Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney


This is a very entertaining read, with the legendary Lady Macbeth shown here as Cora, a spirited young woman kidnapped on the evening of her wedding to her childhood sweetheart Macbeth, forced to marry another man, and abused by both him and his brother before her eventual rescue by and reunion with Macbeth, after which she becomes a strong queen but certainly not the nasty piece of work depicted by Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Duncan, shown by Shakespeare as an elderly man, is shown here, more accurately, as being about the same age as Macbeth; and his wife Sybill plays a major role in the book.

It’s difficult to comment on the history, partly because it’s not an area with which I’m all that familiar and partly because there are so many gaps in the historical record, and what sources there are contradict each other; but, from what I gather, this is far closer to the known facts than anything Shakespeare wrote about the subject was. Macbeth didn’t murder Duncan, and there was no prominent Macduff in this period. And there were certainly no witches or ghosts: it seems that they were shoved in to please James I and VI, who was a) obsessed with witch-hunting and b) thought to be related to a figure called Banquo who featured heavily in “Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland”, from which Shakespeare got a lot of his historical “information”. It’s a good read in its own right, and it also sets the reader thinking about the many ways in which Shakespeare’s distorted popular views of history. I don’t think Ricardians have a good word to say for the man!

The basis of the book is the rivalry for the throne between two different branches of the royal family of Alba (the word “Scotland” wouldn’t have been used in Alba/Scotland at that time), due to a system in which the succession alternated between the different branches, but it’s more about personalities than politics – although, inevitably, there’s a lot of violence. The characters, including a number of minor but essential characters, are very well fleshed out, with the two main female characters at the heart of the action, there are some wonderful descriptions of homes and landscapes, and everyone seems to be rather obsessed with whisky!

It’s hard to go looking for historical accuracy because there’s so much that we just don’t know, and Scottish readers may well be annoyed that most of the names have been Anglicised, but I did really enjoy it. As for Shakespeare, well, he wasn’t trying to be a history teacher, and he could never have dreamt that his work would become so well-known that it would still be giving people the wrong impression over 400 years after his death! But the role of “Holinshed’s Chronicles” is fascinating: they were the source of a lot of the stuff Shakespeare used, but they’re virtually unknown. Having said which, they aren’t to blame for the liberties that Shakespeare took with Roman history, nor with Danish history!

I love Joanna Courtney’s idea of trying to reclaim the real history behind Shakespeare’s plays.  The Wars of the Roses have received a lot of attention in recent years, but the Macbeth era certainly hasn’t.  And she’s now written a book about Ophelia.  Another one for the Amazon wishlist!