August 15, 1057 The Real Macbeth

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but one thing is certain. Shakespeare’s Macbeth bears little resemblance to the man, for whom the story is named.

Them that strut and fret their hours upon the stage are a superstitious lot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to the Bard for that bit of word butchery).

In the world of theater it is high praise to present the performer with flowers, in token of appreciation for a fine performance. Be warned though, never give a performer flowers, before the play. That would bring bad luck. Never bringing a mirror on stage may be more practical than superstitious as you can never account for the reflection of set lighting, but then there’s the tradition, of the graveyard bouquet. Yeah. When a production closes, it is considered good luck to steal flowers from a graveyard and present them, to the director. Go figure. And whatever you do you are never to utter the name, Macbeth. Trust me. It’s “ the Scottish play”.

Act I. General Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, chances upon three witches who prophecy that he, Macbeth, is to be Thane of Cawdor and even more, King of Scotland.

Spurred on by his wife the ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth, he slips into the bedchamber of the good King Duncan and plunges the dagger, then frames the King’s bodyguards, for his murder. Now himself King in fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth and his Lady descend into a world of guilt and madness, duplicity and murder in the fruitless attempt to cover for his crime.

So sayeth William Shakespeare but what of the real Mac Bethad mac Findlaích?

11th century Alba

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but some things are certain. 11th century Scotland was not the nation we know today, but a collection of warring kingdoms. Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II) came to power after defeating and killing his cousin King Kenneth III in 1005 at the battle of Monzievaird, near Crieff.

Malcolm was a fearsome ruler who immediately set about eliminating (read…killing), potential claimants to the throne. Information is scant but Malcolm appears to have fathered, three daughters. All three married well giving rise to yet more rivals but it was Duncan, Malcolm‘s grandson who would rise to power after his grandfather was killed in battle, in 1034.

Macbeth’s cousin murdered his father Findlaích and took for himself the title of Mormaer (Earl), when the boy was barely in his teens. Macbeth had his revenge in 1045 when found his cousin in a hall, with fifty of his warriors. Macbeth burnt the place to the ground, took the title for himself and, astonishingly, married his cousin’s widow, Gruoch.

The first Scottish Queen whose name we actually know, the real Lady Macbeth turns out to be hardly the avaricious harpy of the Bard’s portrayal but a saintly woman, best known for funding the production of illustrated manuscripts by the monks of a tiny friary, in Loch Leven.

Now himself Mormaer of Moray Macbeth proved a powerful fighter against the Vikings coming down from the north and a key ally, of King Duncan.

Duncan I ruled for five years and was indeed killed by Macbeth, but there the similarity ends. Duncan’s peaceful accession to the crown was the exception to the rule in 11th century Scotland. His death in battle was not, the killing blow delivered on August 14, 1040 at the battle of Pitgaveny, at the hands of Macbeth’s forces if not Macbeth, himself.

Victorious, Macbeth had a strong claim to the crown. According to modern descendants of clan Duncan stronger than Duncan, himself. The real lady Macbeth was the granddaughter, of Kenneth III. Macbeth was a direct relation to Malcolm himself, through his mother’s line. So it is the powerful Mormaer of Moray himself became King, ruling over Scotland, for the next seventeen years.

Scottish coronations were different at this time, than you might think. There was no physical crown, that wouldn’t come about, for another 200 years. Macbeth would have sat upon the 236-pound “Stone of Destiny” as the list of Scottish Kings, was read aloud. He was then given a sword with which to defend his kingdom and proclaimed King, by the assembled nobles.

While Shakespeare’s Macbeth was steeped in blood and treachery, the real King Macbeth seems to have been, well liked. There was blood, yes, Macbeth lived in a time of savagery when scores were settled with edged weapons but, much of his reign, was enjoyed in peace. Like the Bard’s Macbeth whose past would come back to haunt him, Duncan I’s father, Crinán, abbot of Dunkeld challenged the peace, in 1045. This was a brief but bloody struggle much smaller than the epoch-changing battle of Hastings, ten years after the death of Macbeth. When it was over Crinán lay dead along with 180 of his followers.

Macbeth was the first of the Scottish Kings to take a pilgrimage to Rome, to meet with Pope Leo IX. This demonstrates not only a sense of security against usurpers at home but the wealth, to scatter “money like seed to the poor”. For the first time a United Scotland, stood before the world.

Macbeth was the first to bring Normans into his service in 1052 indicating a new openness, to international trade.

Trouble came from the south in the form of Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumbria, a Danish chieftain who rose to power under the Viking King of England , Cnut the Great. The year was 1054, the battle taking place north of the Firth of Forth near a place called Dunsinane. When it was over 3,000 of Macbeth’s forces were dead. Siward lost 1,500 and his own son, Osbjorn.

Early 19th-century depiction by John Martin of Mac Bethad (centre-right) watching Siward’s Northumbrian army approaching (right)

His Norman mercenaries now eliminated Macbeth was forced to give up, much of his southern Kingdom. Macbeth retained his kingship for now his reign came to an end a year later near Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. The son of the man Macbeth had killed some seventeen years earlier came for his father’s killer on August 15, 1057.

Macbeth, King of Alba, was dead. Malcolm III Canmore would rule through the Norman Conquests until he himself was ambushed and killed, in 1093.

March 14, 1805 A Candle in the Wind

Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Accomplished as he was with the violin, cello, piano and guitar, Adam Liszt was a natural musician, a personal friend of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven. It was natural that Adam’s young son Franz would take to music, like a duck to water. That he did, beginning at the age of seven. Franz Liszt would come to be known as one of the greatest pianists of all time, but there was more. In an age of staid reserve not known for mass hysteria, the man’s mere appearance was capable of exciting paroxysms of adulation among his fans, heretofore rarely seen outside the realm of religious rapture.

Fans wore the man’s likeness in brooches and pendants. At concerts, women would literally fight to get at his gloves or his hat or even a broken piano string from which to fashion a bracelet. Female admirers would carry glass vials, in which to hold the dregs of his coffee. One infatuated lady-in-waiting once saw him toss a cigar butt, to the curb. Heedless of the stink of that malodorous object she picked the thing up and wore it in a locket bearing the diamond encrusted initials, F.L.

Franz Liszt in 1858

The German poet Heinrich Heine coined the phrase “Lisztomania” but this wasn’t the hysterical adulation directed at four lads from Liverpool, of a later age. Heine referred to a literal medical condition communicable to the public and requiring immunization measures, to control.

Frenzied adulation amounting to mass hysteria was unusual in the time of Franz Liszt, but not unheard of. The delirium of an earlier age would so thoroughly sweep through Great Britain that not even the Royal family, was exempt.

William Betty, the ‘Boy Wonder”

It all began in 1802 when William Henry West Betty attended a theater with his father in Belfast, at age 11. The boy was enthralled by what he had seen declaring to his father “I shall certainly die if I may not be a player.”

Anyone who’s raised a pre-teen can well imagine the badgering, that followed. At last relenting the father brought young “Master Betty” to the theater manager who must have seen some natural talent. There followed several weeks of training and that first performance, met with rave reviews.

Shakespearian acting is famously difficult in the world of thespians but Betty was a natural, even memorizing the famously wordy role of Hamlet, in three hours.

Hamlet. Romeo. Macbeth. The Boy Wonder trod the boards from Dublin to Glasgow to Edinburgh becoming a sensation across all Ireland, and Scotland.

Paintings were made in his likeness. One cartoon depicted the young artist bestriding the bodies of older players, of the age. A medal was struck with the lad’s image and the inscription, “Not yet mature but matchless”.

The kid was earning a hundred pounds a night at a time when the average working man was lucky to receive one, in a week.

All across England, the kid was a sensation. He was “the Young Roscius”, a reference to the slave-turned-actor of Roman antiquity who inspired Quintus Lutatius Catulus to proclaim, “I stood by chance to greet the uprising Aurora, when suddenly, on the left, Roscius rose up. Please, o heavenly gods, give me leave to say that a mortal seemed to me more handsome than a god“.

At last, Master Betty was ready for London. Hopeful theater goers stood in line for hours just to get tickets in December, 1804. The Covent Garden theater hired policemen to control the crowd waiting outside to catch a glimpse, of the Boy Wonder. One reporter wrote: “Shrieks and screams of choking, trampled people were terrible. Fights for places grew; constables were beaten back, the boxes were invaded. The heat was so fearful that men, all but lifeless, were lifted and dragged through the boxes into the lobbies which had windows.”

Betty was celebrated by London society, invited to dine with none other than King George III and his wife, the Queen Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The House of Commons was adjourned on March 14, 1805 so MPs could trek across London to see Betty play Hamlet.

In his short but meteoric career, Master Betty inspired a rash of child prodigies. For the Boy Wonder, the flame was destined to burn out. The novelty was gone, he couldn’t draw large enough crowds, to pay for the venue.

In 1806, a failed performance of Richard III caused him to be hissed, off the stage. Critics panned an attempted comeback in 1812 and another in 1819. There was a failed suicide attempt at the age of 30.

On September 6, 1997, Elton John performed “A Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Princess Diana, a song about the meteoric rise and the tragic death, of Marilyn Monroe. For William Betty the candle blew out in 1824. Like so many child prodigies, this one retired to a life of lonely obscurity where he devoted his time and still-considerable fortune, to charitable causes. He died with barely a notice on August 24, 1874, at the age of 83.