Hospitality and Treachery: Something Wicked This Way Comes

As you gather people around your table this festive season, sharing hospitality with friends and neighbours, spare a thought for the disasters and fatalities that have befallen generous hosts in times gone by; this Christmas Eve we are exploring tales of hospitality and treachery with Yale author James Heffernan, whose new book Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature illustrates how treachery can rend the fabric of trust that hospitality weaves.

So set your seasonal table of good cheer and read on (if you dare) – for gory tales and gruesome episodes from literature and history.


by James A. W. Heffernan

In Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus calls history a nightmare from which he is trying to awake.

At the National Theatre right now, the brutality of life in fifteenth-century Scotland is being re-enacted in a remarkable trio of plays about the first three King Jameses who ruled it. Yet the plays omit one of the ghastliest events of this period: the Black Dinner at Edinburgh Castle.

In November 1440, when the Scottish King James II was nine years old, the country was administered by William Crichton and Alexander Livingston of Callendar. Having come to power in 1439, just after an outbreak of plague took the life of Archibald, 5th earl of Douglas, who had been ruling as Lieutenant General, Crichton and Livingston did not wish to be supplanted by Archibald’s 16-year-old son William, who was now the 6th Earl of Douglas. So they invited William and his younger brother David to dinner with the boy king at Edinburgh Castle. One hopes the guests enjoyed the meal, because it proved to be their last: right after dinner they were taken out and executed for treason.

Two and a half centuries later, Scotland witnessed a far more horrific episode of treacherous hospitality. In 1691, when all Highland clan chiefs were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the new King William III, the only chief who refused was MacIain of Glencoe, elderly head of a small branch of the MacDonalds. On the first of February 1692, a division of troops from the Earl of Argyll’s regiment reached Glencoe under the command of Captain Robert Campbell. Though the Campbells and the MacDonalds had feuded for centuries, the MacDonalds upheld the Highland tradition of granting hospitality to all visitors. Inviting the soldiers into their homes, they gave them food, drink, and lodging, and Captain Campbell was thus entertained by MacIain himself. But on the morning of February 6, shortly after receiving orders to kill every one of the MacDonalds under the age of seventy, Campbell’s men slaughtered thirty-eight of them.

Given this history, is it any wonder that the very heart of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy beats with treacherous hospitality? Early in the play, King Duncan spends a night with Macbeth, who is at once his subject and his host. Though the sleeping king has two bodyguards, Lady Macbeth gets them both so drunk that Macbeth can butcher all three and then blame the guards for killing the king so as to justify his killing of them.

And that’s just for starters.

A few nights later, just after becoming king himself, Macbeth hosts a banquet for various Scottish lords including Banquo. But since Macbeth has been told that Banquo’s heirs will inherit the throne, he has Banquo murdered on the day of the feast. When Banquo shows up anyway – as a ghost – Macbeth alone can see him, rages at what looks to everyone else like thin air, and thus drives the ghost away – but also breaks up the party. After that, his reign is mercifully short.

From Homer’s Odyssey onwards, Western literature is rife with stories of treacherous hosts. They range all the way from Homer’s Polyphemos, the one-eyed giant who literally eats his guests for dinner, to the hard-drinking older couple in Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When George and Martha ask a younger couple – Nick and Honey – for an evening of drinks, they play a series of games whose titles suggest just some of the ways in which hosts and guests can do each other in. Super-fuelled with drink, George and Martha soon unmask the witlessness of Nick and the mousiness of Honey: that’s how they play Get the Guest. They also goad Nick into thinking that he can Hump the Hostess, which is one way of Humiliating the Host; but when Nick proves too drunk to perform in the bedroom, it’s he who’s humiliated – cut down to a houseboy. In all of these games the host and hostess use their guests as weapons in a war they have been waging with each other for years.

From Homer to Albee, literature is fascinated with all the ways in which hosts and guests can betray each other. And as the author of a new book on hospitality and treachery, I can’t resist the urge to say that if you’d like to know more about this topic, be my guest!

9780300195583Find out more about James A. W. Heffernan’s book, Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature.

Watch a video of the author discussing the book:

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