Macbeth Was Framed
On his 1,000th birthday, it’s high time to rehabilitate
the memory of the real King Macbeth of Scotland.
2005 marks the 1,000th anniversary of the birth of Macbeth (1005-1057 AD), an ancient Scottish king whose good name was unfairly besmirched and rendered infamous by some Sixteenth Century English guy called William Shakespeare. Acting on the principle of better late than never, an informal coalition of scholars and Scottish parliamentarians have finally banded together in a serious effort to rehabilitate the memory of a pious and unusually successful medieval monarch whose name has been associated for hundreds of years with evil, bad luck and superstition.
Shakespeare portrayed the Macbeth whom we think we know as a wicked, deceitful tyrant who was fatally dominated by an evil, scheming wife. Lady Macbeth’s overweening ambition goaded her henpecked husband to murder King Duncan in his sleep. According to the Shakespearean version, the “butcher and his fiend-like queen” thus seized the throne; but Macbeth’s outraged subjects soon rebelled against the tyrant, rose up and killed the hated usurper. This myth has become so well established that, for several centuries, actors have approached what they hesitantly refer to as “the Scottish play” with superstitious dread, fearing even to speak its name lest some catastrophe befall their production. The theatrical curse of Macbeth has struck on many occasions, it seems. Even great and famous thespians have fallen victim to it. In 1937 Sir Laurence Olivier was nearly killed at the Old Vic when a stage weight fell crashing to the floor. Peter O'Toole once played the title role of Macbeth in a potentially career-stopping production that was soundly drubbed by its critics as the worst ever.
Macbeth’s iniquitous reputation lives on, but historical facts speak otherwise. Concerning his wife, the actual Lady Macbeth, history has little to say. We know that the woman’s name was Gruoch (not Grouch!), and that she was of royal lineage, the daughter of the King of Alba. We’ll never know whether her spouse was a henpecked husband; but the man never achieved the throne of Scotland by means of a cowardly murder, egged on by his ambitious wife. In keeping with perfectly respectable Medieval practice, he slew his predecessor Duncan fair and square in mortal combat during the Battle of Pitgaveney, which took place in Moray in 1040 AD. Macbeth, who was already the King of Moray at the time, was elected by the other nobles as King of Scotland in place of Duncan's son Malcolm, who was just a child.
There is no evidence that Macbeth was a feared and despised usurper, as Shakespeare would have had us believe. The historical record, though scant, suggests that Macbeth (whose name mac-Bethad roughly translates as Son of Life) appears to have ruled wisely as a respected monarch who reigned over a prosperous and peaceful realm for the next 17 years – a very long time for any king to have ruled during those dim and turbulent years of the early Middle Ages. He enforced law and order in a lawless era. He worked enthusiastically to spread Christianity. He was said to have been so wealthy and generous to the poor that “he scattered alms like seed corn.” In 1050, in the middle of his reign, the religiously-inclined King Macbeth felt secure enough to leave his northern kingdom for a six month pilgrimage to Jerusalem, without fear of being overthrown. A cowardly, tyrannical king who sat uneasily on a stolen throne could never have dared to take such an extended leave of absence from his royal duties.
As reported by The Telegraph, history Professor T. Cowan, of Glasgow University, says: "One of (Macbeth’s) earliest obituaries described his time as the fertile seasons, and this is the Celtic way of saying that there was good food and the people were happy, so Macbeth was quite a successful king. Some of the ancient Highland clans looked to Macbeth as the last great Celtic ruler in Scotland."
Why, then, did the illustrious Bard of Avon do such a nasty hatchet job on a fairly obscure, but apparently admirable enough Scottish monarch who had lived some 500 years before the Elizabethan era? We may safely surmise that the great English dramatist required a great, tragic protagonist for his play. Shakespeare wanted to write about a wicked king; but common sense would have prevented him from choosing any ruler who had been even remotely related to his own royal patron, Queen Elizabeth the Great. It appears that, lacking the benefit of accurate historical research, the famous dramatist really knew little or nothing about the real Macbeth. The playwright simply fell in line with a then-familiar, established Scottish bardic tradition.
Why was this tradition so unfavorable to this 11th Century ruler? Though Shakespeare never said it, what goes around comes around. Malcolm Canmore (translated as “large head”) defeated Macbeth at Dunsinane in 1054, and claimed the throne after a second coup attempt three years later, when Macbeth was killed in combat near Aberdeen. Macbeth was buried on the holy island of Iona, with all the pomp and solemnity due to a legitimate Scottish king. Subsequently, however, bards working under the royal patronage of the newly-elevated King Malcolm rewrote Scottish history in order to blacken Macbeth’s name and undermine his claim to the throne, thus to discourage future rivalry by any of Macbeth’s descendants.
About 20 members of the Scottish Parliament recently supported a formal motion by Alex Johnstone, the Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament for North-East Scotland, to restore the honorable name of King Macbeth and to recognize his admirable achievements. Some historians on our side of the Atlantic have also joined in the campaign. Professor John Beatty of the City University of New York suggested that 2005 ought to be declared the "Year of Macbeth".
This may or may not be Macbeth’s official commemorative year, but even his greatest detractor once promised that “every dog shall have his day.” What better time than his one thousandth birthday to acknowledge at long last that William Shakespeare’s infamous, Scottish villain was simply a brilliantly-drawn character of dramatic fiction? The risk of being slain in office was an unfortunate but acceptable occupational hazard for rulers during the Dark Ages. However, it seems that for nearly a thousand years after his death in battle, the real King Macbeth of Scotland has also been the victim of cruelly undeserved character assassination!
© 2005, Neil Harding McAlister