Gruadh and Macbeth, the married couple at the center of Lady Macbeth, are motivated by revenge. Both have had family members killed and titles taken from them. Because of this, they decide to dedicate their lives to avenging their families, reclaiming their titles, and punishing the men who took so much from them. Sometimes revenge calls for violence, but occasionally it requires patience and political scheming. Although Macbeth enters the novel fully versed in politics and practiced at waiting for the best opportunity to strike, Gruadh, a full decade younger, must first learn the value of violence, and then how to control her own violent urges. The novel argues that both violence and revenge are sometimes justified, but that revenge doesn’t always have to look like “an eye for an eye”—the greatest revenge Macbeth and Gruadh enact is ascending to the Scottish throne, thereby proving to their detractors and enemies that plots against them have failed.
Gruadh, a woman who would normally be removed from the more violent physical aspects of contemporary life, is taught the necessity of occasional violence from a young age. She stabs the cheek of a kidnapper at just nine years old, for instance, and understands that violence is a part of life she cannot avoid. After Bodhe has allowed her to learn how to use a sword, she practices with wooden sticks with Finn. She accidentally hits him in the face, giving him a black eye. Embarrassed, Gruadh instinctually wants to apologize, but reminds herself, “warriors do not coddle each other.” In the same lesson, Finn teaches Gruadh how to trip a horse to better access its rider. Although Gruadh does not want to hurt an animal, Finn wonders how she would respond if the horse was carrying Thorfin, one of her kidnappers, or Harald Silkhair, her attempted rapist. Considering this context, Gruadh can easily imagine unseating a man from a horse, even if doing so would injure the horse.
Gruadh has a fiery, combative personality, which often means she has a difficult time learning to let go of grudges. As such, after learning how and why to use violence, she is left with violent impulses and no true outlets for them. It is then useful for her to learn the value of patience, and the way in which nonviolent resolutions can be found to ostensibly violent problems. When she reencounters Thorfin in her father’s home in Fife, she is understandably unhappy to see him and rude. Yet Bodhe explains the two of them “have made our peace” and Thorfin is now an ally. Thorfin adds that he killed Harald as a kind of peace offering. Gruadh thus holds on to her grudge at her own peril—indeed, Thorfin eventually becomes a close ally, and even uses his ships to rescue Macbeth from enemy ships decades later.
Gruadh also holds a grudge against Macbeth after he murders Gilcomgan and forcibly marries her. She describes how she felt a “craving” for “vengeance,” and that “a wild urge” in her blood demanded “justice at any cost.” She hopes her father will avenge her and is disappointed when he doesn’t. She hopes King Malcolm will “come to mow down” her second husband, but again, is upset to find the two have conspired together and that Macbeth will be safe. Although Maeve, her childhood nurse, initially agrees with Gruadh that Macbeth should be distrusted and resented, even she eventually warms to him, encouraging Gruadh to accept her husband into her bed and forgive him for Gilcomgan’s murder. The novel thus suggests that apologies should be accepted, and violent deeds committed for a meaningful reason (Macbeth murdered Gilcomgan to avenge his father) can be absolved. Gruadh, who holds grudges even after amends have been made or attempted, is shown to be in the wrong, and one of the most important lessons she must learn is that holding such grudges is not always necessary or smart.
Gruadh craves violent revenge, and similarly respects violence enacted in strategic ways. Indeed, Gruadh is likely so good at holding grudges because she has an innately violent personality. When, as a child, Gruadh stabs her kidnapper with his own brooch, she describes how, although she “had no idea how to handle the thing” she felt “a fierce urge insisted upon” her taking action. When she first begins to respect and forgive Macbeth, it is because she respects his use of violence against one of Thorfin’s warriors. She feels “a stirring admiration for him as a capable warlord […] he had demonstrated uncompromising will” and physical strength, qualities she sees as necessary for a strong ruler and potential future king.
Still, this love of violence and revenge can backfire; after Bodhe is murdered Gruadh is consumed by desire for revenge “like the start of a fever.” Although Macbeth promises her, “Justice will be brought,” Gruadh can only ask, “when?” Macbeth explains “revenge is best done when the matter is clear, but this is not,” which Gruadh understands at one level but dismisses—she wants an eye for an eye, not justice but equal violence against those who hurt her. This is not good political strategy, nor does it allow her to live a happy life.
Gruadh and Macbeth finally get revenge when they ascend to the throne. As the couple plots together, Macbeth notes he believes “revenge is not yet satisfied for Finlach of Moray,” and Gruadh completes his thought, adding, “If we were to gain rod and crown […] we could satisfy our heritage and avenge our tow fathers, all at once.” Macbeth leads her to this conclusion, helping her to tame her desire for revenge into a desire for justice—a restoration of the balance of power disrupted by the murders of their fathers. In the world of Lady Macbeth violence is understandable when used for justice, and revenge, as long as it is righting a wrong, has a place in life and politics.
Violence, Justice, and Revenge ThemeTracker
Violence, Justice, and Revenge Quotes in Lady Macbeth
“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.”
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.
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.
Peace and acceptance were not pretty threads in my wool basket that winter. I realized that I was alone in my resentment and anger. Others readily accepted Macbeth as the new mormaer, soon calling him Moray when they addressed him. […]
One day Maeve pulled me aside. “Find some peace for yourself,” she said. “This grief and torment will poison your babe.”
That night I sought out Elgin’s little wooden chapel, intending to pray for serenity and forgiveness. When I pushed open the door, I saw that Macbeth was already there, on his knees before the alter. He wore only a simple long shirt and trews, and for a moment I did not know him. His head was bowed, glinting dark gold in the light of candles. I saw him cover his face, and then he prostrated himself on the worn planks of the floor like a suffering pilgrim.
Faith is a private thing to my thinking, and here I witnessed an intimate side of the man. He appeared contrite, even tormented. I guessed at his sin, the murder of his first cousin Gilcomgan. By the teaching of the Church, it could blacken his soul and affect him for all eternity come judgment Day, if not expunged.
Backing away, I closed the door. I felt a stir of sympathy for a man who felt such clear anguish within himself. When I wanted to hate him most, I could not. By inches and breaths, my resentments faded, much as I strived to stoke them.
“I hear,” Macbeth said, “that wives of other mormaers, even kings, stay at home where they are safe, and keep mute about steel-games unless asked for their opinion.”
“I am none of that cloth.” […]
Walking through dry sand to meet my friends, having witnessed by husband do cold murder, I yet felt a stirring admiration for him as a capable warlord. That day, as at other times, he had demonstrated uncompromising will, as well as physical ability and courage. He revealed a strong sense of what was right and what was not, and what was possible between those points—and he took steps to achieve it.
Whether or not he knew it, I considered myself his capable equal, not a subservient wife. Raised by a warlord in a nest of warriors, I would not be regarded as significant in my small household circle, only to be dismissed beyond its boundaries.
“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.”
“Your weapons practice and your desire for vengeance,” Maeve told me one day, “are hardening you, dulling the bed of your womb. How can you expect to conceive a child when you feed yourself on spite and anger? Those are poisons for the body.”
She made me think, I admit, and she made me wonder. But I did not stop, not then. […]
“Your wish for vengeance is sinful,” [Father Osgar] told me one day after confession, when we walked a little. “But it is understandable. Let prayer and faith heal you.”
“I cannot give it up,” I said. “I am not yet done with this.”
“Give it up or keep it close,” he answered, “but know that until you find some peace in your heart, I will pray on your behalf. Grief is sometimes like a sharp-toothed demon that gets hold of our hearts. But its grip weakens with time, and one day you will be free of it.”
“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.
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.
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.