Macbeth is one of the greatest plays ever written, and in fact it’s my personal favorite of all Shakespeare's many great works, but his depictions of the principal characters bear little resemblance to the historical truth.
The real Macbeth lived in a time of constant battle between the areas of Scotland that had relatively recently been incorporated into the Kingdom; Strathclyde, Moray, Dalriada, etc. There were still Viking raids to contend with, in fact vast tracts of Caithness and Sutherland were in reality small Viking Kingdoms -- and there was the English Kingdom of Northumbria constantly fishing in troubled waters as well.
Macbeth and Duncan were both grandsons of King Malcolm II, but when the King named Duncan as his successor, it caused great resentment throughout the older Celtic Kingdom of Alba, where MacBeth was already Thane of Moray and had enormous influence north of the River Tay, resulting in a protracted low-level warfare between both factions. When Duncan proved to be a weak and particularly useless King, the stage was set for a final struggle that would come to define Scotland and its people for generations.
So, first of all let’s take a look at Shakespeare's version of events.
We start off with three creepy witches stirring the unspeakable contents of some cauldron, cackling about "hubble bubble toil and trouble", and some guy named "Macbeth" and then we cut to this Macbeth dude himself.
He's prancing home on a dark and stormy night after fighting King Duncan's enemies and kicking some serious ass in battle, showing off all his skilled “enemy-disemboweling” moves. Understandably, he's feeling pretty chuffed with himself. Just then, as they cross "the blasted heath", he and his good pal Banquo run into the three "Weird Sisters", who rhymingly claim that Macbeth will be named....(guess what?)....Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scots.
Just as Banquo is sulking and pouting about being left out, the three hags tell him that he'll be father to a long line of future kings of Scotland, which kind of perks him up a bit.
When MacBeth gets home, he finds that the Thane of Glamis died in battle -- and he gets to be the new one! Yay! That takes care of the first prophecy.
The next thing we know, some guy called Ross shows up to say that, since the old Thane of Cawdor turned out to be a traitor and is about to have his decapitated head displayed on a spike, Macbeth gets to take his place as Thane of Cawdor. Sweet! That takes care of the second prophecy.
While Macbeth is waiting around for "chance" to come along and make him king, he starts getting restless. His ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, prods him into acting like a "man" and nags him into killing King Duncan when the poor guy comes to Macbeth's castle looking for a spot of free bed & breakfast.
Macbeth stabs the venerated old has-been to death -- in his bed -- plus the sleepy guards at his bedchamber door -- then conveniently accuses them of murdering the king. When Duncan's kids, Donald Ban and Malcolm Canmore, find out what's happened, they hightail it out of Scotland so they don't get murdered too.
Macbeth is named king and it’s all gravy. All three prophecies fulfilled!
Macbeth starts to worry about the witch's prophecy that Banquo's heirs will be kings. He's not about to let someone bump him off the throne so he hires some hit-men to take care of Banquo and his son, the unfortunately named Fleance.
Banquo is murdered, but Fleance escapes.
Things now go rapidly downhill for Macbeth. He pops in on the Weird Sisters for another prophesy, which comes in three parts:
(1) Watch out for Macduff of Fife;
(2) No man born of woman can kill him;
(3) Don't worry until Birnam Wood, (a forest), moves to Dunsinane, (a castle).
Macbeth breathes a sigh of relief with #2 and #3, since those are obviously fantasy situations and mean that he's effectively safe. The one about Macduff has him a little concerned though, so he promptly kills off Macduff's family. Naturally.
By now, people are starting to get a little suspicious about all these rather convenient fatalities.
Macduff and Malcolm pay a visit to the awesome English king, Edward the Confessor, and start plotting with the English how to save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny. Oh, and Lady Macbeth? Well, she's not doing so hot. In fact, she starts hallucinating about blood on her hands that she can't wash off, and basically dies of guilt.
But Macbeth is safely shut up in his castle at Dunsinane, right? Hmm, not so fast.
Macduff and Malcolm show up with their army and order the troops to cut the branches from the trees in Birnam Wood for camouflage.
Remember what the Weird Sisters said about Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane? Okay, then you know where this is headed.
Macduff corners Macbeth; calls him a "hell-hound"; tells him that he, Macduff, was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, i.e. delivered via C-section rather than being "born; and then cuts off the tyrant’s head.
So much for the phony King of Scots then.
TO BE CONTINUED -- WITH THE HISTORICAL VERSION