Lady Macbeth (Sargent) Square

The compelling narrative of Macbeth being played out by Salmond and Sturgeon

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DENNIS KAVANAGH is supposed to have commented recently that ‘Scottish politics has not been this much fun since Macbeth’. His quip is not quite accurate of course since Salmond and Sturgeon, until recently quite obviously the modern equivalents of the Macbeths, have taken to murdering each other or trying to, rather than anybody else. Indeed, Salmond is beginning to resemble Duncan rather than Macbeth although Sturgeon continues to do a good imitation of Macbeth’s true wife, Gruoch.

The play, moreover, is a tragedy rather than a comedy and is also supposed to be cursed. Max Beerbohm started this trope in 1898 although even before that it had had its moments. In 1849, for example, a dispute between two rival actors who were heading competing productions in New York caused what came to be known as the ‘Astor Place Riot’. And ‘Scotland’s worst poet’, William McGonagall, when playing Macbeth became so outraged at being upstaged by the actor playing Macduff that he refused to be despatched by him at the end of the play.  The play’s accursed reputation, however, was sealed in 1942 when a production starring John Geilgud experienced four deaths including those of two witches and Duncan. Ever since then, the title of the play is not to be mentioned in a theatre. If so, the delinquent responsible has to walk three times anticlockwise in a circle and then either spit or utter an expletive.

The popular image of Macbeth, of course, derives from Shakespeare’s play but as far as the real Macbeth is concerned, Professor Croft Dickinson pointed out as long ago as 1956, ‘the length of his reign (1040-1057) and what we know about it appear to indicate that he was an accepted king and that he ruled with competence’. His is the earliest known grant of lands to the Church, for example, and he is said to have visited Rome in about 1050, which, if true, indicates that he expected no trouble in Scotland in his absence. And he was apparently buried in Iona, ‘the resting place of kings and not of usurpers’.

Croft Dickinson provides a marvellous account of how the royal succession worked at that time and why Macbeth’s advent to the throne was in no way extraordinary. Probably the nephew of Malcolm II, he may well have considered his claim to the throne to be as good as Duncan I’s. The latter had succeeded his grandfather by virtue of a ‘new law’ of direct succession by the heir of line; yet under the old system of collateral succession, Macbeth had a double claim through his mother (probably a daughter of Kenneth II) and through his wife Gruoch (probably a granddaughter of Kenneth III). Moreover, Duncan’s murder, probably near Elgin, by his successor, Macbeth, was part of ‘a well-known  pattern in Scotland’ in which the ruling king was overthrown by his successor of the alternate line.

Of the immediately preceding kings, Constantine (995-997) succeeded through killing Kenneth II (971-995) and was killed by his own successor, Kenneth III (997-1005). Kenneth III was killed in turn by his successor, Malcolm II (1005-1034), Duncan I’s grandfather. The pattern was again followed when Malcolm III succeeded through killing Macbeth and Lulach, son of Gruach, Macbeth’s stepson who apparently succeeded him for less than a year and was known as ‘Lulach the Idiot’. (Scottish politics today has a lot of Lulachs.)

The Annals of Durham record an attempt by Siward of Northumberland to unseat Macbeth in 1046 and there may have been an earlier uprising against Macbeth by Crinan, father of Duncan I. After another campaign by Siward in 1054, however, Malcolm was apparently placed in command of some part of southern Scotland leading some chroniclers to state that Macbeth’s reign ended in 1054. Yet Professor Croft Dickinson assures us that ‘Macbeth was finally overthrown and slain by Malcolm III in 1057 near Lumphanan in Mar.’

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most violent plays. It was first performed in 1606 and was probably written the year before in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, which resonates through the play in a number of ways. Shakespeare and his father, it is sometimes suggested,  were friendly with a friend of the rebels so that the playwright took care that the moral of the play was crystal clear: any attempt to overthrow a reigning monarch, especially a good one, was a very bad idea. Moreover, the play pays homage to the Scottish background of the new monarch and acknowledges the king’s belief that he was a descendant of Banquo. Hence the scene with mirrors displaying Banquo’s descendants. The play in fact is a very British one. English troops help restore order in Scotland after a deranged leader there creates bloody chaos. James certainly approved.  One final point about James. The king had a great interest in witchcraft, black magic and the supernatural and had even published a book on the subject in 1597, six years before he ascended the English throne, entitled ‘Daemonologie’. So the role of the witches was bound to appeal to him.

Shakespeare’s version of the story was taken from Rafael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles. His plot, however, was a compilation of two stories found there: the story of Macbeth and that of the murder in the tenth century of King Duffe by Donwald, egged on by his wife. Shakespeare melds the two stories together but has to change Holinshed’s account of Macbeth since in it the usurper acts out of genuine grievance rather than ‘vaulting ambition’ while Banquo actually helps him to murder Duncan. Hence the new version of Macbeth.

In an excellent analysis of the play Dr Oliver Tearle points out that its main themes are prophesy, ambition and guilt. Prophesy dominates from the start with the three witches (‘nymphs and fairies’ in Holinshed’s account) informing Macbeth that he will be Thane of Cawdor and then king. Banquo is told that his descendants will be kings. These prophesies then propel the action of the play. From then on, to quote Frank Kermode, ‘the present is no longer present , the unacted future has occupied its place.’ There is for example the disquisition on tomorrow:

‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.’

The first words that Lady Macbeth speaks to her husband  in the play are:

‘Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present and I feel now
The future in the instant.’

For the Macbeths the present is of no interest. Thanks to the prophesies of the witches (or the fairy stories) only a royal future matters and Lady Macbeth is determined it must happen as soon as possible. In their minds if the murder is to happen it is best it happens quickly.

So we have a situation where the main protagonists, due to their belief in their fairy stories or supernatural prophecies, pay no attention to the present as they rush towards a future, which, of course will bring their doom. It is, therefore, a highly contemporary Scottish play.

Tearle, however, has an interesting take on their actions.  He recognises that Shakespeare has invented other characters who are murderers troubled by their conscience such as Brutus in ‘Julius Ceasar’ and Claudius in ‘Hamlet’ but argues that in Macbeth we have his most powerful analysis of evil. And part of that analysis, Tearle points out, is that the interaction between action and prophesy is always ambiguous:

‘We talk of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’, and Macbeth as a piece of drama leaves us in some doubt as to the relationship between Fate and free agency. If Macbeth had never been told by the witches that he would be Thane of Cawdor, he would still have been made Thane of Cawdor. But will he still have become King?’ For Macbeth to become king he needed to believe in the prophesy. If he had not acted on the prophesy it may not have become true.

Poor Banquo sealed his fate when after seeing Macbeth’s prophesy realised, he began to believe in his own. This ensured his murder, although his son escaped.

Tearle is equally insightful in discussing guilt. He points out that Macbeth suffers less from remorse than the fear of being discovered, which leads to one evil deed after another. The couple need to feel ‘safe’, a word that recurs throughout the play. For example Macbeth is afraid that Banquo’s ghost will appear to others at the banquet although it is only seen by him. He is not remorseful about the murder itself.

So can we make any comparisons with the situation today in Sturgeon’s Scotland? To which the answer is yes. It would be a nice parlour game to decide which present characters most resemble the characters in the play. Sturgeon, as I previously suggested, certainly makes a fine Lady Macbeth and Salmond who used to be the equivalent of Macbeth himself now much resembles Duncan. Can Douglas Ross make a plausible Malcolm? There is obviously no contemporary Banquo although Humza Yousaf makes a credible Lulach (admittedly not a character in the play).

On a broader level, however, as I hinted before, the similarities with the play are striking: the SNP’s unshakable belief in the fairy tale that Scottish independence is inevitable, its lack of interest in the deplorable present state of Scotland; its insistence on an immediate second referendum, and its lack of remorse concerning its abysmal record in government. All of these things echo Tearle’s analysis of the play. And if the play is cursed, so too is Scotland, a country once encompassing a vibrant, democratic, well-educated society but which under the SNP has turned into almost a one-party, failed state with record debt, record drug deaths, rapidly declining standards in policing, health and education and a government that cannot give a rational account of how it would implement its central policy.

This fairy story, I fear, will have no happier ending than that of the Macbeths.

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Painting by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) of Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) ©Tate CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) 

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