Macbeth: a true story – Fiona Watson




Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. I’ve read it dozens of times. I’ve seen several productions on DVD. My favourite is the 1970s RSC production with Ian McKellen & Judi Dench. I plan to watch it again this weekend. The most expensive book I own is a Folio Society Letterpress edition of Macbeth. I bought it a few years ago & it’s a beautiful object as well as being a book I really treasure because of the contents. I’ve never worried about first editions, mainly because I can’t afford to collect them & also because I buy books to read not as investments. I know some collectors do both, keep their first editions pristine & also have reading copies but I’m not a collector, just a reader.

The Folio Society edition is gorgeous, hand-bound with creamy, mould-made paper & handmade marbled paper on the cover so no two copies are the same. You can see the famous opening lines of the play above. It lives in a presentation box along with another volume by Nicholas Brooke, discussing the origins of the play, Shakespeare’s sources & influences & some of the real history behind the fiction. This has always fascinated me. I’ve known for a long time that Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t to be taken seriously as historical documents. Look at what he did to Richard III! He used the chronicles & histories available to him & sometimes cannibalised other plays to create his own works.

I’ve always been interested in the real story behind Macbeth. I knew it had been written to please the new English King James I who was also King James VI of Scotland. It reflected James’s well-known interest in witchcraft & painted his legendary ancestor, Banquo, in a flattering light. So, I was looking forward to reading Fiona Watson’s new book on Macbeth to find out more about the reality behind Shakespeare’s great tragic figure.

The real Macbeth lived in the 11th century. He was a contemporary of the English kings Cnut & Edward the Confessor. He was the first King of Scotland known to have visited Rome. Far from a brief & bloody reign, he was King for 17 years, a time of some peace & prosperity for his kingdom. He did murder the previous king, Duncan, but he wasn’t the venerable old man of Shakespeare. Most kings of Scotland at this time were murdered by their successors, it was a brutal fact. Scottish history of this period is still quite obscure. There are very few sources, unlike in England, where there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle among others. Fiona Watson sets the scene with an in-depth look at Scotland in the 11th century & its place in Europe. Gradually the focus narrows to Scotland & the influence of England, the Romans, Ireland & Scandinavia on her politics & economy.

The Scottish succession had passed from Kenneth mac Alpin, the legendary 9th century King of Scotland to his sons, Constantine & Aed. For the next 200 years, the succession alternated between the descendants of these two kings, the choice always falling on an adult male who had proven himself a warrior & leader of men. This didn’t prevent kings being murdered by those too impatient to wait or unsure if the choice would fall on them but it did prevent the perils of child heirs & the problems associated with powerful men vying for influence over them. The rise of the House of Moray under Macbeth’s father, Finlay, interrupted this tradition. Moray was within Scotland but considered itself outside it. Finlay ruled his fiefdom & didn’t see himself as subject to the King of the Scots as other mormaers or earls of parts of Scotland did. A marriage between a daughter of the line of Kenneth mac Alpin & a ruler of Moray led to Finlay asserting his maternal heritage when the line of Constantine died out at the end of the 10th century. Finlay’s supporters decided to push his claim as the next King of Scots as he was descended through the female line from Aed, the line of the alternate kings. This is all very complicated but I hope I’ve got it right. This was Macbeth’s claim to the throne, & as Watson claims, it was really a continuation of the existing arrangement of rulers from alternate lines of descent from Kenneth mac Alpin.

Macbeth, however, after killing Duncan to take the throne, was unable to perpetuate his dynasty. He had married Gruoch, the widow of Macbeth’s own cousin whom he had killed in battle. Gruoch had a son, Lulach, brought up as Macbeth’s heir as they failed to have any children of their own. Gruoch, made infamous as Lady Macbeth by Shakespeare, was herself descended from the royal line & would have enhanced Macbeth’s position as King. Macbeth’s reign was relatively peaceful & as he made a pilgrimage to Rome, he must have been confident that the realm would be safe without him, perhaps leaving Lulach as Regent.

Macbeth seems to have retired, or been persuaded to retire by Lulach or his nobles after a reign of 17 years. Lulach succeeded to the throne but Duncan’s son, Malcolm, had been growing up in the Orkneys & chose this moment to invade from the north. Lulach was killed & it is speculated that Macbeth then came out of retirement for the final confrontation with Malcolm, where he was killed. As is always the case, history is written by the victors & the short-lived Moray dynasty were soon vilified in the chronicles as wicked Macbeth & his inept stepson, Lulach. Malcolm’s descendants consolidated their position & ruled Scotland until the 13th century & their version of history is the one that prevailed.

There is much more in Fiona Watson’s book than I’ve mentioned here. I’ve hardly touched on the influence of the Celtic & Roman Churches in the way Scottish history was told, or mentioned the achievements of Macbeth’s reign. My only quibble with the book is the insertion of fictional reconstructions which are quite clunky & add little to the story. Apart from that, Macbeth: a true story is fascinating & entertainingly told. If you’re at all interested in this murky period of Scotland’s history then I would recommend Fiona Watson’s book.

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