Behind the Story: This Is Not Your Time
As a high school English teacher I’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes the pain) to teach Macbeth to teenage students, and I’ve found myself interested in the choices Shakespeare made in this play, and others. The primary choice I find myself interested in is why he simultaneously introduces fictional characters, such as Banquo and his son Fleance, while removing important historical ones, such as Macbeth’s step-son, Lulach, who would later become King of Scotland. This question forms the rationale for this piece, and as Delia Falconer (2006) suggests, it is “a hunch, a question, a vague sense of character” which so often sets a novel or story upon its path.
Shakespeare drew inspiration from two key historical texts, Raphael Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicle of Scotland’ (1580s) and a translation of Hector Boece’s ‘History and Chronicles of Scotland’ (1536). History, however, was a more allegorical or fictional form of writing in those times than it is in our present day. Curthoys & Docker (2005) suggest history and literature were tightly weaved together until the early nineteenth century when Ranke introduced a more scientific, objective approach to history. Ranke was publically against the writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, who “knowingly created historical portraits that contradicted historical evidence.” (Curthoys & Docker 2005) In Shakespeare’s time, the merging of events from annals or chronicles to serve a present purpose was commonplace, and Shakespeare frequently pillaged historical records for his plays. For example, the story of a manipulative Scottish queen was taken from a century prior to Macbeth’s reign (Friedlander 2002). The chroniclers of these histories were also biased (or perhaps, simply patriotic), and Wells (2002) points out in her online article that Northumbrian monks were English, and could not be expected to be “impartial when Malcolm […] defeated Macbeth and (theoretically) stopped the threat of Scottish invasion.” (Wells 2002)
So why would Shakespeare choose to introduce two fictional characters and remove Macbeth’s step-son who would become a King of Scotland? The simple answer, and probably the most probable, is that it served his purpose. Banquo is portrayed by Shakespeare as the father of a long line of kings, which was revealed to be the Stuart line, so his inclusion in the play is directly related to pleasing the current king, James I. Shakespeare had to earn money and royal favour, and had done so with the reign of Elizabeth I, most notably in Midsummer Nights Dream. By creating the noble character of Banquo, who is perhaps the only truly honourable and faultless male character in the play, Shakespeare honours his new king.
As for Lulach, his absence serves Shakespeare’s need for an evil counterpart to Banquo. Lady Macbeth suggests that she would beat the brains of her child rather than break a promise, and constant criticisms of Macbeth’s lack of manhood pepper the play. The absence of children in Macbeth’s household shows them to be sterile and unworthy, while the other ‘hero’ of the play, Macduff, has a wife and many children. Taking Lulach out of the play, and out of history, robs Macbeth (and moreso Lady Macbeth) of humanity, which again serves Shakespeare’s purpose: entertainment and an exploration of unbridled ambition.
So, in the absence of needing to please a king, what is my purpose for writing this story? It is not to tell the ‘true’ history of Macbeth. That has been done before. I am not interested in a “revisionist history” (Wells 2002) of the places, people and events. There have been innumerable investigations into Scottish history and genealogies. When approaching this idea I was, as Falconer (2006) suggests, “frightened by history [… with …] no room to move.” In the world of Shakespeare scholars and fanatical keepers of Scottish history I certainly had a “fear of getting history ‘wrong’.” (Falconer 2006) Morris Gleitzman, on a panel at this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival, talked about the need to restrict a character (and subsequently, a book’s) perspective on history, that it is not essential for all of history to be included in an historical story. And so my interest fell on to characters rather than events, pulling the weight of history to one side so I could look at the people underneath.
I wanted to focus on the fictional character of Fleance and the forgotten character of Lulach, to explore, in the words of Drusilla Modjeska, “the silent, forgotten stories […] the omissions and slippages.” (Modjeska 1990) Originally I had planned to include another minor character from the play, Young Siward: the unfortunate son of the English commander who is killed by Macbeth. I imagined the three young characters caught in the events of their time, each one of them being the child of someone with power but who individually had none of their own. It also fit well with the love-triangle trope, Fleance caught between love for a Scottish man and an English one.
I deliberately changed Shakespeare’s Fleance from being the son of Banquo to being his headstrong and proud daughter. I believed that given her fictional origins one more tweak of her character would be ‘poetic’, illustrating the blurred edges between fact and fiction when recounting historical stories. And from casting Fleance as a girl, recently orphaned, it was an easy step to introduce her as Lulach’s unrequited or unconsummated love interest. Given that Fleance’s role in the original play was to flee to Wales and then begin a long line of worthy kings, I thought it might be interesting to play with the idea that Fleance may have arrived in Wales already pregnant, the father of the child being Macbeth’s stepson. Oh, the irony!
In planning the story it became clear that given the word limit I would be relying on a lot of silences and allusions to events and characters from the past and the future which, although they do not appear in the story, they certainly lend a weight and presence to the meeting between Lulach and Fleance.
I was tremendously influenced by Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’, especially her focus on humanising the historical figures, of setting them up as ‘real people’ with flaws and hopes, rather than a sequence of dates and memorable actions. I was also influenced by Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ which dealt with the sins of the father and illustrated how the past can impact on the present. I extended this, or attempted to, by having the future lay heavily on Lulach too; his reign as king lasted only four months before he was murdered.
In structuring my story I relied on Bakhtin’s concept of chronotopes which serve as the “primary point from which ‘scenes’ in a novel unfold.” (Bakhtin 1994) His chronotopes of encounter, specifically ‘the road’ allows for “a point of new departures and a place for events to find their denouement.” (Bakhtin 1994) The story takes place on a road outside of Dunfermline, a “good place for random encounters” (Bakhtin 1994), where Lulach and Fleance both face their futures. Fleance leaves her old life behind and begins a new one in Wales where she will, eventually, begin the Stuart line of kings. Lulach cannot follow (for how can he follow a fictional character when his own history beckons him back to Dunsinane?) and finds himself experiencing a kind of denouement of his life with her – everything they have experienced together, from being pulled out of the river by her father to childish games and haltering love, has ended because he can’t follow her, because he can’t throw off the expectations and responsibility of history.
The workshopping feedback reinforced the problem I had in framing the story as self-contained rather than relying on an extended narrative. Like most people in the course, I think, I found it difficult to judge how much history to include and how much to leave in the hands of the reader. I introduced a flashback scene in italics to recount the first meeting of Lulach and Fleance which hopefully highlighted his unfortunate nature (struggling in the river of history) and his inability to really control his fate. By showing the beginning and the end of their relationship I hoped to give the story a bit more structure, or perhaps a pair of bookends to frame the encounter.
The progress of the course also threw up some interesting and frustrating curve-balls, as while I had begun my story with the brilliant writing of Mantel in mind, each week I was introduced to different approaches to historical writing, from the fragmented and intellectual writings of Barnes, to the hijinks and impossible coincidences of Marcus Clarke or the dual narrative of Schlink’s ‘The Reader’. I could have started my story again with any of these frameworks, but decided to maintain the course with Mantel’s influence and the concept of the chronotopes.
Hal Porter wrote in his autobiography that “the dead wear no ears that hear and have no tongues to inform.” (Porter 1993) While this is true, it is perhaps even more so for fictional characters. Fleance and Lulach, one fictionalised and one forgotten by Shakespeare, serve as key characters to explore the themes of historical fiction, to emphasise the story over the sequence of dates and events. While they cannot hear what I’ve written, nor inform it through their own voices, I hope that my short encounter can illustrate the position many people find themselves in when it comes to history – no matter how strongly we feel or live in the present, we may all be forgotten or misinterpreted, wrongfully remembered or deified by those who come after us.
Lulach’s father was murdered by Macbeth, who was then himself murdered, leaving Lulach the King of Scotland for less than four months until he was similarly dispatched by yet another ambitious warlord. Surely that cannot be the sum and total story of his life. In the short story, Banquo reflects the idea that Lulach is a casualty of history, or time and circumstance.
This is not your time.
Bakhtin, M (1994) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, University of Texas Press, Austin (translator: Emerson, C & Holquist, M).
Colville, I (2012) Lulach, Kings of Scots[online] On this Day in Scotland, Available: <http://iainthepict.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/lulach-king-of-scots.html>
Curthoys, A & Docker, J (2005) Is History Fiction?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Fairclough, P (ed.) (1986) Three Gothic Novels, Penguin, London.
Falconer, D (2006) ‘Historical Fiction’ in Walker, B (ed.) (2006) The Writer’s Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry, Halstead Press, Sydney.
Friedlander, E (2002) Enjoying “Macbeth”, by William Shakespeare[online] Available: <http://www.pathguy.com/macbeth.htm>
Modjeska, D (1990) Poppy, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne.
Porter, H (1993) The Watcher on a Cast-Iron Balcony, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia.
Shakespeare, W (2008) Macbeth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Wells, C (2002)Bloody Tyrant or Benevolent King: Will the Real Macbeth Please Stand Up?[online] Available: <http://www.sff.net/people/catherine-wells/interp.htm>
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