Was Macbeth the Tyrant, a tragic figure, or the greatest of all Scottish Kings?
Shakespeare fanfic defined this figure.
Sure, we all love fanfic and at some point probably thought of, or even wrote our own; some fanfics have become huge in their own right. 50 Shades of Grey began as a Twilight fanfiction, and while this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, you can’t deny it’s success. So, 50 Shades is the most successful fanfic of all time, right?
Wrong – that honour goes to one William Shakespeare. You might be surprised that a certain bard did the exact same thing as comic book fans that decide to write their own She-Hulk comics. Yup, William Shakespeare himself decided that Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (in the Gaelic language) would be far more compelling as a tragic, lunatic tyrant who would become the protagonist of his Macbeth.
If you grew up in the western, English speaking world, you probably read Shakespeare’s classic in highschool, and even if you didn’t, you’ve probably heard about him and maybe have even watched a contemporary adaptation or two of this tragedy. So, was Macbeth really a Tyrant, driven to madness by the events that Shakespeare wrote? Did three witches entice a brave Scottish general with the prospect of a throne, driving him into a murderous rampage? Maybe that explains why he attacked a sleeping Duncan like a coward, to make this destiny come true. Becoming increasingly paranoid, Shakespeare’s Macbeth does everything he can to hold onto power. He decides to consult the witches once again, to find out if his enemies will ever reign over Scotland. This descent into madness continues until the final act, where we learn that Macbeth can only be slain by one who was not “of woman born”. Enter Macduff, born from an “Untimely rip” from the womb (the 17th century version of a caesarean section) and we have a loophole which finally allows the tyrant to be dethroned.
In reality, relatively little is known about the true Macbeth, and especially his early life. This is where tenacious writers like Shaun Manning come in. Over several years, Shaun pieced together a new story about Macbeth; part biography, and part a direct contrast to Shakespeare’s infamous work. Gone is the lunatic; instead we see a compassionate figure who truly cared about his people, and genuinely wanted to increase the prosperity of Scotland.
This Macbeth raised his slain enemy’s son as his own (after marrying his mother of course), gave to the poor, and even had an audience with the pope. While very much like his literary/imaginary counterpart, history agrees with the bard that Macbeth met a tragic end, although historians believe that this was at the hands of Malcolm III, rather than Macduff.
Examining Macbeth through this lens paints a completely different picture from Shakespeare’s classic, where he definitely decided to spice things up a bit to create a story which was not completely fair to the person that Macbeth really was. This allows us to not simply accept the label of Macbeth as the tyrant, but rather to consider Macbeth the renowned. The Prophecy of Berchán, a verse history which presents itself as a form of prophecy, describes Mac Bethad as “the generous king of Fortriu“, stating:
“The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.”
Why does any of this matter? After all, most people will never have a notion of the true Macbeth. But I find that in these undiscovered stories, we can create something new, like we did with Macbeth: The Red King. This allows for a new, broader perspective that goes beyond some of that stuff that led to you zoning out during your highschool English Lit class.
Next week: Fulfilling a childhood dream!