The truth about why Macbeth murdered Duncan is not as dark as in Shakespeare’s play

In June and July 2012, I enjoyed the privilege of playing King Duncan in a production of Macbeth at a north London fringe theatre. I needed to refresh my memory about my character, and remind myself why I was to be murdered at the beginning of Act II.

In Shakespeare’s fictionalised version of events, Macbeth murders Duncan in his sleep while the ‘good king’ is a guest under his roof, to seize power in a gory putsch before it can pass, apparently legitimately, to Duncan’s son Malcolm.

A fortnight after our three-week run ended, I was browsing second-hand books when the title of an old hardback caught my eye.  It was ‘The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland 1371-1603’ by Caroline Bingham; and I couldn’t resist picking it up and looking in the index for the name ‘Macbeth’. I especially wanted to learn more about my old mate, King Duncan.

Well, well: according to this book, the murder of Duncan the First, King of Scots, in the 11th century, was not, in fact, committed solely for personal ambition, as represented by Shakespeare, but was an act of resistance against an attempt by Duncan to overthrow tradition by establishing a dynasty.

“Succession disputes were complicated by the fact the the kings of Scots had inherited the Pictish law of matrilineal succession, which meant that succession went from uncle to nephew or from cousin to cousin rather than from father to son,” writes Bingham. “Duncan may have intended to alter the arrangement to that of succession by primogeniture, in favour of his eldest son, Malcolm.”

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

That fits well with the sudden and unexpected declaration by Duncan in the play, addressing the assembled kinsmen and thanes, that, “We will establish our estate upon our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter the Prince of Cumberland”.  Cumberland was at that time in Scotland, not England, and the naming of Malcolm as its Prince meant his designation as heir to the throne.

For me, this illuminated more clearly Macbeth’s resolve in the play to murder Duncan, and invested that decision with more logic; since it thus because an act not of mere personal ambition and treachery, but one of defending the accepted constitutional arrangements against a virtual coup d’etat by Duncan on his son’s behalf.

In reality, according to Bingham, Macbeth did kill Duncan in order to assert the old rule of succession; but he did so in battle, not in a bedroom; and went on to rule successfully for 17 years before himself being slain by the aforementioned Malcolm, who in 1057 became King Malcolm III.

That scenario would, however, have made for a far less entertaining psychological drama than the fictitious Macbeth’s mental torture before and after the murder in a bedroom of his castle, the involvement of his wife, and all the paranoia and horror that ensues in the play.

In which case, in the interest of art and audience satisfaction, I am delighted to have had the opportunity of being stabbed brutally to death on six evenings a week and twice on Saturdays.

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The truth about why Macbeth murdered Duncan is not as dark as in Shakespeare’s play

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