Who was the historical Lady Macbeth?

Meher Shiblee: I am currently in my third year at in Aberystwyth University, studying English Literature and aspire to pursue further education, for as long as possible. When I am not studying, I am busy drawing mandalas or reading graphic novels, hoping to one day combine my love for Shakespeare, art and graphic novels to produce something cool.

One cannot talk about William Shakespeare’s Macbeth without mentioning the ambition, cunning and destructiveness of Lady Macbeth. After all it was her who pushed Macbeth to plot and murder King Duncan in an attempt to seize the throne. However, this representation of Lady Macbeth is not at all accurate to the historical Lady Macbeth, who does not seem to have a hand in the murder of Duncan, or anything else that we see her doing in the play.

So who was the historical Lady Macbeth?

Her real name was Gruoch, born around 1005, and she was a direct descendent from the Gaelic kings of Scotland. Macbeth’s claim to the throne came through his marriage to her as she was said to have already been in line to the throne long before he married her. If fact it can be said that Macbeth married her to strengthen his claim, that is if he had any, to the throne, with her son, Lulach, from her previous marriage acting as their heir.  Before her marriage to Macbeth, she was married to Gillecomagain, who was Macbeth’s cousin. Gillecomagain had many rivals due to his position of power as Mormaer of Moary, but he managed to take care of them all till 1032, when his house was set on fire, perhaps with Macbeth’s involvement in play, after with Gruoch was married to Macbeth. While it is easy to presume foul play on Gruoch’s part, the reason for this marriage is much simpler. Grouch was someone who was desirable, not because of her appearance or personality, but because of her social standing, and the fact that she could produce male heirs.


Historically there is no evidence of Lady Macbeth having any involvement in Duncan’s murder, but she did have her reasons to resent him, as he was the grandson of Malcolm, the person who murdered her brother.

While there is not much evidence of Lady Macbeth being ‘evil’ or ‘scheming’, there is however evidence of her being generous, as she encouraged Macbeth to make a generous gift to a Culdee religious foundation, as part of the property was named after her ‘Gruoch’s Well’. The land that was gifted to the monks could have been her’s but there have been suggestions that she gave it away in an act of penance for Duncan’s death.

While Macbeth’s rule seemed effective, it did not prevent the endemic feud from breaking out again, and in 1054 on the orders of Edward the Confessor, he was challenged by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, who was attempting to return Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore, his nephew, to the throne. In August 1057, Macbeth was killed at the Battle of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire by Malcolm Canmore (later Malcolm III). Lulach, son of Gruoch soon took over the throne, but he was no match for Malcolm, and on 17 March 1058 he was killed at Essie in Aberdeenshire.

Had Gruoch been alive during this time, these events could be viewed as the greatest tragedy of her life. Gruoch had lost her brother, both her husbands, and her son under violent circumstances and while there is little evidence of her part in these events, it is clear that her real life was just as dramatic and tragic as the tales that have been invented about her.

Why then did Shakespeare present her in a totally different light?

We must first understand that Shakespeare was not an expert in eleventh century history, and that he was writing in part for King James VI and I, of Scotland and England respectively, who had taken Shakespeare’s playing company under his own personal patronage. James was obsessed with witches. No doubt in part due to his influence, witch-hunting and witch-burning were burgeoning at this time. He even attended the North Berwick witch trials, supervised the torture of women who were accused of being witches and wrote the Daemonologie, a study into Black magic and its threats to man in 1597, which was his retort to Reginald Scot’s widely read and heavily sceptical Discovery of Witchcraft, written in 1584. James’ tract set a scene of ‘the fearful abounding as this time in this country of these detestable slaves of the devil, the Witches’. For James witchcraft was real and present, and his dealings with witch trials, and the Daemonologie is said to have been one of the primary sources for the witches in Macbeth, which was written around 1606.

Like the witches, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth’s gender seems to be ambiguous. She asks the spirits to ‘unsex’ her so that she can achieve her goals to make Macbeth King. And this clearly tells us that any woman who is ‘dangerous’ took on a witch-like quality and indeed ceased to be identified as feminine. In the play, she is presented as childless, even though the historic Lady Macbeth had a son, Lulach, who succeeded Macbeth and ruled as King for a few months before Malcolm took over. Her asking of the spirits to ‘come to [my] woman’s breasts and take [my] milk for gall’ shows that she completely isolates herself from what is considered feminine and motherly for her ambition. She talks about how far she would go to get Macbeth the crown, stating that ‘I would while it was smiling in my face/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out’. These extreme speeches, the presentation of her desire for the crown make her seem just like the witches, who use a ‘finger of a birth strangled babe’ in their spells.  The idea that an ambitious woman cannot be feminine, or have a successful family is something that is still prevalent in today’s society, where women are judged for choosing one over the other, and expected to not successfully be able to do both.

Yet another thing to note would be how Lady Macbeth is shown to be dangerous in the way that she uses her sexuality to get what she wants. In the play she is over sexualised, seducing and manipulating Macbeth, questioning his ‘manhood’ to urge him to commit the murder. We are encouraged to sympathise with Macbeth, and are lead to believe that Lady Macbeth is the true villain of the play.

Shakespeare undermines her ambition, showing how dangerous it can be by showing her slow decline into guilt and madness, and ultimately suicide. This not only confirms that her actions and ambitions were unnatural and dangerous, but that they cannot and must not exist. The survival of Lady Macbeth would have meant that an ambitious woman is not dangerous, both to others and herself. Her death both confirms the dangers of an ambitions woman, and warns others of what may come from theirs.

Shakespeare may have also vilified her because by doing so King James’ claim to the throne would have strengthened, over the claims of the Gaelic kings of Scotland. Gruoch would have been a major political threat to the monarchy, and by presenting her as a witch-like, childless, and murderous woman, her claim to the throne is weakened.  By presenting her as a dangerous woman, her danger is averted.

She is shown to be dangerous because she is not a mother, she is not feminine, and she is ambitious. She is dangerous because she is in control of her sexuality. She is dangerous because she does not conform to the gender roles that have been assigned to her.

The idea that a woman is dangerous because of all these qualities is quite problematic, because it perpetuates an idea, a stereotype for women, making it impossible to for them to do what they want without being scrutinised, judged for their decisions as to what they want to do with their own selves. Women who are dominant, especially in terms of their sexuality and their bodies are looked down upon, and the ‘innocent’ woman is idealised. It creates an idea of an independent woman, an emancipated woman being untrustworthy, being dangerous.


Further reading:

Marshall, Rosalind K, Scottish queens, 1034-1714 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2007)

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth (London, United Kingdom: Penguin Classics, 2015)

van Es, Bart, Shakespeare in company (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015)


Featured image: Lady Macbeth by William Creswell from Seattle, Washington, USA, used under CC-BY-2.0 license.