Why there’s Room for Interpretation

Pre-history

So why is there so much disagreement on Macbeth? To start with, Macbeth lived at the end of a period known as “Scottish pre-history.” In fact, his death in 1057 is the dividing date. This period is called pre-history because there are very few source documents about Scotland that date from the years prior to 1057. Not only did Celtic culture emphasize oral tradition, but much of what was written in Gaelic–the language of Scotland at that time–was destroyed in the 17th century during an effort to purge non-English literature and thought from the country.

Therefore, to understand Scotland of the early 11th century, scholars have extrapolated from the Celtic culture found in Ireland at that time. The Scots came from Ireland, after all, about five centuries earlier. There were numerous blood ties between the two islands, and up until they 16th century, they spoke a common language, with only dialectical differences. So a number of reasonable suppositions about Scottish culture of the 11th century can be made; however, a different climate, a different geography, and the absorption of previous cultures in Scotland undoubtedly made for many differences between the two–not to mention the effect of a different string of wars and other political events.

To the victor belongs … the writing of history

The written records we do have about the Scots from that time period are few in number, and incredibly brief. Most of them were not written by Scots, but by outsiders. Monks in Ireland and Northumbria kept annals–a record of each year’s most important event (yes, that’s “event” singular–they rarely recorded more than one per year). The Irish monks were Celtic and might be seen as sympathetic to the Scots, or at least to have an understanding of their culture; but the Northumbrian monks were Angles–English. The Northumbrians were enemies of the Scots through a long series of border skirmishes, a perspective that no doubt affected how the monks there painted events. One can hardly expect them to be impartial when Malcolm Canmore, raised in the court of England’s King Edward the Confessor, defeated Macbeth and (theoretically) stopped the threat of Scottish invasion. Furthermore, the Northumbrians, of Anglish and Danish origin, were accustomed to a single royal house, with the succession being basically patrilineal. This concept was sanctioned by the Church as “the divine right of kings.” The idea of kingship being passed back and forth between two competing houses–a Celtic tradition–was not in line with the thinking of the Northumbrian monks.

As for sources from the years following Macbeth’s death, what passes for history in the next few centuries was more akin to good storytelling than a factual accounting of events. We have the Norse sagas, which are full of tales of Macbeth’s contemporary, Thorfinn the Great, but they were an oral tradition for 200 years before they were written down; and they were more concerned with glorifying their heroes than with our modern notion of historical accuracy. Even Fordun, a Scottish historian of the 14th century, had 300 years of folklore and a political agenda to enliven his account–and in Celtic tradition, livening an account was not only acceptable, it was expected.

There is a very interesting work, “The Prophecy of St. Berchan,” written in Ireland in the mid-12th century, only a hundred year’s after Macbeth’s death. It tells of a long succession of Scottish kings, but it does so in the a literary style popular at the time, that of a prophecy. The writer pretends to be someone in ancient times predicting future events. Being mystical by intent, then, it uses poetic imagery and veiled allusions, rather than recognizable names, dates, and events. Add to that the fact that it was written in old Gaelic, some of which puzzles modern Gaelic speakers, and you can understand why there is more than one interpretation of what the writer meant.

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