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 traditionally been a source of interest to many because of their extensive links to 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 having studied the traditional historiographical materials through a literary lens, with a focus on how contemporary men and women would have read historical texts.
In 1548, Reginald Wolfe, a London printer, conceived the idea of creating a "Universal Cosmography of the whole world, and therewith also certain particular histories of every known nation". He wanted the work to be printed in English and he wanted maps and illustrations in the book as well. Wolfe acquired many of John Leland's works, and with these he constructed chronologies and drew maps that were up-to-date. When Wolfe realised he could not complete this project on his own, he hired Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison to assist him.
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.
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.
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, the plot of Macbeth, and for portions of King Lear and Cymbeline.
Several other playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe, used the Chronicles as a source.
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, so Shakespeare improvised on several points. The characters Banquo and Fleance were also taken from Holinshed's works, but they are now considered to be inventions of the 16th century.
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, 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 spoke of a prophecy that would contribute to the characterisation of these women as ‘other worldly’. The first woman said "All hayle Makbeth Thane of Glammis" (the title which he had just inherited following the death of his father). Then, two of the women said "All hayle Macbeth, Thane of Cawder". The third also said "All hayle Makbeth that hereafter shall be king of Scotland". Just as soon as they had appeared, the three women "vanished immediately out of theyr sight".
In the Chronicles version, Macbeth is a much more sympathetic character. King Duncan is depicted as a weak ruler and had violated the Scottish laws of succession by failing to consult with the "Thanes", or Lords, before naming his son, a mere child named Malcolm, to rule after him. Macbeth and many other Thanes were enraged by this action.
Spurred on by the words of the three women he encountered, he is encouraged to attempt to usurp the kingdom by force. He is also spurred on by his wife, who was ambitious and desired 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, which has Duncan 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 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 to 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.
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.
In the Chronicles Leir's eldest daughters, Gonerilla and Regan, are married to the Dukes of Cornwall and Albania. After the love test Leir decrees only half of his kingdom is to be assigned to the Dukes immediately, the rest to be divided at his death. This leads to the Dukes seizing power and Leir being left with only a small retinue to maintain him. Leir then flees to Gallia where his youngest daughter, Cordelia, is living. Owing to his youngest daughter's faithful support, Leir names Cordelia his sole heir and she and her husband Aganippus, the King of the Franks, raise an army and restore Leir to the throne, killing the Dukes. Leir then rules for two years before his death and is succeeded by Cordelia who rules for a subsequent five years.
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.
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 which may have influenced King Lear include Geoffrey of Monmouth and Edmund Spenser, with The Anonymous King Leir also contributing inspiration.