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Hubble, bubble Shakespeare's in trouble with history experts

IT IS known by superstitious actors as "the Scottish play", but a pair of historians are now questioning how much William Shakespeare's Macbeth actually belonged to England's most famous playwright.

In a radio programme to be aired today, Scots historian Fiona Watson and literary expert Molly Rourke claim the story of Macbeth was penned by a Scottish monk on St Serf's Island in the middle of Loch Leven 400 years before William Shakespeare even drew breath.

In Macbeth the Highland King to be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, Watson says Macbeth and his wife, Gruoch, were in fact "respected, God-fearing folk".

According to Watson, the "almost entirely fantastical view" of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth drawn by William Shakespeare is lifted, almost word for word in places, from a collection of folklore recorded by St Serf's monk, Andrew de Wyntoun.

The real king Macbeth once made an endowment of land to the monks of St Serf, together with privileged access to the port of Inverkeithing. But in an act of double-cross befitting the murderous play, Wyntoun's work, which he called his Oryginalle Cronykil, portrays Macbeth as a "changeling", or Devil's child.

Rourke, who is based in Dollar, Clackmannanshire, says in the programme: "Wyntoun was essentially a translator and it is conceivable that these may have been Gaelic stories, still around in his lifetime, or they might have been oral. Wyntoun wrote that Macbeth's father was either a demon or a fairy. He said Macbeth's mother had been out in the woods and met this very fair man...and the result of this was Macbeth".

Referring to Shakespeare's prophecy that Macbeth shall be safe until Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane and that no-one "of woman born" shall harm Macbeth, Rourke explained in Wyntoun's work: "The person [Macbeth's mother] met later came and saw her, gave her a ring, and prophesied about what was going to happen in the future. One of the things he said was that this child they'd had would never be killed by man born of woman. Wyntoun also recorded that Macbeth believed he'd never be conquered until the wood of Birnham came to Dunsinane."

The historians claim another element of Wyntoun found in Shakespeare is the three witches that open the play. Wyntoun wrote: "Ane nicht, he thoucht while he was sa settled [that] he saw three women, and they women then thoucht he three Wierd Sisters most like to be.

"The first he heard say, ganging by, 'lo, yonder the Thane of Cromarty'.

"T'other woman said again 'of Moray, yonder I see the Thane'.

"The third said 'yonder I see the king'."

Rourke and Watson say the resemblance to the witches' prophesy in Shakespeare's Macbeth - in which the first hails him as "Thane of Glames", the second as "Thane of Cawdor" and the third proclaims he shall "be King hereafter" - is too great to be co-incidental.

Dr Watson said: "Andrew de Wyntoun was head of a new religious movement on St Serf's Island. Gruoch, Lady Macbeth, was ironically the benefactress of the very monastery where Wyntoun was based.

"He was probably warming his feet on a fire made of peats from her lands when he wrote all this.

"Little did he know the effect he would have.

They set Macbeth and poor lady Gruoch on a road to eternal notoriety."

David Robinson, books editor of The Scotsman said Shakespeare got the idea for Macbeth from a wide range of sources, but this did not constitute plagiarism.

He said: "Shakespeare admits to this borrowing in sonnet 76 when he wrote, 'So all my best is dressing old words new/Spending again what is already spent'.

"But even if he got nearly all his stories from older texts, he always brought them to life far more completely than any of his original sources."

Macbeth the Highland King will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, today at 11:30am.

 
 
 

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