William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, Old Billy Shakes – whatever you call him, he is undoubtedly the greatest writer in English and the world's greatest dramatist (sorry, Henrik Ibsen fans, but it's true). 

For those lucky (or unlucky) enough to have studied William Shakespeare in your schooling days, you'll know that one of Bard's best works is the ever-popular Macbeth. 

This tragedy follows the ambitious general Macbeth, who receives a prophecy that he will become King of Scotland. 

Consumed by ambition and spurred on by his Machiavellian wife, he murders his way to the top and takes the throne. Yet his guilt for how he ascended to royal power, plus his extreme paranoia, ultimately leads to his bloody downfall. 

Historians and academics have pointed out that the Bard was inspired by a very real Macbeth, who ruled over the medieval Kingdom of Alba (Scotland) from 1040 – 1057 CE. 

Now, this was a particularly dangerous time in Scottish history, with the threat of Vikings never far away due to their influence in the north and islands of Scotland. 

It is in this milieu, late 11th-century Scotland, that Dorothy Dunnett reimagines the life of this king immortalized by Shakespeare in her weighty tome, King Hereafter

Dunnet's hero, however, is no Elizabethan fop but a brawny and mighty Viking warrior, Thorfinn. While not wanting to reveal his exact background, let's just say Thorfinn was no poor boy. 

Facing political intrigues, battles, and personal struggles, our Viking Macbeth navigates the complexities of medieval Scottish society, which was as dangerous as culturally diverse. 

According to records at The National Library of Scotland, Dunnett dedicated 4.5 years to researching "King Hereafter," meticulously examining every aspect of eleventh-century life, including the question of migrating geese. Photo: duchy / Shutterstock

Macbeth, but not as you know it 

The narrative, a rather long one weighing in at over 736 pages in the 1998 edition of King Hereafter, takes place at the end of the Viking Age.

Central to the plot is Thorfinn's relationship with Lady Gruadh, Dunnett's reimagined Lady Macbeth, whose voice regales us with this mighty tale. 

This woman of noble birth has entrenched ties to the local Scottish nobility, contrasting with Thorfinn's culturally different ties to nobility in the nearby Viking "Kingdom of the Isles." 

Their complex and turbulent relationship underscores the very personal stakes of Thorfinn's ascent to power. 

What Dunnett's Viking Macbeth has in common with the Bard's is that, at its heart, it is a very nuanced exploration of the human condition, grappling with themes of destiny, love, loyalty, and, yes, death. 

It is her brilliant depiction of the tumultuous era of Scottish and Viking history that Dunnett offers readers profound insight into the nature of leadership, morality, and the enduring legacy of one of history's most enigmatic figures (or should that be literature's?). 

Furthermore, Dunnett paints the picture of a society teetering on the brink of transformation, tormented over the divide between Christian and pagan, and caught between a Scottish future and a Scandinavian past. 

Part of the reason why this book is so readable is the incredible attention to historical detail and the copious amount of study that Dunnett has undertaken. 

According to the National Library of Scotland, Dunnett read more than 700(!) books in order to understand the cultural and historical milieu of the British Isles and it's environs in the 11th century. 

The Library's website also has a letter from Dunnett to a local monk on a Scottish island questioning the migration patterns of local geese to ensure that when these geese appear in the novel, they appear in the right location at the correct time. 

This incredible amount of research into the milieu of Macbeth makes the story feel less like a novel and more like a historical chronicle.

Whilst you may have disliked studying Shakespeare's works when you were younger, Dunnett's book offers a brilliant retelling of the famous Macbeth story. It's so well-written that it might make you exclaim, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair!"

Dunnett invites readers to journey through the often murky (and bloody) corridors of power and history to confront the moral entanglements of the human condition. 

On a far less highbrow level, I never knew that Shakespeare and Vikings were the crossover I needed, but as they say, "Lead on Macduff" ...sorry, "Lead on MacDunnett." 

King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett is available for purchase on Amazon here

Do you have a tip that you would like to share with The Viking Herald?
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at hello@thevikingherald.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.