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Macbeth before Shakespeare

Benjamin Hudson

Publication Date - 01 December 2022

ISBN: 9780197567531

312 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Macbeth is arguably the world's most famous monarch. Both the historical king and the literary character have fascinated writers and audiences for centuries, beginning with the poets who recited their verses at the medieval monarch's court. Macbeth's legend began almost immediately after his death as medieval and Renaissance writers gradually replaced the king with a semi-literary character developed and embroidered to suit their own political and cultural agenda. The process of transformation culminated in playwright William Shakespeare's The Tragedie of Macbeth.

Investigating the man and the legend, Benjamin Hudson traces the eleventh-century prince's rise to prominence from local warlord to international ruler. Battling Vikings, English, and his fellow Scots, Macbeth was involved in a Dano-Norwegian conflict, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and gave refuge to Norman knights. He was more than a mere warlord. With his queen, Gruoch, the widow of a man who killed Macbeth's father, he was a benefactor of churches. The historical prince was an important innovator who used new fighting tactics, developed an international outlook to government, and encouraged intellectual pursuits. Hudson also tracks the ways in which popularizers developed the women behind the fictional Lady Macbeth and the weird sisters.

Drawing on centuries of Celtic and Scandinavian sources, popular entertainment, political theory, folklore, and art, Macbeth before Shakespeare recovers the genuine king from the historical record and shows how he was replaced by the legendary monster of ambition.


  • Traces the world in which the real Macbeth lived and how his ancestry shaped the man and legend
  • Examines Lady Macbeth as a descendant of a king and her contribution to the family's fortunes
  • Analyzes different versions of the historical records of Macbeth and later legends, with attention to Celtic and Scandinavian material

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Hudson is Professor of History and Medieval Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. His books include Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic (OUP, 2005) and The Picts.
Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic (OUP, 2005).


"Benjamin Hudson's Macbeth before Shakespeare is a very entertaining and educating read. It succeeds very well in bringing out the man behind the myth, as well as explaining how the man became the myth. Hudson is a master of all the materials and languages required for the job, and he knows the history of Ireland and Britain around the year 1000 intimately." -- Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, National University of Ireland, Galway

"Here at last we have a solid and detailed account of the historical Macbeth. Ben Hudson is the historian of Celtic Scotland in the central Middle Ages, and he provides us with a readable narrative of the origins of the kingdom of the Scots and Macbeth's role as one of its most energetic and effective kings prior to Scotland's vassalage to their Anglo-Norman neighbor to the south. We see here the process by which Shakespeare inherited the history and legends surrounding Macbeth and the 'three weird sisters,' how Scots were generally perceived in Tudor England, and whether or not there could have been surviving children of Macbeth and his Lady. This is a meticulously constructed history of Scots, Viking, and English relations in the tumultuous eleventh century and a fascinating glimpse into how this particular Scottish monarch—called by one contemporary poet 'the red king'—made his way onto the Elizabethan stage." -- Christopher A. Snyder, author of The Britons

"This fascinating examination is an important contribution to medieval and early modern Scottish and British history, literature, folklore, and drama. Combining an unrivalled mastery of a complex array of sources with expert use of multiple methodologies, Benjamin Hudson deftly unveils the story of one of Scotland's most enigmatic figures across half a millennium as he explores the evolution of Macbeth from an historical, eleventh-century ruler of Scotland to the infamous Shakespearean literary villain of five-and-a-half centuries later." -- R. Andrew McDonald, Brock University

Table of Contents

    Note on Methodology
    List of Abbreviations
    Introduction: A Man and a Legend
    Chapter 1: Macbeth: Place and Past
    Chapter 2: Macbeth Emerges
    Chapter 3: King of All the Scots
    Chapter 4: Fame and Defamation
    Chapter 5: Not the Beginning of the Legend
    Chapter 6: Weird Sisters and the Prior of Loch Leven
    Chapter 7: Macbeth and Renaissance Scotland
    Chapter 8: The Scot in Tudor England
    Chapter 9: Macbeth before Shakespeare
    Appendix 1: Children of Macbeth
    Appendix 2: Andrew of Wyntoun's Macbeth Episode: A Translation