De origine, moribus, et rebus gestis Scotorum libri decem (Concerning the origin, customs, and actions of the Scots in ten books) was written by the Scottish Roman Catholic bishop and historian John Leslie (1527–1596). Leslie was a friend and ambassador to Mary I of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots). The book, written in Latin, contains a history and description of Scotland from the (mythical) reign of Fergus I of Scotland in the 4th century BC, to Leslie’s current day and the reign of Mary. In Leslie’s account of Macbeth, the weird sisters are devils disguised as women, and Macbeth’s reign one of terror. De origine is distinguished by containing the first separate map of Scotland in a printed book, now rare to find intact. It also has a number of beautifully illustrated genealogical diagrams.

Macbeth and the genealogy of kings

Digitised here are a genealogical diagram of kings including Macbeth (Machabeus), showing that he had a son and was a cousin to Duncan (p. 172); a genealogy tree that traces the lineage of Mary (Maria) and her heir, James (Jacobus, later James VI of Scotland and I of England) back to Banquo (Banquh) and Fleance (Fleanchus) (p. 260); and one with illustrations of Mary and James (p. 462).

The questions of succession and the genealogy of kings are interesting ones in Macbeth. As we see in the diagram on p. 172, the Scottish throne wasn’t always passed down through the male line. Until the end of the 10th century, Scottish kings didn’t inherit the throne, they were elected from within an extended royal family. This procedure (known as tanistry) was supposed to prevent the rule of a minor or a tyrant. However King Kenneth III, who wanted his son Malcolm II (grandfather to both Duncan and Macbeth) to succeed him, forced the nobles to accept (male) hereditary rule by threat of violence. Duncan succeeded Malcolm, so in the time Macbeth was set, hereditary rule was a new idea imposed with violence and Macbeth wasn’t too far removed from a legitimate claim to the throne. This reality of Scottish history jars with Shakespeare’s presentation of Macbeth as a usurper of the natural order of hereditary rule, which is restored by Malcolm III at the end of the play. One wonders whether Shakespeare’s intention was to smooth over or to highlight the question of royal authority for his new absolutist monarch and patron, James.

An important genealogical moment in Macbeth comes in Act 4, Scene 1 when Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters and is shown a vision of the eight kings of Scotland from Banquo’s line (who married into Malcolm III’s line eight generations later – see p. 260). This vision is an invention of Shakespeare’s (it doesn’t appear in any of the source material) and is usually read as a compliment to James – James was the ninth king descended from Banquo and would have been the face in the looking glass when this play was performed at court. However, it is not without some tension; the eighth king should actually have been a queen: Mary, Queen of Scots – James’s mother – who was executed by Queen Elizabeth of England.