Queen Macbeth

Val McDermid

Polygon, £12

James Thurber, the great American humorist, had an original take on Macbeth: he treated it as a mystery to be solved. Inspired by an encounter with avid reader of whodunnits, who had accidentally bought Macbeth thinking it was a detective story, he reread it late into the night. By morning, he had uncovered who really had assassinated the king, and it wasn’t the Thane of Cawdor. Next, he was going to solve Hamlet too.

In light of this, who better than Val McDermid, doyenne of detective fiction, to set the record straight on the wrongly reviled Lady Macbeth? Shakespeare’s portrayal of the woman who encouraged her husband to murder the king was inspired by Medea, and he shows her to be far more ruthless than her spouse: “Yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way.”

Down the centuries, Macbeth’s wife has been seen as repugnant – “a perfectly savage creature”, said actress Sarah Siddons, who played her part. Yet as McDermid points out in her introduction, “Macbeth and his lady were not the power-hungry bloody tyrants that Shakespeare wrote in his Scottish play. For a start, Macbeth wasn’t even his name – it was Macbethad. His wife wasn’t Lady Macbeth – she was Gruoch. If he couldn’t get their names right, how can we trust anything else he tells us?”

Queen Macbeth is the latest in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, in which Scottish history is retold from a fresh angle. The title is a reminder that at no point does Shakespeare ever call her Lady Macbeth, even though that is how she is now remembered. Not until her husband learns of her death is she given her title: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”


Curious crime writing legend Rankin almost became a suspect himself

From Colm Toibin to Val McDermid, the 10 best new historical fictions

Shakespeare’s intention, of course, was not to write literal history but to create a version of medieval Scotland that suited his political and artistic purposes, allowing him to address the thorny subjects of succession, loyalty and nationhood. The result, while wildly historically inaccurate, was one of his most disturbing and memorable tragedies. Short too, as is McDermid’s novella, at 127 pages.

Written around 1606, three years after the Union of Crowns, the play reflects the unease of the English who found themselves tied to a country they viewed as incorrigibly violent. That it was written a few months after the Gunpowder Plot, which was in part a protest against the new Scottish king, might explain its irredeemably black portrayal of Scotland. Nor were there many to contradict this perspective. Few travellers ventured to Scotland in the early 17th century, less for fear of attack than because, before VisitScotland and Pete Irvine’s Scotland the Best, it was almost impossible to find a decent place to stay or eat.

Among the few facts known about the Macbeths are these: he was king of Scotland from 1040-57 and, writes McDermid, while he did kill Duncan it was not in the dead of night, while he was his guest, but in battle. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome with Gruoch, whose first husband - Macbeth’s cousin Gille Coemgáin – he is thought to have killed. He was succeeded by Gruoch’s son Lulach, who was murdered, probably by Malcolm III. Macbeth also died violently, in 1058, at the Battle of Lumphanen. Of Gruoch, almost nothing is recorded except that she was of royal lineage.

Taking on a character as deeply embedded in the popular imagination is an unenviable task. To her credit, McDermid uses the scant information available to create a story that is just about plausible.

The story opens with Gruoch hiding in a monastery on an island in Loch Leven, along with her lifelong female companions Ligach, Aife and Eithne. Eithne has second sight and such healing powers that, in different circumstances, she might be executed as a witch. At no point does she intone, “Double, double toil and trouble…”

As narrator, Gruoch is still grieving the death of Macbeth: “after the battle when my heart broke, I doubt everything and everyone.”. In flashbacks, she recalls her miserable first marriage and the day she met Macbeth, by whom she was instantly smitten.

The Herald: Anna Pirozzi as Lady Macbeth and Dalibor Jenis as Macbeth in a scene from a production of Verdi's opera Macbeth in 2017Anna Pirozzi as Lady Macbeth and Dalibor Jenis as Macbeth in a scene from a production of Verdi's opera Macbeth in 2017 (Image: free)

When news reaches the monastery of her son’s murder, Gruoch and her companions must flee: “Out of the nettle of danger, I might close my hand tight and pluck the flower of safety.” There is much about flowers and herbs in Queen Macbeth, the one area in which McDermid captures some of the spirit of the times. When nature was the only pharmacy, skill in the use of plants could make the difference between life and death.

Macbeth and his lady are the happiest married couple in any of Shakespeare’s works, and in McDermid’s telling theirs is a passionate love story. Indeed were it not filled with violence, death and terror, Queen Macbeth could be called a romance. Yet while Gruoch is depicted as intrepid and courageous, it is Macbeth who is the more charismatic and persuasive, despite racking up a higher body count than in the play.

Too many passages read like historical propaganda, as Gruoch reprises her husband’s reign: “From the start, we made choices that led to peace and prosperity.” There are occasional nods to lines from the play, but for the most part the language is contemporary, sometimes jarringly so: “he can f*** off back to Mull with his troop of jessies” says Gille Coemgáin of Macbeth.

Writing as if her hands are tied by inadequate knowledge of the period, McDermid’s style is noticeably less surefooted than when depicting modern times. As a result, her 11th century is spartan and unconvincing, the novella reading more like an intellectual exercise than an attempt to conjure up the distant past and its distinctive atmosphere. Nevertheless, by plucking her much maligned heroine from the realm of myth and folklore, McDermid rehabilitates her in a long overdue act of restitution. Inevitably her version of Queen Macbeth is more threadbare than Shakespeare’s wholly fanciful original. Who, after all, can compete with the Bard?