Lady Macbeth is a novel concerned with how storytelling and personal memory can affect greater historical narratives. Basing the story on real events, historical accounts, and religious archives surrounding one of history’s most infamous queens, author Susan Fraser King has done her best to reconstruct Lady Macbeth’s life, imbuing her with motivations, emotions, and depth that have been erased by the passage of time. This interest in the narrative of history exists within the world of the novel as well. Having been taught about the past through songs and stories, King’s characters are specifically concerned with how history is recorded—something they understand will influence how they are remembered by future generations. History is often written by the victors, the novel suggests, or else manipulated for different intended audiences. In both cases, Lady Macbeth ultimately argues that there is no single truth when it comes to how events and people are remembered, and that storytelling determines history as much as does history itself.
Throughout the novel, characters are preoccupied with how history will remember them. Gruadh (that is, Lady Macbeth) has one child with her first husband, Gilcomgan, but she and Macbeth are unable to conceive children who live past one or two years old. Gruadh is aware that “no doubt history will say the mulier bona Macbeth, the good wife of Macbeth, was barren” because of this, even though Macbeth will adopt her son, Lulach, as his heir. Later in the novel Gruadh notes, “here is what the annals will say of Macbeth’s kingship: very little.” Because his reign was primarily peaceful, with few wars or scandals to record, Gruadh is aware it will be barely recorded at all. Although she understands that she has little control over how she or Macbeth is remembered, especially considering the sitting king at the end of the novel, Malcolm mac Duncan—Macbeth’s enemy and murderer—will control how this legacy is seen, and will “ill seek to ruin [Macbeth’s] deeds” in the annals of history.
The bards and historians that appear throughout the novel further reflect the importance of history and storytelling. Bards’ songs, as well as myths and legends, give characters strength to carry on and teach lessons of the past to apply to the future. Bards act as living libraries of sorts, offering knowledge of politics, history, and geography that would otherwise be inaccessible. Apart from the monks who maintain written records of political and religious events, bards are the nation’s primary record keepers and reference books. That’s why, before her marriage to her first husband, Gilcomgan, Gruadh asks her father Bodhe’s personal bard, Luag, about her new home in the region of Moray. Later, after her second marriage to Macbeth, when Gruadh attends her father’s funeral, Luag ceremonially recites “the lists of names that stretched from the Pictish kings down to Bodhe and his son and two grandsons.” Bodhe was murdered because he and his family represented a threat to King Malcolm, so hearing her own heritage read back to her reminds Gruadh of the danger her bloodline is in, and how essential it is for her to protect her son and their precious, powerful lineage.
Bards also have an important ceremonial role in this culture. They are present for battles and unify the army through song. Additionally, Macbeth’s bard, Dermot, is present at his coronation and recites “an invocation of power,” an essential component of the ceremony that adds legitimacy and brings people together. That bards are held in such esteem reflects this society’s respect for the importance of history, yet that such facts also rely on inherently fallible human memory underscores the subjectivity of that history.
The potential—and consequences—of such storytelling for its subjects is clear throughout the book. For example, old Celtic stories passed down by bards of warrior women like the bana-ghaigeach, “the great Irish queen, Macha, and Princess Scathach of Skye” inspire Gruadh’s own decision to learn how to handle a sword and march into battle; she observes, “Celtic women have fought beside men since before the names of kings were remembered.” In addition to shaping the reception of the past, flattering depictions in songs and tales improve public opinion of the story’s subjects in the present. Gruadh is won over by her first husband Gilcomgan’s talent for storytelling. Because Gilcomgan is so charismatic, Gruadh relates she “half forgot my husband had taken part in the murder of his own uncle.” Later, while Gruadh is visiting one of King Malcolm’s thanes, the bard present sings a song flattering the men and women gathered that day. Gruadh is described as a “swan-necked beauty” whose eyes are “like stars” and whose voice is “like a lark.” It’s the novel’s first indication that Gruadh is beautiful, and Macbeth, who is also present, although still married, likely takes note of her beauty in this moment.
Gruadh and Macbeth were real historical figures, and Lady Macbeth often assumes readers are aware of the famous play documenting some of the same events—William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Yet these two works tell markedly different stories, and within Lady Macbeth King often makes allusion to the famous tragedy, either to push back against unflattering or simplistic depictions of its characters, or else to provide more detailed historical nuance. Readers who know Shakespeare’s Macbeth will recognize subtle allusions to it throughout. Often, however, these allusions are twisted, and scenes are made new; indeed, the ways in which Lady Macbeth interacts with Macbeth emphasizes that there is no single, empirical version of history, and that every story has an agenda. Gruadh, as narrator, is aware of this, and the entire book is her attempt to relay her own version of history. A well-told story has power—to change the present and to change others’ perceptions of the past.
History, Memory, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
History, Memory, and Storytelling Quotes in Lady Macbeth
Drostan, who has long known me, has a fine hand with a pen and hopes to write a chronicle about me. This would be an encomium, a book of praise, for his queen. I told him it was a silly notion. […] From what my advisors say, Malcolm Canmore—ceann mór in Gaelic, or big head, two words that suit him—will order his clerics to record Macbeth’s life. Within those pages, they will seek to ruin his deeds and his name. My husband cannot fight for his reputation now. But I am here, and I know what is true.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Here is what the annals will say of Macbeth’s kingship: very little.
Seventeen years of plenty and peace for Scotland, give or take some strife. We suffered few battles and fewer enemies compared to other reigns. Scotland was brimful: fat cattle on the hillsides, fish in the streams, sheep thick with wool, the bellies of trading ships heavy with goods. Grain crops were golden and larders and byres filled; treasures accumulated, and all prospered, from shepherd to mormaer. Contentment is a thing not often recorded in the annals.
For much of Macbeth’s reign, the strength of his reputation and presence and the loyal nature of his alliances protected Scotland as never before. We had respite from decades of wars and conflict. Given more time, he would have attained what he sought of Scotland: more fair-minded laws, and the blending of honored Celtic traditions with the ways of the Church and even the Saxons.