Year of a Hundred books – #13 Macbeth: A True Story

Macbeth: A True StoryMacbeth: A True History, by Fiona Watson

4/5

This something a little different for me. Not only is Macbeth: A True History, not fiction, but it’s also not entirely history.

Writing medieval history in a way that is accessible to a wide audience is notoriously difficult, especially in somewhere as scant in the sources as Scotland. There is all too often a tendency to clutch at straws, or to make one too many assumptions about the subject to create a coherent narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a trained historian it does make me cringe when Fiona Watson glosses over what she identifies as the key points of Macbeths’ reign with fictionalised prose.

This, and a few historiographic issues I disagree with, Macbeth: A True History is actually a good read. It gives a really clear run down of the unification of the Scottish kingdoms and explains a lot of things much more clearly than some of my lecturers did (one of whom is even cited as a source in the book). Of course, the narrative is always conscious of the Shakespearean take on Macbeth, and there are frequent references throughout the texts to Jacobean society or the sources Shakespeare used. This is only to be expected, but it does seem as though Watson has gone too far into revisionism, veering almost into hagiography for the king.

Five years of university education have conditioned me to be inherently sceptical of anything that tries to portray itself as a “True History”, and I’d hesitate to cite this in an academic context, but as a good popular history book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.

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