Here's to the ladies who lunch and to the lady who didn't exist

This goes to show the great difference between fact and fiction -- but I have only now realized that Lady Macbeth had a Scottish accent. It must be that a host of impressive English actresses have left their mark. I should hasten to add that this discovery is not because, since moving up to Scotland, I have encountered many (or even any) Scottish women who bear much resemblance to the friendlike Queen. (I don't want to be escorted back over the border to the accompaniment of drums and bagpipes.) It's just that somehow I've always pictured her as belonging to England, or to all nations, or to no nation at all. She might as easily come from downtown Tokyo, from the upper reaches of the Himalayas, the middle of Pleasantville, New York, or the outskirts of Slough, that highly impossible, universal lady: anywhere or everywhere, I suppose she is , in fact, further evidence that Shakespeare was antifeminist. (At this point, my editor protested vociferously in the name of Shakespeare.) In any event, she is Kipling's nightmare premonition: "For the female of the species is more deadly than the male."

But there's no getting away from the fact that her surname does begin with "Mac." she is a Scot. The Thane of Fife's wife, let the bitter fact be acknowledged, is one of "Jock Tamson's bairns." It has taken me a move to this country to realize that, and also to receive another amazing piece of information about her. Of course living abroad does render one a little credulous, but I must admit that when I was told, authoritatively, that Lady Macbeth was in reality not only Scottish but a good, gentle, Christian woman, I wondered slightly at the extremes to which Scottish Nationalist propaganda can go. Wasn't even Shakespeare safe? How could such a dire, taunting, callous creature as Macbeth's spouse be described as benevolent and mild? Was she, in the weird North-of-the-Border light, to be seen as plumb full of the milk of human kindness -- la creme,m as Miss Jean Brodie would say, de la creme?m

The only trouble was that I didn't receive this from a Scot: it was from an expatriate Englishman. (Of course they do make the toughest Scottish Nationalists of all.) As it turned out in the end, he was talking about the realm Lady Mac, the original Queen about whom Shakespeare seems to have been grossly misinformed by political expediency and prejudicial tradition. She,m the Englishman told me, was indeed genuinely nice to know. . . .

It only goes to prove the great difference between fact and fiction. And when you think of it, Shakespeare was emphatically a writer of fiction; he wrote in a style for fiction, for the realm where a poet's imagination is at liberty and at large. His "Lady Macbeth' is downright fiction. She (we hope) is outside the realm of human possibility: she is diabolical. And she speaks in ways that her real counterpart, aside from her factual decency, would never have spoken.

But it is because of the fiction writer's license, as well as the rich, intense persistence of this particular one's language, that her character has fascinated people for centuries in a way that a biographically accurate portrait would never have done. Fact can take quite a beating from fiction. Stranger than fiction it may somestimes be, but it isn't often stronger. Fiction has a way of entering the head persuasively. Dull facts need to be learned. Perhaps this is why, paradoxically, we like to dress up fact as fiction. It seems that we must not only hear but be movedm by facts, to become convinced of them. (Josephine Tey, not without significance, used the context of a detective story, a popular mold of today's fiction, to attempt to reverse the old notion of a wicked King Richard III. She used the language, the style, of fiction to put across what she was sure was the fact.)

Perhaps someone should try (or has already tried?) to rescue the real Lady Macbeth's reputation. Yet had she been alive when the Tudor players first presented her on stage, and had libel been punishable by law, I can't help wondering if she would have had any effective grounds for complaint. After all, Shakespeare was not exactly writing a fictionalized biography -- "faction" as it is tagged today. It wasn't Lady Macbeth's life story dramatized for television, facts reassorted for popular entertainment. He might well have argued in front of the judge that his Lady Macbeth bears so little relationship to her namesake as to be an entirely different order of being. How could anyone confuse this horror of the boards for such a paragon of virtue? Besides, his invented Queen is so obviously not a Scot . . . !m Who knows, he might just have got away with i t.

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