Facts & Figures: Holinshed’s Chronicles


    You might have heard of Holinshed’s Chronicles in case you studied English Literature. But for those of you who haven’t, let me give you a glimpse of it. Holinshed’s Chronicles otherwise is a detailed subject that has influenced many iconic writers and playwrights.  

    Holinshed’s Chronicles, also known as Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, is a collaborative work published in several volumes and two editions. The first edition was in 1577, and the second in 1587. It was a large, comprehensive description of British History published in three volumes (England, Scotland and Ireland).

    The Chronicles have traditionally been a source of interest and writing influence on many big time writers, because of its extensive links to Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as King Lear, Macbeth, and the lesser known Cymbeline (Cymbeline, is also known as The Tragedy of Cymbeline or Cymbeline, King of Britain) is a play by William Shakespeare set in Ancient Britain and based on the legends that formed part of the Matter of Britain concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobeline) of pre-Roman Britain.

    The Chronicles could have also been a primary source for many other literary writers of the Renaissance period such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser and George Daniel. Now let me tell you how these Chronicles came into existence.

    In 1548, Reginald Wolfe, a London printer, conceived the idea of creating a “Universal Cosmography of the whole world (Cosmography is a branch of science that deals with the general features of the universe, including mother earth), and among them certain histories, of every known nation.” He wanted the work to be printed in English and he also wanted maps and illustrations in the book. Wolfe acquired many of John Leland’s works (John Leland was an English poet and antiquary—dealing in rare books), and with these he constructed chronologies and drew maps that were up-to-date. When Wolfe realised he would not be able to complete this project on his own, he hired Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison to assist him.

    Wolfe died with the work still unfinished in 1573, and the project—changed to a work specifically about the British Isles—and was run by a consortium of three members of the London stationers. They retained Holinshed, who employed Harrison, Richard Stanyhurst, Edmund Campion and John Hooker. In 1577, the work was published in two volumes after some censorship by the Privy Council of some of Stanyhurst’s contribution on Ireland.

    The Chronicles narrative is characterised by a set of rhetorical figures and thematic paradigms that establish the national, royal, chivalrous and heroic ideals that define a state, its monarch, its leaders, and the political role of the common people.

Influence on Shakespeare:

    Shakespeare is widely believed to have used the revised second edition of the Chronicles (published in 1587) as the source for most of his history plays, including the plot of Macbeth first performed in 1606, and for portions of King Lear and Cymbeline.

    Several other playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe, also used the Chronicles as a source.

The Chronicles and Macbeth:

    Shakespeare used Holinshed’s work extensively in Macbeth, but in modified form. An instance is the Three Witches, whom Holinshed describes as “creatures of the elderwood … nymphs or fairies”. Nymphs and fairies are generally viewed as beautiful and youthful, but Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth are ugly, dark, and bizarre. It is believed that he made the change to heighten the suspense and darkness of the play. However, the Chronicles lacked any descriptions of Macbeth’s character, and therefore Shakespeare improvised on several points. The characters Banquo and Fleance in Macbeth were also taken from Holinshed’s works, but they are now considered to be inventions of the 16th century.

    The primary difference between the Chronicles and Shakespeare is characterisation. The character of Macbeth is primarily depicted as a good ruler, a king who was fair and just for 17 years. The Shakespeare’s plot displays King Duncan as a minor character and a weak king. It is possible that the reading of Shakespeare’s King Duncan was inspired by the tale of King Duffe contained within the Chronicle. The story follows a similar narrative, where, King Duffe and his murderer Donwald, closely mirror the narrative of King Duncan and Macbeth. The bad omens following the murder of Duffe are similarly mirrored in Shakespeare’s narrative.


The Chronicles tale of Macbeth differs from Shakespeare’s version in numerous ways. The play features a scene in which Banquo and Macbeth encounter three women and each speak of a prophecy that would contribute to the characterisation of these women as, ‘other worldly’. 

    In the Chronicles version, Macbeth is a much more sympathetic character. King Duncan is depicted as a weak ruler who had violated the Scottish laws of succession by failing to consult with the “Thanes”, or Lords, before naming his son.

    In Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo is shown as a scheming character—he is an accomplice in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan. In comparison to Shakespeare’s version, which has Duncan murdered in his sleep, Duncan is slain in battle and his death is not highly detailed.

    In the Chronicles, Macbeth ruled Scotland not briefly, but for 10 years. He was apparently a capable and wise monarch who implemented commendable laws. Fearing that Banquo will seize the kingdom, Macbeth invites him for a supper where he intends to kill Banquo and his son. He succeeds in killing Banquo but his son, Fleance, flees to Wales. Macbeth, convinced by the witches of his invincibility, commits outrageous acts against his subjects becoming a cruel and paranoid ruler.

   The tale ends when Macbeth is slain by Macduff who then brings his head to the son of the original King, Malcolm.

   The Chronicles and King Lear:

    It is believed that Shakespeare would have used the revised second edition of the Chronicles which was published in 1587. Shakespeare’s King Lear loosely follows the story detailed in the Chronicles but it is unlikely that the Chronicles acted as a primary source.

    Holinshed’s chronicles proves a point that even for a world acclaimed writer ideas can come from anywhere including history and mythology.

By Kamlesh Tripathi




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