Northward bound and heading home, we resume, plunging deep in story. Is this a dagger that I see before me. We listen. Shakespeare’s drama we know well, but Macbeth the novel is a revelation: fierce winters, the geography of Scotland and its castles, politics and how power corrupts. Inverness, a fortress castle, inhospitable. The hour after midnight. A wolf howls, and an owl shrieks high in the keep where the king lies in his chamber.
Stealthy, irresolute, Macbeth climbs the stone stairway spiralling up to the chamber where his guest is sleeping. Interminable the hour, before murder hurls him headlong down, dragging Scotland with him.
11th century Scotland. Clans at each others throats and the threat from Norway, Vikings intent on invasion, plunder, and settlement. In an era of warrior king and lord, Duncan’s thanes fight his battles for him. This king is weak, not the leader Scotland needs. The Norwegians look set to overwhelm his battle-weary men – until Macbeth remembers his wife’s skill with herbs and the power of belladonna. His good friend Banquo is witness and will remember how the Vikings were drugged, the battle over before it began.
When Duncan is murdered, Banquo sees crushed berries at the bottom of a spilt flask of wine and Macbeth’s regicide is clear. The knowledge seals Banquo’s fate. Canny plotting here.
‘ I have drugged their possets.’ The bella donna motif echoes through the novel. And as Macbeth and his wife wash the body of the murdered king that image of blood- stained hands is pre-figured.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Macbeth the novel is compelling but Shakespeare’s voice is incomparable. What it is to be English and claim this dramatist for ours!
The listening experience is rarely more intense than on a journey. There are no distractions. Landscape, weather and season flash by and images of our day fuse with the reading; the arcane power of mistletoe, louring skies and hail, the lurid light. Once upon a time, in girlhood, the journey through each English town showed its castle dominant- a journey through English history. Motorways are less immediate, distancing.
How do we choose our leaders? And what qualities do we look to find in them? The question resonates through Macbeth and with a general election on 8th June 2017 it is pertinent.
From the moment Lady Macbeth crushes berries of deadly nightshade and mixes them with wine, from the moment Macbeth climbs that spiral staircase, those hallucinatory berries do their work. Not only on the chosen victims. Bella donna has unpredictable effects. Things unravel in ways we none of us foresee.
Macbeth the novel: A.J Hartley and David Hewson