The Sons of Raghnall: Well the Dane-Axe Could Wield

Here begins The Sons of Raghnall, my attempt at a Scottish dynasty and AAR informed by the other side of my family. It didn’t work out that way in the end, but I had fun playing them; and in spite of many defeats they did not end up as nasty as the Ynglings, so they’ve got that going for them. Note that I wrote this in the very early stages of the game, and had no idea whether I would be ruling the British Isles in the twentieth century, although obviously I had plans to do so, nor what sort of state I’d be playing by then. So I was careful not to make “anachronistic” references to the rule of the Raghnalls. Nonetheless the Edinburgh Times is evidently an important publication, since I was planning to have it for my capital! And in fact it did end up being the capital of the North Sea Empire in the AAR, although, ahem, not in the actual game.

From the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Spring 1976 issue:

The 1910 discovery, in a job lot of manuscripts bought for ten pounds at an estate sale in Warwickshire, of what appeared to be an early draft of Macbeth, naturally excited much skeptical comment among art historians and Shakespeare scholars. Shakespeare’s plays were, at the time, undergoing something of a revival, and along with such interest came the usual minor flurry of conspiracy theories, far-out critical commentary, and of course forgeries. The “Raghnall Macbeth”, therefore, was a bit of a flash in the pan; after an exquisitely polite controversy in (no less!) the letters section of the Edinburgh Times, the manuscript was, in the main, forgotten, even by the Magdalene College, which presumably came to regret its decision to shell out a full thousand pounds – a huge sum at the time – to acquire it from the lucky buyer.

More recently, however, the manuscript resurfaced in a house-cleaning at Magdalene, and techniques hopefully more effective than the opinionating of Edwardian amateur scholars were brought to bear. It is of course impossible to say with certainty that the Raghnall Macbeth was, in fact, written by the hand of Shakespeare himself, and that the character of Raghnall was excised by later editing or perhaps even censorship. We can, however, say that the manuscript can be carbon dated to the last decade of the sixteenth century; that the handwriting is not incompatible with the few other extant samples of the Bard’s writing (although since these are only signatures, the analysis is somewhat doubtful – in fact the Raghnall Macbeth, if genuine, is the baseline sample with which others should be compared); and that word-frequency analysis shows that the style of the writing is fully compatible with the canonical text of Macbeth, and with other Shakespeare plays of the same period. If it is a forgery, then, it is one of extreme sophistication.

Taking the manuscript at face value for the sake of argument, then, we can begin to tease out a few theories of its significance. Although it is sometimes called an “early” draft, this is not really accurate; much of the text is identical (apart of course from idiosyncracies of spelling) to the First Folio version. The major difference is in the character of Raghnall, presumably to be identified with the founder of the eponymous clan, even though he is called “Randall” in Shakespeare’s eccentric Anglicised spelling. Unusually, he is not introduced until Act V of the play, in Scene IV* – the star indicating that the scene is not to be found in the canonical text; Scene V’ of the Raghnall thus corresponds to Scene IV of canon. The unusual step of introducing a character with many speaking lines so late in the play may, perhaps, indicate that Shakespeare was struggling to shoehorn in an idea that did not really fit. Like many writers of historical fiction, he may have done “too much research”, and found that not everything he learned about his era could be put to good use. If so, he had at least the good sense to cut the superfluous characters from the final draft – a sensibility we might wish on any number of modern writers.


The Raghnall Macbeth
Act V
Scene IV*

Malcolm: But hold; who’s this that comes before us in arms?

Randall: Sea-drifted men, badly starred.

Malcolm: An ill star may be turned to good fortune; for I see you are well armed. Need have I of fighting men, to unseat the usurper Macbeth.

Randall: Cause have we to be unfriends with usurpers. From Stamford are we come, where fell the true King of England, ambushed by the caitiff Harold.

Malcolm: Then how come you here?

Randall: By storm and shipwreck. Three hundred ships left Norway, to take in England by arms what we should have received in justice. Many’s the man fought on that day, well the Dane-axe could wield! Yet, when night came, too many lay, stricken on Stamford’s field. Twenty-five ships we were, when again we set sail for Norway. Nor was the tale of our woes therewith done; for on the third night came a storm, and the fleet was scattered. Three days and three nights we fought the winds, and at last were driven ashore on this craggy coast, unknowing where we had been blown.

Malcolm: This is Scotland, and this my host intends to take by arms what I should have received in justice.

Randall (kneels and offers his sword): Then, Sire King, gladly I’ll serve your cause. Let good luck make amends for ill; if once we have failed to seat a true king on his rightful throne, let us be nowise downhearted, but trust that second try will give first success.

Malcolm (takes the sword): That is well spoken; take you then arms of me, and be later lawfully seised of estates we shall seize from the usurper.


It is clear that Shakespeare is trying to connect the famous MacRaghnalls to his obscure bit of Scottish history, perhaps in an attempt to flatter the dynasty or to please the crowd; in Scene V’, he gives Raghnall the idea of bearing branches from Birnam Wood, which in the canonical Scene IV comes from Malcolm. This is not unreasonable as history, Raghnall being presumably an experienced soldier who had served long with Harald Hardråde, a man notorious – at least in saga – for clever schemes; while Malcolm is an inexperienced man recently come into adulthood. Shakespeare uses this to explain how Raghnall, a completely obscure figure before the settlement in 1066, could acquire so much land in Scotland – obviously, Malcolm wished to lavishly reward good service! Again this is not completely implausible, it being an age in which adventurers could both rise and fall very rapidly, except for the anachronism. Raghnall claims to be fleeing Stamford Bridge when he meets Malcolm; but the historical Macbeth died in 1057. That said, chronology of the eleventh century is notoriously inaccurate, and Shakespeare may certainly be forgiven this minor detail of nine years; more seriously, the explanation does not work as theatre. It dilutes the attention among several enemies of Macbeth, without gaining any real dramatic interest from Raghnall; the canonical version with a single powerful antagonist is much more satisfying.

Theatre aside, Shakespeare does raise an interesting question: How did this apparent adventurer, unmentioned in any primary source until so late a date as 1255 (when a literate clan head decided, apparently for purposes of supporting his claims at law to certain estates in Galloway, to write down the oral account of his forefathers), rise to hold such wide lands? It was, of course, an age of axe and sword, wolf and raven. A good man of his hands could hurtle from owning his weapons and boots and nothing else, to great wealth, in a year – and lose it again just as fast, as demonstrated by, for example, Tostig Godwinsson. Shakespeare’s depiction is, if not necessarily accurate, at least in accord with other accounts of the same era: A few laconic lines, and a ragged band of shipwrecked, down-on-their-luck refugees of defeat have a new paymaster and the promise of land – if they win. In just such terms, presumably, did William recruit the landless knights who broke the thanes at Hastings.

We will probably never know the truth of how Raghnall – Ragnvald, if we take seriously Shakespeare’s conjecture that he was a Norwegian – came to hold what are now the ancestral clan lands in Fife; for all we know, he may simply have turned up with a fighting tail one day and thrown the previous owners out. And where Clio is silent, we may as well turn to Melpomene’s account. If Shakespeare has not hit the historical truth of the matter, he has at any rate found a dramatic truth of the era, namely the suddenness with which fortunes could change, and the stoicism with which men met their fates. Although the canonical version of Macbeth is clearly superior as theatre, still the Raghnall shines another light on the hearts of men; it is no shame for a play to say that Shakespeare did better! (Indeed, not every poet can afford to throw away insights of this calibre, merely because that will make their work more dramatically unified.) This reviewer, at any rate, is satisfied that if the Raghnall is not authentic, it ought to be; and if the history it portrays is not true, it ought to be. And as it is unlikely it will ever be contradicted, we may as well accept it as the thing that really happened.

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