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 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 been a source of interest because of their extensive links to William Shakespeare's history plays, as well as King Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline. Recent studies of the Chronicles have focused on an inter-disciplinary approach; numerous literary scholars have studied the traditional historiographical materials through a literary lens, with a focus on how contemporary men and women would have read historical texts.
Wolfe died with the work still uncompleted in 1573, and the project—changed to a work specifically about the British Isles—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. (King's College London) Holinshed's Chronicles February 2005. Accessed 1 June 2008.
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.
Several other playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe, used the Chronicles as a source.
The primary difference in the Chronicles is through characterisation. The character of Macbeth is primarily depicted as a good ruler, a king who was fair and just for 17 years. The 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. This story follows a similar narrative, as 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.
In the Chronicles version, Macbeth is a much more sympathetic character. King Duncan is depicted as a weak ruler who violates the Scottish laws of succession by failing to consult with the Thanes before naming his son, a mere child named Malcolm, to rule after him. Macbeth and many other Thanes are enraged by this action.
Spurred on by the words of the three women he encounters, Macbeth is encouraged to attempt to usurp the kingdom by force. He is also spurred on by his Lady Macbeth, who is ambitious and desires the title of queen for herself.
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, in which Duncan is murdered in his sleep, Duncan is slain in battle and his death is not highly detailed; "Macbeth slue the king at Enuerns... in the sixt yeare of his reigne."
In the Chronicles, Macbeth rules Scotland not briefly, but for 10 years, and is a capable and wise monarch who implements commendable laws. Fearing that Banquo will seize the kingdom, Macbeth invites him to a supper where he intends to kill him 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, gradually becoming a cruel and paranoid ruler.
The tale ends with Macbeth slain by Macduff, who then brings his head to the son of the original king, Malcolm.
A primary difference in the Chronicles is the continuation of the feuding through the children of the sisters; the sons of Gonerilla and Regan rise up against and imprison Cordelia, leading to a period of civil war, and Cordelia commits suicide.
The 1577 Chronicle features of King Lear and Cordelia, depicted as the rightful rulers and highlighting their prevailing goodness within the story.
As source material for Shakespeare's work, it is likely that the Chronicles story was used with great freedom, as more relevant sources have been found. Writers who may have influenced King Lear include Geoffrey of Monmouth and Edmund Spenser, with King Leir also contributing inspiration.