Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. That was Shakespeare’s motto when writing his historical plays and he followed his own advice. Now, it is roundly accepted that Shakespeare lifted a lot of his material from other writers like Boccaccio and the Holinshed Chronicles, among others. He took stories like Macbeth and Duncan and changed them to make a more dramatic tale. It’s the same story, kinda, but it’s different too. In Holinshed the three fates Macbeth encounters in Birnam Wood are fairies but Shakespeare makes them witches, for his story must be a dark tale of betrayal and karma. Duncan is a good king unseated by Macbeth, a disloyal Thane, says Shakespeare, but Holinshed says Duncan is a weak king and is trying to name his still prepubescent son Malcom as his heir. This, says Holinshed, violates the king’s agreement that naming an heir will be approved by the Thanes.
All the action in Shakespeare’s play is one act following another but, in point of actual history, Macbeth ruled Scotland for fourteen years after he supplanted Duncan and he was considered by all, save Duncan’s kin, to be a good king. Now Malcom married a lowlander of Angle blood (that’s English) and it would be the lowlanders against the highlanders; you’ve no doubt heard of the Campbells. When he was king Macbeth held the seat of the Campbells at Cawdor, having been given that honor by Duncan just before Macbeth ousted him, ok, murdered him. Macbeth wasn’t killed in single combat by Macduff but in battle against the Campbells and their Anglo/Saxon allies in 1057. Macbeth would be the last pure Celtic king of Scotland and not a decade later Harold would be the last Anglo/Saxon king of England. So, you have three historic ethnicities losing their hegemony in the world in the span of ten years.
So, Macbeth was not a loyal Thane and not a good king. We learned that history from Shakespeare. But, in fact, he was loyal to the council of Thanes and he was a good king for fourteen years. Duncan is to be pitied for he represented that which was good says Shakespeare, but history says Duncan was a weak king, not well liked and was trying to pull a fast one on the council of Thanes. Malcom was the rightful heir says Shakespeare, but he would side with foreigners to capture the throne. So, while based in history Shakespeare’s play is a fiction and the characters’ true selves are not shown but instead are warped to make a dark tale of betrayal and the ultimate victory of revenge. But for many of us Shakespeare is the history upon which we will form opinions.
I’m not going to give you specific examples. I’m only going to challenge you to do some homework and see how today’s media is emulating Shakespeare’s actions of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Have a drink, think about it. Invite a friend over, sit on the porch in this nice fall weather or around a cheerful fire pit and brainstorm the issue. I trust you’ll find it both an entertaining and exciting exercise as you realize how fictional reportage of historical characters and acts is becoming the history the future will contemplate. Good Luck and enjoy.