- Wordsworth Editions Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 05 May 1992
- Shakespeare Plays
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This is one of my absolute favorite plays by Shakespeare. The "Scottish Play" contains the supernatural, riddles and memorable quotes. It is a testament about the times and a warning to those that would deceive others to get what they want. This play is a must read/see!
A profoundly affecting play, Macbeth is Shakespeare's darkest tragedy, though perhaps not as nihilistic as the pre-Christian King Lear. Not that Macbeth's Christian era has any considerable redemptive effect on the play. There is Christian imagery throughout the play, of course, but I would contend with critics like Empson and Bloom that Shakespeare was not a particularly Christian playwright. It has hard to say anything about Shakespeare from his plays - he is the least auto-biographical writer in the Western tradition, one might say. He may well have been Christian (perhaps even Roman Catholic, as some have speculated) but I do not think his plays, Macbeth least of all, espouse any overt religious message. One can tack such a message onto Macbeth, if you wish, by investing Macbeth's opponents (young Malcolm, Ross, Macduff, and the other rebellious thanes of Scotland) with the ethos of 'good Christian knights', sent to kill the emissary of evil. But I would contend that this is a misguided misreading of the play. Macbeth may be morally abhorrent, but the play is closer in structure to a Sophoclean tragedy, with the focus nearly entirely on Macbeth, not on the 'avenging Christian heroes'.Bloom contends that Macbeth is extremely horrifying not because of its disturbing imagery and actions:Titus Andronicus is much more bloody, and yet less horrifying than Macbeth, and in any case, playgoers of his time could go to Tyburn to watch bloody executions. Rather, the horror is in Macbeth's extreme interiority and his proleptic imagination, which infects the whole play, as well as those who watch or read the play. Reading Macbeth awakens anxieties in us because it makes us aware of our own propensity and capacity for evil. 'Evil' is, of course, a particularly ambiguous term nowadays, with relativism making such a strong claim to our morality. But, within the confines of world morality, few would claim that Macbeth and his wife's initial ethos of 'the ends justify the means' is not particularly terrible. Even the Macbeths realise the horror of what they have done, though it has diverging effects on the two. In any case, the though that we may be capable of atrocities is uniquely tempting in this play. Macbeth is initially a 'golden boy', though we sense the danger of his propensity for slaughter, even though it is initially in service of the monarch. I never lost my admiration for Macbeth's bravery throughout the play, though I would strongly condemn his actions. It is this dichotomy between centripetal admiration, and a concurrent centrifugal revulsion, which draws one into Macbeth's unique psychology.Lady Macbeth is the only of other strong character in the play - the thanes and Malcolm are colourless in comparison. But she falls away after the beginning of Act III, and the play then focuses on Macbeth to the near-exclusion of everything else. This is unique in a Shakespearean tragedy - even Hamlet has his mother, uncle, and Horatio. Macbeth is left centre-stage, with his famous soliloquy on death ('Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...'). Though he is killed, we remain strangely uneasy at the end of the play. I think this is because of the above-mentioned identification with Macbeth: we fear our capabilities for evil, but, in a perverse sense, also exult in them. Even more perversely, I felt a distaste for king Malcolm and his easy morality. Perhaps I am merely a misanthropic egoist, always fearing that the 'do-gooding rabble' might come after me as well. All I can say to that is:Stars, hide your fires!Let not light see my black and deep desires.More seriously (well, you judge whether I was serious previously...) is the role of the witches / weird sisters in the play. Do they control Macbeth, planting the seed of murder in his mind? Or has he always had the potential for evil in him? The text is ambiguous about this, but I suspect that Macbeth considers evil long before the witches appear. For instance, they never, ever tell Macbeth to do anything. He comes to the idea of murder all by himself, with some promptings from his wife. And, conversely, when they make predictions to Banquo, Banquo does not run off to kill the monarch. Evil (whatever you mean by that word) seems to reside in humanity itself, not in the outside universe. Which is a bit of a cop-out: the witches are, after all, in the play. Bloom says, despite his fascination with the witches, that they are nearly redundant, which I would agree with, following my interpretation of Macbeth's own culpability. But, then, why did Shakespeare feel the need to add them to the play? Was it only because James I had an inordinate interest in witches and the supernatural in general? This hardly seems like a good enough reason for such a large aspect of the play. Is it because Holinshed mentions them in his Chronicles, on which the play is based? Shakespeare often leaves out things in Holinshed which he finds extraneous. Or did Shakespeare also find witches fascinating? It could be for anyone of these reasons, but I think the last is the most intriguing.This is, obviously, a great play. It is economical, fast-paced, and cuts to the bone of what Renaissance tragedy could do. It is also frightening, and more so the more one thinks about it. I could say much more about the play - I've left out a whole discussion on the use of humour in the Porter's scene, which Coleridge hated, but which De Quincey examined at length. I also haven't said much about the role of imagery in the play, or the pathetic fallacy of nature responding to the death of the king. Time is short, the art too long.On a last note: thank God this play isn't as amenable to post-modern reimagings as, say, Othello or The Tempest! I hate polemical interpretations which pervert Shakespeare's plays beyond all recognition. Retellings are fine, but don't give me a Marxist-feminist-structuralist play in which Macbeth is a hero of the proletariat, who kills the factory boss, but then descends into a homo-erotic coupling with the cross-dressing 'Lady' Macbeth, who convinces him to re-exploit the poor factory workers.Obviously, at the end, he is overthrown because of repressed longings for Malcolm, who resembles his mother. Obviously.God, help us.
*some spoilers*Three witches meet Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and greet him with tidings that he will become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. Macbeth can't stop thinking about it, and when the first prophecy comes true, he starts pondering regicide with his wife alongside goading him into action.This is the first of Shakespeare's plays that I ever read, and as such it holds a special place in my memory. In high school, it was the one play I was assigned to read, and I just remember the thrill of surprise as the prophecies that Macbeth put his trust in came back to bite him. The excitement didn't disappoint on rereading, even though I knew what was going to happen. I love the theme of fate vs. free will - could Macbeth have avoided his fate? Would he have become king if he did nothing, much like Banquo's prophecy is likewise fulfilled? The arc of the characters as guilt gnaws them fascinates me as well. One of my absolute favorites of Shakespeare's plays. 5 stars.
Haven't read this since school. Thundering great stuff, and the witches are magnificent. 5/5
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