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Book Review: Macbeth: Man and Myth (by Nick Aitchison) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Macbeth: Man and Myth, by Nick Aitchison, published by Sutton Publishing, 260 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001. 212-213-2775, 224 pages. $34.95 hardcover.

Scotland's most famous king is a man about whom almost nothing is known. His fame stems less from anything he accomplished in life than from the mythical persona created over the centuries by legend weavers–culminating, of course, in the "Scottish play" by Shakespeare.

Macbeth: Man and Myth attempts to separate the facts about this ancient ruler from the fiction that began to accrue within a few generations of his death, and in the process the text rehabilitates his tarnished image,

Macbeth's Scotland, with a political hierarchy and rules of succession that may seem odd to casual readers, would have been an alien and unfamiliar place to most who have ever enjoyed Shakespeare's drama. Macbeth was a product of these times, and Aitchison devotes the early pages of his book to placing Macbeth in his historical context–one in which murder, if hardly a noble act–was an almost inevitable consequence of the political system, frequently resorted-to among those of royal blood.

As the author reconstructs Macbeth's rise to power by gleaning the tantalizingly few facts from contemporary documents and adding some reasonable inferences to span the gaps in the record, a picture emerges of Macbeth: surprisingly, a largely unremarkable ruler, most notable, perhaps, simply for the length of his reign during a time when political assassination was the norm. If anything, Macbeth seems to have been a generous man, a capable soldier, and an effective ruler, while Duncan, the predecessor whom he murdered, seems to have been leading Scotland toward disaster through his incompetent generalship.

Ultimately, Duncan's descendants were restored to the kingship, and much as the Tudors denigrated the characters of their Yorkist predecessors, chronicles compiled by later rulers cast Macbeth in an evil light.

The second part of Aitchison's research traces the development of the myths which surround Macbeth from the earliest eulogies, probably written during his reign, to Shakespeare and beyond. As each age passed, Macbeth's reputation suffered, first by the addition of unhistorical accounts of his tyranny, then by the accrual of supernatural elements that turned him into the very embodiment of evil. Along the way, readers will recognize the origins of many of the elements that have become so closely associated with Shakespeare's version of the story, including the weird sisters and the fictional character McDuff.

Aitchison concludes with a survey of the many sites throughout Scotland which claim associations with Macbeth. The descriptions of these locations and the tall tales behind most of them provide sometimes amusing evidence that mythmaking is still a very big part of the drama of Macbeth.

Bruce Heydt

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