Shakespeare and the Maligned Monarchs

One of the things I love about being part of Crooked Cat is the supportive network they have built up between writer and publisher. A particularly useful element has been the series of webinars they’ve run, covering all sorts of topics from being more efficient on social media to ensuring your novel doesn’t get into a tangle. The final webinar of the year though was something different, and a bit of “end-of-term” fun – each of having a three-minute slot to talk on a topic of our choice. My first instinct was, of course, Richard, but I decided to go for something a little broader. I enjoyed writing my talk so much, and so decided to post it as a blog as well!

My topic: William Shakespeare and the Maligned Monarchs

Most people are well-aware of my feelings towards Shakespeare’s treatment of Richard III, maliciously converted from a decent monarch, who worked hard to transform England’s legal system, as well as a series of weights and measures to prevent fraud amongst merchants, into literally a monster, a deformed hunchback, murdering his way to the throne. However, thanks to science, and our ability to read Tudor propaganda for what it was, Richard now has plenty of people to stand up for him, and with plenty of evidence to back them up.

But Shakespeare was a repeat offender, and a powerful man, through his literary creations. Despite us now being able to check the facts, and split myth from reality, many people still take his plays as historical truth. A classic case in point – another king, this time north of the border: Macbeth. And worse than that – what about Gruoch, the historical Lady Macbeth. Not many facts are known of her life, and yes, she did marry the man who killed her first husband, but she almost certainly was not the monster she’s painted as.

As for Macbeth himself, Fiona Watson, in her book Macbeth, The True Story, pieces together what facts we definitely do know about the historical King of Scotland, and her work, along with several others, paints a very different picture. For one thing, his reign did not begin with the cowardly murder of his elderly predecessor in his bed; Macbeth beat Duncan in a pitched battle near Pitgaveny.

Macbeth: A True Story, by Fiona Watson
Furthermore, Macbeth reigned for a total of seventeen years; not a bad feat in eleventh century Scotland, when the role of king was often a short-term contract. Not only this, but he wasn’t even in the country the whole time. In the middle of his reign, he left the country to go on pilgrimage to Rome, where he was noted as giving generously to the poor. In fact, ‘generous’ was one of the terms applied to him by later commentators, as well as being nicknamed “Macbeth the Renowned” by a writer in the next reign but one, that of Malcolm III, who had defeated Macbeth’s immediate successor, his step-son Lulach.

Sufficient evidence then, that Macbeth, like Richard, was no tyrant, and again like Richard, was no worse than any other warrior king of his era.

With these two men, Richard and Macbeth, we know Shakespeare was simply acting to please the monarchs he was serving under. He based his Richard on the propaganda which started immediately after Bosworth, to please the Tudors, and when Stewart King James the Sixth / First took to the throne, with his links to Banquo, he changed the facts so that rather than showing Banquo as aligning with Macbeth (as he does in the original sources), he is against him, and slain for this fact. Again, pandering to the monarch (and ruling family) of the day.

These two then, at least made sense. But they are not his only royal victims. For example, Henry the Fourth and his son, the riotous Prince Hal (later Henry the Fifth) did indeed have a ‘difficult’ relationship at times, but nowhere near as bad as Shakespeare painted.

He didn’t limit himself to British rulers either; he takes liberties with Julius Caesar as well. Timeframes are shortened, even Caesar’s assassination is moved geographically. And the famous ‘Et tu, Brute?” – nope. His last words were, if we believe the reports of the day, “And you, child?”

There are more too, and one report I read likened Shakespeare’s plays to ‘the Hollywood effect’ today; making things that bit more exciting, romantic or relevant to the intended (and paying) audience. Perhaps this is how we should be talking about Shakespeare today – reminding folk that he was a playwright, not a historian, and that his stories should be taken as exactly that, and not historical fact.

And now all I can think about is the level of research I’d need to do to write about the ‘real’ Macbeth… It’d certainly keep me out of trouble for a while!


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