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Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth

Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth was Holinshed's Chronicles (Macbeth), who based his account of Scotland's history, and Macbeth's in particular, on the Scotorum Historiae, written in 1527 by Hector Boece. Other minor sources contributed to Shakespeare's dramatic version of history, including Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft, and Daemonologie, written in 1599 by King James I. Macbeth's words on dogs and men in Act 3, scene 1, (91-100), likely came from Colloquia, the memoirs of Erasmus (edition circa 1500). The plays of Seneca seem to have had great influence on Shakespeare, and, although no direct similarities to the work of Seneca can be seen in Macbeth, the overall atmosphere of the play and the depiction of Lady Macbeth can be attributed to the Latin author.

An examination of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s sources leads us to formulate several conclusions concerning the motives behind the dramatists alterations. It can be argued that the changes serve three main purposes: the dramatic purpose of producing a more exciting story than is found in the sources; the thematic purpose of creating a more complex characterization of Macbeth; and the political purpose of catering to the beliefs of the reigning monarch, King James the First. And, in the grander scheme, Shakespeare’s alterations function to convey the sentiment echoed in many of his works – that there is a divine right of kings, and that to usurp the throne is a nefarious crime against all of humanity.

In Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth is introduced as a valiant gentleman, and, as in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth is sent by King Duncan to crush the rebellion led by Mackdonwald. However, to ensure Macbeth is viewed early in the play as extraordinarily courageous, Shakespeare changes Macbeth’s role in the demise of Mackdonwald as presented in the Chronicles:
... [Mackdonwald] slue his wife and children, and lastlie himself, least if he had yeelded simplie, he should have beene executed in most cruell wise for an example to other. Macbeth entering into the castell by the gates, found the carcasse of Mackdonwald lieng dead there amongst the residue of the slaine bodies, which when he beheld, remitting no peece of his cruell nature with that pitiful sight, he caused the head to be cut off, and set upon a poles end, and so sent it as a present to the king.
Contrasting with the above passage, in the drama Macbeth has not simply stumbled upon the body of the rebel, he has instead heroically killed Mackdonwald in battle:
Captain: ... For brave Macbeth – well he
deserves that name – Disdaining Fortune, with his
brandish’d steel,
Which smok’d with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion carv’d out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which nev’r shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements (I.i.15-23).
In addition to the dramatic effect of making the report from the Captain more exciting, enhancing the bravery of Macbeth by altering his part in the defeat of Mackdonwald aids Shakespeare’s construction of Macbeth as a tragic hero. Our first impression of Macbeth must be one of grandeur; he must command our attention at once for what occurs in the rest of the play to be significant. As a brave warrior and leader, Macbeth is capable of taking others’ burdens upon himself. Our awareness of the strength and assuredness Macbeth possesses early in the drama is important when we later witness his downfall and mental decay to the point where he is not capable of handling even his own burdens.

To assist in his more complex interpretation of Macbeth, Shakespeare had to move outside of Holinshed’s account which gives no real analysis of Macbeth’s character or motivation. Shakespeare turned to George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia, and to other previous passages in Holinshed’s own work. Buchanan relays the following:
Macbeth was a man of penetrating genius, a high spirit, unbounded ambition, and, if he had possessed moderation, was worthy of any command however great; but in punishing crimes he exercised a severity, which, exceeding the bounds of the laws, appeared apt to degenerate into cruelty.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is indeed an intelligent man, ambitious and spirited. However, Shakespeare deviates from Buchanan’s depiction of Macbeth as a cruel, barbarous man, a notion also put forth by Holinshed. Despite the murders Macbeth will commit, Shakespeare presents him as a gentle, thoughtful man who can love wholeheartedly, as we see in his interactions with his wife. Lady Macbeth herself illustrates that Macbeth’s nature is "... too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,/Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it." (1.5.15-19)

The probable source for Macbeth’s feelings of guilt after he has murdered King Duncan comes mere pages before Holinshed’s report of Duncan and Macbeth. Here Holinshed relates the story of King Kenneth, tormented by a guilty conscience after he has butchered his nephew:
[A voice heard by the King] ‘Think not Kenneth that the wicked slaughter of Malcolme Duffe by thee contrived, is kept secret from the knowledge of the eternall God: thou art he that didst conspire the innocents death ... It shall therefore come to pass, that both thou thy self, and thy issue, through the just vengeance of almightie God, shall suffer woorthie punishment’ ... The King with this voice being striken into great dred and terror, passed the night without any sleep coming in his eyes. (Holinshed, 247)
Also apparent in Shakespeare’s text are elements of Buchanan’s dramatization of the voice King Kenneth hears:
At last, whether in truth an audible voice from heaven addressed him, as is reported, or whether it were the suggestion of his own guilty mind, as often happens to the wicked, in the silent watches of the night... (Buchanan, 310)
Clearly, the two aforementioned depictions of Kenneth’s experience are recognizable in Shakespeare’s Macbeth who is also plagued by a guilty conscience:
Macbeth: Methought, I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no
Macbeth doth murther Sleep,’ --the innocent Sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care ...
Still it cried ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the
‘Glamis hath murther’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more!’(II.II.32-41).
The dramatic purposes served by Shakespeare’s unique portrait of a compassionate, tender Macbeth, and his adaptation of Kenneth’s eerie story are obvious – who would care to sit through the play if Macbeth were the static character found in Holinshed? Alien voices make for spine-tingling drama, capturing the attention of even the most apathetic audience. But the changes also enhance the thematic content of the play, blurring the line between the two extremes of good and evil within Macbeth himself. His commiseration in the play, and his intense feelings of guilt before and after the regicide clash with his "passion or infatuation beyond the reach of reason’ that propels him to commit the murder. By representing Macbeth’s nature in this way, Shakespeare "rescues Macbeth from the category of melodramatic villain, the kind of character we can dismiss with a snap moral judgment, and elevates him to that of tragic hero .... toward whom we must exercise a most careful moral and human discrimination if we are to do him even partial justice" (Calderwood, 52).

The attention Shakespeare pays to Macbeth’s conscience would have been of particular interest to King James. In his book the Basilicon Doron, written to teach his son, Henry, the ways of morality and kingly duties, James discusses the human conscience at great length, beginning with the statement: "Conscience ... it is nothing els but the light of knowledge that God hath planted in man; which choppeth him with a feeling that hee hath done wrong when ever he committeth any sinne ..." (Basilicon Doron, 17). Certainly Shakespeare was well-acquainted with this short but popular didactic treatise, and, keeping in mind that Macbeth was specifically written as entertainment for the royal court, Shakespeare’s inclusion of Macbeth’s guilty conscience was a way in which he could both intrigue and compliment King James.

Continue to Part 2 of Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < >.


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Notes on Macbeth

King James VI and I And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That two-fold balls and treble sceptres carry:
Horrible sight!
                  Macbeth (4.1) - written 1605-06

One can connect Shakespeare's patron, King James I, to almost every significant dramatic alteration Shakespeare made to his source material on the historical Macbeth, as we can see in Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth. But fascinating contemporary references and compliments to James also are found throughout the play, including the above passage. Read on...


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