Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 223
Isabelle Schuler’s debut novel Queen Hereafter attempts to fill in a backstory for Lady Macbeth. The book takes place in 11th century Scotland, where a king’s reign tended to be short and brutal. For her version of Lady M, Schuler didn’t rely on Shakespeare or his source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Instead, she looked to the annals and sagas that predate Holinshed. There, Schuler found Gruoch, who married Macbethad (the historical Macbeth) after her first husband died. Schuler talks with Barbara Bogaev about how she filled in the gaps of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Queen Hereafter is available now from Harper Perennial.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 21, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: On this week’s episode, a novel imagines the life of Lady Macbeth… before the play opens.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
There are as many versions of Lady Macbeth as there are actors—or readers—interpreting the part. The play’s ambiguity encourages us to consider all the ways this character could have arrived at her murderous ambition.
The debut novel by Isabelle Schuler attempts to fill in a backstory for Lady Macbeth. Titled Queen Hereafter, the novel takes place in 11th-century Scotland, where a king’s reign tended to be short and brutal.
For her version of Lady Macbeth, Schuler didn’t rely on Shakespeare or his source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Instead, she looked to annals and sagas that predate Holinshed. There, Schuler discovered a figure named Gruoch, who married MacBethad—the historical Macbeth—after her first husband died.
Into the gaps and silences of the historical record, Schuler read a life of adventure and tragedy. Her Lady Macbeth descends from a line of royal Picts, an ancient people who lived in northern Scotland. Because of a prophecy, she believes that she will one day be queen. And she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make that prophecy come true.
Here’s Isabelle Schuler in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: I understand that this book started as a TV show. And the TV show idea came from your realization that Lady Macbeth was a real historical person and that sent you to the books—to the Google.
ISABELLE SCHULER: Yeah, it really, it really did. It sent me off to the Google. Well, it was one of those things where I don’t think… I didn’t realize that Macbeth was a real king.
I mean, I knew that Malcolm was, but I never really—as a sort of Shakespeare lover—I never really investigated the history of it. So, I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that they were real historical characters.
I think what I was surprised to learn was how much we knew about her life. Which is quite surprising given that kind of what I said earlier, how little we know about people at that time.
And yeah, I was, as you mentioned, I was looking to do a longer work. I’d written a couple of short films and I wanted to write a TV show. I’ve always loved Shakespeare. I’ve always loved Lady Macbeth. I just, yeah, exactly did what sort of any self-respecting writer does. I Googled the real Lady Macbeth just to see what I could find about her.
BOGAEV: So, that took you right to Wikipedia?
SCHULER: Yeah, which took me to Wikipedia. I think I would like to emphasize that my research did not stop there, but it did start there.
BOGAEV: What does Wikipedia say about Lady Macbeth? What do we know?
SCHULER: Well, what’s crazy, it’s… the biography is less than 300 words. The two big things that I was shocked to learn about her in particular was one, Macbeth was not her first husband.
The second thing is that she had a child. She had a son named Lulach. I think for anybody who knows and loves the play, entire PhDs have been written on the children of the Macbeths. The fact that the real Lady Macbeth, the real Gruoch, actually had a son, just sort of set my imagination alight.
From that point, I sort of started looking into all of the different chronicles at the time. We have an English chronicle, and we have a Norse chronicle. And from them we learn these things about Lady Macbeth.
What’s crazy, of course—and this shouldn’t come as any surprise—is the only reason we know as much as we do about Lady Macbeth is because of the men in her life. What we really know is the fact, not that Lady Macbeth had a husband, but there was, you know, a man named Gille Coemgáin, who had a wife, and that that wife then went on to marry Macbeth.
There was just this story rife with intrigue and all sorts of little plot points as well. That my sort of, my imagination just ran wild with the potential for that.
BOGAEV: It does give ballast to the debate about, “Wait, did Lady Macbeth ever have a child? Is that why she says she ‘gave suck?’”
SCHULER: Yeah. Well, I think it’s interesting. In writing this, you know, I like to say my little buzz line is that it’s more than a retelling. It’s sort of a reclamation of a powerful queen.
It really is that. It’s a prequel. It both, sort of, pays honor to the play. I love the play and obviously has a lot of the major characters and so much of that story woven in. But it is also something separate.
In terms of whether or not Shakespeare’s Macbeth had children, like Lady Macbeth had children, I think that will continue to be discussed for hopefully ages to come because it sort of affects the way that each actress and each director takes that role on. I’m certainly not saying anything definitive about the play, but the fact that we have the play and that’s sort of the main material that we have in our minds about this time, and that that history should be so vastly different from what Shakespeare wrote, while unsurprising, is still—I just found so fascinating.
BOGAEV: So a big surprise for you was that this woman who eventually becomes Lady Macbeth, Gruoch, had a child, as you said, named Lulach. What do we know about them?
SCHULER: Oh, so it is quite sad, actually. We know very, very little. Basically once Gruoch has Lulach, she disappears from the chronicles.
Like, when I say chronicles, it’s literally like, “This year, this king killed this king. This person died of this thing.” As you get later, I think probably in the maybe 12-, 1300s, you start to have more fleshed-out things and stories get written down.
What we do know is that Duncan rules for six years after King Malcolm, and then Macbeth had a rule that was 17 years long. It was so peaceful that he was able to go to Rome on a pilgrimage because he was Christian. Like, that is how excellent Macbeth was as a king.
BOGAEV: That’s so long!
SCHULER: It’s so long, especially for that time, when the amount of… like, when you just look at the rules of kings in Scotland, in particular, from, like, the 800s right up until Macbeth, for 200 years, it is just king after king after king, killing brothers, killing cousins, putting uncles at—like, it’s complete carnage.
The fact that everything settles down under Macbeth, I think, is so fascinating because in our imagination, it’s Shakespeare’s source that we think of. When, if anyone thinks of Macbeth, they think of the tyrant. They think of the man who, you know, fell apart the second the crown got put on his head.
BOGAEV: How did Macbeth deal with this child that his wife had from another man?
SCHULER: Macbeth reigns for 17 years, and then he’s then killed by Duncan’s son, as does happen in the play. Then, I believe Lulach only reigns for six months. He was called Lulach the Sick.
BOGAEV: Oh! Lulach the Sick!
SCHULER: I know, it’s so sad. He’s very quickly deposed.
Then King Malcolm III reigns. He also reigns for a very long time. Things really kind of—once MacBethad dies, there’s this little vacuum that’s created, because MacBethad didn’t have an heir.
I think that’s the other really fascinating thing. The, kind of, two part of, both, Gruoch did have a child, that child wasn’t with Macbeth. And as far as you know, we can see it looks like Macbeth, you know, he didn’t kill his stepson.
Obviously we have no documented source anywhere of how he felt about it. But I think the fact that Lulach, sort of, does succeed Macbeth, for a bit at least, I don’t know, I think it speaks to… there’s a couple of ways you could do it, but in my imagination, that’s just such a lovely storytelling moment for a way to kind of bring Gruoch and—sorry—Macbethad together. Through the son, which is what I do in the book.
BOGAEV: So interesting. All right. Well, how did you think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth then in relation to your novel? Were you thinking about it at all? Was it just a jumping off point or did you think about it in terms of structure and as a scaffold or were you always gunning towards it as a destination?
SCHULER: I always knew that I wanted my story to end before Shakespeare’s play began as a kind of prequel or setup to the play. I didn’t really—in this first book—I didn’t really want to touch the play. And I have a really, sort of, love-hate relationship with Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a play.
I love the characters that he’s created. Macduff is actually one of my favorite good guys. Some of the stuff he says just gets me every single time I watch the show. But, also, the way that gender is handled in the play and ambition, especially female ambition, has been something that I’ve always really struggled with. Just that real struggle that she has, I think, to be a woman and be everything that is expected of a woman, and to have this really ambitious, driven side of her, is just the way that Shakespeare depicts all of that is a challenge. I think it should be challenging. I think there are definitely ways to reconcile it. But—
BOGAEV: What specific lines are you talking about in terms of gendered language around ambition? “Unsex me.”
SCHULER: Yeah, I think the most famous one, yeah, is, “Unsex me here. Come, you who tend on mortal thoughts. Drain me of human kindness and fill me top to toe with direst cruelty,” I think is the line. Which, you know, every woman should have the chance to be filled with direst cruelty without having to lose her womanhood. I jest, of course, but part of it is Shakespeare’s language. Part of it is the fact that she falls apart after, you know, as soon as the deed is done. Again, there are ways to rationally reconcile it, but in the times that I’ve had to… the privileges that I’ve had to see it performed and perform it myself and really dig into the text is… her character is really… I don’t think she’s handled well. I think she’s, you know, I just… yeah, like I said, I have a real love-hate relationship with her.
BOGAEV: You wanted to give her her due?
SCHULER: Yeah, I think so. I wanted to give—I wanted to show a picture of a woman who was ambitious, you know, without having—first of all, without having to lose any bit of who she actually was. And, second of all, you know, Gruoch faces quite a lot of trauma, but that doesn’t—the ambition is there.
You see it in her from the time she’s a child. That ambition is not a result of her circumstances. And you know, whether it’s Shakespeare’s actual text, whether it’s commentary around the role of Lady Macbeth, and why we find her in Shakespeare’s play so vile. Kind of trying to tell her story and recapture that and make her human was something that was really important to me.
In terms of how that fit in with Shakespeare, I like to think of it as a dialogue. It’s not an alternative. I’m not saying that my version of Gruoch is correct. I’m sure there will be hopefully many more people who come along and tell their version of that character because she’s compelling enough.
But I like to think of being—if that isn’t too pretentious—of being in conversation with the great man himself.
BOGAEV: While we’re talking about Gruoch’s ambition, this would be a good time for reading because it comes from a prophecy that she’s given. Maybe you could read this passage for us and set it up a bit?
SCHULER: So, this is the bit when a very young Gruoch has come to visit her grandmother, who is what I call a daughter of druids. She comes from a long line of, sort of, pagan people, and though the practices have fallen out of style, she maintains them and carries them on. And this sort of sets the atmosphere into which Gruoch’s whole life and whole destiny will begin.
“I sat beside Grandmother as she crushed the brown and red plant against the side of the bowl, mixing it with water boiled on Brighde’s sacred fire until it turned the color of mud. As she stirred, she sang a bewitching melody—an ancient song of rebirth, new beginnings, and good fortune.
“I could feel the song calling to my heart of hearts, pulling me towards it, though I could not articulate what it wanted. The ground murmured beneath me as if in answer to my grandmother’s song.
“Her voice trailed off and she peered into the bowl. Satisfied with what she saw, she poured the contents into a cup, which was then passed around, every woman taking a sip. And so it continued—pouring, mixing, casting, sharing, singing.
“After the mugwort had been passed twice round, some of the others began to sing their own song as Brighde visited them and filled their minds with her vision. Their voices were lifted on the wind as they moaned in the throes of prophecy, the sound echoing across the dark water. Hairs on my arms and neck tingled as the women grew wilder, dancing and bucking, casting strange shadows on the walls of my grandmother’s small home, sending shocks of light across the sandy shore.
It was beautiful and terrifying.”
BOGAEV: Thank you for that. That was beautiful and terrifying. I have to ask you, what is mugwort?
SCHULER: Mugwort is just a plant that they had that had hallucinogenic properties. It was used until quite recently in sort of more pagan practices.
We don’t have any research around, sort of, pagan traditions as old as that. In fact, we have very little research about that time at all pagan, Christian, or otherwise. What we have are sort of wars, and lineages, and that’s about it.
A lot of it, especially when I was looking into kind of the botany behind these practices that I wanted to create, I went as far back as I could in terms of, sort of, pagan rituals and kind of Wiccan things. Which I was not as familiar with myself, but that was sort of how I found out about mugwort, which would have grown locally as well.
BOGAEV: Tell us about the historical people that you based this group you called the Picti in your book. Who were they and what did they believe? And at first when I read your book, I thought, “These are Druids,” but maybe that’s not right.
SCHULER: Well, these people are Alban, I suppose you could say. This is at the beginning of the 11th century. Actually one of the things that I love about Scottish history in particular, especially in this early medieval age, was there was a real crossover between Christianity and pagan, more so than sort of anywhere else in the UK. You have these, sort of, very ancient practices existing alongside sort of what would have been the more newer religion. And it’s newer by a couple hundred years. So, it’s been around for a while.
But you still had these pockets sort of dotted all over Scotland, where we know there was still little things. There was, like, a well erected to a local deity, and you kind of have them existing side by side. You have a real enmeshment.
This group of people in particular, is a group of—in my story—a group of sort of renegade women who still practice these old traditions passed down that they aren’t quite willing to relinquish them.
But for me, introducing that element of it was kind of a nod to Shakespeare’s play and how full of witchcraft and sort of otherworldly influences are in the play. That was kind of my way of going—of conversing with the play. Giving Gruoch her own sort of rich backstory with a sort of pagan bent.
And especially for her very early on in the book, when she’s a child, because of this pagan lineage, she is prophesied over. There’s this prophecy that she’s given, which again is very much meant to mirror the prophecy that Macbeth is given through the three weird sisters, through the three witches.
That, for me, was very much a way to enter into the mystical nature of the play in my own way and ground that in a little bit of history.
BOGAEV: This was such an interesting time when Christianity coexisted with paganism and the old religions. In your book, you bring this up in interesting ways and you explore how people were fusing the different beliefs or fighting over them. It must have been really fun for you to imagine how people dealt with this.
SCHULER: Yeah, it definitely was. And I think as well, creating that sort of natural tension within Gruoch.
She looks at the world around her. She is a very ambitious child and she’s looking for power. Really, that’s what it is from very early on. Because of the ever-shifting nature of her family and her security, she is looking for power and whether or not that can be found in sort of the old practices, the ancient practices. Whether or not that can be found in, sort of, court intrigue. Whether that can be found in, you know, she calls it the “new religion.”
Christianity had actually been around for probably three, four hundred years at this point. But, again, because of the nature—like, Scotland took it on very differently to England.
As you said, there were bits where it coexisted to the point where even the bit in the, that I read: Brighde. In the Catholic tradition, there is Saint Bridget. And some would say that they kind of appeared around—Saint Bridget kind of appeared around the same time as all of this. There are saints who seem to have their origin in pagan gods.
That kind of speaks to an enmeshment that happened further north where there were just less people. There was a lot, you know… there weren’t as—there was more space. I think it’s more believable that you might have these little enclaves that just sort of stick to their traditions and live in the mountains and are shielded from that.
I think as well at the time Christianity was the religion in power and so that will affect her and how she views it.
BOGAEV: Yes, and she’s been given this prophecy through her grandmother from the old religion, that she will be queen. She will be the greatest of them all. Her fame.
BOGAEV: Not exactly that she’ll be queen, but she—that’s how she interprets it.
SHULER: Yeah, exactly.
BOGAEV: That she’ll be the greatest of them all and her fame will spread through all of this land of Alba and into England. In fact, she’ll be more than a queen. She’ll be immortalized.
This is right at the beginning of the book, just like the Weird Sisters’ prophecy comes at the beginning of Macbeth. It’s nice and vague and confusing and she interprets it one way, and maybe it could have been interpreted completely differently.
Tell me about writing this because it gets to the heart of the issues in Macbeth about whether ambition is innate or created by prophecy, by some external influence. You’re playing with that chicken and the egg issue while you were writing.
SCHULER: Yeah, I definitely am. And I think it speaks to a subject that, I mean, we’ve been—by we I mean humanity—has been dealing with for long before Shakespeare’s time, which is this idea of fate, and this idea of whether or not you can escape your fate, and whether or not you can bring it about.
I think our own struggle for control over our own lives, it’s, you know, we see it through so much of literature. We see it in all of those old Greek stories and, you know, Shakespeare plays with that, as well with the Weird Sisters.
There’s such a, as well, rich history with the play itself in terms of how that is interpreted. You know, whether or not it is the witches pulling the strings. Or whether or not they’re just three crazy women, you know, out practicing witchcraft in the Scottish highlands. That then, sort of, because of their words are able to, sort of, affect these things. Directors have played with that for, you know, since the play has been.
BOGAEV: Right. Ambition and destiny. It’s so rich. But you had to write the words, and especially the words of the prophecy. I just imagine you sitting there going, “I can’t say too much here.”
SCHULER: I think that’s such a… that is a theme throughout the whole book; is the power of words. Not just the power of words, but the power of words spoken over us and how they can shape how we see ourselves. How we see our place in this world.
Because it’s obviously definitely something that happens in the play with Macbeth. It’s something that happens in my book with Gruoch.
But I also just think it’s sort of a testament to the power of story. If I can make it, sort of, that big and that broad. But it really is dealing with these issues about, you know, do we control our own fates? Are we in control of our own destinies? Am I the master of my fate or am I being pulled along? Gruoch has that wrestling with herself for her whole life.
There are definitely points where she questions whether or not her grandmother had it right, and she really did have this ear to the gods, or whether she was just this banished woman practicing these old traditions that nobody really wanted anymore, and it was sort of her grandmother’s desperate attempt to control her granddaughter.
That’s something that—it goes on unsolved. That’s not—you know, those are questions that I pose, certainly not answers that I offer. But I think the tension in that is something that, again, it’s one of those things that you find in the play. I wanted to give her her own version of that.
BOGAEV: A little bit of a spoiler alert, but I think it’s okay because readers probably guessed, that much later in the novel, we find out that a song, a Picti song that Gruoch’s grandmother had sung over her to protect her is actually the opening to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s the Weird Sisterss chant.
“When shall we meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.”
And since we’re talking about words, I notice that in your novel you say “chaos” instead of “hurly-burly” and I just wondered why?
SCHULER: Oh, I wish there was some deep philosophical meaning. I just didn’t think anybody would take me seriously if I said, “hurly-burly.”
BOGAEV: That’s where we are with the Shakespearan language. Well, that’s a very conscious choice. The language in your book is modern and it’s not ye olde or Shakespearean in any way.
SCHULER: Yes, correct. Well, also that, I mean, that speaks to—it was never going to be that, first of all.
BOGAEV: Because who would read that, you mean?
SCHULER: [00:25:00] No, not because who would read that. But it—because I love Shakespeare. I was exposed to Shakespeare at a very young age through performance, through a very magical performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I was 11 years old and it was just—it brought me into the world of his stories and his characters and his language. The poetry of his language.
So, I deeply love Shakespeare and it’s been so sad to me to see how inaccessible he’s become. It’s such a shame because his stories are so universal and they tap into all of the things that make us human and juicy: envy and jealousy and lust and betrayal.
My passion is to make his stories more accessible and to be able to try and—in my own very humble, very meager ways—open the door to his to his works as much as possible.
Which is why, yeah, it was never going to be in Shakespeare’s language. Not, you know, not least because I can’t actually do it. As you said, I don’t think anyone can. But, also, I really wanted it to just be something that anybody could approach, even if they weren’t aware of the play.
There’re lots of Easter eggs, and there’s lots of fun things for people who do love the plays. And not just that play, but there are a couple of other Easter eggs. But, yeah, it’s accessible.
BOGAEV: There are Easter eggs. What’s one of your favorite ones?
SCHULER: The one that immediately came to mind is a line from Comedy of Errors. Me and my brother saw it when we were in high school, and we just thought it was so funny. It’s really inappropriate. Like, it’s so not okay.
It’s one of the guys describing one of the women. And he says, “She’s spherical like a globe.” And me and my brother just thought that was hilarious when we were teenagers. So, I’ve put that in, to describe a man. To describe a Viking sitting on a horse.
SCHULER: So yeah, there’s that. He’s spherical.
BOGAEV: I like that it was directed at a man.
SCHULER: Yes, absolutely. Balance that out.
BOGAEV: You do have more of a Shakespeare background than most people. You grew up in Oregon, and I’m imagining you went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, young.
SCHULER: Yes. Yeah, well that was where it was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I saw my first play. I was 11 years old and my mom is an English teacher. So she gave us a kid’s version of the play so that we knew what the story was.
We listened to the play itself on audio tape back when you’d put the tape in the cassette player, and we’d drive around in the car listening to it. She prepared us so much that when I first saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, during Oberon’s speech where he says, “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.” I was mouthing along like I was at a Justin Timberlake concert.
That was the sort of exposure that I had. I think that is why I often think and speak of Shakespeare like a second language. I feel very grateful both to my mom, but also to that location of being able to see phenomenal plays year after year produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
You know, I didn’t study Shakespeare in the way that perhaps many others do, but I sometimes feel like I lived Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Well, you became a director and a producer of Shakespeare yourself, right? At age 12.
SCHULER: Yes. Oh my gosh, yes! Yeah, so I, basically, I was so captivated. Oh, this is so… it’s one of those things where it’s so embarrassing as well, but it’s so fun. The year after I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, I saw, I think I saw a production of Taming of the Shrew. In the gift shop, they had the sort of put on your own Shakespeare play. I’m not sure if it was directed—
BOGAEV: You mean a kit? Like with a little stage that you put together out of cardboard?
SCHULER: It was a kit. So it was, it was 10 scripts. They were abridged. And it came with a pair of glasses with a fake mustache and a wig.
BOGAEV: That’s all you need.
SHULER: And that was all you needed to put on your production.
But actually, it was great. My mom—we went to my local church. We used their stage. I convinced some of the boys in my tennis—tennis with some kids—and I convinced them to come along and play Petruchio. My brother played my father. Very Shakespearean.
My mom, you know, gave us the costumes. Me and my best friend directed it. And, she actually had—one of my mom’s best friends was an interior designer who came and did the sets for us.
SCHULER: So it was beautiful, like it was this amazing production.
BOGAEV: I hope you have video.
SCHULER: I do. I’m sure I do somewhere. I have pictures, I think.
And then yeah, the following year we did Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I abridged myself and directed with my best friend. We called our production company, “There’s a Double Meaning in That Shakespeare Company.” So, we were fully, fully hooked.
BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for the book, and thank you for the conversation. They’re both delightful. I appreciate it.
SCHULER: My absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been so much fun.
WITMORE: That was Isabelle Schuler, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. Her novel Queen Hereafter is out now from Harper Collins.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, D.C. has been under construction for the past three years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening in 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.