Magnus Magnusson: How did Shakespeare get Macbeth so wrong?

From a talk given by the historian and former 'Mastermind' presenter at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Macbeth is one of the many historical characters and events which I went in search of for my book: not perhaps the most important, but one of the most fascinating. I had a wonderful year in which I tracked down the story of Scotland for myself – history on the hoof, as it were. I quartered Scotland, and much of England, too, for that matter, because Scotland's story did not just happen in Scotland.

But let's get back to Macbeth – not Shakespeare's sinister creep, but the real Macbeth of history. Macbeth seems to have been a very capable king. He gave lavishly to the Church, which ensured him a good early press. Certainly, he felt secure enough to leave Scotland in 1050 and go on a pilgrimage to Rome where "he scattered his money like seed among the poor."

How did Shakespeare get Macbeth so wrong? It is worth asking, because it tells us a great deal about how history-writing happens. It's not as if Shakespeare made it all up – he took the story from the English chronicler Ralph Holinshed. Neither had Holinshed made it all up – he had got it from an apparently impeccable Scottish source: John of Fordun in his Latin Chronicle of the Scottish People.

Why? That's the real question. And it seems that we can put it all down to the spin-doctors – yes, they had them in the Middle Ages, too. The victorious Malcolm Canmore would start a dynasty whose brightest star was King David I, and the court propagandists of that dynasty were naturally anti-Macbeth. So while the pro-Macbeth stories lingered on in the folk history of the heartlands of his Moray constituency, the anti-Macbeth stories were assiduously broadcast by the Canmore lot.

It is an object lesson for everyone who claims to be an historian: that no text, however contemporary, however authoritative, is totally objective and impartial. Every text was, and still is, written for a particular purpose, and for a particular audience. The task of the historian is to tease out the fact from the faction by understanding why a particular text was written.

Anyone interested in Scotland's saga comes up against this phenomenon over and over again – especially with William Wallace, who was written out of Scotland's history by the victorious Bruce dynasty lest his exploits dimmed the lustre of their patriot hero, King Robert Bruce.

It has often been said that what is actually known, in the strictly historical sense, about William Wallace could be written on three sheets of paper. We don't know where he was born. We don't know what turned him into an outlawed guerrilla fighter, or when. But Wallace has become, in every sense, a legend. But legend, especially in the way in which it is shaped by different generations, is often a metaphor for the times at which it has particular relevance to people. The Wallace phenomenon is a spectacular example of the power of folk memory in the making of history. Local traditions and stories about Wallace are still recalled in scores, hundreds even, of place-names associated with Wallace: trees, stones, hills, caves, roads, wells, and, of course, a thumb-print in a rock.

This kind of folk history enshrines a reality which has its own powerful significance – because it wasn't considered worthy of being written down by some of the historians who have acted on Scotland's behalf, the ordinary people took the process into their own hands. They refused to have Wallace written out of Scotland's annals. The people clung on to his memory through personal, local remembrance in the areas in which he had operated. And round the evening fires, ever more heroic stories accreted to the personage of William Wallace, until they were collected and written down nearly two centuries after his death by the minstrel Blind Harry in his celebrated quasi-historical epic, which formed the basis of that brilliant film, Braveheart. Today Scotland wants its past back.