I’ve read Macbeth a number of times and seen it live as well, including an amazing production in the ruins of Ludlow Castle. If you come at it just as a reader of fiction, it seems to exist in that ancient never never time of mystery and maybe was and probably wasn’t… along with figures like King Lear and King Arthur.
Only, it turns out that Macbeth is a real, historical person who existed at a period of great significance for the British and that his history would have had resonance for Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience.
Mercedes Rochelle picks up on one of the conundrums in Macbeth. For the modern reader/ audience, it’s a bit of an oddity that Macbeth is told he will be King, while his friend Banquo is told he will have heirs who are kings. This apparently drives Macbeth mad with jealousy and leads to him later murdering his friend (sorry if that was a Macbeth spoiler, but it’s where Heir to a Prophecy starts). Banquo’s son Fleance flees for his life, and disappears out of the play. If you don’t know what Shakespeare was alluding to here, then the fact that Fleance is not the chap who shows up to take the throne at the end, rather suggests Macbeth’s witches were having a bit of a laugh, and that Banquo’s bit of prophecy was not truth, but a way of getting him killed. The witches seem to be manifestation of chaos and malevolence, if you don’t know the history.
What Mercedes Rochelle does, is takes us into the history, known and mythologized, of the Stuart line. The line of Kings that led to James the 1st, the intended audience for the play. Many of the characters from Macbeth are visible in this tale. We find out what happened to Macolm, Seward, MacDuff, and others. Shakespeare took actions that lasted more than a decade and condensed them down into five acts. Mercedes puts the time scales back in, following the journey of Fleance, and then his son Walter, to unravel the threads of fate that do indeed seem to make Banquo an ancestor of kings. It is a fascinating tale, blending fiction, fact and myth into a very convincing whole.
While Macbeth murders his way to the top, one Harold Godwineson is wangling for position as the aging King Edward fails to produces a Saxon heir, and on the continent, William of Normandy looks hungrily to the north. What follows is, of course, epic, and will change the face of England forever.
Readers of historical fiction will love this book. If you tend towards fantasy then the mix of supernatural influence, castle building, backstabbing politics and epic battles could easily tempt you out of your usual genre.
On that supernatural subject, Mercedes takes the implication of the Wyrd Sisters, and runs with it. The name alone makes it clear that these three women were never meant to be a random trio of witches, but a manifestation of the three Fates, or Norms, of Norse mythology. They hark back to more Pagan times, but Britain pre-Norman conquest had not entirely forgotten its ancestral roots. The England Shakespeare wrote for, probably largely had, while James the 1st is the monarch responsible for changing the Bible’s ‘thou shall not allow a poisoner to live’ to ‘thou shall not allow a witch to live’. He does seem to have been aware of Pagan and occult influences, and deeply troubled by them, which in turn begs some interesting questions about what Shakespeare intended in all of this.