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Sources, Scholarship, and Sense: Shakespeare’s Use of Holinshed in Macbeth

Sources, Scholarship, And Sense: Shakespeare’s Use Of Holinshed In Macbeth


The study of sources and influences suffers a bad reputation in Shakespearean scholarship, for the most part, deservedly so.  Earlier generations of scholars too much entangled themselves in the literary genetics of Shakespeare’s plays or enraptured themselves in contemplating the creative impulses of the great bard’s mind.  They too little engaged in interpreting his plays.  Nevertheless, the repudiation of misdirected study should not condemn an approach which can help make sense of them.

I take two cases from Macbeth—one, the account of battles given in Act I, scene ii; and two, the “test” of Macduff in Act IV, scene iii—and address the manner and purpose of Shakespeare’s use of his primary source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Irelande.  I am not going to indulge a dusty and latter-day antiquarianism.  Instead, I am going to show that modern prejudices against an informed reading of this source adversely affect our understanding of the play—in particular, its ending—before the audience for which it was performed.  Both instances suggest that the play should, as it does, end on a note, not of ironic, but of unalloyed, triumph.


My first case: the identity of “Bellona’s Bridegroome.”[1]  Kenneth Muir, known for his work on Shakespeare’s sources, is nevertheless typical of many scholars impatient with the pedantry of those belaboring the allusion; he pronounces that, “though Shakespeare was condensing three campaigns into one, there would have been no point in making some other general responsible for the victory over Sweno, in defiance of his source.”[2]  Muir’s pronouncement begs the question, and his aversion to apparently pettifogging details leads him to oversimplify Shakespeare’s use of this source in this instance.  For anyone comparing source and play would wonder why Shakespeare changed or shuffled material if he were merely verse paraphrasing Holinshed.  As the details in the table which I have distributed indicate, the nature and number of the differences between their accounts of the three battles deny Muir’s point.

Holinshed is quite precise in details which Shakespeare amended, moved, or omitted. In reporting three distinct battles, each led by named leaders on both sides, Holinshed includes some awkward facts for a play performed in a newly united kingdom.  The third invasion implicates Canute, king of England, in a war of revenge for the death of Sweno, king of Norway and his brother, not a just and holy war—facts contrary to James’s views on the divine right of kings and the legitimate basis of war.  Canute’s use of local Danish troops implicates the country ruled by James’s brother-in-law, Christian IV.  But another fact helped Shakespeare out: Sweno had ruled a kingdom uniting Norway and Denmark; it required but a bit of verbal legerdemain to redesignate Danish forces as Norwegian.

Shakespeare took Holinshed’s first and third battles, and made them his first and second battles; used the same speaker to report both; and retained their location in western Scotland.  He associated Macbeth with both victories; at the same time, he characterized him as a bloody and unchivalrous warrior.  It is a nice touch—the trouble to make it is a sign of its importance—that Macbeth’s upward sword stroke is Roman, not knightly, in kind.  Shakespeare took Holinshed’s second battle and made it his third; used a new speaker, Rosse, to report it; and retained its location in eastern Scotland, specifically Fife, home of Macduff.  He gave the victory to “Bellona’s Bridegroome,” who fights chivalrously, ends the wars, and achieves, not slaughter, but surrender, restitution, and peace.  In adding the reported defeat of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, Shakespeare adumbrated the single combat between the succeeding Thane of Cawdor and the Thane of Fife.

What do these differences between source and play signify?  At the least, they deny that Shakespeare simply abridged and combined three separate battles, and thereby aggrandized Macbeth’s stature by his victories in all three.  And they deny Macbeth’s identity as “Bellona’s Bridegroome.”  Shakespeare made the separation of Macbeth in the west from Macduff in the east as moral as geographical.  Perhaps not we, but James, his court, and a populace then interested in all things Scottish would distinguish between the western isles and Fife, between a ruthless warrior and a chivalric knight, between a false steward and a loyal thane.  In this larger sense, Shakespeare prepared his audience for Macduff’s military prowess, his service to the legitimate king, and his defeat of Macbeth.  Thus, although scholars have long debated this identification, I am persuaded not only by arguments pertinent to this scene, but also by considerations setting this local conclusion in the larger context of the play.


So to my second case: Act IV, scene iii, the longest scene in Shakespeare’s shortest so-called tragedy.  Almost everyone regards this scene, set in the court of England, as faulty, though perhaps important either dramatically or thematically.  Directors regard some, much, or all of the scene as uninteresting, unnecessary, or irrelevant; and so curtail or cut it in production.  Scholars, whatever their views, divide it into three parts: Malcolm’s testing Macduff in its first 140 lines, an interlude on touching for the King’s Evil in its next 20 lines, and Macduff’s response to Rosse’s news in its final 80 lines.  Remarkably, almost all scholars interpret only the first, or only the last, part of the scene as defining the purpose of the whole—usually the first part as thematic restatement.

Because Shakespeare followed Holinshed closely in the first part, some scholars see the test as pretext for political flattery or exemplum or sermon.  Others see it as manifesting the moral indeterminism or political distrust informing the entire play.  Of course, there are those clever souls who see an irony created by both possibilities.  But far from paraphrasing Holinshed for such prosaic purposes and themes, Shakespeare made modifications to serve not only thematic, but also dramatic, ends.  He aligned Malcolm with the three pillars of James’s domestic and foreign policy by reference to “Concord, “ peace,” and “unity.”  He credited Malcolm with self-confidence in his chivalric prowess when he off-handedly assures Macduff that he “shall treade upon the Tyrants head,/Or weare it on my sword”—a point unchallenged by Macduff or scholars.  More important, he showed Malcolm as a savvy and commanding leader, confusing and managing Macduff, reducing him to indecision and impotence, but proving his loyalty. Shakespeare invented the second part on the King’s Evil.  The description in religious language of a rite regarded as proof of legitimate kingship has the effect of verbally confirming Malcolm as heir.

Shakespeare’s departures from his source make the third part serve quite different purposes from those which most scholars propose.  Whereas in Holinshed, Macduff knows that Macbeth has slaughtered his family before he arrives in Scotland, in Shakespeare, he arrives ignorant of the fact.  Most scholars think that Shakespeare amended his source to create suspense and then satisfy it by displaying Macduff’s grief and deploying his anger to whet the counter-movement against Macbeth.  I doubt it; Shakespeare did not go in for melodrama and indicated Macduff’s opposition to Macbeth by allusion and action.  More likely, he wanted his audience to look less at Macduff’s reaction to Rosse’s news than at Malcolm’s response to Macduff’s reaction.  What it saw was Malcolm’s success in dealing with Macduff by helping him convert grief to anger and in subordinating his vengeance to the higher cause of a just war against Macbeth.  When Malcolm says to the stricken Macduff, “Dispute it like a man,” he speaks like a man confident in dealing with another man.  Macduff’s response, “I shall do so:/But I must also feele it as a man,” is not scornful or smirking, as if Malcolm were not man enough to give such advice.  To Malcolm’s words, no one scoffs or snickers.  Malcolm shows himself sympathetic and strong. In sum, the scene is not three separate pictures serving disconnected and mundane purposes, but a theme-driven, drama-rich triptych showing Malcolm’s qualifications, confirming his legitimacy, and exhibiting his competence.

Still, were we to ignore the source and take the scene or parts of it in isolation, as scholars are wont to do, we might agree with them in deploring it.  For there is no obvious point in Malcolm’s testing Macduff’s loyalty since everyone in Shakespeare’s audience knew Macduff to be loyal.  And since Shakespeare could play fast and loose with his sources if he so desired, he could have relied on its knowledge and moved on without ado.  So why make a big scene?  The answer is that the play requires a test of Malcolm’s fitness to succeed his father; this scene, except for the interlude, is that test.

Macbeth is a play about succession and equivocation.  If the sins of the father are not to be visited upon the son or upon Scotland, then Malcolm must be and do better than Duncan and Macbeth.  For Shakespeare, the hint came in the contrast between Duncane and Makbeth in his source.  Commenting on their respective virtues and vices, Holinshed suggests that the people would have preferred a ruler who reciprocally moderated them:

“[Makbeth was] one that if he had not beene somewhat cruell of nature, might have beene thought most woorthie the government of a realm.  On the other part, Duncane was so soft and gentle of nature, that the people wished the inclinations and maners of these two cousins to have beene so tempered and enterchangeablie bestowed betwixt them, that where the one had too much of clemencie, and the other of crueltie, the meane vertue betwixt these two extremities might have reigned by indifferent partition in them both, so should Duncane have proved a woorthie king, and Makbeth an excellent capteine.”[3]

Shakespeare transmuted these dichotomous character flaws into diametric political failings.  Duncan’s is his inability to distinguish between the appearance and the reality of loyalty.  The sequence of his famous words “There’s no Art/To finde the Mindes construction in the Face:/He was a Gentleman, on whom I built/An absolute Trust” and Macbeth’s immediate entrance not only make stark dramatic irony, but also mark Duncan’s momentous failure.  Of course, Macbeth errs in the opposite direction; he trusts no one, suspects everyone, and kills those foremost in his fears.  In keeping spies in his thanes’ castles, Macbeth shows that he, like Duncan, cannot distinguish loyal and disloyal thanes.  By contrast with them both, Malcolm’s denial that he speaks in “absolute feare” of Macduff indicates that he is a man of reasonable prudence.

In a play which makes antithetical matters the conundrum of equivocal action and speech, the only way in which Shakespeare could show Malcolm to be superior to Duncan and Macbeth, to be the “the meane vertue betwixt these two extremities,” is to show him superior in the one respect in which they failed so disastrously to themselves and their country.  Malcolm must prove that he can penetrate the appearance of loyalty in order to ascertain the reality of it.  And he does; his test shows him doing so.  What begins in doubt ends in trust, in the proper relationship between king and steward.

What Holinshed invented as political discourse Shakespeare included not only as the thematic resolution, but also as the narrative keystone bridging Duncan’s initial rule and Malcolm’s eventual rule.  The story is an old one in English literature; obvious examples are King Horn, perhaps known in abbreviated forms to Shakespeare and his audience, and Bevis of Hampton, certainly known to them.  At the beginning of each, a worthy king dies at the hand of an invader or traitor.  His heir goes into exile, acquires or displays skills to fight, lead, and sometimes love.  In the end, thus proven, he returns to ascend the throne rightfully his.  So it is in Macbeth.  In its political dimension, the play begins with Duncan and ends with Malcolm.  At its structural center, between exile and return, Malcolm gathers his troops, defeats efforts to betray him, and, in a show of sagacity, strength, and sympathy, tests, controls, and comforts Macduff, and thereby protects himself and commands Macduff for the mutual benefit of both men and their country.  Thus, Malcolm triumphs unambiguously over the challenges which the play presents him.  His recognition as the rightful king of Scotland and his rightful restoration to its throne are the culminating acts of a motif which is commonplace in chivalric romance.


Within this larger structure of chivalric romance, we see the demise of a tyrannical protagonist, the tragedy, if such it be, of a “dead Butcher” and a “Fiend-like Queene.”  Malcolm’s words deny Macbeth any of the respect which he, though perhaps not his lady, may deserve.  But the real point at issue is the larger one of genre.  Is Macbeth tragedy or romance?  Received opinion regards the play as a tragedy because the protagonist is pre-eminent in both the action which he performs or prompts in others, and in the attention given to him.  But for all his prominence and importance, Macbeth is neither the be-all nor the end-all of the play.  He exists within a larger framework not of his making or under his control.  So, in this case—actually, in any case—to define a play as tragedy because its protagonist is tragic is to define the whole in terms of a part.  This synecdoche of Shakespearean criticism is a category mistake.

I do not want to dress either others or myself in borrowed robes.  Nor do I want to invoke authority instead of argument in support of my view that Macbeth as well as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, is what I call a “tragic romance.”  Nevertheless, I credit A. C. Bradley, who defined Shakespearean tragedy for modern criticism, with anticipating, but not articulating, this idea.  He recognized the synecdoche and much more, but he did not quite know what to do about it:

“The tragic world . . .  is no final reality, but only a part of reality taken for the whole, and, when so taken, illusive; . . . if we could see the whole, and the tragic facts in their true place in it, we should find … perhaps, the suffering and death counting for little or nothing, the greatness of the soul for much or all, and the heroic spirit, in spite of failure, nearer to the heart of things than the smaller, more circumspect, and perhaps even ‘better’ beings who survived the catastrophe.”[4]

At the same time, Bradley sees this whole as seeking something better:

“The whole or order against which the individual part shows itself powerless seems to be animated by a passion for perfection: we cannot otherwise explain its behaviour toward evil. . . . Sometimes . . . comes a presentiment…that all the fury of conflict, with its waste and woe, is less than half the truth, even an illusion. . . .  We remain confronted with the inexplicable fact, or the no less inexplicable appearance, of a world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth, together with glorious good, an evil which it is able to overcome only by self-torture and self-waste.  And this fact or appearance is tragedy.”[5]

Actually, the image and the idealism of travailing for perfection imply the figure of the questing knight, and the “fact or appearance” is not tragedy, but romance.

What led Bradley astray was latter-day romanticism.  He emphasized the protagonists and believed them tragic because the moral order, in destroying their evil, also destroys their good.  Although he regretted this “waste and woe,” he responded to the uplift of tragedy.  But he mislocated its source in the protagonists’ “greatness of the soul,” not in the final success of the moral order and the ultimate survival of “smaller” or “‘better’” people—an ending which is itself a romance trope.  He missed that a world striving for perfection and achieving “glorious good,” in which pain and loss are overcome, is a world in which all comes right in the end, justice and its implicit idealism prevail.

Thus, by its end, Macbeth has earned the triumph celebrated, not only because of evil vanquished and disorder destroyed, but also because of virtue vindicated and order restored.  With the tragedy of its protagonist framed by the romance of his antagonist, we can see that the play, not merely some part of it, makes complete and compelling sense as tragic romance.  Shakespearean scholars whose views have been partial and even partisan have done worse than think so.

Table 1: Detailed Comparison of Holinshed and Shakespeare (Macbeth, I, ii)*


noneSPEAKERsergeantSpeaker for battle 2
LochquhaberLOCATIONwestern ScotlandBanquo the thane of Lochquhaber
Makdowald leading kernes & galloglasses from Western Isles plus rebels in LochquhaberATTACKERMacdonwald with “kerns and gallowglasses”
Capteine Malcolme (captured); Makbeth & BanqhuoDEFENDERMalcolm present; MacbethMalcolm refers to his “captivity”; no mention of Banquo
Makdowald commits suicide; enemy’s defeat, restoration of “justice and law”OUTCOMEMacbeth defeats Macdonwald in single, unchivalrous combat; enemy’s defeat
noneSPEAKERsergeantSpeaker for battle 1
FifeLOCATIONwestern Scotland (?); sun’s reflection on water at day’s end“surveying vantage” of site of previous battle
Sweno, King of NorwayATTACKER“the Norweyan lord”Leads “fresh assault”
Makbeth, Banqhuo, DuncaneDEFENDERMacbeth & Banquo
defeat of enemy previously drugged and slain in their sleep, victory celebrationOUTCOMEimplied defeat of enemy, great bloodshed like a “Golgotha”
noneSPEAKERRoss (w/ Angus)New speaker for battle 3
Kingcorne, St. Colme’s InchLOCATIONFife
Canute, king of England, brother of SuenoATTACKER“Norway banners,” “Norway himself,” “Sweno, the Norways’ king,” & Thane of CawdorSweno was king of one country consisting of both Norway & Denmark; what pertains to one country pertains to the other
Makbeth & BanqhuoDEFENDER“Bellona’s Bridegroome”
defeat of enemy, money, treatyOUTCOMESingle, chivalrous combat; defeat of enemy, money, treaty, burial

* In general, Holinshed’s Battle 2 matches Shakespeare’s Battle 3, and Holinshed’s Battle 3 matches Shakespeare’s Battle 2.



[1] My text is Charlton Hinman, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare, The Norton Facsimile (New York: Norton, 1968).

[2] Ed., Macbeth, 9th ed., Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1962), 10 n. 55.

[3] My text is Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), VII: 488.

[4] Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, 2nd edn. (1905; New York: Macmillan, 1960), 324-325.

[5] Bradley, 37-39.


Also see “Answer the Question, Question Authority, and Read Inclusively: MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear” and “The Witches of MacBeth: A Weyward Translation.”

Originally presented at the 34th Conference. Annual Interdisciplinary CAES Conference. Ball State University (2003).

Michael L. HaysMichael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past forty-five years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.

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