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The Real Macbeth

2002 October 12
by Paul Vallely

“BE WARNED. Most people are disappointed when they get to the top,” says Richard Oram. We are almost at the summit of the 600ft hill which rises with alarming steepness from the vale of Strathmore just on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. At least it is alarming if you climb with someone like Oram, whose idea of recreation is to run up those Scottish peaks over 3,000ft known as Munros. We are in search of the ruthless and blood-soaked man who has become perhaps the purest personification of evil in Western culture.

There is, of course, something sexy about evil; which is why directors look for a sex symbol when they are casting the bloody man in question: Macbeth, that accursed symbol of treachery and tyranny. The brooding Sean Bean, who opens this week in a new production of Shakespeare’s blood-clogged tragedy, is only the latest in a long line of sultry seducers to tackle the paradox of an evil which is as hypnotically fascinating as it is deadly. Real life is an altogether messier business. Dunsinnan Hill, the locals call the steep slope we are climbing. But the rest of the world knows it as Dunsinane, the place where Macbeth fought his final battle. My climbing companion, Dr Richard Oram, is a history lecturer from Stirling University who specialises in the early medieval period when the real Macbeth lived. He is there to help me sort out the foul deeds from the horrible imaginings.

“What most people expect at the top are the ruins of some old stone castle,” Oram explains. But then most people make the unthinking assumption that the historical Macbeth lived in that period of the high Middle Ages – all turreted castles and crested armour – just before Shakespeare’s time. In fact he dates from some 500 years earlier.

What you see at the top of the hill, therefore, are the concentric drystone ramparts – the inner wall of which is up to 9ft thick – of an Iron Age fort. The additional fortifications of the early medieval period were all of wood, of which there is now no sign, even though historians know that the site was re-fortified by the Scots king Kenneth II (971-95) just 50 years or so before Macbeth’s reign.

But that is not the only problem. I survey the wide panorama beneath us. “Where’s Birnam Wood?” I ask, recalling the play’s climax, in which Macbeth’s foes disguise themselves with branches from its trees to sneak up on the fort, fulfilling the witches’ prediction that: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him.”

Oram points to the north-west, to the area just below where the Tay Gorge cuts through the Grampian mountains.

But how come, I ask, the English army which was supporting Malcolm Canmore – the son of Duncan, whom Macbeth killed to seize the throne – wasn’t coming from the south? That, says Oram, is only one of many questions you need to ask about this whole tale. And the more you ask, the more you learn that most of what Shakespeare tells us about Macbeth is about as genuine as the red stains on the stone floor of castles like Cawdor and Glamis which legend insists are from the blood of Duncan – even though the castles were built 300 years or more after Shakespeare’s noble king was murdered in his sleep.

Hard facts about the man historians call Mac Bethad mac Findlaech are so scarce that one can repeat most of them in three short paragraphs. He was born around 1005, probably in the north-east of Scotland. His father, Findlaech, was the Mormaer (sub-king) of Moray, a semi-autonomous kingdom centred around Inverness that stretched across the north of Scotland. Findlaech was killed by his nephews (one of whom was possibly called Gillacomgain) in 1026. In 1031, Macbeth was reported as being one of two “sub-kings” who went with Malcolm II of Scotland to pay homage to the English king Cnut (Canute); by 1032, however, Gillacomgain was Mormaer of Moray – and was burned to death, together with 50 of his men, by persons unspecified, possibly including Macbeth. Macbeth then married Gillacomgain’s widow, Gruoch. In 1040, the Scottish king, Duncan, was killed in Moray, possibly after invading it, and Macbeth became king of Scotland, which he ruled for 17 prosperous years.

A few surviving stanzas from a contemporary poem describe Macbeth as “the red king”, “the red tall golden-haired one” and “the furious red one”. Macbeth and Gruoch, “rex et regina scottorum”, are mentioned in about 1050 as benefactors to St Serf’s monastery in Loch Leven; Macbeth is also recorded as having made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, where he scattered “silver like seed to the poor”.

In 1045, Duncan’s father, Crinan, was killed “along with nine score fighting men” in a rebellion against Macbeth; in 1046, Macbeth repelled an invasion by Earl Siward of Northumbria. In 1054, Siward invaded again, with great losses on both sides; Macbeth escaped to Moray. Finally, in 1057, Malcolm killed Macbeth at Lumphanan in Moray.

It is on this bald framework that the myth of English drama’s most evil man has been hung. “Macbeth has become one of the bad guys of history – along with Richard III and King John,” says Oram. “Like them, he probably wasn’t that bad, but history has been written by the other side.”

Shakespeare drew his facts from the English chronicler Ralph Holinshed (1587), who got his from various monastic chronicles, the earliest of which was written more than 300 years after Macbeth’s death. A lot, as we shall see, had happened in the intervening period, none of it favourable to Macbeth – who, in revenge for the subsequent spin, is said to have cursed Shakespeare’s play from beyond the grave, according to many superstitious thespians and a group of white witches who recently tried to lift the curse. (That notion began with the play’s first performance, on 7 August 1606, when the boy who played Lady Macbeth died backstage; and, ever since, a staggering number of actors – including Stanislavski, Orson Welles and Charlton Heston – have suffered disaster during or just after productions of the play, including 30 people killed in 1849 when a performance was disrupted by a riot.)

SO WHAT can be adduced of the character of the real Macbeth? To find out I leave Dunsinane and head south to the Fife peninsula between the Tay and the Firth of Forth. There, beneath an escarpment of the Lomond Hills, lies a large lake called Loch Leven. It is a peaceful spot now, whose tranquil waters attract nothing more controversial than a steady trickle of bird-watchers. And there I speak to another medieval historian, Dr Alex Woolf, who lectures in Celtic and Early Scottish History and Culture at the University of St Andrews. “This is one of the few places where there is evidence of the real Macbeth,” Woolf says, pointing to a set of ruins just visible on the island in the middle of the loch. “In the 11th century there was a monastery on the island. It had been founded by the Culdees – a name which came from the Gaelic celi de’, meaning friends of God’. They were an ascetic movement within the church whose monasteries had become secularised.” The Culdees became an elite group who were in effect being extra holy on behalf of those who couldn’t manage “the counsels of perfection”. It was to this group of followers of St Serf that Macbeth and Gruoch made an endowment of land, together with privileged access to the port of Inverkeithing. “It is one of the few things from his reign about which documentary evidence exists.”

“Piecing together the history of the period is like detective work,” Woolf continues. “It involves a lot of interpretative guesses – as when people infer that Gillacomgain must have been one of the sons of Rory’ who killed Macbeth’s father and then assume it must have been Macbeth who burned Gillacomgain alive in his wooden hall.”

Such guesses can be well- or ill-informed. They involve joining up the dots of evidence. How well you do that depends on your knowledge, your bias and how apt are the analogies you make between one century and another. Shakespeare, for example, evidently knew nothing of the system of royal succession in Macbeth’s day. He assumed it was the same as the Elizabethan and late medieval system of primogeniture – whereby the eldest son always inherits. The reality was a system known as tanistry, whereby the king was chosen, by acclamation of his peers, from among a group known as the rg damnae – the extended family of previous kings. Moreover, in Scotland the kingship passed alternately between the two main branches of the royal family, who had separate power bases north and south of the Grampians.

“The king’s job was to be a leader in a society that was on a permanent war footing,” says Alex Woolf. “That meant you needed the strongest, most able royal adult available. A king could nominate his successor who was then called the tanaise, the chosen one. But when the king died the job was up for grabs. It was survival of the fittest, which meant you got a strong and effective king who would provide a period of stability. But when he was past his prime, violent civil war could ensue.” Most kings were killed by their successors, and life expectancy was short. “Macbeth came at the tail end of a tradition of violent replacement of one king by another.”

Duncan’s grandfather, Malcolm II, had attempted to do away with the tanist system and keep the kingship in his direct family. He ensured that Duncan, was his successor, and when Duncan became king he in turn announced that his son, Malcolm Canmore, was to be his tanaise. In other words, one side of the family was trying to scrap the ancient system and take over.

To make matters worse, when Duncan became king he didn’t prove a very good one. To Shakespeare, the figure of Duncan represented what the critic L C Knights calls “society in harmony with nature, bound by love and friendship, and ordered by love and duty”. To his contemporaries, however, he, not Macbeth, was the one who usurped the rightful system – and to no good end. Duncan’s first act as king, in an attempt to assert his regal authority, was to march on the Vikings in Orkney; they routed him. So he invaded Northumbria; again he had to retreat in ignominy. By the time Macbeth killed him Duncan was seen by his peers as a failed and feeble king.

So how was history rewritten to make Macbeth the baddie? And what turned Gruoch – the first Scottish queen whose name has been recorded for various good works – into a figure of callous and manipulative wickedness?

“Until about 1180 Macbeth gets a relatively good press among the chroniclers,” says Oram. Then it gradually starts to get more pro-Duncan and, later, anti -Macbeth. What is being played out, according to a third medievalist, Nick Aitchison, author of Macbeth: Man and Myth, is a tension between two competing traditions and notions of kingship.

The older one, which is more favourable to Macbeth, reflects ancient Celtic beliefs about the sacral powers of kings. The king’s virtue is what secures the success of the nation. In his inauguration he, in a sense, marries the sovereignty goddess of the land – the Gaelic term for the ceremony banais rgi means literally “wedding feast of kingship”. If a good king ruled the country, his personal prosperity would be reflected in the well-being of his subjects. If a bad king brought famine and pestilence, the solution was simply to kill the king.

This philosophy continued to underpin later accounts of Macbeth, as with the Chronicle of Melrose, the principal monastic chronicle of Scotland, which says of Macbeth’s reign “fertile tempus erat” – it saw productive seasons.

The other tradition, which emerges in another 11th-century verse history, the Duan Albanach, is more sympathetic to Duncan, though not yet entirely antipathetic to Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s madness develops in this tradition, which also draws on the imagery of the king as bridegroom; when his wife goes mad it reflects the disordered state of the nation. In its early centuries, however, the negative tradition also acknowledges Macbeth’s good side: “All his time was great plenty, abundance both of land and sea, and in justice he was right lawful.”

But in time the negative portrayals of Macbeth began to crowd out the positive, for three reasons: one political, one philosophical and one dynastic. Thus by 1370 John of Fordun’s Chronicle of the Scottish People was portraying Macbeth as a murderer, usurper and tyrant who interrupted an otherwise unbroken and ancient pattern of royal succession; but, points out Richard Oram, “Fordun was writing after the Scottish wars of independence.” He was writing, in other words, in the light of the new nationalism forged by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. “Politically Fordun wanted to emphasise the continuity of Scottish kingship to counter English claims of overlordship.”

One hundred years later Macbeth’s character is even blacker. In 1440, a leading churchman’s account introduced the idea that Macbeth had been inspired by witches and even suggested that his mother had been impregnated by the Devil. (Andrew of Wyntoun, author of the Orygynal Cronikil of Scotland, was, ironically enough, the prior of St Serf’s, although he never acknowledges that Macbeth and Gruoch were benefactors of his foundation.) By then the philosophical agenda of the church had shifted into supporting a world picture which saw an ordered universe arranged in a fixed system of feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Primogeniture was part of that solid order.

But it was the dynastic changes which gave the chief impetus to the blackening of Macbeth’s name. When Malcolm Canmore replaced Macbeth, the tanist way of selecting the king finally gave way to primogeniture. Libelling Macbeth was a way of legitimising the change to what was seen as a more “modern” style of kingship. The ideological purpose of legitimising the Bruce and Stuart dynasty became common to all the key writers on the subject, from Fordun and Wyntoun to Holinshed and Shakespeare, who wrote Macbeth for the first Stuart king to sit on the English throne, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England.

Shakespeare saw in Macbeth a rich vein from which to indulge his new monarch. He wrote his play just a year after the Gunpowder Plot, so anything undermining the legitimacy of rebellion was a Good Thing. So too was anything which painted the origins of the Stuart line in a good light. And the theme of childlessness spoke nicely to the contemporary situation – for the accession of James I was the consequence of the unfruitfulness of his Tudor predecessor, the “virginal” Elizabeth.

Not content with all that, the Bard improved the tale by transferring to Macbeth details from another Scots story – the treacherous murder of a royal guest is actually from Holinshed’s account of the murder of another Scottish monarch, King Duff, by his general Donwald and Donwald’s wife. Shakespeare further undermined Macbeth by scrunching his reign down from 17 years to just one. Finally, into the mix he threw his secret black and midnight hags to pander to James’s obsession with witchcraft.

SINCE THEN poor Macbeth’s reputation has gone from bard to worse, as interpretations of Shakespeare’s irredeemable rendering of his myth shift to fit the political agenda of each age. Supporters of the divine right of kings drew succour from the Macbeth myth, which also stoked English prejudices in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6. It became a vehicle for fighting out the inheritance conflicts of the Hanoverian court. With the Enlightenment, theatrical producers began to abandon the practice of playing Macbeth in Elizabethan costume or contemporary dress and emphasised the “primitiveness” of the medieval Scots (as if they were, like the natives of the new colonies, to be considered as savages). In our own times, productions have been set in Bosnia and Rwanda. Macbeth, it seems, has become a figure you can put into any political agenda.

That cuts both ways, though. As the Highlands became rebellious against the Lowland accommodation with the English, Macbeth became a legitimiser of dissent, and a number of Highland clans – the MacKinnons, MacMillans and MacQuarries – began to claim descent from him. More recently, Macbeth has been hijacked by Scots nationalists anxious to reclaim their Celtic inheritance from, as they see it, the libels of an English playwright.

In recent years, revisionist accounts of Macbeth – drawing on sources of varying degrees of reliability – have resurrected the historical Macbeth as an alternative Celtic icon who stands in contrast to Englishness, industrialisation and class structures. He has been variously described as “a great Scots king – a diplomat as well as a soldier, who first shook off the Norse rule and then united the Scotland we know today”. His “benign rule put feudal Scotland on the road towards nationhood”. The “last great Pictish king … before an age of increasing anglicisation set in”, he was “one of Scotland’s wisest, most remarkable kings”. He governed from the north, whereas later kings tended to be Lowlands-based and fostered ties with England. If Macbeth had survived, “the entire history of Scotland would have been different”.

Among the attributes which have placed Macbeth with Wallace and Bruce in the pantheon of Scottish folk heroes is a wide selection of alleged acts and virtues. He organised troops of men to patrol the wilder countryside and enforce some kind of law and order. He first decreed that the nation’s laws be written down. He introduced rights for widows and orphans and protection for women and children in warfare. A proto-feminist, he enabled daughters to inherit and limited the size of women’s dowries. He invented the Scottish navy.

Historians like Richard Oram and Alex Woolf chortle at all this. Many of these assertions have no evidential basis. Others were made up by novelists and have entered into modern romantic nationalist folklore. Someone has even recently written of Gruoch (Lady Macbeth) that she was “by nature a sunny little woman, bright, dainty, graceful, tender with a strong and clear intellect”. Where, asks Alex Woolf, do they get this stuff from?

Nick Aitchison gives one example of the difficulty with such interpretative glosses. The facts on which they are based are so often ambiguous. Take, for example, Macbeth’s pilgrimage to Rome. It is often said of this that Macbeth made the trip to do penance for the sin of killing Duncan. And yet it might also have been an attempt to assert that Scotland was now one of Europe’s top countries alongside France and England, whose king, Cnut, had recently returned from Rome when Macbeth met him.

Or it may have been a way of asserting status at home. “Usurpers, contrary to Shakespeare, often made a big thing of being extra pious,” says Alex Woolf. “Aligning himself with the Church – going on pilgrimage and making endowments – might have been a way to gain support and legitimation.” It may even have been an attempt to show support for Rome’s reformist agenda, for Macbeth’s pilgrimage took place in the year in which Pope Leo IX published The Seventy Articles – the constitution for the structural hierarchy of the Western Church.

In all this, concludes Nick Aitchison, “it is most unlikely that Macbeth while on his pilgrimage sought absolution for murdering Duncan”. It is possible, though, to draw one conclusion: that Macbeth could not have risked spending up to a year on the journey to Rome if his kingdom had been anything but secure and stable. Certainly Macbeth was the only Scottish king ever to travel to Rome, which says something about his self-confidence, if nothing else.

What this all amounts to, according to Nick Aitchison, is that “it is difficult to assess the achievements of Macbeth’s reign. Although Macbeth is widely portrayed by both medieval chroniclers and modern historians as a good and wise king and his reign as a prosperous one, these conclusions like Shakespeare’s do not appear to have been based on historical evidence”. Rather, they attest to the fact that there is more than one way of mythologising Macbeth.

“It’s depressing,” says Richard Oram, “but it tells us as historians that we’re failing to get the message across. And yet a film like Braveheart, which was seriously off the rails historically, has something about it which captures the general imagination. Since that film came out more books of Scottish history have been sold than in the previous 20 years. I suppose there’s a moral in that.”

What it also tells us, he suspects, is that no text, ancient or contemporary, distinguished or obscure, can ever be totally objective – and that most texts were written for a particular audience and with a particular purpose. The task of the historian is to understand why.

And it tells us, I suspect, that the real lesson of history is that people would rather believe what suits them than try to discover what actually happened. Who was the real Macbeth? We’ll probably never know. And perhaps most of us don’t want to.

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