William Shakespeare as Historian

Shakespeare’s history plays are for many people the defining versions of England’s medieval monarchs, but can Shakespeare really be trusted? Is Richard III the greatest villain in history or Henry V the embodiment of the perfect, virtuous king? To find out, we are taking a closer look at Shakespeare’s sources, why he was writing history plays in the first place and check three of his most famous plays to see if they are more historical fact or historical fiction.

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Donald III (Donalbain) – 1093-97

In 1093, Scotland seemed to have put its dynastic divisions behind it, but despite having had a long and stable reign, as well as a large number of sons, Malcolm III’s surprise death led to a chaotic period of internal conflict, largely thanks to his younger brother and immediately successor, Donald III (known in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Donalbain). However, Malcolm’s sons would not sit back and let their uncle rest on his laurels and they had the advantage of enjoying the support of the English king, William Rufus.

To find out more about Donald III, you can listen to his episode here or read on to find out more.

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Macbeth (1040-57)

Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays but there was a real life king behind the murderous villain of the ‘Scottish Play’. Was the real Macbeth the evil tyrant as depicted by Shakespeare or has his reputation been unjustly sullied? You can listen to his podcast episode here or read on for more information.

A 19th century imagining of Macbeth

A 19th century imagining of Macbeth

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Duncan I (1034-40)

According to William Shakespeare, Duncan was a kindly old king murdered in his bed by the villainous Macbeth, but what was the real story? Duncan’s grandfather had ruled Scotland for nearly thirty years but the reign had ended with dynastic conflict. Would Duncan prove the wise king of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or was the reality of history rather less glorious. Listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.

Duncan in Shakespeare's Macbeth, portrayed by David Thewlis

Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, portrayed by David Thewlis

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