Will the Real Lady Macbeth Please Stand Up

Double double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble….

Shakespeare, Macbeth

Waterhouse_magic_circle Shakespeare gave those word to his three witches, but they could easily have come from the lips of his own Lady Macbeth. What does my version of Lady Macbeth have in common with the infamous, brilliant, scheming, murderous, ambitious Lady Macbeth?

Not a whole lot….and that’s just the point. Because I didn’t want to write about Shakespeare’s villainess — I wanted to create my own character, based on the actual young queen.

When I first considered writing the story of Lady Macbeth –a young woman who lived in 11th century Scotland as Queen of Scots beside King Macbeth — I asked myself more than once if I was crazy to take on such an infamous, powerful character, the iconic creation of a literary genius. But as I researched and played with ideas, after a while it didn’t seem so intimidating—because the real queen, a young woman in a Celtic warrior society, would have been very, very different from Shakespeare’s power-mad, ambitious, cruel and wacked-out woman.

Ellen_terry_as_lady_macbeth Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth was far more a product of England at the end of the Elizabethan age, and the beginning of the Jacobean Stuarts in the court of King James I of England. The basic point of the play—to oversimplify—was a political statement aimed at the audiences of 1603: here’s a Scottish king who was way badder and more evil than Good King James (even if Jamie did slobber a bit) – and look how bad Macbeth’s queen was! The English people of 1603 had lucked out! And of course, Lady Macbeth, that wildly brilliant and blood-crazed lady, was a fictional character that Shakespeare, as writer and creative genius, could sink his teeth into. If she didn’t sink her teeth into him first… She is a masterful psychological study in villainy and the consequences of misguided ambition and the basest urges of humankind.

Well there was no way I could approach that. But I never had to worry. My Lady Macbeth could be altogether different, as a product of early medieval, or Celtic, Scotland.

Right away a major hurdle was the amount of extant evidence regarding her: one line in a Latin document. Yikes! The historical evidence that a Queen “Gruoch,” wife of King Macbeth, existed comes from a single land grant written in Latin. Even her name is uncertain and possibly a phonetic rendering of the Gaelic original. The clues in those lines of text are intriguing, and the work of creating my own version of Lady Macbeth began there.

Triskele So little is known of Macbeth’s queen that historians have drawn conclusions about her based on events and circumstances of the time. A set of documents from the Priory of Saint Andrews—land charters of donations between 1040 and 1057–provide her name and her lineage: “Machbet filius Finlach…et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum.” Her father and therefore the importance of her royal line are identified. Another clue is that she is accorded the title of Queen of Scots, full queen beside Macbeth, rather than consort.

One extant eleventh-century document. Not a lot to go on to build the story of an actual early medieval queen. Macbeth is mentioned in several contemporary documents, entries in annals written by Irish, Scottish, and Saxon monks. He is variously called Mac bethad mac Finlaech, Macbeth, Makbeth, Machbet, possibly even Magbjotr (in the Orkneyinga Saga), and “the king with the outlandish name,” as one contemporary Saxon source refers to him. Spelling was a freeform art early on….

The name “Gruoch” is a puzzle. It appears in one Latin document. No Gaelic, Saxon, or Norse female name matches it. Possibly it was a cleric’s phonetic attempt to record a Gaelic name. Historians have stuck with Gruoch, but I wanted my fictional queen to have a more palatable name. I came across a reference to Gruoch’s great-granddaughter, whose name was Gruaith or Gruadh—and that settled the matter for me. That could have been the queen’s own name, and “Gruadh” has a precedent as a female name in Irish myth. Pronounced “Groo-ath,” Gruadh seemed a better choice than Gruoch (besides, I kept typing “Grouch” – so it definitely had to go!). Considering the welfare of the reader, I further shortened her name to “Rue” as a nickname. Sorrow seemed to fit her.

Waterhouse_study_ladyclare There was not only the looming shadow of Shakespeare, there was also Dorothy Dunnett and Nigel Tranter, who both wrote stellar novels about Macbeth, and of course fictional creations of his queen. The further I got into my own writing, the less intimidated I felt. My Rue -– my Lady Macbeth — was utterly different from the famous villainess, and from Dunnett’s Norse lady and Tranter’s medieval queen. My Rue was a teenager in a warrior society, a young woman bent on proving herself, defending her lineage, and continuing the strong and graceful Celtic traditions of her culture.
And as she grew as a character, she turned out to be hotheaded, spiteful, and even funny in moments–she was typically a teenager too, impulsive, sometimes arrogant, sometimes vulnerable; she gropes her way through situations and learns some pretty hard lessons as she matures.

I had the advantage of more historical information available than either Dunnett or Tranter, certainly more than Shakespeare, whose sources wrote fantastical accounts of Macbeth based on each other and on accounts corrupted by Malcolm Canmore and then elaborated. In the last twenty years, much new research has been done in the area of Celtic and medieval Scotland studies. I was fortunate to be able to consult with some of the best historians in that field, so that I could do my best to ensure that what I came up with was historically accurate and sound.

The research at first looked crazy difficult, but I’m a pig in mud when it comes to deep historical research. I love matching facts like puzzle pieces to come up with something new that hasn’t been noted before (such as the lady’s possible name). I loved the research, the writing, and the subject, and I came to love Gruadh and her story as I saw it.

Ladymacbeth_new One of the best things about writing this book was the freedom to explore a subject that fascinated and compelled me. And it was wonderful to stay up late in my jammies while the family slept and the world was quiet. . .which is without a doubt one of the greatest privileges of being a writer.

Anyway, I do hope you will all look for LADY MACBETH: A NOVEL by Susan Fraser King, and I dearly hope you will love it. The release date is Feb. 12, coming soon…. and it can be pre-ordered online… (nudge, wink!)

“Captivating…an epic tale written in high-voltage prose.” -– Publishers Weekly

“Readers will be drawn to this revised version of an ancient villainess. King manages to challenge all our preconceptions without turning the strongest female character in literature into a pantywaist. Her footwork on this fictional ground is sure and graceful.”   — BookPage

~Susan Sarah

50 thoughts on “Will the Real Lady Macbeth Please Stand Up”

  1. Fascinating stuff! Somewhere in the house is a video tape of my youngest daughter playing Lady Macbeth—in the sixth grade! Her ambitious class rewrote the play to suit themselves…kind of what Lady Macbeth herself might have done.
    Your cover is exquisite. I’ll read the book and pass it along to my daughter.

    Reply
  2. Fascinating stuff! Somewhere in the house is a video tape of my youngest daughter playing Lady Macbeth—in the sixth grade! Her ambitious class rewrote the play to suit themselves…kind of what Lady Macbeth herself might have done.
    Your cover is exquisite. I’ll read the book and pass it along to my daughter.

    Reply
  3. Fascinating stuff! Somewhere in the house is a video tape of my youngest daughter playing Lady Macbeth—in the sixth grade! Her ambitious class rewrote the play to suit themselves…kind of what Lady Macbeth herself might have done.
    Your cover is exquisite. I’ll read the book and pass it along to my daughter.

    Reply
  4. Fascinating stuff! Somewhere in the house is a video tape of my youngest daughter playing Lady Macbeth—in the sixth grade! Her ambitious class rewrote the play to suit themselves…kind of what Lady Macbeth herself might have done.
    Your cover is exquisite. I’ll read the book and pass it along to my daughter.

    Reply
  5. Fascinating stuff! Somewhere in the house is a video tape of my youngest daughter playing Lady Macbeth—in the sixth grade! Her ambitious class rewrote the play to suit themselves…kind of what Lady Macbeth herself might have done.
    Your cover is exquisite. I’ll read the book and pass it along to my daughter.

    Reply
  6. I’m so looking forward to reading this book ever since I found that it was coming out. I find the differences between Shakespeare’s creation and the actual MacBeth fascinating. I’m actually working on a YA that features just that subject. Poor Shakespeare’s Queen going mad towards the end after her powerful scenes in the beginning of the play. I’ve always found that rather touching.

    Reply
  7. I’m so looking forward to reading this book ever since I found that it was coming out. I find the differences between Shakespeare’s creation and the actual MacBeth fascinating. I’m actually working on a YA that features just that subject. Poor Shakespeare’s Queen going mad towards the end after her powerful scenes in the beginning of the play. I’ve always found that rather touching.

    Reply
  8. I’m so looking forward to reading this book ever since I found that it was coming out. I find the differences between Shakespeare’s creation and the actual MacBeth fascinating. I’m actually working on a YA that features just that subject. Poor Shakespeare’s Queen going mad towards the end after her powerful scenes in the beginning of the play. I’ve always found that rather touching.

    Reply
  9. I’m so looking forward to reading this book ever since I found that it was coming out. I find the differences between Shakespeare’s creation and the actual MacBeth fascinating. I’m actually working on a YA that features just that subject. Poor Shakespeare’s Queen going mad towards the end after her powerful scenes in the beginning of the play. I’ve always found that rather touching.

    Reply
  10. I’m so looking forward to reading this book ever since I found that it was coming out. I find the differences between Shakespeare’s creation and the actual MacBeth fascinating. I’m actually working on a YA that features just that subject. Poor Shakespeare’s Queen going mad towards the end after her powerful scenes in the beginning of the play. I’ve always found that rather touching.

    Reply
  11. Your different POV for both Macbeth and his lady reminds me a bit of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time”, with its revisionist portrait of Richard III. Part of Tey’s book that fits yours to a tee is the discussion of why Shakespeare, as great as he was, still had to conform to the political realities of the day. In addition, as you note, he didn’t have modern historical research, so even though closer in time he knew even less.

    Reply
  12. Your different POV for both Macbeth and his lady reminds me a bit of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time”, with its revisionist portrait of Richard III. Part of Tey’s book that fits yours to a tee is the discussion of why Shakespeare, as great as he was, still had to conform to the political realities of the day. In addition, as you note, he didn’t have modern historical research, so even though closer in time he knew even less.

    Reply
  13. Your different POV for both Macbeth and his lady reminds me a bit of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time”, with its revisionist portrait of Richard III. Part of Tey’s book that fits yours to a tee is the discussion of why Shakespeare, as great as he was, still had to conform to the political realities of the day. In addition, as you note, he didn’t have modern historical research, so even though closer in time he knew even less.

    Reply
  14. Your different POV for both Macbeth and his lady reminds me a bit of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time”, with its revisionist portrait of Richard III. Part of Tey’s book that fits yours to a tee is the discussion of why Shakespeare, as great as he was, still had to conform to the political realities of the day. In addition, as you note, he didn’t have modern historical research, so even though closer in time he knew even less.

    Reply
  15. Your different POV for both Macbeth and his lady reminds me a bit of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time”, with its revisionist portrait of Richard III. Part of Tey’s book that fits yours to a tee is the discussion of why Shakespeare, as great as he was, still had to conform to the political realities of the day. In addition, as you note, he didn’t have modern historical research, so even though closer in time he knew even less.

    Reply
  16. It is a very interesting. I always thought she was very similar to what Shakespeare depicted. Congratulations on the great reviews!

    Reply
  17. It is a very interesting. I always thought she was very similar to what Shakespeare depicted. Congratulations on the great reviews!

    Reply
  18. It is a very interesting. I always thought she was very similar to what Shakespeare depicted. Congratulations on the great reviews!

    Reply
  19. It is a very interesting. I always thought she was very similar to what Shakespeare depicted. Congratulations on the great reviews!

    Reply
  20. It is a very interesting. I always thought she was very similar to what Shakespeare depicted. Congratulations on the great reviews!

    Reply
  21. You put a lot of work into this book and it was worth it! It sounds just great and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the cover, too@

    Reply
  22. You put a lot of work into this book and it was worth it! It sounds just great and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the cover, too@

    Reply
  23. You put a lot of work into this book and it was worth it! It sounds just great and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the cover, too@

    Reply
  24. You put a lot of work into this book and it was worth it! It sounds just great and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the cover, too@

    Reply
  25. You put a lot of work into this book and it was worth it! It sounds just great and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the cover, too@

    Reply
  26. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read the early versions of this book, and Rue is the most fascinating historical character i’ve ever read. It’s as if Susan is channeling this woman’s wry humor onto the pages. This is not a boring history but an action-packed adventure with love and grief and the whole gamut of emotions, told through the eyes and voice of a woman who has experienced it all. I’m purely fascinated with the way Susan has turned herself inside out to become Rue.

    Reply
  27. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read the early versions of this book, and Rue is the most fascinating historical character i’ve ever read. It’s as if Susan is channeling this woman’s wry humor onto the pages. This is not a boring history but an action-packed adventure with love and grief and the whole gamut of emotions, told through the eyes and voice of a woman who has experienced it all. I’m purely fascinated with the way Susan has turned herself inside out to become Rue.

    Reply
  28. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read the early versions of this book, and Rue is the most fascinating historical character i’ve ever read. It’s as if Susan is channeling this woman’s wry humor onto the pages. This is not a boring history but an action-packed adventure with love and grief and the whole gamut of emotions, told through the eyes and voice of a woman who has experienced it all. I’m purely fascinated with the way Susan has turned herself inside out to become Rue.

    Reply
  29. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read the early versions of this book, and Rue is the most fascinating historical character i’ve ever read. It’s as if Susan is channeling this woman’s wry humor onto the pages. This is not a boring history but an action-packed adventure with love and grief and the whole gamut of emotions, told through the eyes and voice of a woman who has experienced it all. I’m purely fascinated with the way Susan has turned herself inside out to become Rue.

    Reply
  30. I’ve gotta say, I’ve read the early versions of this book, and Rue is the most fascinating historical character i’ve ever read. It’s as if Susan is channeling this woman’s wry humor onto the pages. This is not a boring history but an action-packed adventure with love and grief and the whole gamut of emotions, told through the eyes and voice of a woman who has experienced it all. I’m purely fascinated with the way Susan has turned herself inside out to become Rue.

    Reply
  31. Thank you all for such lovely comments. I am squealing with delight at being mentioned in the same sentence as Josephine Tey (I absolutely adored _Daughter of Time_ and have read it more than once). I hadn’t thought of my Lady Macbeth being revisionist–perhaps she is, in the sense of wanting to set the record straight on some level and give props to the real lady–who would want to have their reputation smeared in perpetuity, even in such a spectacular way?!
    And extra hugs to Pat, who’s read the thang too many times to count (along with other Wenches and friends)…for which I am both apologetic and thankful. :}
    Susan

    Reply
  32. Thank you all for such lovely comments. I am squealing with delight at being mentioned in the same sentence as Josephine Tey (I absolutely adored _Daughter of Time_ and have read it more than once). I hadn’t thought of my Lady Macbeth being revisionist–perhaps she is, in the sense of wanting to set the record straight on some level and give props to the real lady–who would want to have their reputation smeared in perpetuity, even in such a spectacular way?!
    And extra hugs to Pat, who’s read the thang too many times to count (along with other Wenches and friends)…for which I am both apologetic and thankful. :}
    Susan

    Reply
  33. Thank you all for such lovely comments. I am squealing with delight at being mentioned in the same sentence as Josephine Tey (I absolutely adored _Daughter of Time_ and have read it more than once). I hadn’t thought of my Lady Macbeth being revisionist–perhaps she is, in the sense of wanting to set the record straight on some level and give props to the real lady–who would want to have their reputation smeared in perpetuity, even in such a spectacular way?!
    And extra hugs to Pat, who’s read the thang too many times to count (along with other Wenches and friends)…for which I am both apologetic and thankful. :}
    Susan

    Reply
  34. Thank you all for such lovely comments. I am squealing with delight at being mentioned in the same sentence as Josephine Tey (I absolutely adored _Daughter of Time_ and have read it more than once). I hadn’t thought of my Lady Macbeth being revisionist–perhaps she is, in the sense of wanting to set the record straight on some level and give props to the real lady–who would want to have their reputation smeared in perpetuity, even in such a spectacular way?!
    And extra hugs to Pat, who’s read the thang too many times to count (along with other Wenches and friends)…for which I am both apologetic and thankful. :}
    Susan

    Reply
  35. Thank you all for such lovely comments. I am squealing with delight at being mentioned in the same sentence as Josephine Tey (I absolutely adored _Daughter of Time_ and have read it more than once). I hadn’t thought of my Lady Macbeth being revisionist–perhaps she is, in the sense of wanting to set the record straight on some level and give props to the real lady–who would want to have their reputation smeared in perpetuity, even in such a spectacular way?!
    And extra hugs to Pat, who’s read the thang too many times to count (along with other Wenches and friends)…for which I am both apologetic and thankful. :}
    Susan

    Reply
  36. I thought the book was amazing when I read it–but I had no idea what was involved in writing it. What an accomplishment, to create such a complex, fascinating woman from what are wisps of historical documentation (at least compared to the stuff we Regency-era aficionados get to work with). I am all the more impressed with your achievement, Susan. And thanks for clarifying. Not everyone realizes that Shakespeare needed to adapt his work/interpretation to the politics of his day, and that it’s art, not necessarily historical fact.

    Reply
  37. I thought the book was amazing when I read it–but I had no idea what was involved in writing it. What an accomplishment, to create such a complex, fascinating woman from what are wisps of historical documentation (at least compared to the stuff we Regency-era aficionados get to work with). I am all the more impressed with your achievement, Susan. And thanks for clarifying. Not everyone realizes that Shakespeare needed to adapt his work/interpretation to the politics of his day, and that it’s art, not necessarily historical fact.

    Reply
  38. I thought the book was amazing when I read it–but I had no idea what was involved in writing it. What an accomplishment, to create such a complex, fascinating woman from what are wisps of historical documentation (at least compared to the stuff we Regency-era aficionados get to work with). I am all the more impressed with your achievement, Susan. And thanks for clarifying. Not everyone realizes that Shakespeare needed to adapt his work/interpretation to the politics of his day, and that it’s art, not necessarily historical fact.

    Reply
  39. I thought the book was amazing when I read it–but I had no idea what was involved in writing it. What an accomplishment, to create such a complex, fascinating woman from what are wisps of historical documentation (at least compared to the stuff we Regency-era aficionados get to work with). I am all the more impressed with your achievement, Susan. And thanks for clarifying. Not everyone realizes that Shakespeare needed to adapt his work/interpretation to the politics of his day, and that it’s art, not necessarily historical fact.

    Reply
  40. I thought the book was amazing when I read it–but I had no idea what was involved in writing it. What an accomplishment, to create such a complex, fascinating woman from what are wisps of historical documentation (at least compared to the stuff we Regency-era aficionados get to work with). I am all the more impressed with your achievement, Susan. And thanks for clarifying. Not everyone realizes that Shakespeare needed to adapt his work/interpretation to the politics of his day, and that it’s art, not necessarily historical fact.

    Reply
  41. I was fortunate to have won the ARC of this book and I’m enjoying it immensely. I am a big fan of Celtic lore, so this is a double treat for me.
    I’ll post more when it’s out!

    Reply
  42. I was fortunate to have won the ARC of this book and I’m enjoying it immensely. I am a big fan of Celtic lore, so this is a double treat for me.
    I’ll post more when it’s out!

    Reply
  43. I was fortunate to have won the ARC of this book and I’m enjoying it immensely. I am a big fan of Celtic lore, so this is a double treat for me.
    I’ll post more when it’s out!

    Reply
  44. I was fortunate to have won the ARC of this book and I’m enjoying it immensely. I am a big fan of Celtic lore, so this is a double treat for me.
    I’ll post more when it’s out!

    Reply
  45. I was fortunate to have won the ARC of this book and I’m enjoying it immensely. I am a big fan of Celtic lore, so this is a double treat for me.
    I’ll post more when it’s out!

    Reply

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