Author: William Shakespeare
Published: 2016 (originally 1606)
We haven’t seen the last of 2016 because I still have to write one review: my last Shakespeare of 2016! After the disappointment that was The Taming of the Shrew, I went back to the bard’s tragedies. Hamlet proved to be a great first Shakespeare read for me, so why not go back to the drama and leave comedy for the time being?
I was looking forward to reading Macbeth ever since I saw the trailer for the 2015 movie adaptation with Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. So. Cool. I knew the story pretty well going in (and what’s the surprise, right? Everybody always dies in Shakespeare’s tragedies …). Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and was first performed in 1606. It ‘dramatises the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake’ (source).
FIRST WITCH: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
SECOND WITCH: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
THIRD WITCH: All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!
A quick summary, in the words of Wikipedia: ‘A brave Scottish general named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the Scottish throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of madness and death.’
MACBETH: If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.
What I loved about Macbeth is the way in which both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are portrayed and how their characters develop over time. At the beginning of the play and even after the prophecy of the three witches, Macbeth is reluctant to take power and ‘force’ the prophecy into truth. He believes that if the prophecy is true, ‘chance’ will crown him ‘without my stir’. That the prophecy is true, or at least part of it, is clear when the then King of Scotland, King Duncan, grants Macbeth, who is also his kinsman, the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, already Thane (a Scottish noble title, equivalent in rank to the son of an English Earl) of Glamis, is now all the more sure that the prophecy is not only true, but will also eventually make him King – even without him taking action.
MACBETH: (…) Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
His wife, however, is ambitious and urges Macbeth to take up the sword and murder King Duncan in his sleep, so that he himself may be crowned as King. Although he himself admits to having ‘black and deep desires’, Macbeth doesn’t immediately agree with Lady Macbeth’s plan. However, she eventually succeeds in her wish to ‘pour my spirits in thine ear’ and convinces him of her plan. While they both prepare themselves for the deed, Lady Macbeth speaks one of the most memorable speeches I’ve read so far:
LADY MACBETH: (…) The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
I think the line ‘unsex me here’ is quite famous, but it is still both moving and cruel. Lady Macbeth isn’t cold blooded here, she asks for courage and thinks that by unsexing her (that is: undoing her of her femininity) she will receive that courage. After the deed, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, now King and Queen, become suspicious of everyone who could possibly be a threat and they are reckless in killing them all. The once determined Lady Macbeth who used to say that ‘a little water clears us of this deed’, can no longer wash the burden of her sins away and becomes mad with regret and eventually (it is suggested) kills herself.
MACBETH: Bring it after me.
I will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane!
Macbeth in turn becomes arrogant with his power and even more so after he visits the three witches again. They summon three apparitions who tell Macbeth that he should beware the Thane of Fife, but that ‘… none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’ and that he will not be vanquished until the forest of Birnam shall come to his castle Dunsinane. Relieved by these words, Macbeth does not see danger ahead and recklessly goes to battle.
HECATE: And you all know security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.
Macbeth is a play that will stay with me for a long time. Lady Macbeth’s ambition and ultimate downfall and Macbeth’s development from honest subject to arrogant King remain, even after four ages, fascinating and impressive. I think I’ll have to say that I enjoy Shakespeare’s tragedies more than the comedies. Well, that’s not entirely true: I do enjoy the comedies as well, but the tragedies stay with me longer. What is your favourite play by Shakespeare?