Friday, June 19, 2015

MacBeth in film, drama and wargaming

MacBeth has been hovering at the edge of my awareness lately for several reasons.  Perhaps it is the upcoming movie with Fassbender, which seems to be as much influenced by Game of Thrones and TV's Vikings as by William Shakespeare.

MacBeth in History and Shakespeare 

MacBeth as history has taught us, was a Scottish lord, who received a prophecy from three witches that he would one day be King of Scotland. Slowly descending into madness, he murdered his king, and many others, friend and foe alike, at the urging of his power hungry wife. Shortly thereafter, he was killed by the rightful heir and an army of men wearing Dark Age ghillie suits.  

Right?...Not exactly, but it does speak to the power of Shakespeare in particular and literature in general to alter our perceptions of history.  In discussions I have had with Lit teachers, it is fair to say that a number of them take Shakespeare's plays for more or less accurate representations of events. Sure, Julius Caesar was really killed in a theater and not in the Senate, but the deed and perpetrators played out on stage as it did in reality. Similar discrepancies from history can be found in Antony and Cleopatra, the Henry cycle, but to suggest that MacBeth was a good king and hardly the murderous madman the Bard depicts goes against even their broadest interpretation of artistic license. 

MacBeth or Mac Bethad mac Findl√°ich, was born in the early eleventh century. The monarch of Scotland through much of the period was Malcolm II, whose long reign was made possible by the strategic marriages of his several daughters to powerful families in Scotland and the Orkneys.  Some sources place Macbeth as being born from one of these marriages eventually elevating himself to be the lord of Moray. Thus, after Malcolm's death and the succession of his grandson Duncan to the throne, Macbeth found himself as a vassal to his cousin. For reasons not quite clear, Duncan invades Moray and was killed. Either because of his victory or his blood descent from Malcolm, MacBeth was elected High King in 1040. His reign was long and stable, enough that he was able to go on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050. A few years late he was challenged by Duncan's son Malcolm, and the king met his death in battle in 1054. Malcolm did not become king immediately, for he had to kill MacBeth's stepson Lulach.  After accomplishing this task, Malcolm was installed as King Malcolm III.

Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Macbeth premiered around 1606, a few years after the coronation of the Scottish King James. Not coincidentally, England's new monarch affected Shakespeare's writing in some very specific ways.  Obviously, the Scottish setting was the most important, so much so that superstitious actors sometimes refer to MacBeth as "The Scottish Play."  Furthermore, one of James' ancestors and MacBeth's victims is flatteringly depicted. 

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

The Witches of MacBeth by RAFM. The CD-base diorama was  mostly sculpted from Miliput and flocked.
The most intriguing influence by King James on Shakespeare's MacBeth is inclusion of the three witches in the first scene. King James was fascinated by the study of witchcraft and he even wrote a text on identifying witches called Daemonologie. Shakespeare was certainly playing to the contemporary interest in witches when he made them a major part of his story. Highly recommended is the 2010 Patrick Stewart adaption of the play which modernizes the setting and show the three witches as hospital nurses. 

Macbeth - beyond Shakespeare

King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett - a book I try to re-read every couple of years.  It's massive in scope, and ambitiously proposes that MacBeth and Thorfinn of Orkney were not cousins, nor half-brothers, but the same person. It is not a literary gimmick, and the author genuinely believed it to be true based upon her interpretation of the various sources in her research. Thematically, the novel covers the end of the Viking Age, the decline of paganism and the incorporation of the northern European hinterlands into the realm of Christendom.

Macbeth the King, by Nigel Tranter - A straightforward historical account of Macbeth's rise and fall. Tranter is no great stylist or revisionist, but there is an efficiency in his prose and his prolific output is nothing to sneer at.

Macbeth in SAGA

The official mini for MacBeth is huge (over 32mm), as are most of the SAGA line's hero character. Below, a comparison shot with a Crusader mini (left) and a Reaper Barbarian.  The scale of most of Gripping Beast's Hero characters are more in line with current fantasy ranges. 

As a named hero, MacBeth is fairly typical in abilities, with little chance of game-breaking especially if paired off against another hero. 

Hero of the Viking Age. MacBeth generates three SAGA dice.  This is mandatory if I play a hero character. If I spend a point on a hero, I need the extra dice. I admit that I am not a skilled enough player to make use of special heroes who generate less dice, but have other abilities to compensate.

Norman Exiles. One unit of eight hearthguard can be mounted Norman knights. A number of these served in MacBeth when the Godwin's began to exert more control over the Norman favoring English king Edward. This is perhaps the earliest example of the Scottish-French alliance against their English rivals.

Great Ruler. As long as MacBeth is on the table, you always roll six SAGA dice. A great power, but doesn't it make his three SAGA dice ability irrelevant? Another minor ability in place of Hero would be better.

A six point Scot warband led by MacBeth:


  1. I know it has been awhile since I've posted, Skip. I'll correct that soon. We need to game again soon, I've yet to play a Crescent and Cross scenario.

  2. Hi Alan! I have my Moors ready. They are always looking for a fight. Good to see you back!!