The Scottish Macbeth in Reality and Fiction


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Macbeth was a Scottish ruler in the Middle Ages, who ruled for over a decade as the king. The character of Macbeth created by Shakespeare was a cold-hearted, power-thirsty person who slew others for the throne. As odd as it may seem, Shakespeare does not present what Macbeth was like in reality. Was he a kind and forgiving king who could leave his kingdom for a while and come back to it?

Painting of Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches for the first time.
Macbeth in reality was a successful king who won the throne in a fair battle, not the tyrant as presented by Shakespeare in his play. (Image: Théodore Chassériau/Public domain)

When the Middle Ages arrived, Scotland had undergone many influences: the Celtic-speaking Picts in the northeast, the Celtic-speaking Britons in the southwest, the Germanic-speaking Angles in the southeast, the Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the far north and the western islands, and the Celtic-speaking Gaels with their Irish heritage living everywhere in Scotland.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Pictish and Irish areas merged and, finally, created a unitary Scottish kingdom with Gaelic dominance. Over centuries, this core attracted the other chaotic regions of different ethnicities. As much as some Scots wanted a powerful king to rule the whole country, they disagreed on who that king should be. One powerful king had to emerge, so Macbeth did.

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Macbeth, the Celtic Ruler

Macbeth reminds the modern world of Shakespeare’s character: the cruel villain who would kill happily. However, Macbeth in reality was just a normal Celtic ruler whose norms were alien to the people of the next decades and centuries. Why? Because these people were under the influence of English political and cultural norms.

Macbeth was born around 1005 into the newly consolidated Scottish kingdom. His father was the ruler of Moray, an important territory in the north of Scotland, and his maternal grandfather was King Malcolm II. The Scottish system of succession to the throne created lots of internal conflicts but was the norm of that culture.

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The Scottish System of Succession

Painting of Macbeth at the fort of Macduff.
The succession rules in Scotland usually led to battles that turned brothers against each other. (Image: Marshall, H. E. (Henrietta Elizabeth), b. 1876/Public domain)

When a king died in Scotland, the next king needed to be related to the old one, but also prove that he was the best choice. Thus, many brothers, uncles, and nephews, and other competent relatives would fight over the throne to prove their superiority. Macbeth did the same.

When King Malcolm died in 1034, Duncan, another grandson, became the king. He ruled for six years until Macbeth killed him and got the throne. The paradox happens here. Macbeth did not do what the play says, and he only killed Duncan in a fair battle over the throne. Another point is that Duncan started the battle when he invaded Macbeth’s territory in the north. Maybe the reason was Macbeth’s claim to the throne.

Macbeth as the King

When Macbeth won the legal battle and became the king through the normal Scottish way, he began a successful reign. He ruled for 17 years, and after a decade, he went on a pilgrimage trip for months. In the 11th century, it was such a big risk to leave one’s kingdom for a trip to Rome unless the king was sure nothing would happen.

Macbeth left Scotland in the capable hands of his wife, Gruoch, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. A report shows that all the poor were being taken care of during Macbeth’s reign. This image is very different from Shakespeare’s ruthless Macbeth. After 17 years, he lost the throne as he had gained it.

Malcolm Canmore

Malcolm III, the son of Duncan, defeated Macbeth in a battle and became the new king. He lived as an exile in England before he decided to claim the Scottish throne. His nickname was Malcolm Canmore, which means “big head” in Celtic and shows his leadership ability. Malcolm joined forces with his uncle Siward, the Northumbrian earl. The combined Northumbrian and Scottish army defeated Macbeth in Dunsinane but had to wait several years to kill him.

Macbeth retreated northward and was captured and killed after several years. Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, the son of Gruoch by a prior marriage, ruled for a year afterward until Malcolm gained the throne. He established a reasonably stable dynasty that led to the creation of the Scottish kingdom under English influence, not Celtic elements.

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The English Influence on Scotland

As explained before, Malcolm got help from his uncle, Earl Siward of Northumbria, which shows Scotland and England had relations at the time. Scottish exiles were sent to England, where they were sheltered. Thus, Scotland was also nice to English exiles, as a result of which a famous family of English exiles entered Scotland.

This family brought along the beginning of a significant external impact to Scotland. English and Scottish histories began to mingle more at this point. Thus, the Scottish Macbeth appeared in the English Shakespeare’s play. The fact that Macbeth in reality was a very different character shows the English influence of what people thought of Scottish history.

Common Questions about The Scottish Macbeth in Reality and Fiction

Q: Who was Macbeth?

Macbeth in reality was a Scottish king and the foundation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. However, the fictional Macbeth is much crueler than the real one.

Q: Is Shakespeare’s Macbeth inspired by a real character?

Yes. Shakespeare’s Macbeth represents a king, but Macbeth in reality was a positively different character and not as wicked as depicted in the play.

Q: Was Macbeth as ruthless as in the play?

No. Macbeth in reality was a much more reasonable and much less cruel king who ruled for a long time after he fairly won the crown in a battle.

Q: How did Macbeth become the king?

Even though in the play Macbeth is a tyrant who gets the crown by force, Macbeth in reality won a fair battle whose prize was the crown.

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