In Lady Macbeth, a person’s family history determines their future. For Gruadh and Macbeth especially, their quest for power is motivated by the deep-seated belief that they deserve to be king and queen of Scotland because of their heritage. Their personal ambition is framed as the conclusion to a multigenerational journey in which they will unite their ancient, respected lineages and come together as the rightful monarchs of Scotland. Gruadh relates this ascent as nationally important and necessary—that is, they become king and queen not simply because they deserve to be, but also because they are the best options for Scotland.
Gruadh’s future, then, is the future of the nation, and this is never more explicit than in the visions and prophecies that occur throughout her life. Although these have personal importance for her—showing the fate of her children and husbands—they are also of national importance, given that these men will become rulers; the future of Gruadh’s family is the future of Scotland. Such awareness creates a sense of obligation in the current generation, which must constantly think not of themselves but of what they owe their family in terms of who they marry, the children they bear, and who they kill on behalf of their beloved Scotland.
Not long before her first marriage Gruadh has a vision that her cousin, Mairi, helps her interpret. Mairi explains to Gruadh “the signs you saw speak of Scotland’s future even more than your own,” demonstrating how Gruadh’s fate is closely linked to that of her country. As a child, Gruadh wishes she had more free will, but with time she comes to realize what is best for her family is also what is best for her politically, if not necessarily personally. She does not want to marry her first husband, Gilcomgan, understanding that the marriage is not the best match for her, but instead the best match for her family. As her father, Bodhe, explains more of his long-term political plans, Gruadh sees that marrying Gilcomgan would put her in line to be queen even if she does not love him.
Gruadh continues to feel the weight of obligations to her family throughout her life—when she cannot have children with Macbeth, for instance, she feels she is letting him and her family down. She feels this so strongly she admits she would understand if Macbeth set her aside for a more fertile wife. As she grows older, Gruadh learns to place duty to her family and her country above her personal desires, while also converting her personal desires into desires for her family and country. Indeed, later in life, Gruadh becomes less invested in personal ambition and so wrapped up in Scotland’s fate that her personal interests become Scotland’s interests. The same can be said of her second husband, Macbeth, who almost always believes that what is best for himself is also best for Scotland.
Although initially Gruadh believes “Macbeth had overtaken my future, and my child’s, out of his own ambition and desire for revenge,” their ambitions align later in their marriage, when they have grown close and become co-conspirators. As they discuss their claim to the crown, Gruadh reasons, “If we were to gain rod and crown […] we could satisfy our heritage and avenge our two fathers, all at once.” In this moment she also realizes that this has been Macbeth’s plan from the beginning. He explains, “I knew the worth in your blood, and saw the worth of your nature.” The recent death of Gruadh’s father has further “twinned [their] motives,” driving them towards the same desire for revenge. Still, revenge is never purely personal. Macbeth says, “Our branches, Gabhran and Lorne, deserve this.” Gruadh adds, “And the ancient blood of the whole of Scotland—it, too, needs this.” They see the avenging of personal family grudges to be what is best for their individual families, but also best for the nation they love.
As their marriage strengthens, Macbeth and Gruadh have frank conversations about their desires and future. Macbeth relates, “My ambition was always for Scotland as much as myself,” and believes the present king “Duncan is hastening the end of the Gaels.” As such, Macbeth feels it is his duty to challenge the sitting king’s right to the throne. Gruadh agrees that Macbeth is making the right choice, adding, “You can honor that heritage and vindicate your kin, and mine […] Duncan cannot be permitted to remain king longer.”
Prophecies further help characters determine their futures, the futures of their loved ones, and the future of Scotland. Gruadh inherits the ability to see the future—Da Shealladh, or “the gift of two sights”—from her mother, Ailsa, and from her great-grandmother on her father’s side. Fate is directly related to a person’s heritage—not just because that heritage determines what doors are open to a person and what claim she has to land or titles, but also because foresight is hereditary; the ability to see the future is passed along from parent to child. Although prophecies rarely give characters the opportunity to change the future, they provide Gruadh, especially, the opportunity to prepare herself (and Scotland) for it.
Gruadh’s first vision of the future occurs when she is fifteen or sixteen, in the months before her first marriage. She sees, “two swords lay crossed and ready […] nearby, horses stood, gleaming and grand […] while overhead two eagles winged towards the mountains, and a raven settled on a gatepost. Moon and stars were still visible in the sky, and the sunrise flowed over the hilltops like a spill of blood…” Gruadh knows she has seen an omen: “ravens were death and warning, eagles pride and pairing, horses freedom; the swords might be conflict or war.” Although vague, her vision proves correct. There is death in her future, as well as love, as well as war. This vision is as relevant to her personal life as it is to Scotland’s future, as the two are forever linked.
Gruadh’s visions are complicated—they can be violent and disturbing, but she must embrace and examine them in order to do what is best for her family and her country. Gruadh and Macbeth’s fates are determined almost from birth—Gruadh’s ability to see the future is itself heredity, and her and her husband’s royal blood substantiates their claims to the throne, which they feel they must ascend to in order to fulfill the obligation they have to the men and women who came before them. Additionally, knowing that there is the possibility of king and queenship in their future only fuels their ambition and makes their crowning even more likely.
Fate, Family, and Ambition ThemeTracker
Fate, Family, and Ambition Quotes in Lady Macbeth
Because I am descended in a direct line from Celtic kings, the purest royal blood courses through me and blushes my skin. I could prick a finger and it would be gold to some.
I am Gruadh inghean Bodhe mac Cineadh mhic Dubh […] My lineage combines the ancient royal branches of Scotland […] Because a man could claim the throne of Scotland by marrying me, I was not safe. Nor were my kinsmen, come to that: if they were killed, one after another, our line would be eliminated at its heart, making room for others’ ambitions. Such is the way of things when one’s heritage is ancient, pure, and royal.
Little good did the blood of ancients do me. I was like a lark spiraling upward, unaware of the hawks above judging time and distance to the prize.
“A princess of Scotland has no use of those skills.”
“Scathach was also a princess,” I pointed out. “Scathach of the old legends, who had a school for fighting on the Isle of Skye and taught the heroes of the Fianna their skills—”
“I know the tale,” he said curtly. “Those were older days. It is not your place to fight, but ours to defend you, if need be.” […]
“I am your direct heir now,” I reminded Bodhe. “I must be prepared, since you say I could be a queen one day, and my husband a king. So men will always argue over me, and more deaths will occur on my account.” […]
“You have a warrior spirit,” he admitted, “for a gently raised daughter.”
“Scathach of Skye,” I reminded. “No one would have stolen her away.”
Them men formed a circle around me, friends and enemies both. Ahead, on the earth of the practice yard, two swords lay crossed and ready, shining blades reflecting the glow of the sunrise. Nearby, horses stood, gleaming and grand, ready to be ridden, while overhead, two eagles winged toward the mountains, and a raven settled on a gatepost. Moon and stars were still visible in the sky, and the sunrise flowed over the hilltops like a spill of blood, the sun in its midst like a golden wafer. […] I knew some of the elements—ravens were death and warning, eagles pride and pairing, horses freedom; the swords might be conflict or war, and the circle of warriors around me could have been a sign of protection, or the men in my future. […] My mother had been gifted with the Sight that brings spontaneous visions, so common among the Gaels that we call it Da Shealladh, the gift of two sighs. A great-grandmother on Bodhe’s side had been a taibhsear, a seer, from whom others sought advice.
Until that moment, I had not known that I, too, had a hint of that talent.
“The truth is in what Moray offers,” [Bodhe] said. “Every mormaer of that region has an ancient right tot be called Rí a Moreb, king of Moray. His wife can be called ban-rí, queen. Just now, Gilcomgan and King Malcolm support one another. But if the Rí a Moreb ever summoned men to revolt, the strength of that army would be such that the mormaer of Moray could himself be king over all Scotland.”
“And marriage to me could ensure that for Gilcomgan. Or for our son,” I added. […] He looked hard at me. “Even carrying the blood of Celtic kings, you cannot rule alone. You need a strong and ambitious husband.
“Our blood needs one,” I corrected bitterly.
“Often the meaning of the omens we see it not clear until later. If we knew too much about the future, we might be afraid to step from our houses. Do not fret—the signs you saw speak of Scotland’s future even more than your own.”
“Scotland?” I blinked. “Because of the warriors and symbols of warfare?”
“Perhaps they will be Rue’s husbands in future,” Bethoc said. “Well, not all of them,” she amended when I gaped at her.
Mairi took my hands in hers and closed her eyes. “Two husbands,” she said. “Three, if you so choose. Like most women you will have a share of happiness and measures of sorrow. Unlike most, you will have… power.” She let go of my fingers. “You can draw strength from within yourself, like water from a well. Your mother gave you the sign of the good Brigid on your shoulder,” she went on, touching my upper sleeve, which covered the symbol. “Call upon that protection whenever you need it.”
In the afternoon I looked up toward the ridge of a hill and saw a stand of tall pikes thrusting up like slender trees. The point of each carried a decapitated head, black and gruesome, pitch-soaked to preserve them a long while, until they decayed to skulls […] Aella gasped, near to retching, and hid her eyes with her hand. Bethoc looked away. But I stared, horrified and transfixed, even when Ruari and Conn drew their horses alongside to urge us onward. I remembered that my guard and my only brother had been beheaded but […] never piked.
I would not shrink form the grim display Someday I might have to show toughness for such things, even if I quailed within. As wife to Scotland’s most powerful mormaer, it was in my interest to understand the ways of men and warfare. My own life might turn on that knowledge one day.
At one point, King Malcolm himself carried his great-grandson and held him out to King Cnut. The prince, at two years old a sturdy handful, set up a lusty caterwauling, so that both men looked annoyed. Still, the message was clear: young Malcolm mac Duncan of Scotland had made a symbolic homage to the ruler of England.
And it was clear to those watching that in making his great-grandson pledge to England, old Malcolm was declaring that his line, grandson to son, would be kings hereafter. […]
The child’s mother, Lady Sybilla, stepped forward to take her boy from her father-by-law. I was among the retinue of women who walked with her, and she turned to give the squalling child to me. He struggled to get down, and I set him on his feet, taking his hand. He pulled me along rather like a ram dragging its shepherd. Others were amused, but I felt a strange sense, like a weight on my shoulders, on my soul.
And then, with a shudder, I knew it for an omen of the future—myself, and all of us gathered that day were linked to this moment as if by the tug of a heavy chain.
Together they had conspired to kill Gilcomgan and wrest Moray from him. Macbeth had overtaken my future, and my child’s, out of his own ambition and desire for revenge. My fingers let go the clutched yarn, red strands unraveling like blood to pool on the floor. I turned to leave, to suppress my anger, as Bodhe might have done. But I was not my father.
Swords sparked bright against the wall, where a few of them leaned, unused. One of them was my own. I snatched it up and turned back to face the men. “Upon this sword, which Bodhe gave to me,” I said, “I swear to protect my child from all your cold scheming. Listen to me,” I said through my teeth when Macbeth stepped forward. “No more of Bodhe’s blood shall suffer for your ambitions!”
They stood still, king, husband, and housecarls. An oath made on a blade was a fierce thing and never taken lightly. I wanted them to understand that I was not helpless, no pawn to stand by while their plans destroyed by father’s proud line. Wild Celtic blood ran strong in me, a legacy of warriors, warrior queens, and sword oaths. It was not the wisest thing I have done; it was something foolish, something brave.
“Men,” Catriona said, “understand life and death differently than women. Ours is to give birth, life, and comfort. We cannot bring ourselves to take life, knowing its struggle and value.”
Somehow this saintly show of opinion irritated me. “If I had to kill to save a life, mine or my son’s,” I said, “I would do it.”
“Rue is trained at arms,” Bethoc said proudly.
“Lady Gruadh has a stiffer backbone than I do,” Catriona said. “It is my work to bring life into this world. My heart is far too tender to destroy it.”
“That is not my intent,” I defended. “The lady of a powerful region must have a martial spirit as well as a virtuous one. I would not hesitate to put on armor and take up a sword, if such was needed for the good of all.”
Yet I had to master my temper, as he had done, and stay. Obligation to my kin group demanded that I remain with Moray’s new mormaer, who had no equal among other warlords. Fate had set me in this situation, after all.
I frowned, for he left something unsaid. “What purpose do you see in this union?”
One hand on the door, he turned back. “Together we can tap the power of your legacy and mine,” he said quietly, “and take Scotland under our rule.”
There. He said outright what I, and others, suspected. I straightened my shoulders. This, then, was what Bodhe wanted, and what generations of my kin deserved in their honor. “A thing like that turns on loyalty,” I said, “or falters for lack of it.”
He nodded. “It does.”
“Well enough,” I said, watching him. An agreement of sorts.
“There must be some kind of justice and recompense for these deaths!”
“Justice will be brought,” Macbeth said low.
“When?” I asked, splaying my hands, slim fingered and beringed, on the table. Such feminine hands for such hard masculine thoughts. The urge sprang in me like a dark wolf within. I did not like it, but fed it nonetheless. It is the way of things, Bodhe would have said. “When will you avenge my kinsmen? Tomorrow? A year from now?” […]
“If one of Bodhe’s bloodline held the throne someday,” my husband then said, “it would be far more lasting revenge than bloodshed now.”
“The old legends are filled with such women—the great Irish queen, Macha, and Princess Scathach of Skye, who trained warriors in her fighting school, and also her sister Aoife, who bested Cu Chulainn and bore his son […] Celtic women have fought beside their men since before the names of kings were remembered. And even though Rome forbids Gaelic women to fight, it is rightful enough according to our customs.”
“They forbid with good reason,” Maeve said, bouncing Lulach on her lap. “Women have enough to do and should not have to go out and fight men’s battles, too.” […]
“The eyes of the Church cannot easily see beyond the mountains of the Gaels,” I said, “where warlike behavior in a woman is not sinful heresy, and is sometimes even necessary.” And I remembered my early vows—as a girl taking up a sword to defend herself, as a woman swearing on a sword to defend her own. Another facet of my obligation to my long legacy came clear: if others were so set on eliminating my line, and I and Lulach the last of it, then I would be steadfast as any warrior.
“If we were to gain rod and crown,” I said low, so that none should hear but he, “we could satisfy our heritage and avenge our two fathers, all at once.”
“Just so.” He cast me a look that was sharp and clear.
I felt a chill. “You led me deliberately to share your plan, from the first.”
“In part,” he admitted, “for I knew the worth in your blood, and saw the worth of your nature. But I could never have planed as well as fate has done. It has twinned our motives now. Your father and mine are gone, and they deserve this. Our branches, Gabhran and Lorne, deserve this.”
“And the ancient Celtic blood of the whole of Scotland—it, too, needs this.”
“It does.” He smiled, and we rode on in silence.
“Your husband Macbeth will be remembered among the greatest of his ilk, the kings of Scotland,” she said. “One of your sons will be a warrior. Not the others.”
“Others,” I repeated, pleased. “Monks, then, or abbots? Bards, perhaps.”
“They will not be,” she murmured slowly, eyes very dark, “warriors.”
A shiver slipped down my spine. […]
“Carry this warning to your husband. I have told him the same, but tell him again from me. Beware the son of the warrior whose spilled blood will make him a king.”
I stared. Her cloak, when she turned, was a swirl of utter blackness, so that I stepped back for fear the portal to the other side, open that night, might overtake me.
I did not repeat her message to Macbeth.
Although I had a place on his war council, lately he had not included me, claiming I needed rest. I did not. I needed something more to do, for my household was smoothly run, and my son was finding his way in the world more and more without his mother. With no other little ones to fill my arms, as I should have had by then, I lacked enough to do. […] I watched carefully as I could over Macbeth’s Moray in his absence, and the responsibly was no chore. Later I realized that in small and large ways, I had begun to prepare myself for what might come. Queenship in its many aspects was not a teachable thing, yet instinctively I tutored myself with charitable works and sword training. Inch by ell, I became the small queen of Moray in more than name alone.
“My ambition was always for Scotland as much as myself. We must be careful to preserve the heart of what is called Gaelic, the honor, the power in it, when the outer world—the Church, our enemies, the trade, all the rest—stands to change us. Duncan is hastening the end of the Gaels, if he even knows it.”
“You can honor that heritage and vindicate your kin and mine,” I reminded him.
“I made a sword vow years ago to protect my own, and I will keep it. I have a home and a son to protect, and I have a husband to support as best I can. All my life I have lived a female among Celtic warriors. My sword arm is trained, my bow and arrow are swift, and I have already bloodied the blade. Know this—my determination is in place. I will go with you.”
Macbeth took my horse’s bridle. “Each one who rides with me contributes to the whole. Your skill I will not argue, but your fortitude is little tested. You would require guards to protect you, and that detracts from the whole.”
“Have you not made it your purpose to uphold the old ways, the ancient ways, of the Gaels and the Celts?” The horse shifted under me, and I pulled the reins. Macbeth still held the bridle. “Celtic women have always fought beside their men.”
Watching the prow of the boat surge through lapping waves, I knew that I had protected Malcolm from retaliation. By honoring my promise to his mother and following my own heart as a mother, I had prevented his murder as a boy. And he had returned, just as the mormaers had warned. I had brought this tragedy about.
But if that chance came again, I could not order the deaths of children. A devil’s bargain, that, to choose sin or grief. Closing my eyes, I rested my face in my hands and struggled, overcame a weeping urge. What I had done had been most rightful, though it came with a hard price. It was the way of things.