By Jackie Cosh
Scotland Magazine, Issue 13 (2004)
Introduction: In August 1606 William Shakespeare presented his new play to King James I at Hampton Court. Macbeth, the story of a tyrant king whose ambitions lead him to commit murder, was to become one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies.
The name “Macbeth” was not unfamiliar but the story was. For unlike his fictional namesake, the real Macbeth was anything but a ruthless, unpopular king. Born around 1005, Macbeth was the son of Findlaech, chieftain of Moray. The name Macbeth was not his surname but his given name and translates from Gaelic as “son of life”.
His mother was Donada, second daughter of King Malcolm II. His wife, known simply as Gruoch not Lady Macbeth, was a granddaughter of King Kenneth III. Gruoch was the widow of Macbeth’s cousin.
While Shakespeare’s Duncan was a strong, wise, old man, in reality King Duncan was probably the opposite. According to historian Raphael Holinshead, Duncan was a weak and ineffective ruler, probably aged about 30 when he died. Described as a spoilt and overzealous young man, his reign was one of failed wars, with many Scottish casualties.
Macbeth was Duncan’s cousin and had as good a claim to the throne as Duncan himself. While there are conflicting stories about the events leading up to Duncan’s murder, it does appear that many in Scotland were unhappy with Duncan as king. It was only a matter of time before someone challenged him, and this happened six years into his reign.
See also: Macbeth: A True Story, by Fiona Watson