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Tracing Shakespeare's Macbeth in Scotland

June 19, 1988|BERNARD J. GOLBUS | Golbus is a free-lance writer living in Chicago

INVERNESS, Scotland — The search for the reconciliation of Shakespeare's Macbeth with history's dissimilarities is an absorbing adventure. History records his life, citing contradictory facts and events. The inconsistencies do not imply confrontation to the Macbeth of Shakespeare; they merely confirm his greatness as a playwright.

The Shakespearean narrative is easily traced through the northeastern Highlands on Route A96. This major highway originates in Inverness, but it is no accident that the 40 miles of A96 flanking the east coast of Moray Firth from Inverness to Elgin covers the first part of Macbeth's life.

He was born in Dingwall, 14 miles northwest of Inverness on Route A855. It is a busy community today at the head of Cromarty Firth; in Macbeth's time (mid-11th Century) it was a debarkation point for raiding Norsemen.

But it is the aura of grim portent pervading the stretch from Inverness to Elgin that forms ideal stage settings for the moods of the drama and the theatrics of its beginning.

Still Enriched by Myths

Macbeth and Banquo are startled by the sudden materialization of the three weird sisters while on their way to King Duncan's castle at Forres. This "blasted heath" of the witches is at Macbeth's Hill, about six miles west of Forres past Brodie Castle and 26 miles northwest of Inverness on Route A96.

The pleasant town of Forres is still enriched by its myths. While any evidence of Duncan's 11th-Century castle has long disappeared, the site is marked by a monument of another age. There is also an elaborate sculpted obelisk, Sueno's Stone, whose date and meaning are obscure.

But it is Shakespeare's association of Forres with Macbeth and the witches that forges a sense of place to this quiet town. It's quite easy to walk along High Street and vividly imagine the dire prophesies of the weird sisters as they shrill to Macbeth: "Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!"

While some contend that Duncan was murdered by Macbeth at Cawdor Castle, others disagree with equal conviction. Some knowledgeable historians, however, speculate that the Thanes of Cawdor sprang from Macbeth's younger brother. And there is evidence of a much earlier Old Castle a mile northeast of the present one.

The present Cawdor Castle is 16 miles south of Forres, its severe fortified walls rising in sharp contrast to the brilliant colors of its gardens. While Macbeth's presence in Cawdor may be in question, it is possible to conceive the savage times of his age within these walls.

Exquisite Drawing Room

The ground floor of the tower with its hidden dungeon may have been a prison room or a torture chamber. A 600-year-old Hawthorne tree forces itself from the stone floor.

The exquisite drawing room and its paintings trace the Cawdor ancestry. In an elegant bedroom, walls are hung with Flemish tapestries depicting biblical scenes.

A small yellow sitting room and the handsome dining room with paneled tapestries of Cervantes' Don Quixote certainly do not reflect Macbeth's era. But neither does Macbeth's reputed castle at Inverness.

Macbeth's 11th-Century stronghold where Shakespeare indicates that Duncan was murdered is not the Inverness Castle of today. This early 19th-Century redstone structure houses government offices.

Local historians place Macbeth's original castle just east of the present one. It is not surprising, however, that countless critics deny that Macbeth killed Duncan at Inverness.

Despite the ambiguities, Inverness is a lovely Victorian-style city astride the outlet to Loch Ness. As capital of the Highlands, it has played a significant part in the history of Scotland.

Because Inverness is so irrevocably bound to the life of Macbeth, both dramatically and historically, that legendary figure enjoys a predominant place in the city's heart. Still another hero is Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

History often refers to the prince as Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was this pretender to the Stuart line who lost the Battle of Culloden to the British in 1746, the last land battle in Britain. Weeks before the battle, the Young Pretender stayed at Culloden House, one mile from the battlefield and six miles east of Inverness.

Culloden House is the property of Ian and Marjory Mackenzie and represents one of the finest inns in Scotland. Ian Mackenzie, hotelier cum Scottish historian, has a sense of humor that is as dry as kindling. He is an authority on the Battle of Culloden and knowledgeable about the life of Macbeth.

"Shakespeare did a hatchet job on Macbeth," Mackenzie said. "Actually, Macbeth killed Duncan properly in battle and the story of Macbeth and his wife, Lady Gruoch, has been hopelessly twisted. Macbeth was not a murderer but a king who fell victim to his turbulent country, not to his ambition.

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