Macbeth has always been my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, despite learning long ago that the ‘Macbeth’ we read about, murdering his way to the throne and beyond, was a fiction, embroidered by the Bard for an audience (and King) obsessed with Divine Right of Kings and witchcraft. Macbeth the man has always fascinated, along with ‘his’ play.
I first spotted this book by Fiona Watson on a visit to the Globe a couple of summers ago, and treated myself to it a few months back with a book voucher I’d won – it was a worthy prize. The tale doesn’t just cover Macbeth’s own life, but goes into great detail about the very early kings of the land we now call Scotland, and how the notion of that land as a single entity came about, under a single ruler. It explores the history of Scotland’s (and its predecessors’) relationships with the countries which neighbour them (primarily England, Ireland and Norway), and how family bonds were made and broken throughout the centuries.
The section which interested me most was the description and analysis of Macbeth’s visit to Rome (the only Scottish king to have done so) – proof, certainly, that this was not a man in constant fear for his throne, but somebody comfortable with the notion of leaving his country unattended for several months (if to return at all, given the hazardous state of travel back then – no cheap flights direct from Edinburgh Airport!).
There are times when the tale gets twisted, and difficult to follow without very close attention, but this is primarily down to the complexities of the situation (as with many periods in history, a lot of powerful people carry the same name, and loyalties go back and forth at the drop of a hat). In general though, this is a fascinating topic, very well-told, and includes an interesting analysis as to when and how Macbeth’s character began to be turned into the murderous monster many of us first come to ‘know’ on reading the play in school or college. Happily, his wife (Gruoch, in reality, known to us as the scheming Lady Macbeth), also gets her share of the story – and appears nothing like her murderous counterpart.
Definitely recommended reading for anyone who loves Macbeth, to understand the man behind the myth, or just fans of Scottish history.