Shakespeare’s sources - Macbeth

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Shakespeare’s sources


Shakespeare’s chief source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587 edition). Holinshed had gone for most of his material to Hector Boece, Scotorum Historiae (1526—1527), who in turn was indebted to a fourteenth-century priest named John of Fordun and to a fifteenth-century chronicler, Andrew of Wyntoun. By the time Holinshed found it, the story of Macbeth had become more fiction than fact. The historical Macbeth, who ruled from 1040 to 1057, did take the throne by killing Duncan, but in a civil conflict between two clans contending for the kingship. Contemporary observers credit him with having been a good ruler. Although he was defeated by the Earl of Northumbria (the Siward of Shakespeare’s play) at Birnam Wood in 1054, the Earl was forced by his own losses to retire, and Macbeth ruled three years longer before being slain by Duncan’s son Malcolm. Banquo and Fleance are fictional characters apparently invented by Boece.

In Holinshed’s telling of the story, Duncan is a king with a soft and gentle nature, negligent in punishing his enemies and thereby an unwitting encourager of sedition. It falls to his cousin, Macbeth, a critic of this soft line, and to Banquo, the Thane of Lochaber, to defend Scotland against her enemies: first against Macdowald (Macdonwald in Shakespeare), with his Irish kerns and gallowglasses, and then against Sueno, King of Norway. (Shakespeare fuses these battles into one.) Shortly thereafter, Macbeth and Banquo encounter “three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world,” who predict their futures as in the play. Although Macbeth and Banquo jest about the matter, common opinion later maintains that “these women were either the Weird Sisters, that is (as ye would say), the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies endued with knowledge of prophecy.” Certainly Macbeth soon becomes the Thane of Cawdor, whereupon, jestingly reminded of the three sisters’ promise by Banquo, he resolves to seek the throne. His way is blocked, however, by Duncan’s naming of his eldest but still underage son Malcolm to be Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne. Macbeth’s resentment at this is understandable, since Scottish law provides that, until the King’s son is of age, the “next of blood unto him”—that is, Macbeth himself, as Duncan’s cousin—should reign. Accordingly, Macbeth begins to plot with his associates how to usurp the kingdom by force. His “very ambitious” wife urges him on because of her “unquenchable desire” to be queen. Banquo is one among many trusted friends with whose support Macbeth slays the King at Inverness or at Bothgowanan. (No mention is made of a visit to Macbeth’s castle.) Malcolm and Donald Bane, the dead King’s sons, fly for their safety to Cumberland, where Malcolm is well received by Edward the Confessor of England; Donald Bane proceeds on to Ireland.

Holinshed’s Macbeth is at first no brutal tyrant, as in Shakespeare. For some ten years he rules well, using great liberality and correcting the laxity of his predecessor’s reign. (Holinshed does suggest, to be sure, that his justice is only contrived to court popularity among his subjects.) Inevitably, however, the Weird Sisters’ promise of a posterity to Banquo goads Macbeth into ordering the murder of his onetime companion. Fleance escapes Macbeth’s henchmen in the dark and afterward founds the lineage of the Stuart kings. (This genealogy is fictitious.) Macbeth’s vain quest for absolute power further causes him to build Dunsinane fortress. When Macduff refuses to help, the King turns against him and would kill him except that “a certain witch, whom he had in great trust,” tells the King he need never fear a man born of woman nor any vanquishment till Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane. Macduff flees for his safety into England and joins Malcolm, whereupon Macbeth’s agents slaughter Macduff’s wife and children at Fife. Malcolm, fearing that Macduff may be an agent of Macbeth, dissemblingly professes to be a voluptuary, miser, and tyrant, but, when Macduff responds as he should in righteous sorrow at Scotland’s evil condition, Malcolm reveals his steadfast commitment to the cause of right. These leaders return to Scotland and defeat Macbeth at Birnam Wood, with their soldiers carrying branches before them. Macduff, proclaiming that he is a man born of no woman since he was “ripped out” of his mother’s womb, slays Macbeth.

Despite extensive similarities, Shakespeare has made some significant changes. Duncan is no longer an ineffectual king. Macbeth can no longer justify his claim to the throne. Most important, Banquo is no longer partner in a broadly based though secret conspiracy against Duncan. Banquo is, after all, ancestor of James I (at least according to this legendary history), and so his hands must be kept scrupulously clean; King James disapproved of all tyrannicides, whatever the circumstances. Macbeth is no longer a just lawgiver. The return of Banquo’s ghost to Macbeth’s banqueting table is an added scene. Macbeth hears the prophecy about Birnam Wood and Macduff from the Weird Sisters, not, as in Holinshed, from some witch. Lady Macbeth’s role is considerably enhanced, and her sleepwalking scene is original. Shakespeare compresses time, as he usually does.

In making some of these alterations, Shakespeare turned to another story in Holinshed’s chronicle of Scotland: the murder of King Duff by Donwald. King Duff, never suspecting any treachery in Donwald, often spends time at the castle of Forres, where Donwald is captain of the castle. On one occasion, Donwald’s wife, bearing great malice toward the King, shows Donwald (who already bears a grudge against Duff) “the means whereby he might soonest accomplish” the murder. The husband and wife ply Duff’s few chamberlains with much to eat and drink. Donwald abhors the act “greatly in heart” but perseveres “through instigation of his wife.” Four of Donwald’s servants actually commit the murder under his instruction. Next morning, Donwald breaks into the King’s chamber and slays the chamberlains, as though believing them guilty. Donwald is so overzealous in his investigation of the murder that many lords begin to suspect him of having done it. For six months afterward, the sun refuses to appear by day and the moon by night.

The chronicle accounts in Holinshed of Malcolm and Edward the Confessor supplied Shakespeare with further details. A more important supplementary source may have been George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582), a Latin history not translated in Shakespeare’s lifetime, presenting a more complex psychological portrait of the protagonist than in Holinshed. Finally, Shakespeare may have used King James I’s Daemonology (1597), John Studley’s early-seventeenth-century version of Seneca’s Medea, Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), and accounts of the Scottish witch trials published around 1590.



(1587 EDITION)

Compiled by Raphael Holinshed



[King Duff of Scotland, having been restored to health from a sickness in which the magical practice of witches is said to have played a part, undertakes a campaign into Morayland against the rebels there. He apprehends them and brings them back to the royal castle at Forres to be hanged as traitors.]

Amongst them there were also certain young gentlemen, right beautiful and goodly personages, being near of kin unto Donwald, captain of the castle, and had been persuaded to be partakers with the other rebels more through the fraudulent counsel of divers wicked persons than of their own accord. Whereupon the foresaid Donwald, lamenting their case, made earnest labor and suit to the King to have begged their pardon; but having a plain denial, he conceived such an inward malice towards the King (though he showed it not outwardly at the first) that the same continued still boiling in his stomach1 and ceased not till, through setting on of his wife and in revenge of such unthankfulness, he found means to murder the King within the foresaid castle of Forres where he used to sojourn. For the King, being in that country, was accustomed to lie most commonly within the same castle, having a special trust in Donwald as a man whom he never suspected.

But Donwald, not forgetting the reproach which his lineage2 had sustained by the execution of those his kinsmen whom the King for a spectacle to the people had caused to be hanged, could not but show manifest tokens of great grief at home amongst his family, which his wife, perceiving, ceased not to travail3 with him till she understood what the cause was of his displeasure. Which at length when she had learned by his own relation, she, as one that bare no less malice in her heart towards the King for the like cause on her behalf than her husband did for his friends, counseled him (sith4 the King oftentimes used to lodge in his house without any guard about him other than the garrison of the castle, which was wholly at his5 commandment) to make him away, and showed him the means whereby he might soonest accomplish it.

Donwald, thus being the more kindled in wrath by the words of his wife, determined to follow her advice in the execution of so heinous an act. Whereupon, devising with himself for a while which way he might best accomplish his cursed intent, at length gat6 opportunity and sped his purpose as followeth. It chanced that the King, upon the day before he purposed to depart forth of the castle, was long in his oratory7 at his prayers and there continued till it was late in the night. At the last, coming forth, he called such afore him8 as had faithfully served him in pursuit and apprehension of the rebels, and, giving them hearty thanks, he bestowed sundry honorable gifts amongst them, of the which number Donwald was one, as he that had been ever accounted a most faithful servant to the King.

At length, having talked with them a long time, he got him9 into his privy chamber only with two of his chamberlains who, having brought him to bed, came forth again and then fell to banqueting with Donwald and his wife, who had prepared divers delicate dishes and sundry sorts of drinks for their rear supper or collation,10 whereat they sat up so long till they had charged their stomachs with such full gorges11 that their heads were no sooner got to the pillow but asleep they were so fast that a man might have removed the chamber over them sooner than to have awaked them out of their drunken sleep.

Then Donwald, though he abhorred the act greatly in heart, yet through instigation of his wife he called four of his servants unto him whom he had made privy to his wicked intent before and framed12 to his purpose with large gifts. And now declaring13 unto them after what sort they should work the feat, they gladly obeyed his instructions, and speedily going about the murder they enter the chamber in which the King lay a little before cock’s crow,14 where they secretly cut his throat as he lay sleeping, without any buskling at all. And immediately, by a postern15 gate, they carried forth the dead body into the fields, and, throwing it upon an horse there provided ready for that purpose, they convey it unto a place about two miles distant from the castle, where they stayed and gat certain laborers to help them to turn the course of a little river running through the fields there; and digging a deep hole in the channel, they bury the body in the same, ramming it up with stones and gravel so closely that, setting the water in the right course again, no man could perceive that anything had been newly digged there. This they did by order appointed them by Donwald (as is reported), for that16 the body should not be found and, by bleeding when Donwald should be present, declare him to be guilty of the murder. For such an opinion men have that the dead corpse of any man, being slain, will bleed abundantly if the murderer be present. But for what consideration soever they buried him there, they had no sooner finished the work but that they slew them whose help they used herein, and straightways thereupon fled into Orkney.

Donwald, about the time that the murder was in doing,17 got him amongst them that kept the watch18 and so continued in company with them all the residue of the night. But in the morning, when the noise was raised in the King’s chamber how the King was slain, his body conveyed away, and the bed all berayed19 with blood, he with the watch ran thither as though he had known nothing of the matter and, breaking into the chamber and finding cakes20 of blood in the bed and on the floor about the sides of it, he forthwith slew the chamberlains as guilty of that heinous murder. And then, like a madman, running to and fro, he ransacked every corner within the castle as though it had been to have seen if he might have found either the body or any of the murderers hid in any privy place. But at length coming to the postern gate and finding it open, he burdened the chamberlains whom he had slain with all the fault, they having the keys of the gates committed to their keeping all the night, and therefore it could not be otherwise (said he) but that they were of counsel in the committing of that most detestable murder.

Finally, such was his overearnest diligence in the severe inquisition and trial of the offenders herein that some of the lords began to mislike the matter and to smell forth shrewd tokens21 that he should not be altogether clear himself. But forsomuch as they were in that country where he had the whole rule, what by reason of22 his friends and authority together, they doubted23 to utter what they thought till time and place should better serve thereunto, and hereupon got them away, every man to his home. For the space of six months together after this heinous murder thus committed, there appeared no sun by day nor moon by night in any part of the realm, but still24 was the sky covered with continual clouds, and sometimes such outrageous winds arose, with lightnings and tempests, that the people were in great fear of present destruction.…

Monstrous sights also that were seen within the Scottish kingdom that year were these: Horses in Lothian, being of singular beauty and swiftness, did eat their own flesh and would in no wise taste any other meat.25 In Angus there was a gentlewoman brought forth a child without eyes, nose, hand, or foot. There was a sparhawk26 also strangled by an owl. Neither was it any less wonder that the sun, as before is said, was continually covered with clouds for six months’ space. But all men understood that the abominable murder of King Duff was the cause hereof, which being revenged by the death of the authors27 (in manner as before is said), Cullen was crowned as lawful successor to the same Duff at Scone, with all due honor and solemnity, in the year of our Lord 972, after that Duff had ruled the Scottish kingdom about the space of four years.

[Kenneth, a brother of Duff, succeeds to the Scottish throne after Cullen is murdered by a thane whose daughter he has ravished. In order that his own sons might enjoy the crown, Kenneth poisons Malcolm, son of King Duff and presumed heir to the Scottish kingdom. Though no suspicion falls on Kenneth, he is so tormented by his conscience that he hears voices in the night assuring him that God knows his every secret. After a series of bloody civil wars, another Malcolm succeeds to the Scottish throne and rules for thirty-two years.]


After Malcolm, succeeded his nephew1 Duncan, the son of his daughter Beatrice. For Malcolm had two daughters. The one, which was this Beatrice, being given in marriage unto one Abbanath Crinen, a man of great nobility and thane of the Isles and west parts of Scotland, bare of that marriage the foresaid Duncan. The other, called Doada, was married unto Sinel, the Thane of Glamis, by whom she had issue one Macbeth, a valiant gentleman and one that, if he had not been somewhat cruel of nature, might have been thought most worthy the government of a realm. On the other part, Duncan was so soft and gentle of nature that the people wished the inclinations and manners of these two cousins to have been so tempered2 and interchangeably bestowed betwixt them that, where the one had too much of clemency and the other of cruelty, the mean virtue betwixt these two extremities might have reigned by indifferent3 partition in them both; so should Duncan have proved a worthy king and Macbeth an excellent captain. The beginning of Duncan’s reign was very quiet and peaceable, without any notable trouble; but after it was perceived how negligent he was in punishing offenders, many misruled4 persons took occasion thereof to trouble the peace and quiet state of the commonwealth by seditious commotions which first had their beginnings in this wise.

Banquo, the Thane of Lochaber, of whom the House of the Stuarts is descended, the which by order of lineage hath now for a long time enjoyed the crown of Scotland even till these our days, as he gathered the finances due to the King and further punished somewhat sharply such as were notorious offenders, being assailed by a number of rebels inhabiting in that country and spoiled5 of the money and all other things, had much ado to get away with life after he had received sundry grievous wounds amongst them. Yet escaping their hands, after he was somewhat recovered of his hurts and was able to ride, he repaired6 to the court, where, making his complaint to the King in most earnest wise, he purchased7 at length that the offenders were sent for by a sergeant-at-arms to appear to make answer unto such matters as should be laid to their charge. But they, augmenting their mischievous act with a more wicked deed, after they had misused the messenger with sundry kinds of reproaches, they finally slew him also.

Then, doubting not but for such contemptuous demeanor against the King’s regal authority they should be invaded with all the power the King could make, Macdowald, one of great estimation among them, making first a confederacy with his nearest friends and kinsmen, took upon him to be chief captain of all such rebels as would stand against the King in maintenance of their grievous offenses lately committed against him. Many slanderous words also and railing taunts this Macdowald uttered against his prince, calling him a fainthearted milksop more meet to govern a sort8 of idle monks in some cloister than to have the rule of such valiant and hardy men-of-war as the Scots were. He used also such subtle persuasions and forged allurements that in a small time he had gotten together a mighty power9 of men; for out of the Western Isles there came unto him a great multitude of people offering themselves to assist him in that rebellious quarrel, and out of Ireland in hope of the spoil10 came no small number of kerns and gallowglasses,11 offering gladly to serve under him whither12 it should please him to lead them.

Macdowald, thus having a mighty puissance13 about him, encountered with such of the King’s people as were sent against him into Lochaber and, discomfiting them, by mere14 force took their captain Malcolm and after the end of the battle smote off his head. This overthrow, being notified15 to the King, did put him in wonderful16 fear by reason of his small skill in warlike affairs. Calling therefore his nobles to a council, he asked of them their best advice for the subduing of Macdowald and the other rebels. Here in sundry heads (as ever it happeneth) were sundry opinions, which they uttered according to every man his skill. At length Macbeth, speaking much against the King’s softness and overmuch slackness in punishing offenders, whereby they had such time to assemble together, he promised notwithstanding, if the charge were committed17 unto him and unto Banquo, so to order the matter that the rebels should be shortly vanquished and quite put down, and that not so much as one of them should be found to make resistance within the country.

And even so it came to pass. For, being sent forth with a new power,18 at his entering into Lochaber the fame of his coming put the enemies in such fear that a great number of them stale secretly away from their captain Macdowald, who nevertheless, enforced thereto, gave battle unto Macbeth with the residue which remained with him. But being overcome and fleeing for refuge into a castle (within the which his wife and children were enclosed), at length, when he saw how he could neither defend the hold19 any longer against his enemies nor yet upon surrender be suffered to depart with life saved, he first slew his wife and children and lastly himself, lest if he had yielded simply he should have been executed in most cruel wise for an example to other.20 Macbeth, entering into the castle by the gates as then21 set open, found the carcass of Macdowald lying dead there amongst the residue of the slain bodies, which, when he beheld, remitting no piece of his cruel nature with that pitiful sight, he caused the head to be cut off and set upon a pole’s end, and so sent it as a present to the King, who as then lay at Bertha.22 The headless trunk he commanded to be hung up upon an high pair of gallows.

[No sooner has order been restored by Macbeth than Sueno, King of Norway, arrives in Fife “with a puissant army to subdue the whole realm of Scotland.” Sueno’s forces do well at first and besiege the Scots, but then let down their guard in drunken rioting and are slaughtered by Macbeth. Sueno flees. The Scots celebrate their notable victory with processions and offerings to God; but soon the Danes, acting under the orders of Canute, King of England, send another force to revenge the overthrow and subsequent death of Canute’s brother, Sueno. Macbeth and Banquo, commissioned by King Duncan to meet this threat, act with great success, overwhelming the Danes to such a degree that the latter are constrained to pay Macbeth handsomely for the right to have their dead buried at Saint Colme’s Inch—i.e., Inchcolm, the Isle of St. Columba in the Firth of Forth. Peace is concluded between the Scots and the Danes.]

Shortly after happened a strange and uncouth23 wonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realm of Scotland, as ye shall after hear. It fortuned, as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed toward Forres where the King then lay, they went sporting24 by the way together without other company save only themselves, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly, in the midst of a laund,25 there met them three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world,26 whom when they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said, “All hail, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis!” (for he had lately entered into that dignity and office by the death of his father Sinel). The second of them said, “Hail, Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor!” But the third said, “All hail, Macbeth, that hereafter shalt be King of Scotland!”

Then Banquo: “What manner of women,” saith he, “are you, that seem so little favorable unto me, whereas to my fellow here, besides high offices, ye assign also the kingdom, appointing forth nothing for me at all?” “Yes,” saith the first of them, “we promise greater benefits unto thee than unto him, for he shall reign indeed, but with an unlucky end, neither shall he leave any issue27 behind him to succeed in his place; where, contrarily, thou indeed shalt not reign at all, but of thee those shall be born which shall govern the Scottish kingdom by long order of continual descent.” Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediately out of their sight. This was reputed at the first but some vain fantastical illusion by Macbeth and Banquo, insomuch that Banquo would call Macbeth, in jest, King of Scotland, and Macbeth again would call him, in sport likewise, the father of many kings. But afterwards the common opinion was that these women were either the Weird Sisters, that is (as ye would say), the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science, because everything came to pass as they had spoken. For shortly after, the Thane of Cawdor being condemned at Forres of treason against the King committed, his lands, livings, and offices were given of28 the King’s liberality to Macbeth.

The same night after, at supper, Banquo jested with him and said, “Now Macbeth, thou hast obtained those things which the two former sisters prophesied; there remaineth only for thee to purchase29 that which the third said should come to pass.” Whereupon Macbeth, revolving the thing in his mind, began even then to devise how he might attain to the kingdom. But yet he thought with himself that he must tarry a time which should advance him thereto by the divine providence, as it had come to pass in his former preferment.30 But shortly after it chanced that King Duncan, having two sons by his wife (which was the daughter of Siward, Earl of Northumberland), he made the elder of them, called Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland, as it were thereby to appoint him his successor in the kingdom immediately after his decease. Macbeth, sore troubled herewith for that he saw by this means his hope sore hindered (where, by the old laws of the realm, the ordinance was that if he that should succeed were not of able age to take the charge upon himself, he that was next of blood unto him should be admitted), he began to take counsel how he might usurp the kingdom by force, having a just quarrel31 so to do, as he took32 the matter, for that Duncan did what in him lay33 to defraud him of all manner of title and claim which he might, in time to come, pretend34 unto the crown.

The words of the three Weird Sisters also (of whom before ye have heard) greatly encouraged him hereunto; but specially his wife lay sore upon him35 to attempt the thing, as she that was very ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen. At length, therefore, communicating his purposed intent with his trusty friends, amongst whom Banquo was the chiefest, upon confidence of their promised aid he slew the King at Inverness or (as some say) at Bothgowanan, in the sixth year of his reign. Then, having a company about him of such as he had made privy to his enterprise, he caused himself to be proclaimed king and forthwith went unto Scone, where by common consent he received the investure36 of the kingdom according to the accustomed manner. The body of Duncan was first conveyed unto Elgin and there buried in kingly wise; but afterwards it was removed and conveyed unto Colmekill and there laid in a sepulture amongst his predecessors, in the year after the birth of our Savior 1046.

Malcolm Cammore and Donald Bane, the sons of King Duncan, for fear of their lives (which they might well know that Macbeth would seek to bring to end for his more sure confirmation in the estate), fled into Cumberland, where Malcolm remained till time that Saint Edward, the son of Ethelred, recovered the dominion of England from the Danish power; the which Edward received Malcolm by way of most friendly entertainment,37 but Donald passed over into Ireland where he was tenderly cherished by the king of that land. Macbeth, after the departure thus of Duncan’s sons, used great liberality towards the nobles of the realm, thereby to win their favor; and, when he saw that no man went about to trouble him, he set his whole intention to maintain justice and to punish all enormities and abuses which had chanced through the feeble and slothful administration of Duncan.… Macbeth, showing himself thus a most diligent punisher of all injuries and wrongs attempted by any disordered38 persons within his realm, was accounted the sure defense and buckler39 of innocent people; and hereto he also applied his whole endeavor to cause young men to exercise themselves in virtuous manners, and men of the Church to attend their divine service according to their vocations.

He caused to be slain sundry thanes, as of Caithness, Sutherland, Stranaverne, and Ross, because through them and their seditious attempts much trouble daily rose in the realm. He appeased the troubled state of Galloway, and slew one Magill, a tyrant who had many years before passed nothing of40 the regal authority or power. To be brief, such were the worthy doings and princely acts of this Macbeth in the administration of the realm that if he had attained thereunto by rightful means and continued in uprightness of justice, as he began, till the end of his reign, he might well have been numbered amongst the most noble princes that anywhere had reigned. He made many wholesome laws and statutes for the public weal of his subjects.

[Holinshed here prints the laws made by King Macbeth, according to Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae.]

These and the like commendable laws Macbeth caused to be put as then in use, governing the realm for the space of ten years in equal justice. But this was but a counterfeit zeal of equity showed by him, partly against his natural inclination, to purchase thereby the favor of the people. Shortly after, he began to show what he was, instead of equity practicing cruelty. For the prick of conscience (as it chanceth41 ever in tyrants and such as attain to any estate by unrighteous means) caused him ever to fear lest he should be served of the same cup as he had ministered to his predecessor. The words also of the three Weird Sisters would not out of his mind, which,42 as they promised him the kingdom, so likewise did they promise it at the same time unto the posterity of Banquo. He willed therefore the same Banquo, with his son named Fleance, to come to a supper that he had prepared for them; which was indeed, as he had devised, present43 death at the hands of certain murderers whom he hired to execute that deed, appointing44 them to meet with the same Banquo and his son without45 the palace as they returned to their lodgings and there to slay them, so that he would not have his house slandered,46 but that in time to come he might clear himself if anything were laid to his charge upon any suspicion that might arise.

It chanced yet by the benefit of the dark night that, though the father were slain, the son yet, by the help of almighty God reserving him to better fortune, escaped that danger; and afterwards having some inkling, by the admonition of some friends which he had in the court, how his life was sought no less than his father’s—who was slain not by chance-medley,47 as by the handling of the matter Macbeth would have had it to appear, but even upon a prepensed48 device—whereupon to avoid further peril he fled into Wales. But here I think it shall not much make against my purpose if, according to the order which I find observed in the Scottish history, I shall in few words rehearse49 the original line of those kings which have descended from the foresaid Banquo, that they which have enjoyed the kingdom by so long continuance of descent, from one to another and that even unto these our days, may be known from whence they had their first beginning.

[Holinshed here traces the line of descent from Fleance to James VI, King of Scotland in the late sixteenth century.]

But to return unto Macbeth in continuing the history, and to begin where I left, ye shall understand that after the contrived slaughter of Banquo, nothing prospered with the foresaid Macbeth. For in manner50 every man began to doubt51 his own life and durst uneath52 appear in the King’s presence; and even as there were many that stood in fear of him, so likewise stood he in fear of many, in such sort that he began to make those away by one surmised cavillation53 or other whom he thought most able to work him any displeasure.

At length he found such sweetness by putting his nobles thus to death that his earnest thirst after blood in this behalf might in no wise be satisfied. For ye must consider he wan54 double profit (as he thought) hereby, for first they were rid out of the way whom he feared, and then again his coffers were enriched by their goods which were forfeited to his use, whereby he might better maintain a guard of armed men about him to defend his person from injury of them whom he had in any suspicion. Further, to the end he might the more cruelly oppress his subjects with all tyrant-like wrongs, he builded a strong castle on the top of an high hill called Dunsinane, situate in Gowrie, ten miles from Perth, on such a proud height that, standing there aloft, a man might behold well near55 all the countries of Angus, Fife, Stormont, and Earndale as it were lying underneath him. This castle, then, being founded on the top of that high hill, put the realm to great charges56 before it was finished, for all the stuff necessary to the building could not be brought up without much toil and business. But Macbeth, being once determined to have the work go forward, caused the thanes of each shire within the realm to come and help towards that building, each man his course about.57

At the last, when the turn fell unto Macduff, Thane of Fife, to build his part, he sent workmen with all needful provision and commanded them to show such diligence in every behalf that no occasion might be given for the King to find fault with him in that he came not himself, as others had done, which he refused to do for doubt58 lest the King, bearing him (as he partly understood) no great good will, would lay violent hands upon him as he had done upon divers other. Shortly after, Macbeth coming to behold how the work went forward and, because he found not Macduff there, he was sore offended and said, “I perceive this man will never obey my commandments till he be ridden with a snaffle,59 but I shall provide well enough for him.” Neither could he afterwards abide to look upon the said Macduff, either for that60 he thought his puissance61 overgreat, either else for that he had learned of certain wizards in whose words he put great confidence (for that the prophecy had happened so right which the three fairies or Weird Sisters had declared unto him) how that he ought to take heed of Macduff, who in time to come should seek to destroy him.

And surely hereupon had he put Macduff to death but that a certain witch, whom he had in great trust, had told that he should never be slain with62 man born of any woman nor vanquished till the wood of Birnam came to the castle of Dunsinane. By this prophecy Macbeth put all fear out of his heart, supposing he might do what he would, without any fear to be punished for the same; for by the one prophecy he believed it was unpossible63 for any man to vanquish him, and by the other unpossible to slay him. This vain hope caused him to do many outrageous things, to the grievous oppression of his subjects. At length Macduff, to avoid peril of life, purposed with himself64 to pass into England to procure65 Malcolm Cammore to claim the crown of Scotland. But this was not so secretly devised by Macduff but that Macbeth had knowledge given him thereof, for kings (as is said) have sharp sight like unto Lynx66 and long ears like unto Midas.67 For Macbeth had in every nobleman’s house one sly fellow or other in fee with him to reveal all that was said or done within the same, by which sleight68 he oppressed the most part of the nobles of his realm.

Immediately, then, being advertised69 whereabout Macduff went, he came hastily with a great power70 into Fife and forthwith besieged the castle where Macduff dwelled, trusting to have found him therein. They that kept the house without any resistance opened the gates and suffered him to enter, mistrusting none evil. But nevertheless Macbeth most cruelly caused the wife and children of Macduff, with all other whom he found in that castle, to be slain. Also, he confiscated the goods of Macduff, proclaimed him traitor, and confined71 him out of all the parts of his realm; but Macduff was already escaped out of danger and gotten into England unto Malcolm Cammore, to try what purchase72 he might make by means of his support to revenge the slaughter so cruelly executed on his wife, his children, and other friends. At his coming unto Malcolm he declared into what great misery the estate of Scotland was brought by the detestable cruelties exercised by the tyrant Macbeth, having committed many horrible slaughters and murders both as well of the nobles as commons, for the which he was hated right mortally of all his liege people,73 desiring nothing more than to be delivered of that intolerable and most heavy yoke of thralldom which they sustained at such a caitiff’s74 hands.

Malcolm, hearing Macduff’s words which he uttered in very lamentable sort, for mere75 compassion and very ruth76 that pierced his sorrowful heart bewailing the miserable state of his country, he fetched a deep sigh, which Macduff, perceiving, began to fall most earnestly in hand with him to enterprise77 the delivering of the Scottish people out of the hands of so cruel and bloody a tyrant as Macbeth by too many plain experiments78 did show himself to be; which was an easy matter for him to bring to pass, considering not only the good title he had but also the earnest desire of the people to have some occasion ministered whereby they might be revenged of those notable injuries which they daily sustained by the outrageous cruelty of Macbeth’s misgovernance. Though Malcolm was very sorrowful for the oppression of his countrymen, the Scots, in manner as Macduff had declared, yet doubting79 whether he were come as one that meant unfeignedly as he spake or else as sent from Macbeth to betray him, he thought to have some further trial; and thereupon dissembling his mind at the first, he answered as followeth.

“I am truly very sorry for the misery chanced to my country of Scotland, but though I have never so great affection to relieve the same, yet by reason of certain incurable vices which reign in me I am nothing meet thereto.80 First, such immoderate lust and voluptuous sensuality (the abominable fountain of all vices) followeth me that, if I were made King of Scots, I should seek to deflower your maids and matrons in such wise that mine intemperancy should be more importable81 unto you than the bloody tyranny of Macbeth now is.” Hereunto Macduff answered, “This surely is a very evil fault, for many noble princes and kings have lost both lives and kingdoms for the same. Nevertheless there are women enough in Scotland, and therefore follow my counsel. Make thyself king, and I shall convey the matter so wisely that thou shalt be so satisfied at thy pleasure in such secret wise that no man shall be aware thereof.”

Then said Malcolm, “I am also the most avaricious creature on the earth, so that if I were king I should seek so many ways to get lands and goods that I would slay the most part of all the nobles of Scotland by surmised accusations,82 to the end I might enjoy their lands, goods, and possessions. And therefore, to show you what mischief may ensue on you through mine unsatiable covetousness, I will rehearse unto you a fable. There was a fox having a sore place on her* overset with a swarm of flies that continually sucked out her blood. And when one that came by and saw this manner demanded whether she would have the flies driven before her, she answered: ’No, for if these flies that are already full, and by reason thereof suck not very eagerly, should be chased away, other that are empty and felly an-hungered83 should light in their places and suck out the residue of my blood far more to my grievance than these which now, being satisfied, do not much annoy me.’ Therefore,” saith Malcolm, “suffer me to remain where I am, lest if I attain to the regiment84 of your realm, mine unquenchable avarice may prove such that ye would think the displeasures which now grieve you should seem easy in respect of the unmeasurable outrage which might ensue through my coming amongst you.”

Macduff to this made answer how it was a far worse fault than the other. “For avarice is the root of all mischief, and for that crime the most part of our kings have been slain and brought to their final end. Yet notwithstanding, follow my counsel and take upon thee the crown. There is gold and riches enough in Scotland to satisfy thy greedy desire.” Then said Malcolm again, “I am, furthermore, inclined to dissimulation, telling of leasings,85 and all other kinds of deceit, so that I naturally rejoice in nothing so much as to betray and deceive such as put any trust or confidence in my words. Then, sith there is nothing that more becometh a prince than constancy, verity, truth, and justice, with the other laudable fellowship of those fair and noble virtues which are comprehended only in soothfastness,86 and that lying utterly overthroweth the same, you see how unable I am to govern any province or region; and therefore, sith you have remedies to cloak and hide all the rest of my other vices, I pray you find shift to cloak this vice amongst the residue.”

Then said Macduff, “This yet is the worst of all, and there I leave thee and therefore say: ’O ye unhappy and miserable Scottishmen, which are thus scourged with so many and sundry calamities, each one above other! Ye have one cursed and wicked tyrant that now reigneth over you without any right or title, oppressing you with his most bloody cruelty. This other, that hath the right to the crown, is so replete with the inconstant behavior and manifest vices of Englishmen that he is nothing87 worthy to enjoy it; for by his own confession he is not only avaricious and given to unsatiable lust but so false a traitor withal88 that no trust is to be had unto any word he speaketh. Adieu, Scotland, for now I account myself a banished man forever, without comfort or consolation.’ ” And with those words the brackish tears trickled down his cheeks very abundantly.

At the last, when he was ready to depart, Malcolm took him by the sleeve and said, “Be of good comfort, Macduff, for

I have none of these vices before remembered,89 but have jested with thee in this manner only to prove thy mind,90 for divers times heretofore hath Macbeth sought by this manner of means to bring me into his hands; but the more slow I have showed myself to condescend91 to thy motion and request, the more diligence shall I use in accomplishing the same.” Incontinently92 hereupon they embraced each other and, promising to be faithful the one to the other, they fell in consultation how they might best provide for all their business to bring the same to good effect. Soon after, Macduff, repairing93 to the borders of Scotland, addressed his letters with secret dispatch unto the nobles of the realm, declaring how Malcolm was confederate with him to come hastily into Scotland to claim the crown; and therefore he required them, sith he94 was right inheritor thereto, to assist him with their powers to recover the same out of the hands of the wrongful usurper.

In the meantime, Malcolm purchased such favor at King Edward’s hands that old Siward, Earl of Northumberland, was appointed with ten thousand men to go with him into Scotland, to support him in this enterprise for recovery of his right. After these news were spread abroad in Scotland, the nobles drew into two several95 factions, the one taking part with Macbeth and the other with Malcolm. Hereupon ensued oftentimes sundry bickerings and divers light skirmishes, for those that were of Malcolm’s side would not jeopard96 to join with their enemies in a pight field97 till his coming out of England to their support. But after that98 Macbeth perceived his enemies’ power to increase by such aid as came to them forth of England with his adversary Malcolm, he recoiled back into Fife, there purposing to abide in camp fortified at the castle of Dunsinane and to fight with his enemies if they meant to pursue him. Howbeit, some of his friends advised him that it should be best for him either to make some agreement with Malcolm or else to flee with all speed into the Isles, and to take his treasure with him, to the end he might wage99 sundry great princes of the realm to take his part, and retain strangers100 in whom he might better trust than in his own subjects, which stale101 daily from him. But he had such confidence in his prophecies that he believed he should never be vanquished till Birnam Wood were brought to Dunsinane, nor yet to be slain with102 any man that should be or was born of any woman.

Malcolm, following hastily after Macbeth, came the night before the battle unto Birnam Wood; and when his army had rested awhile there to refresh them, he commanded every man to get a bough of some tree or other of that wood in his hand, as big as he might bear, and to march forth therewith in such wise that on the next morrow they might come closely and without sight in this manner within view of his enemies. On the morrow, when Macbeth beheld them coming in this sort, he first marveled what the matter meant, but in the end remembered himself that the prophecy which he had heard long before that time, of the coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Castle, was likely to be now fulfilled. Nevertheless, he brought his men in order of battle and exhorted them to do valiantly. Howbeit, his enemies had scarcely cast from them their boughs when Macbeth, perceiving their numbers, betook him straight to flight; whom Macduff pursued with great hatred even till he came unto Lunfannaine, where Macbeth, perceiving that Macduff was hard at his back, leapt beside his horse,103 saying, “Thou traitor, what meaneth it that thou shouldst thus in vain follow me that am not appointed to be slain by any creature that is born of a woman? Come on, therefore, and receive thy reward which thou hast deserved for thy pains!” And therewithal he lifted up his sword, thinking to have slain him.

But Macduff, quickly avoiding104 from his horse ere he came at him, answered with his naked sword in his hand, saying, “It is true, Macbeth, and now shall thine insatiable cruelty have an end, for I am even he that thy wizards have told thee of, who was never born of my mother but ripped out of her womb.” Therewithal he stepped unto him and slew him in the place. Then, cutting his head from his shoulders, he set it upon a pole and brought it unto Malcolm. This was the end of Macbeth, after he had reigned seventeen years over the Scottishmen. In the beginning of his reign he accomplished many worthy acts, very profitable to the commonwealth as ye have heard; but afterward, by illusion of the devil, he defamed105 the same with most terrible cruelty. He was slain in the year of the Incarnation 1057, and in the sixteenth year of King Edward’s reign over the Englishmen.

[Malcolm Cammore is crowned at Scone on April 25, 1057, creating on that occasion many earls and others of rank. “These were the first earls that have ever been heard of amongst the Scottishmen (as their histories do make mention).” The chronicles also record the death of one of Siward’s sons at the battle at Dunsinane, and mention Edward the Confessor’s gift of healing the “King’s Evil.”]

The second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles was published in 1587. This selection is based on that edition, Volume 2, The History of Scotland, pp. 150—152 and 168—176. Some proper names have been modernized: Macbeth (Mackbeth), Banquo (Banquho), Lochaber (Lochquahaver), Duncan (Duncane), Malcolm

(Malcolme), Macduff (Mackduffe), Bothgowanan (Botgosvane), Birnam (Birnane), Stormont (Stermont).

1 stomach i.e., bosom, innermost thoughts

2 lineage family

3 travail labor, strive

4 sith since

5 his i.e., Donwald’s, as captain of the castle

6 gat i.e., he got

7 oratory small chapel

8 such afore him such persons before him

9 got him betook himself

10 rear supper or collation repast at the end of the day

11 such full gorges i.e., so much food

12 framed shaped, inclined

13 And now declaring i.e., And he now declaring

14 cock’s crow (The first cock supposedly crowed at midnight.)

15 buskling … postern scuffling … back, private

16 for that in order that

17 in doing being done

18 amongst … watch among those who were standing watch. (Donwald’s reason for doing so is to have an alibi.)

19 berayed befouled

20 cakes clots

21 shrewd tokens malignant or ominous indications

22 what by reason of i.e., what with

23 doubted feared

24 still continually

25 meat food.

26 sparhawk sparrowhawk

27 the authors i.e., Duff’s chamberlains, presumed guilty

1 nephew i.e., grandson

2 tempered mixed, blended

3 indifferent evenhanded

4 misruled disorderly

5 spoiled plundered

6 repaired went, returned

7 purchased arranged, contrived

8 sort gang, bunch

9 power army

10 spoil plunder

11 kerns and gallowglasses light-armed Irish foot soldiers and horsemen armed with axes

12 whither wherever

13 puissance power, military force

14 discomfiting … mere overthrowing … sheer

15 notified conveyed

16 wonderful great

17 charge were committed command were given

18 power army

19 hold stronghold, fortified place of defense

20 other others.

21 as then at that time

22 lay at Bertha resided at Perth.

23 uncouth unaccustomed

24 sporting for pleasure

25 laund glade

26 elder world ancient times

27 issue offspring

28 of through

29 purchase obtain

30 preferment advancement.

31 quarrel cause, occasion

32 took understood

33 for that … lay because Duncan did all that lay in his power

34 pretend lay claim

35 lay sore upon him pressed him hard, nagged at him

36 investure investiture, ceremonial robes and symbols of rule

37 by way of … entertainment with friendly reception

38 disordered disorderly

39 buckler shield

40 passed nothing of paid no regard to

41 chanceth happens

42 which who

43 present immediate

44 appointing arranging for

45 without outside of

46 so that … slandered i.e., so that his royal house or lineage should not suffer the reproach of having committed murder

47 chance-medley accidental homicide

48 prepensed premeditated

49 rehearse recite, name

50 in manner as it were, nearly

51 doubt fear for

52 uneath reluctantly, scarcely

53 make those … cavillation do away with those persons by one fraudulent piece of legal chicanery

54 wan won

55 well near nearly

56 charges expenses

57 his course about taking his turn.

58 doubt fear

59 ridden with a snaffle i.e., reined in. (A snaffle is a bridle bit.)

60 for that because

61 puissance power

62 with by

63 unpossible impossible

64 purposed with himself resolved, made up his mind

65 procure prevail upon

66 Lynx Lynceus, one of the Argonauts, whose eyesight was so keen that he could see through the earth

67 Midas semi-legendary King of Lydia whose ears were changed into ass’s ears for his indiscretion in declaring Pan a better flute player than Apollo.

68 sleight cunning device, contrivance

69 advertised informed

70 power army

71 confined banished

72 purchase advantage

73 liege people subjects, those who should owe him allegiance

74 caitiff’s villain’s

75 mere utter

76 ruth pity

77 began … enterprise began endeavoring to persuade him to undertake

78 experiments trials, hard experiences

79 doubting mistrusting

80 nothing meet thereto not at all suitable for that role.

81 importable unbearable

82 surmised accusations false allegations

83 felly an-hungered fiercely hungry

84 regiment rule

85 leasings lies

86 soothfastness truthfulness

87 nothing not in the least

88 withal in addition

89 before remembered already mentioned

90 prove thy mind test your intent

91 condescend agree

92 Incontinently Immediately

93 repairing journeying

94 required … he requested them, since he, Malcolm

95 several separate

96 jeopard take the risk

97 pight field full battle

98 after that after, as soon as

99 wage bribe, or engage for military service

100 strangers foreign (mercenary) troops

101 which stale who stole

102 with by

103 leapt beside his horse dismounted

104 avoiding dismounting

105 defamed brought dishonor to

In the following, departures from the original text appear in boldface; original readings are in roman.

*her him