Researching Macbeth

I am now nearly finished with my first draft of “The Fire of Winter” which is a historical fiction adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Yes, there have been other adaptations in the past, so I thought I might relate how my novel is different. In this version, I attempt to combine both the play and actual history, which is truly a task since most of what Shakespeare wrote about the man, Macbeth, is not historically accurate. To start this post, I quote directly from the Craig edition of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” here:

“There can be no doubt that the subject of the triumph of Banquo’s offspring was recognized as one of the greatest interest to the king (James I) and to those Englishmen who were loyal to the Scottish succession, as most Englishmen were. Especially in Macbeth there was foreshadowed the triumph of Protestantism and insular independence, since the play carried as a story the theme of the escape and survival of the royal seed when it was beset by murder, usurpation, and tyranny.

For the material of this story Shakespeare went to Holinshed’s Chronicles; in the first instance to the account of the reigns of Duncan and Macbeth, in the second, to the chronicle of King Duff. From the former comes the story of Macbeth’s rise and fall and most matter pertaining to Banquo and MacDuff. From the latter he borrowed the story of how Donwald, a man whom King Duff never suspected, murdered King Duff in the castle of Forres. Having, with the aid of his wife, drugged the two chamberlains who lay with the king, Donwald, although he greatly abhorred the deed and did it only at the instigation of his wife, induced four of his servants to cut the king’s throat. When morning came, he slew the chamberlains and cleared himself of the crime by his power and authority, though not without being suspected by certain noblemen because of his overdiligence. There were great portents in the kingdom that year both of sun and moon; certain horses in Lothian ate their own flesh; and a “sparhauke” was strangled by an owl.

Thirdly, from the chronicle of King Kenneth, who had murdered Malcolm Duff, is drawn the idea of a voice, which Kenneth had heard as he lay in his bed at night, warning him of the sure detection of his crime, so that he was filled with dread and passed the night without any sleep.

Finally, from the chronicle of King Edward the Confessor comes the account of how that saintly monarch cured the king’s evil by his touch, and the story of Siward’s invasion of Scotland in which he overthrew Macbeth. The chronicle of King Macbeth contains within it the story of MacDuff. In the beginning of the chronicle of Robert II there is even a suggestion for the show of eight Stuart kings (IV, i, 110).

These Scottish chronicles were for Shakespeare a brilliant and spirited source, far better than the chronicles of English kings that he had used earlier in his career. Holinshed’s compilation had drawn on the Latin of Hector Boerce (1527), and to him probably is to be attributed the vividness of the narratives. Boerce had drawn from Fordun, a historian of the fourteenth century.

That being said, however, the sources Shakespeare used to compile the play of Macbeth reveals the extent of his artistic license. As historical fiction writers today, we are often questioned as to our accuracy. This did not seem to be an issue in Shakespeare’s day, for he definitely stretched the truth in relation to the life of Macbeth macFindlaech of Scotland.

In my own research, I used my own artistic license to try to bring a correlation to the plays as well as to the real man, more especially to his wife, since my novel deals more with her role in Macbeth’s life – the spark behind the flame, so to speak.

Very little historical accounts are available from 11th-century Scotland, so I relied much on the Annals of Ulster and piecing together the bits of stories told of the various battles, known facts of Canute the Great, of Uhtred of Northumbria, of Thorfinn the Mighty, of Svein of Norway, as well as adhering close to the actual scenery. At that time, castles were motte-and-bailey or the ring fort design. Not until later, during the Norman influence, did castles start looking like castles we know and love today. Such as this:


I also used artistic license to explain some of the spiritualistic phenomenon of the plays, such as the witches and ghosts – using a knowledge of the practice of medicines or herbal concoctions that some of the common folk, mainly peasant women, used of the variety of plants in the Scottish countryside. The “witches” become mere deformed women who perhaps give the air of other-worldliness with their appearance and with Lady Macbeth’s encouragement. Plus, the brews and ointments used during much of my novel accounts for the hallucinations, as well as the dive into madness of both Macbeth and his wife, as you will see!!


Lastly, since the novel deals mainly with Lady Macbeth, Queen Gruoc of Scotland, well, what can I say about her? She is definitely a piece of work!! There are moments when I despise my own main character, but other times I see the reasons behind her seething anger and revenge. To say she is a layered character is an understatement, and even in my first draft, I am learning even more about her as she speaks.

I often find a friendship with my main characters as I write about them, even a sympathy, but Lady Macbeth is a conundrum for me. But, I must say, definitely one I am willing and wanting to work out.


Thanks for reading!

D. K. Marley



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