THE Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen (co-director of The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and Miller’s Crossing, among others) and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, is the latest screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

Now available on Apple TV+, the film is relatively faithful to the original, depicting a Scottish kingdom ruled initially by King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), supported by his thanes, and at war with Norway and – eventually – England. Washington was yesterday nominated for an Oscar in the best actor category for his performance.

But what is the real history of Macbeth’s reign? And just what is a thane anyway?

Eleventh-century Scotland was a very different place even from the better-known period of Robert the Bruce in the 14th century. The Kingdom of Alba’s borders were much smaller, covering about a third of modern Scotland, from Aberdeenshire to Stirlingshire, and its government very different. Instead of barons and earls, the leading nobles were thanes, like Macbeth (Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) in the film, and mormaers.

The National: Frances McDormand in The Tragedy Of Macbeth on Apple TV Frances McDormand in The Tragedy Of Macbeth on Apple TV

The mormaers were the most senior nobles outside the royal family. They were tasked with enforcing the law in their province and leading its men in battle. Their position eventually evolved into the medieval Scottish earl. Unlike so much of the history in this film and the original play, Scottish thanes are not something invented by Shakespeare, or even by the playwright’s often-inaccurate source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a 1577 history book. Thanes were wealthy landowners who had taken on an administrative role for the king or the local mormaer. They managed the lands of their superiors, collected taxes, raised troops, and hosted the king and his followers when he visited the region. Some thanes were appointed to their positions and others inherited them.

Macbeth was a real figure and a real king of Scots, but he was not a thane himself. He was initially the mormaer of Moray, part of a rival line for the throne. His father, Findlaech, had been a rival candidate for the Scottish kingship until he was murdered in 1020. Macbeth became mormaer in 1032, after his brother Gille Comgain was burnt along with 50 others. He then married his brother’s widow, Gruoch, the inspiration for the character of Lady Macbeth.

In 1040, Macbeth killed Duncan, king of Alba. One chronicler, Marianus Scotus, writing a few years after Macbeth’s death, claims that this happened on August 14. Later sources suggest it occurred at Pitgaveny near Elgin, well into Macbeth’s territory. It seems that either Duncan was there to show his strength by punishing a rival for the throne (he had just lost a battle against the English) or had been visiting Macbeth and was then betrayed by him, as in the play. Rather than being an old man, as the character is usually portrayed, Duncan was probably relatively young at his death. He came to the throne in 1034, succeeding his elderly grandfather Mael Coluim, son of Cinaed. He was probably well under 40 years old at his death.

The National: Macbeth about to murder King Duncan in the William Shakespeare play, drawn and etched by Robert DudleyMacbeth about to murder King Duncan in the William Shakespeare play, drawn and etched by Robert Dudley

Both The Tragedy of Macbeth and the original play present Macbeth’s reign as short and fragile, with the usurping king quickly driving out or murdering his rivals. He is then surrounded by plotters as he and his wife descend into madness, before being killed when Duncan’s son Malcolm returns to Scotland with an English army. The real Macbeth’s reign instead lasted 17 years, though he does seem to have taken out some rivals. In 1045, Duncan’s father, Crinan, who had become abbot of Dunkeld, was killed in battle with other Scots, but it is unclear if Crinan had rebelled or if this was a pre-emptive strike by Macbeth.

Yet the king was clearly not constantly on the defensive throughout his rule, as he left Scotland in 1050 to make a pilgrimage to Rome – the only reigning Scottish king to do so. According to Marianus Scotus, Macbeth “scattered money like seed to the poor at Rome”. To travel almost 1500 miles on a journey that would take months and months shows that his position in Scotland must have been very secure. He must also have managed to build some connections abroad, perhaps as a result of his pilgrimage, as several Normans who were driven out from England in 1052 went to Scotland and joined Macbeth’s court.

Macbeth’s reign also did not end in one fell swoop, with Malcolm’s English army marching on his fortress of Dunsinane, and his ally Macduff killing Macbeth. In fact, it is not even clear if Malcolm was a part of the invasion at all. The sources are clear that Siward, Earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland in 1054, defeating Macbeth in a battle on July 27 that year, but they do not specify that Duncan’s son Malcolm played a role. Instead, they say that Siward deposed Macbeth and installed a different Malcolm, the “son of the king of the Cumbrians”, that is, the Welsh kingdom of Strathclyde, in his place.

Regardless of whether Malcolm, son of King Duncan, was a part of the invasion, Macbeth survived his defeat at Siward’s hands and quickly regained control of the kingdom, remaining in power for a few more years, until he was killed by Malcolm in 1057 or 1058.

Both the film and the play end with Malcolm being proclaimed “king of Scotland”, but historically he did not immediately succeed Macbeth. Instead, Macbeth’s stepson and nephew Lulach, the son of his wife Gruoch and his brother Gille Comgain, became king, ruling for a few months. Later sources were not kind to him, referring to him as stupid or unlucky. He was killed in a battle at Essie, near Rhynie in Aberdeenshire on March 17, 1058, fighting against Malcolm, son of Duncan, who was probably backed by a Norwegian army from Orkney.

Some chronicles say that this was “by treachery”, suggesting that Malcolm may have ambushed Lulach. Malcolm then became King Malcolm III of Scotland, also known as Malcolm Canmore. Malcolm’s reign, and his marriage to the Anglo-Saxon princess Margaret, orientated Scotland towards England, laying the foundations for the Anglo-Scottish conflicts of the following centuries.