Thursday, 9 August 2001

Nick Aitchison: Macbeth: Man and Myth (1999)

Edition: Sutton Publishing, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 898

Because of Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is easily the most famous Scottish king (Mary Queen of Scots may be the country's most famous monarch). However, the drama's version of his life bears little relation to the small amount of contemporary information about him. Aitchison's book attempts to put what we do know in the context of early medieval Scotland, and then to examine how and why the myth enshrined in the play developed.

Basically, the only fact common to the known facts and the myth is the murder of Duncan, and this is crucial to understanding it. Until about the tenth century, when Macbeth lived, murder was the most common cause of death for Scottish kings. Their system of succession was the reason for this; the kingship alternated between different branches of the royal family, and when a lengthy reign began to make it look as though a turn might be missed, murder was the common and acceptable solution. Macbeth had even more justification, for Duncan was the grandson of the previous king, Malcolm II, who had tried to change the rules to a patrilinear succession of the eldest son. Thus Duncan's kingship (also marked by military failures, not a propitious sign for his regime) threatened the existence of Macbeth's right to the throne.

So if his "crime" was justified by the rules of the period, and given that Macbeth went on to become a successful monarch (having a long reign, and a country stable enough for him to become the only Scottish king to make the pilgrimage to Rome), why did he become the centre of the story of treachery and witchcraft current by the end of the medieval period? The key to this is in the success of Duncan's son Malcolm III in completing the change in the rules of succession; from Duncan are descended all the Scottish kings after 1058. This line had every interest in promoting the legitimacy of their rule, especially as the English were beginning to interfere in Scottish affairs, and so they portrayed Macbeth as an usurping criminal - he was an early victim of political spin. The other elements gradually crept in until the story we know today appeared in the history of Boece (1527) and the chronicles of Holinshed (1577), the source for many of Shakespeare's historical plays.

The story is fascinating, for anyone interested in early medieval history or in the way in which stories develop. Aitchison tells it well, making quite academic points in a clear and easily understood manner. In some places, the book is marred by over-repetition, and the final section about the places associated with Macbeth is dull, but in general this is an excellent book.

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