Book review: Queen Macbeth, by Val McDermid

Val McDermid’s reimagining of the Macbeth story involves as daring a trick as anything Shakespeare provided for the theatre, writes Allan Massie

Everyone knows what has long been the story of Macbeth as presented to us in Shakespeare’s play. Now, in this latest volume in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, Val McDermid tells it differently. Macbeth and his wife weren’t murdering tyrants. Shakespeare got it wrong or, to be fair, followed the wrong sources: taking the story of Macbeth the villain from Holinshead’s Chronicles and also perhaps from William Stewart’s The Buik of the Chronicles of Scotland. What we do know is that Macbeth reigned for 17 years and was secure enough on the throne to make a pilgrimage to Rome (the subject, incidentally, of a fine short story by Kingsley Amis). Of Gruoch, Macbeth’s wife, we know very little, and McDermid has made good use of the freedom ignorance grants her. One might even say she is more cavalier than Shakespeare, who was at least faithful to his sources, no matter how mistaken they were.

Here, the authorial voice is given to Gruoch. There are two alternating timescales in her story, the early one conveniently printed in italics. When she is married to her repulsive first husband Gille, Macbeth and his followers visit Gille’s castle. Gruoch, unhappy in her marriage, is attracted by his good looks and the exuberance of his dancing on top of a table. It is not long before he will be in her bed. Her husband has never got her pregnant but is ready to believe the child is his, though Gruoch and Macbeth know better. Gille is soon got rid of and the boy Lulach is raised as their son, though historians will usually call him Macbeth’s stepson.

Hide Ad

If there is a good deal that is characteristic of much routine historical fiction in the depiction of the Gruoch/Macbeth story, it is not the part of the novella in which McDermid seems most interested. Fair enough: all the stuff dealing with the Gille/Gruoch/Macbeth love triangle is not all that interesting. MacDermid is, it seems, more interested in the relationships between the queen and her three ladies, who bear no resemblance to Shakespeare’s witches. One is admittedly a seer (but a good one), one a healer, one a weaver. They are devoted to their queen and she to them. Though their work is different, the celebration of female friendship, even devotion, rings true.

Val McDermid PIC: Lisa Ferguson / The ScotsmanVal McDermid PIC: Lisa Ferguson / The Scotsman
Val McDermid PIC: Lisa Ferguson / The Scotsman

Macbeth is a necessary hero, treated with some liking as he is presented to us through Gruoch’s eyes, but no more that a cardboard character, necessary to the plot and for what he reveals of Gruoch. It is only when he is killed in battle at Lumphanan by the invading army led by Malcolm, son of Duncan, and Gruoch and her ladies with one loyal manservant have to flee, that the novel comes more effectively to life. There follows a daring and dangerous journey – another flight through the heather – as they head for the sanctuary of Iona. This is vividly described, the previous lethargic pace quickening while Gruoch and her ladies show themselves to be brave and effective warriors, not shrinking from killing. Then there is a twist in the tale, which, after all the bloody violence, makes for what may fairly be taken as a happy ending. This requires as daring a trick as anything Shakespeare provided for the theatre.

McDermid had made a characteristically professional job of this version of the Macbeth story. It is a work of imagination, not of history, and a serviceable one. Like all her works it reads easily and the alternative Lady Macbeth will please many of her readers. All the same, I don’t think her version of Macbeth will dislodge Shakespeare’s. There’s no poetry in it, and good poetry stays in the mind as prose seldom does.

Queen Macbeth, by Val McDermid, Polygon, £12