And we thought Lady Macbeth was a terminal basket case, mad with fury and ambition, who stopped at nothing and was stopped by practically no one. Well, we’re mistaken, according to author Susan Fraser King, and, truth be told, King is very persuasive indeed.
King gives us in Lady Macbeth a portrait of an 11th-century heroine, strong in all the right ways. The real Lady Macbeth, Queen Gruadh of Scotland, whose name sounds like “rue” and translates as “sorrow,” narrates her own story here in believable prose, cherishing the “old tradition of warlike Celtic women,” and “trained in the ‘steel-game.'” She had learned to love her first husband, later killed by Macbeth, who agonizes over it for the rest of his life. Gruadh recovers more quickly, and the two manage to make their own forced union into a love match with some of the panache of a standard romance novel (which King also writes under the name Sarah Gabriel), but with more resounding overtones. This Lady Macbeth is capable of mercy beyond the norm of her times, even refusing personally to kill hares for the supper table. What’s more, King cites, at fascinating length, the historical evidence supporting this surprising transformation in an Author’s Note as compelling as the fiction it follows.
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, and the occasional glimpses of Shakespearean catchphrases (“the thane of Cawdor,” “the day Birnam Wood came to Dunsinnan,” “if this must be done . . . best it be done quick”) found in the novel stir the high school literature student in all of us.
Of course, nothing will wipe Lady Macbeth’s traditional portrait from our souls. Still, the Lady Macbeth of these pages is a welcome and worthy, if extreme, makeover.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.