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Lady Macbeth

By Susan Fraser King
Crown Publishers, 2008

Anyone who writes a novel about Lady Macbeth titled Lady Macbeth is asking for trouble. Susan Fraser King has done such a thing, and she knows perfectly well the sacred ground on which she’s treading. Her novel’s separate parts are introduced with quotes from Shakespeare’s play, and he gets the final say in her very good Author’s Note at the end of the book:

The historical tale of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, based on scholarly evidence, is a far cry from Shakespeare’s wildly brilliant play. So it seems fitting to let Shakespeare have the last word: ‘For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name …’ (act 1, scene 1)

She strikes this same note at the book’s beginning too, assuring her readers that she’s her own woman:

This novel is based not on Shakespeare’s brilliant drama about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but rather on the most accurate historical evidence available to date regarding the lives of these eleventh-century Scottish monarchs.

You can repeat such duties as many times as you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that to write a novel called Lady Macbeth is ultimately almost to co-author it with William Shakespeare. This isn’t Charmian or Jaquenetta or even Mistress Quickly, such minor figures from Shakespeare as might admit of revision or re-imagining. There’s no harm in such imaginings, after all: we all spare a little time in a dull performance to dream what Hollywood might call a back story for the Grave Digger, or the devoted wife of Brutus. It’s a fun pastime, and it flows naturally from Shakespeare’s genius.

But who would write a novel called Hamlet, much less one that dreamt of setting the record straight? A scholar once remarked that Hamlet is more real to us, through Shakespeare, than even the best-documented princes of Denmark could hope to be, and that’s because art as powerful as Shakespeare’s makes him the record, like it or not.

And Lady Macbeth? Only Ophelia and Juliet can even begin to rival her in the role-call of Shakespeare’s women, and they fall short of standing in the role-call of Shakespeare’s men, where Lady Macbeth stands in easy company, undeterred by the uniqueness of her sex. She’s toweringly famous in the Shakespearean canon not only for her strength, steeling her wavering husband on to ambition and murder (“Look like th’ innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t”), but also for her resultant weakness, compulsively repeating the line even those ignorant of Shakespeare often know, “Out, damned Spot.” She is a mightier, more eloquent, more memorable character than all but half a dozen in the whole of Shakespeare, and as such she would tend to overpower any narrative that tried to make her work toward its own ends.

King very much has her own ends in mind; she’s done her research, and she wants to show us the result, a many-faceted reconstruction of Lady Macbeth’s real life and times in 11th century Scotland.

Contemporary documents (there are always more than you think, and King has familiarized herself with all of them) only make one mention of Macbeth’s Queen Gruadh, although they mention Macbeth himself a number of times and in a variety of ways, ranging from a notice of his odd and showy pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 to an extremely rare physical description. And there’s a large and growing amount of scholarship concerning the details of daily life, especially among the privileged.

In other words, King will have little trouble with filling in her background: Scotland in the Middle Ages was a broiling confederation of brawling chieftains, mormaers, loosely held together under a Kingship consecrated at Scone. The Vikings – in this case represented by an Orkney Island branch led by Thorfin Sigurdsson – are always present, looming as both potential ally and potential threat. Christianity has set down shallow roots alongside native ways and folk beliefs – characters in the book, as in Shakespeare’s play, are as likely to talk of charms and fairies as of prayers and angels. Macbeth is saturated with the supernatural; Lady Macbeth is a far more secular work of fiction – no Hecate, no Weird Sisters, and what folk-magic there is confines itself to such suggestive phenomena as ‘the Sight’ and herb lore.

This is one of the many ways in which King intentionally shapes her novel as a contrapuntal duet with the great tragedy. She’s aware that the only reason any 21st century reader has ever heard of Lady Macbeth is because of Shakespeare’s play. She’s certainly smart enough not to name her novel Gruadh. She knows the fame will draw the reader in, and she’s confident that once she’s got their attention, she’ll be able to tell them another story entirely from the one they know.It’s a very different story, and she’s right to be confident: this is a fast, lean, remarkably confident debut, a novel that indulges in none of the usual empurplements and whiplash anachronisms so common in most historical fiction. She has traced out in obscure documents what she adduces to be something like the life her subject might have led, but she’s done the key task more: she’s taken that research and heightened the result (just exactly as Shakespeare did with Holinshed, but that might be jinxing the result). She’s found in her conglomeration a Lady Macbeth she can like, and she’s taken the brave and further step of refusing to make the lady entirely likeable.

That’s the problem: the foreground. Because the better one knows the topmost royalty of any time and country, the more one suspects (it feels almost like a little treason to admit it) that all such individuals were of a necessity hard and unsympathetic, incomplete creatures, unfit vessels for our theatergoing sympathies. King has found (or made) a woman, noble-born and daughter of a long line of kings – but she’s had the courage to keep her vaguely distant. The only way to avoid this would be to bend all the sensibilities in her novel toward the present day, and this she refuses to do: her Queen of Scots Gruadh is everything she needs to be to be powerful and female in a world that looks askance at such a combination. She can be sharp and is often quick in her judgments. In one scene when she’s still only a young girl, a fight breaks out in her father’s house between both her future husbands, Macbeth and Gillegcomgan:

Macbeth lunged and struck Gillegcomgan’s forearm, but the chain mail sleeve held. Fergus, my swordmaster, appeared beside me. “Watch from here,” he warned. “And pay attention. Macbeth has skill, and as a sword pupil, you will learn something.”
“I am learning that men can be fools,” I snapped, “to fight so near fire and womenfolk.”

Her sharp spirit can’t temper fast enough in the world of 11th century Scotland; Macbeth’s father, the mormaer of Moray, has been killed by two cousins during the reign of Malcolm II, and according to Scottish custom, the king has awarded Moray to those who showed strength enough to take it, effectively disinheriting Macbeth. Strong and spirited mormaers from one end of the country to the other dream of the throne for themselves, and Gruadh is a key in all their minds, because she’s descended on both sides from storied kings and queens of Scotland: her blood makes her the most valuable of commodities. A large part of King’s genius lies in imagining a young woman who finds the idea of being anybody’s commodity intensely hateful. She’s proud and particular, and she reacts to repeated attempts to abduct her by learning the arts of the sword and dagger, the better to defend herself. But it’s still her destiny to mark the stages of her life mainly by the men in it; her first husband is killed by Macbeth, who in the natural course of things takes her as his property. King mixes historical pageantry and personal urgency with easy skill:

Horsemen streamed through the gates in grand style, shields bright and spear points glinting, the king in a brilliant red cloak. Malcolm remained mounted while Macbeth and others came forward to meet them. Unnoticed, I crossed the yard too, stopping to watch, hands crossed high on my belly. I hoped Malcolm the Destroyer had come to mow down my second husband with justice’s sword. Now, now for revenge.

She burns for that revenge because Macbeth killed her husband. It’s outside the scope of her reckoning that she might ever come to love Macbeth himself, portrayed by King as a dour and forbiddingly unlovable young warlord. There is strife between new husband and wife, strife given constantly-renewed life by Macbeth’s frequent absences on errands of war. One of King’s great strengths as a narrator is her ability to weave subtle notes of rancor into her masterfully-conveyed physical descriptions (to say that this seems effortless on her part is probably to belie many a long hour spent revising):

Icy blasts froze most of Scotland that winter, and as we heard later, England as well. At Dun Elgin, we gathered close to the fire baskets and corner braziers on any excuse, and went to bed with the early darkness to burrow like moles beneath furs and blankets with heated stones at our feet. Sometimes I took Lulach from his cradle to sleep beside me, afraid he might die of cold in the night. Aella and Bethoc, too, crawled under the covers with us as well, for the bed was generous enough for a large warrior and his wife, and not used for that purpose.

That final ‘and not used for that purpose’ is a masterful little addendum, a reminder to the reader that relations between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth began in a rude winter of the heart and seem at first unlikely to thaw. Gruadh delivers of her son, the aforementioned Lulach, and Macbeth agrees, somewhat stiffly, to accept and champion them both – if for no other reason (at first) than that it further secures his right to royal consideration. This ambition is, in King’s novel, entirely Macbeth’s; he requires no supernatural hags to spur it on, nor does he ever need to be encouraged by is wife. Quite the contrary – in most scenes, he’s the one most likely to blurt out “Give me the daggers”:

“If we were to gain rod and crown,” I said low, so that none should hear but he, “we could satisfy our heritage and avenge our two fathers, all at once.”

“Just so.” He cast me a look that was sharp and clear.

I felt a chill. “You led me deliberately to share your plan, from the first.”

“In part,” he admitted, “for I knew the worth in your blood, and saw the worth of your nature. But I could never have planned as well as fate has done. It has twinned our motives now. Your father and mine are gone, and they deserve this. Our branches, Gabhran and Loarne, deserve this.”

“And the ancient Celtic blood of the whole of Scotland – it, too, needs this.”

“It does.” He smiled, and we rode on in silence. My head whirled with thought, but he seemed calm, certain, as ever.

It must be admitted that this set of motivations, though eminently realistic for the time and place, is certainly less amazing than the motivations propelling the couple in Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth’s defining tone is frenzy – the main action of the play hurtles at breakneck speed toward its end. But as Shakespeare pauses every so often to show us a quieter scene, so King does as well, and with something of the same skill at counterpoint:

Macbeth, stopping to speak to me of a household matter one day, reached out to touch Lulach’s blanketed foot. The infant gurgled and grinned. We laughed together – how could we not – and Macbeth looked at me. His gaze was not that of a warlord, but of a man who yearned. Uncertain suddenly, I turned back to folding some clothes. After a moment I heard his brisk departing footsteps over the floorplanks.

Indeed, the best part of the foreground-action in this book is the slow, gradual steps by which Lady Macbeth and Macbeth overcome the circumstances of their union and begin to like each other. The emotion never really deepens into love – at least, not the entirely modern kind of love always found in allegedly historical novels – and it stays from first to last curiously, refreshingly free of bathos, but ultimately it’s the more believable for all that. By the time the reader is any solid distance into this wonderful, winning novel, King has managed a feat fit for Hercules: she has cleared a space in our mind’s eye for a version of Lady Macbeth who is not a power-mad schemer, and likewise space for a Macbeth who is honorable. In Shakespeare’s play, when MacDuff comes on stage at the end of Act V with Macbeth’s head in his grasp, the audience feels relief; in King’s novel, the death of the same man calls only for sadness:

Surrounded by that small and trusted company, Macbeth rested and watched as Lulach sat upon the Lia-Fail. A priest set the red mantle upon his shoulders, and two more priests whispered furtive prayers in the misty dark. Then I lifted the gleaming crown over my son’s golden hair and set it to rest there. Power of wolf, power of raven, power of air, power of stone …

I stepped back and turned.

Macbeth waited only to witness that. Just as I reached his side I heard it, the escape of the soul: a whisper, and gone.

And Lady Macbeth? The novel’s close finds her evolved well past the frantic matters that consume Shakespeare’s troubled character. Her son sits on the throne (that he will not occupy it long, that shortly after the time of this novel the ‘bad guys’ – in this case Malcolm – will win, King wisely leaves out of her narrative), and her desire is to disappear from the strife of Scottish royal life:

I have had enough of moving from one household to another. I have had my fill of steel-games and gifts of silk and figs from usurpers and murderers. I am done with waiting, with fear and scheming, with wondering what the next messenger will say, and what must be the reply.

The historical Lady Macbeth vanishes from the record after her tiny appearance on it. If she were alive today, she’d no doubt be stunned by the fact that her name is known at all some thousand years after her birth. Thanks to Shakespeare, she will be known forever – as a figure of evil. But it’s Susan Fraser King she would thank.

Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen was a prisoner of the Manhattan private school system for ten long years, and in that time she was forced to read Macbeth twice; she hopes not to read it again until she’s at least 30.

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