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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Lady Macbeth: Ruthless Villian or Stately Queen?

Lady Macbeth is one of those minor figures from centuries past who became a literary badass—all because of one historically inaccurate play.

You likely associate Lady Macbeth with the ambitious, conniving woman behind the tormented man who desires to be king in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. But did you know there really was a King Macbeth and a real Lady Macbeth?

In All Our Yesterdays, biographical fiction about Lady Macbeth, author Joel H. Morris offers readers a new take on one of Shakespeare's most famous—and frightening—women. I found it wildly refreshing.

For the record, Shakespeare’s play is not a true depiction of the Macbeths. Macbeth, King of Scots, lived from 1040-1054. His wife, Gruoch, was a descendent of King Malcom II who ruled Scotland from 1005 to 1034. While King and Lady Macbeth lived during tumultuous times—who wasn’t trying to overthrow a king now and then in the 11th century?—they appear to have enjoyed a relatively peaceful, prosperous existence. By all accounts, Macbeth ruled his kingdom well. So, what gives, Mr. Shakespeare?


Morris sets his debut novel ten years prior to when Shakespeare’s play begins, allowing readers to get to know Lady Macbeth without the notoriety. By augmenting elements of Macbeth with the actual historical record surrounding the Lady herself, he places us squarely in the 11th century. The end result is brilliant historical fiction.


Besides Lady Macbeth, an essential character in All Our Yesterdays is her son, a child born before she married Macbeth. Morris doesn’t give him a name. He is simply “the boy.” But “the boy” serves the very important function of being a point of view character alongside his mother. Together, they tell the story through their respective—and very different—lenses.

When the story opens, Lady Macbeth has recently married thane Macbeth, who not long prior slayed her previous husband, the Mormaer of Moray. Macbeth killed him to retake lands the mormaer had taken from Macbeth’s father in a bloody conquest when Macbeth was a child.

What I like about Lady Macbeth is her ever-present vulnerability, her fear for her safety and that of her son, which runs adjacent to her determination to be a player in a man’s world. She is a smart woman who knows how things go. Determined to avoid what feels inevitable, she isn’t above keeping and sharing information. Is she wily? No. Is she strategic? Yes, making her a wholly likeable protagonist. If she could just get rid of those pesky witches who keep visiting her with prophecies of the future ...

Though I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Macbeth, I was particularly taken with the boy’s character. At the beginning of the novel, he is almost ten and exhibits all the innocence of a child growing up in a harsh world. He is confused about what has happened to his father and why his mother married the thane. Information comes to him in tiny drops from the mouths of adults and through his childhood friend, Marsaili. Gradually, he puts together a story that troubles him.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect to like the book as much as I did. The 11th century can feel far removed from today. But the quality of the writing and the authenticity with which Morris seems to have captured the era is stunning. Morris makes the distant past come alive with a writing style that is fitting for the time period yet accessible to the modern reader. The descriptions, the things that happen in the castle and in the forest, and the dialogue—oh, the dialogue!—all feel old world.

Morris’s word choices and the cadence of his characters’ voices lure the reader in like the warmth of a slow burning fire. A feeling of being there pervades every page. For me, reading the book was almost like living among the cast Morris has created, watching and listening from the parapet of the castle.

Take the exchange below between the boy and Seyton, Macbeth’s loyal armorer, who has taken the lad under his wing. They are in the stable. With the boy is his dog, the faithful Leonas, who is always by his side. Seyton is working on a leather collar.

“Did you know my father?” the boy asks Seyton.

“Aye. I knew him. Knew of him.”

“I don’t miss him.”

“No?” Seyton says.

“No. I saw him kick a dog once.” The memory had just swum up before him. It may have been Leonas his father had kicked. The man always thundered through the house. The mormaer shouted. The dog whimpered, and the mormaer kicked him across the floor.

The boy picked up the toy horse and rider, turned them in his hand. “One day he left,” the boy said. “He took off on his horse with hundreds of men. He met with an accident. Then Macbeth came and lived with us, and he and my mother married.”

“Aye,” Seyton agreed. “That’s how it happened.”

The boy realized something. “You were there?”

“Where’s that now?”

“At my father's castle. You came with Macbeth.”

“I did. I go where the thane goes.”

“But why did he come to our house?”

“I suppose the simplest answer is that your father, being dead, Macbeth returned to take what was his father’s—Finlay was his name. Your father killed Finlay and so became Mormaer of Moray. He took over the castle until Macbeth took it back.”

This was news. The boy squinted at him, as though it might make the words he had spoken clearer. He knew Macbeth's father was dead and his bones rested in the castle crypt. “My father killed his?”

“He did. Hand me that needle now.”

The boy handed him the needle, and Seyton began stitching the forewale.

“Why did he kill Macbeth’s father?”

“Because that’s the way of things.”

Of course, there are all the other things we’d expect in a plot with feudal lords in Scotland in the 11th century: power plays, veiled threats, political maneuvering, and superstitions. King Duncan, Banquo, and McDuff, whom you'll recognize from the play Macbeth, are also in the story.

But the men are mostly enigmatic in All Our Yesterdays. We get bits and pieces of them. For it is Lady Macbeth’s story, not the men’s stories. We experience castle life from the perspective of a woman. Life is hard for women, but Lady Macbeth refuses to a victim. She refuses to be left behind, forgotten and without power. She is a survivor.

The boy, too, must adjust to having a stepfather. Unlike his mother, however, who knows how the political structure works—which she tells us in great detail—the boy does not. Though his eyes we see how he tries to make sense of what his mother’s remarriage means for him.

So who was the real Lady Macbeth?

According to author Kate Braithwaite, Lady Macbeth was Gruoch, a royal princess related to Scottish King Malcolm II. She lived in Moray in northeast Scotland. Her first marriage was to Macbeth's cousin Gillacomgain, with whom she had a son. Macbeth really did murder Gillacomgain to settle the feud between their families. It was then he married Gruoch.

Gruoch of Scotland

Did Gruoch love Macbeth, or did she marry him as a means of self-preservation? Probably the latter. Her son was Lulach, and there is every reason to believe she was intent on securing his future. Fortunately, Macbeth adopted Lulach as his heir. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had no children of their own, and history suggests they had a happy marriage.

Macbeth eventually did become king, though not in the way that Shakespeare’s play would have you believe. When King Malcom II was killed in battle, his grandson Duncan inherited the throne. Later, however, Macbeth killed Duncan, at which time Macbeth became king. Duncan was not, I repeat, not killed at Macbeth’s castle in Inverness. He was killed in battle, though quite possibly by Macbeth himself.

Feuds and battles were a way of life for Scottish kings for millennia. Still, Macbeth successfully ruled Scotland from 1040-1054. His reign ended, however, when he was killed by Siward, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Northumbria.

As to when Gruoch died, historians aren’t sure. There seems to be more known about her in fiction than in real life. Despite the lack of certainty surrounding her existence, Lady Macbeth remains famous precisely because of that fiction.

No matter if you like Shakespeare’s Macbeth or not, All Our Yesterdays is a story told well, one that I highly recommend. I’ve created a bookshelf where you can purchase All Our Yesterdays directly at this link. Please note that as an affiliate of, I earn a small commission if you purchase through my link. It’s a small amount, I can assure you, and you don’t pay more for the book. is a way for small, independent bookstores to complete with larger book outlets, which is why I support it. You can see my entire shelf of favorites at N.J.'s Bookshelf.

Just a quick reminder, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to sign up below if you want to receive my next book review directly in your email box.

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you’re here.

N.J. (Nancy) Mastro


Source for the information on the real Lady Macbeth:

Braithwaite, Kate. “Gruoch-The Real Lady Macbeth.” History of Royal Women. November 23, 2017. Retrieved online at

Source for information on King Macbeth:

Adams. R.J. “The Real Macbeth: King of Scots, 1040-1054.” History Today. June 6, 1957. Retrieved online at



Susan Matsumoto
Susan Matsumoto
May 30

This sounds like a terrific book for historical fiction lovers. It goes on the long list!

N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro
Jun 02
Replying to

I am so glad to hear that, Susan! I have a long list too. Thanks for posting your enthusiasm for reading All Our Yesterdays. I really can't compliment the book enough. I don't read many tales about the 11th century and found it such a nice change of pace. Please let me know what you think of it!


Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum
May 28

I must admit I enjoy reading about the books you choose to review. I have sought out several and I am likely to read this one as well. I appreciate the sample of the dialogue that you shared - I love the quaint period personality of the speakers. Thanks for reviewing this one.

N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro
May 30
Replying to

Thanks for reading and commenting! I do think you would like this book. The prose has a raw, sharp edge to it. Morris knows writing, and he knows the period.

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