniving queen who urged her husband to commit murder in order to gain power. That story is found several pages prior to Macbeth’s in one of the histories, and it is attributed to a different Celtic queen. Shakespeare obviously borrowed it to add an interesting dimension to his play.

The three weird sisters who counsel Macbeth also appear first in the account by Wyntoun, and they clearly represent the three Fates in the imagery of the day: the maiden, the matron, and the hag–the Past, the Present and the Future. This is considered by all scholars to be a literary device, and not historical.

As for Banquo, whose murder Macbeth supposedly arranged, there is no historical evidence that such a person existed. We don’t know that he didn’t–we simply can’t prove that he did. Since he is portrayed as the progenitor of the Stuart kings, this could well be a piece of revisionist history by those seeking to establish a noble forebear for the Stuart line.

And did Macduff lay on, slaying Macbeth and sticking his head on a pike? Again, there is no historical evidence for the person of Macduff. It may be that the person who actually killed Macbeth at the skirmish outside Lumphanan was named Macduff–we simply have no proof. As for cutting off his head and sticking it on a pike, it would not have been out of keeping with practices of the time–the Celts were head hunters, believing the severed heads of their enemies gave them power and status.

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