“Macbeth”: Why did Shakespeare include Donalbain?

The inclusion of Donalbain in Macbeth seems to me to be a curious decision. He is glimpsed amongst King Duncan’s entourage early in the play, and is given only a handful of lines when the murder is discovered in Act 2 Scene 3. Yet whilst in Shakespeare’s version Donalbain is portrayed as cowardly and weak, the historical figure of Donalbain (King Donald III of Scotland) played a significant part in Scotland’s bloody history.

As always with Shakespeare, the differences between the playwright’s sources (whether historical or literary) and the final text are intriguing, and shed light on the writer’s intentions. Historically speaking, at the time of Duncan’s death and Macbeth’s accession to the throne in 1039, Donalbain was much younger than he appears to be when he is seen near the battlefield in Act 1 Scene 2. He did flee after Duncan’s death, but was most likely taken to the Hebrides rather than independently travelling to Ireland. And whilst he may have visited Ireland, he seems to have spent his time mustering support in the west of Scotland, resulting in his “leader[ship] of the conservative Celtic nobility of north-western Scotland” who opposed the European orientation that Malcolm, as king, gave the country. After Malcolm’s death in Northumberland, Donalbain took the throne and spent a tumultuous few years ruling Scotland, being deposed in 1099.1 Although this historical narrative is occluded in Shakespeare’s version of events, it speaks to the anxieties around the precariousness of kingship and of the nation upon which the action of Macbeth depends.

This is made clear in Malcolm’s concluding speech, which only ostensibly brings balance and order to a chaotic and violent moment in history. But scratch the surface and the fault lines are clear. Malcolm announces:

What’s more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny
[.]

Donalbain is presumably one of the “exiled friends” whom Malcolm would like to recall – but as the historical events described above indicate, his return to the locus of power actually undermined, rather than bolstered, his brother’s hold on the crown. And of course through this phrase Shakespeare reminds the audience of another “exiled” character – Fleance, who has been prophesied to take the crown and from whom King James I was descended. The confidence of Malcolm’s royal “we” (“our exiled friends”) is therefore misplaced and becomes subtly suggestive of a failure to face up to the tense realities of the situation.

It is not just historical knowledge which indicates a rift between the brothers; Donalbain’s only lines in the play imply this difference as well. After Duncan’s murder, Donalbain realises that “there’s daggers in men’s smiles: the near in blood, / The nearer bloody”. Donalbain perspicaciously realises that “fair is foul” and, in articulating his suspicion of those closest to him, hints that blood relations cannot be trusted. Is he speaking metaphorically of those he has served with in battle, and who are therefore “brothers in arms”, of his cousin Macbeth, or of his brother Malcolm? Whichever direction Donalbain’s thoughts are travelling, it is clear that he lacks his father’s overly trusting nature and instead inclines to scepticism and self-protection.

Another way in which Shakespeare uses Donalbain to allude to the theme of the precariousness of power is through the reference to Ireland. Again, turning to historical sources can enhance our interpretation of this plot detail. Whilst I cannot do justice to the colonial history of Ireland here, it is important to realise that the early 1600s, when Macbeth was written and performed, saw the “collapse of the Gaelic order” under pressure from the English settlers and army.2 Yet this collapse had begun centuries before, when England had gradually asserted its authority over the smaller island. James Shapiro wrote about this “national preoccupation” with Ireland in a recent Irish Times article on Shakespeare and Ireland, explaining that in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras “military service in Ireland was much feared, given the high mortality and casualty rates”.3 A symbol of chaos, conflict, and insurrection against English rule, any allusion to Ireland in a Renaissance text brings with it an anxiety about nationhood and power.

So perhaps the inclusion of Donalbain is not curious, but rather another method by which Shakespeare can explore the themes of leadership and power. Whilst the term “universal” is a deeply problematic one, like Malcolm’s flight to England, Donalbain’s departure for Ireland indicates that these are concerns which are not simply limited to the Scottish nobility of the eleventh century. Rather, Shakespeare uses Donalbain to expand the scope of his text in both time and space, looking across the sea to Ireland and forward to Donalbain’s own years of kingship. Can a nation ever be united? What geographical area should that nation include? What type of leader has the ability and moral authority to rule, and how should they do this? The beauty of Shakespeare is, of course, that in many ways these questions still resonate with us today.

Footnotes

  1. See Charles Boyce’s Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare: A-Z of his Life and Works (reference kindly provided by Matt Lynch).
  2. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995), p3. Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland (1988) remains one of the most comprehensive overviews of the period from 1600 to the Troubles.
  3. James Shapiro, “What ish my nation?: Shakespeare’s Irish connections”, The Irish Times (2016). ‘What ish my nation?’ Shakespeare’s Irish connections (irishtimes.com)
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