The Future of History

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Macbeth Died Today

He wasn't as bad as he's made out to be.

In fact, Macbethad son of Findlaech was one of Scotland's most successful kings.  He reigned for 17 years and was the first Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, 'scattering money like seed' on the way, which can only have meant that his kingdom was safe enough for him to absent himself from it for two years.

He did not murder his predecessor, King Duncan, in a treacherous bedroom incident.  Duncan was a useless king, defeated by Macbeth in open battle.

Seventeen years later, on 15 August 1057, Duncan's son Malcolm slew Macbeth in the battle of Lumphanan in Mar.  The 'Red King', as the Prophecy of Berchan described him, was buried on the Isle of Iona - or, as Shakespeare put it:

'Carried to Colmekill,
The sacred storehouse of his predecessors,
And guardian of their bones.'

The Prophecy of Berchan offers a wholly different view of Macbeth from the one we're used to:

The Red King will take the kingdom ... the ruddy-faced, yellow-haired, tall one, I shall be joyful in him.  Scotland will be brimful, in the west and in the east, during the reign of the furious Red One.

Which raises the question, why do we imagine him to have been a murderous tyrant?

Fiona Watson, in her 'True History' of Macbeth, suggests that it started with the Church.  For reasons to do with establishing the right of succession, the medieval Church chose to blacken Macbeth's name (it wouldn't be the first time, or the last, the Church rewrite history to suit its agenda).  But the blame should also lie at Shakespeare's door.

Although ... Shakespeare seldom, if ever, wrote history as History.  Take his famous portrayal of Richard III: it's hardly accurate, in strictly historical terms, but it served the purposes of Tudor propaganda, because in order to strengthen their rather dubious claim to the throne, the Tudors (Henry VII through Elizabeth I) found it expedient to misrepresent King Richard as a deformed monster.

If anything, though, Shakespeare's Richard 'Crookback' is more a portrait of Sir Robert Cecil, second son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer, chief minister and most trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  Robert Cecil matched Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III to a tee - he was stunted, dwarfish, hunchbacked and splay-footed:

Backed like a lute case,
Bellied like a drum,
Like jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb

in the words of a popular rhyme of the day.

Cecil also conformed to Shakespeare's presentation of Richard III's personality - feverishly industrious, devilishly devious, two-faced and dangerous, the younger Cecil fitted the description.  He was groomed by his father to take over as Elizabeth's most trusted secretary, and her successor became utterly dependent on him, much to the nation's distress.

That successor was, of course, King James VI of Scotland, who liked to trace his ancestry back to Macbeth's legendary companion, Banquo.

Shakespeare, however, recognised him as a true 'son' (Gaelic mac) of [Eliza]beth.  He was every bit as unprincipled and intolerant as Elizabeth had been, and after appealing to James's conscience in several pointed plays (Hamlet through to Othello), Shakespeare finally gave up on the Scottish monarch.

The last straw was the execution of Father Henry Garnet, superior of the Society of Jesus in England, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.  Shakespeare took this as the inspiration for the opening scenes of his Tragedy of Macbeth, with the saintly Garnet taking the role of King Duncan and James himself characterised as the once-noble Macbeth ('Son of Beth'), whose lust for power turned him into a 'bloody tyrant', a 'butcher' with 'hangman's hands'.

So Shakespeare's portrait of Macbeth had little to do with the original - who died on this day 956 years ago - and much to do with the reigning king, James I of England and VI of Scotland.

Time, you might say, for Macbeth to be rehabilitated - like King Richard III, in fact, who wasn't that bad either.

And while we're at it, maybe we should acknowledge that Shakespeare's historical characters weren't necessarily based on the originals, but on the dangerous, treacherous, self-serving and deceitful men of power of his own day.

(Plenty more on this, folks, in Who Killed William Shakespeare - get hold of your copy now, before everyone jumps on the bandwagon!!)

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