Somewhere north of the Firth of Forth
On this date in history, July 27, in 1054, Birnham Wood came not to Dunsinane. Nor had three witches prophesied Macbeth’s rapid rise and sudden fall as far as we know. Very little is clear about his life including where he lost that 1054 battle to Siward, Earl of Northumberland “somewhere north of the Firth of Forth”. But if the witches made any such forecast, they needed some fresh toe of newt because in fact the historical Macbeth, whom Shakespeare would not have recognized on the street, was king for 17 years. On the other hand, on July 27 of 1054 he did lose a battle to the English that helped set the stage for his demise, albeit three years later. Which is probably little consolation to his much-maligned shade.
Now I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare generally and Macbeth in particular. On one memorable cottage evening a group of us actually read the play aloud in biscuit-tin-Scotsman accents that would have provoked fury from John O-Groats to the Firth of Forth. It is full of vivid characters and images that live on and rightly so, from the witches to Lady Macbeth to the slippery nature of predictions like the one about Birnham Wood to the phrase “screw your courage to the sticking point”. Or place, actually, but who’s quibbling?
Well, me. It seems that as he did with poor Richard III, young Will Shakespeare took liberties with history that were far from random. You see, by the time he came to write and perform this play the king of England was James I, nee James VI of Scotland, who was descended at several dynastic removes from the Malcolm III “Canmore” (which unglamorously means “big head” though apparently in the sense of “very impressive head of state” not “guy encumbered with outsized noggin”) who finished Macbeth off in 1057, Macbeth’s whole royal line becoming extinct shortly thereafter.
For all that Shakespeare was a brilliant dramatist, whose tale of twisted ambition transcends time and place. And that he happened to set it where and when he did is largely accidental; if I were going to indict him for twisted history in service of his own ambition, or perhaps just survival, it would be for the far more specific misrepresentation of Richard III to justify the Tudor usurpation in the Wars of the Roses just one dynasty back, not for blackening the reputation of a foreign king dead over half a millennium.
Let the shade of Macbeth come haunt me, I should specify that he does seem to have been a good king, who offed Duncan in battle not a sneaky murder. As his ghost might pointedly observe were it to shake its gory locks at me, lots of people did the same including Canmore to him. And doesn’t even the Bannockburn memorial admit that Robert the Bruce murdered John Comyn to take the throne? And he’s a hero for the Bannockburn victory among other things. (To be sure some Scottish sources say if ever a man needed murdering it was Comyn, while English accounts are less flattering to the Bruce including in this regard.)
I suppose it’s nice to be famous even after you die. But ideally you’d want to be remembered for things that resemble those you actually did, with advantages, not pillored in an unjust and entirely invented way a weak murdering got-his-comeuppance wretch.
At least Macbeth died in battle in the play and in real life. But when that’s the good news, you’d probably glide ectoplasmically from the theatre hurling spectral insults.