Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) – often referred to as just ‘Holinshed’ – is a large collaborative work describing England, Scotland, Ireland and their histories from their first inhabitation to the mid-16th century. The work was a principal source for many literary writers of the Renaissance, including Marlowe, Spenser, Daniel and Shakespeare.
In 1548, the prominent London printer and bookseller Reyner (or Reginald) Wolfe ambitiously decided to produce a universal history and cosmography (i.e. description and mapping) of the world. After Wolfe’s death in 1573, his assistant Raphael Holinshed took over the project, hired more writers and restrained its scope to the British Isles. The Chronicles was first published in 1577 in a two-volume folio edition, illustrated with numerous woodcuts. After Holinshed’s death in 1580, Abraham Fleming published the significantly expanded and revised second edition of 1587 in a larger folio format, this time without illustrations.
Shakespeare used Holinshed as a source for more than a third of his plays, including Macbeth, King Lear and the English history plays such as Richard III. He used it in a range of ways, sometimes following the text of the Chronicles closely, even echoing its words and phrases; sometimes using it as an inspiration for plot details; and at other times deviating from its account altogether, either preferring other sources or his own imagination. Comparing Shakespeare’s plays to Holinshed and other sources can provide rich insight into his creative intentions and processes, as well as giving us an idea of some of the context in which Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences would have understood his plays.
It is widely believed that Shakespeare used the 1587 edition of Holinshed, based on similarities between some of Shakespeare’s text and passages which only appear in the later edition.
Shakespeare loosely follows Holinshed’s account of Leir, a legendary king of Britain whose story is set in roughly the 8th century BCE. The main differences are that in Holinshed, Leir’s eldest daughters are married to the Dukes of Cornwale and Albania after the love test and that Leir decrees only half of his kingdom is to be assigned to the Dukes immediately, the rest to be divided at his death. The Dukes rise up against Leir and take control of the other half by force, allowing the King a small maintenance which, with the support of Gonerilla and Regan, is gradually diminished. Leir flees to Gallia (France) where Cordeilla gives him money for clothes and attendants, receiving him at court with all the honour of a king. Cordeilla is renamed as Leir’s sole heir and she and her husband Aganippus raise an army and restore Leir to the throne, killing the Dukes. Leir rules for two years before he dies and the throne passes to Cordeilla. She rules for five years, but after the death of Aganippus, Margan and Cunedagius – the sons of Gonerilla and Regan – rise up against her, refusing to be ruled by a woman. Cordeilla is taken prisoner and, in despair of regaining her liberty, kills herself. There follows a period of civil war.
One of the key similarities to Holinshed is the emphasis on the naturalness of Cordeilla’s love for her father, and the unnaturalness of Gonerilla and Regan. Lear’s madness in King Lear, as well as his death and the murder of Cordelia, seem to be Shakespeare’s invention.
The text for the story of Leir and Cordeilla is very similar in both editions of Holinshed with changes restricted to spelling or phrasing. As well as the text of the Leir story, the 1577 edition also has woodcut illustrations of Leir as a warrior king wearing armour and of Cordeilla, shown both as a queen and a despairing suicide.
The main events Shakespeare depicts in Macbeth are found in Holinshed’s account of the reign of Duncan (an account now believed to be based on legend rather than historical fact). Some of the key differences are that Holinshed presents Duncan as a weak king, ‘softe and gentle of nature’, and Makbeth as cruel, but valiant and an effective ruler. Holinshed gives greater legitimacy to Makbeth’s treason: Duncan names his son Prince of Cumberland and so cuts off Makbeth’s legitimate chance to succeed him on the throne. Shakespeare increases Lady Macbeth’s role and invents her sleepwalking and suicide, the haunting of Macbeth by Banquo’s ghost and his return to the witches.
Shakespeare also used ideas from other parts of Holinshed’s ‘Historie of Scotlande’. Duffe, a 10th-century king, was murdered by Donwalde, spurred on strongly by his wife. The pair get Duffe’s personal attendants drunk, and Donwalde blames and slays them in his fabricated rage at discovering the murder. Macbeth also echoes the mood of this account: Duffe was a victim of attempted murder by witchcraft, and after his death Scotland was plunged into a period of darkness and storm. The account of Kenneth (ruling shortly after Duffe) was also influential. Kenneth murders Duffe’s son in order to assure his own son’s succession and – like Macbeth in Act 2, Scene 2 – is plagued in his guilt by a mysterious voice in the night that prevents him from sleeping and strikes him with dread and terror.
Chapter 13 of Holinshed’s ‘Description of Scotlande’ perhaps provides insight into the creation of Lady Macbeth’s character, describing men and women as being equal in ‘labour & painefulnesse’. It details the dislike by Scottish women of wet nurses, fearing accusations of infidelity and the degeneration and ‘grow[ing] out of kinde’ of their babes, ‘except they gave them sucke themselves’, and linking the ‘milke of theyr brestes’ with the ‘bloud of their owne bellies’. Holinshed also describes women going to war alongside their men with no less courage or ferocity: ‘they slew the first living creature that they found, in whose bloud they not onely bathed their swordes, but also tasted therof with their mouthes’.
Christopher Marlowe used Holinshed (probably the 1587 edition) as the primary source for his play about Edward II. He was inspired by the Chronicles’ vivid account of the King’s turbulent reign (1307–1327), which starts with Edward I’s death and the return of Edward II’s low-born favourite, Piers Gaveston, from banishment.
In his dramatisation of the King’s downfall, Marlowe selects, rearranges and reinvents parts of Holinshed’s Chronicle to create a moving tragedy with intriguing characters. His play charts Edward’s love for Gaveston and Spencer; his neglect of his Queen and earls; the rise and fall of ambitious Mortimer and his lover Queen Isabella; and the King’s abdication and murder. Many of Holinshed’s details of domestic and foreign policy – particularly wars with France, Scotland and Ireland – are pushed to the margins of Marlowe’s Edward II.
The final scenes of Marlowe’s play draw on Holinshed’s version of Edward’s brutal murder at Berkeley Castle. In the Chronicles, his killers held him down ‘with heavie feather beddes, (or a table as some write)’ and ‘put into his fundament [i.e. his bowels] an horne, and through the same they thrust up into his bodie a hote spitte’ (p. 883). In Marlowe’s play, Lightborne calls for a ‘red-hot’ spit, a ‘table and a feather-bed’. Some see Edward’s gruesome murder, as described in both these texts, as a vicious punishment for his homosexuality.
The woodcut illustrations of the 1577 edition were intended to bring the textual account to life, but not to be historically realistic or to serve as a documentary source in themselves. Although most of the costly woodcuts used were commissioned specifically for the project, a large number of them were reused throughout the work and as such illustrate types rather than specific individuals or events. For example, the woodcuts illustrating Cordeilla’s suicide, Makbeth’s coronation and even Leir himself, are also found elsewhere in the book illustrating other suicides, other coronations and other kings. This distance between text and image perhaps explains some of the difficulty to modern readers posed by the illustration of Makbeth and Banquho meeting the weird sisters, whose courtly dress belies their description as ‘straunge & ferly’ (ferly meaning ‘unexpected’, ‘frightful’ or ‘wondrous’ – the word was changed to ‘wild’ in the 1587 edition). In addition, all of the characters are dressed in Renaissance rather than medieval clothes. This woodcut, which only appears the once in Holinshed, has been variously interpreted as being a generic illustration of lords meeting ladies in a wood, as being evidence that witches could be upper class, or as depicting this specific event but being part of an illustrative tradition that did not require such a close correspondence with its text.