Double double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble….
Shakespeare gave those word to his three witches, but they could easily have come from the lips of his own Lady Macbeth. What does my version of Lady Macbeth have in common with the infamous, brilliant, scheming, murderous, ambitious Lady Macbeth?
Not a whole lot….and that’s just the point. Because I didn't want to write about Shakespeare’s villainess -- I wanted to create my own character, based on the actual young queen.
When I first considered writing the story of Lady Macbeth --a young woman who lived in 11th century Scotland as Queen of Scots beside King Macbeth -- I asked myself more than once if I was crazy to take on such an infamous, powerful character, the iconic creation of a literary genius. But as I researched and played with ideas, after a while it didn’t seem so intimidating—because the real queen, a young woman in a Celtic warrior society, would have been very, very different from Shakespeare’s power-mad, ambitious, cruel and wacked-out woman.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth was far more a product of England at the end of the Elizabethan age, and the beginning of the Jacobean Stuarts in the court of King James I of England. The basic point of the play—to oversimplify—was a political statement aimed at the audiences of 1603: here’s a Scottish king who was way badder and more evil than Good King James (even if Jamie did slobber a bit) – and look how bad Macbeth’s queen was! The English people of 1603 had lucked out! And of course, Lady Macbeth, that wildly brilliant and blood-crazed lady, was a fictional character that Shakespeare, as writer and creative genius, could sink his teeth into. If she didn’t sink her teeth into him first… She is a masterful psychological study in villainy and the consequences of misguided ambition and the basest urges of humankind.
Well there was no way I could approach that. But I never had to worry. My Lady Macbeth could be altogether different, as a product of early medieval, or Celtic, Scotland.
Right away a major hurdle was the amount of extant evidence regarding her: one line in a Latin document. Yikes! The historical evidence that a Queen “Gruoch,” wife of King Macbeth, existed comes from a single land grant written in Latin. Even her name is uncertain and possibly a phonetic rendering of the Gaelic original. The clues in those lines of text are intriguing, and the work of creating my own version of Lady Macbeth began there.
So little is known of Macbeth’s queen that historians have drawn conclusions about her based on events and circumstances of the time. A set of documents from the Priory of Saint Andrews—land charters of donations between 1040 and 1057--provide her name and her lineage: “Machbet filius Finlach...et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum.” Her father and therefore the importance of her royal line are identified. Another clue is that she is accorded the title of Queen of Scots, full queen beside Macbeth, rather than consort.
One extant eleventh-century document. Not a lot to go on to build the story of an actual early medieval queen. Macbeth is mentioned in several contemporary documents, entries in annals written by Irish, Scottish, and Saxon monks. He is variously called Mac bethad mac Finlaech, Macbeth, Makbeth, Machbet, possibly even Magbjotr (in the Orkneyinga Saga), and “the king with the outlandish name,” as one contemporary Saxon source refers to him. Spelling was a freeform art early on….
The name “Gruoch” is a puzzle. It appears in one Latin document. No Gaelic, Saxon, or Norse female name matches it. Possibly it was a cleric’s phonetic attempt to record a Gaelic name. Historians have stuck with Gruoch, but I wanted my fictional queen to have a more palatable name. I came across a reference to Gruoch’s great-granddaughter, whose name was Gruaith or Gruadh—and that settled the matter for me. That could have been the queen’s own name, and “Gruadh” has a precedent as a female name in Irish myth. Pronounced “Groo-ath,” Gruadh seemed a better choice than Gruoch (besides, I kept typing “Grouch” – so it definitely had to go!). Considering the welfare of the reader, I further shortened her name to “Rue” as a nickname. Sorrow seemed to fit her.
There was not only the looming shadow of Shakespeare, there was also Dorothy Dunnett and Nigel Tranter, who both wrote stellar novels about Macbeth, and of course fictional creations of his queen. The further I got into my own writing, the less intimidated I felt. My Rue -– my Lady Macbeth -- was utterly different from the famous villainess, and from Dunnett's Norse lady and Tranter's medieval queen. My Rue was a teenager in a warrior society, a young woman bent on proving herself, defending her lineage, and continuing the strong and graceful Celtic traditions of her culture.
And as she grew as a character, she turned out to be hotheaded, spiteful, and even funny in moments--she was typically a teenager too, impulsive, sometimes arrogant, sometimes vulnerable; she gropes her way through situations and learns some pretty hard lessons as she matures.
I had the advantage of more historical information available than either Dunnett or Tranter, certainly more than Shakespeare, whose sources wrote fantastical accounts of Macbeth based on each other and on accounts corrupted by Malcolm Canmore and then elaborated. In the last twenty years, much new research has been done in the area of Celtic and medieval Scotland studies. I was fortunate to be able to consult with some of the best historians in that field, so that I could do my best to ensure that what I came up with was historically accurate and sound.
The research at first looked crazy difficult, but I’m a pig in mud when it comes to deep historical research. I love matching facts like puzzle pieces to come up with something new that hasn’t been noted before (such as the lady’s possible name). I loved the research, the writing, and the subject, and I came to love Gruadh and her story as I saw it.
One of the best things about writing this book was the freedom to explore a subject that fascinated and compelled me. And it was wonderful to stay up late in my jammies while the family slept and the world was quiet. . .which is without a doubt one of the greatest privileges of being a writer.
Anyway, I do hope you will all look for LADY MACBETH: A NOVEL by Susan Fraser King, and I dearly hope you will love it. The release date is Feb. 12, coming soon.... and it can be pre-ordered online... (nudge, wink!)
“Captivating…an epic tale written in high-voltage prose.” -– Publishers Weekly
“Readers will be drawn to this revised version of an ancient villainess. King manages to challenge all our preconceptions without turning the strongest female character in literature into a pantywaist. Her footwork on this fictional ground is sure and graceful.” -- BookPage