Hurrah for Macbeth!

DATELINE Elgin, Moray—King Macbeth released a new campaign ad today, condemning his political opponents for taking his words out of context.

In the ad, he says, ‘When my opponents quote me as saying,

“I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

‘They are willfully misinterpreting the plain meaning of my words. Rather than admitting that I was guilty of killing King Duncan, I was talking about our corporate guilt, and the culture of violence which—sadly—prevails in contemporary Scotland, and which my opponents in fact encourage when they oppose my sensible and moderate spear control laws.’

Thinking about Macbeth today. I’ve always liked the play, even before I realized it was set in the Viking Age, and peripherally in the Viking world. I could put Macbeth in one of my Erling novels if I wanted to. They were contemporaries, though Macbeth was considerably younger.

You’re likely aware that Shakespeare’s play is a complete libel. Shakespeare was writing under King James I, who believed himself a descendent of Banquo. Which explains all the business with the witches telling Banquo he would “get kings” without himself becoming one.

The real Macbeth was a popular and successful king, almost to the end. He killed King Duncan (who was not an old man but a young one), not in bed, but honorably in battle. Contemporary accounts describe him as both “red” and “golden-haired.” Very likely, I suppose, he was strawberry blond. He was confident enough in the security of his throne to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, during which he is reported to have given money to the poor “as if it were seed.”

A fascinating theory about Macbeth was advanced by the late novelist Dame Dorothy Dunnett in her novel King Hereafter. Dame Dorothy reported that she set out to write a sympathetic novel about Macbeth but couldn’t make the chronology work—until she hit on the idea of treating Macbeth and Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty of Orkney (a significant character in the sagas) as the same man. Her theory was that Macbeth’s birth name was Thorfinn, and he ruled Orkney under that name, but that his baptismal name was Macbeth, and he ruled in Scotland that way.

As far as I know, she convinced not one professional historian of this scenario.

The fatal weakness of the theory, in my view, is that the Orkneyinga Saga states very clearly that Jarl Thorfinn died in bed, while we know that Macbeth died in battle. I can imagine a saga writer making up a warrior’s death for a chieftain who actually died a “straw death,” but I can’t imagine him prevaricating in the opposite direction. Even after the conversion, the Norse took pride in dying with swords in their hands.

8 thoughts on “Hurrah for Macbeth!”

  1. Hard to see how that could happen, since the historians wrote under the patronage of the king who unseated Macbeth, Malcolm Canmore, and his descendents. The Canmore dynasty ruled for several centuries.

    But I like your cynical attitude.

  2. Ha!

    There were two conflicting history streams in Scotland, as I understand it, the pro- and anti-Macbethers. (Anti-Macbethians?) Macbeth reigned an impressive 17 years with a pilgrimage in the middle, and he had a strong fan base afterward.

    I’m glancing through my history of Macbeth (Macbeth: Man and Myth by Nick Aitchison), which reminds me that there’s a lot of disagreement and conflation among the early historians about the Macbeth-Lulach-Malcolm succession.

    As Aitchison tells it, Malcolm did defeat Macbeth at the Battle of Seven Sleepers (probably Dunsinane) 1054. Malcolm was apparently crowned at Scone then. However, Macbeth ruled Moray and northern Scotland another three years, until Malcolm made a surprise attack at Lumphanon in August 1057 on the anniversary of his father Duncan’s death, and took out Macbeth.

    But even THEN Lady Macbeth’s son Lulach apparently ruled Macbeth’s territory for another seven months. It was only after that that Malcolm took over completely.

    I like Macbeth too. And the play. And Malcolm’s Queen Margaret. Malcolm himself… kind of a mess, actually.

  3. Related but unrelated: I’ve also read that Richard III was also well-loved and deserving of his throne. Only in later years did he acquire the villainous reputation and the label as a nephew murderer, or so says Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time.

  4. There’s a whole subculture of Ricardians and anti-Ricardians. I read Daughter of Time myself and was won over for a while, but the anti-Ricardians also have some strong arguments. Certainly he wasn’t the devil of Shakespeare’s play.

  5. The only worse libel was Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Some historians think that most Athenians knew Socrates less in person than from the play, thus explaining the vote to put him to death.

    My mother comes from the Clan Donnachaidh, which claims descent from Duncan I. So it’s a play that I’ve always felt a certain connection to as well.

  6. I’m generally cautious, if not actively dubious, about versions of Shakespeare reset into the modern era in costume and scenery. But I have to say Ian McKellen’s 1995 film Richard III, which set the play in the 1930s with Richard as a scheming fascistic politician, really worked.

    It fitted Richard as Shakespeare portrayed him. Which, as noted, probably has nothing to do with who he really was…

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