Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on Macbeth

A couple of months back, I wrote my thoughts on the play Hamlet after having taught it for ten years. I've also written my thoughts on Romeo and Juliet. I figured that there's one more play where I have a bit to say about it, and that's Macbeth. I've taught that one for as long as I've taught Hamlet, but I've also taught it a few times during summer school (to mixed results). Here's some stuff that stands out to me:

Macbeth is difficult to know - Scholars and armchair Shakespeare enthusiasts are known for pondering what's going on in Hamlet's head, but I find the Thane of Glamis to be even more impenetrable than the Prince of Denmark. With Hamlet, you at least have all those analytical soliloquies to pour over. With Macbeth, you have soliloquies, but I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this guy. When I teach the play, I always state that his fatal flaw is that he's ambitious, but that never completely satisfies me as to why he does what he does. It seems to me that if that was solely what was motivating him, he'd have some satisfaction in being the king, but he doesn't seem to enjoy it even for an instant.

There's some implied backstory - You can't tell me that when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to kill King Duncan that it's a brand new idea to them. Macbeth gets some prophecies from the witches, he writes his wife a letter about it, and when he gets back to tell her that Duncan's going to be spending the night in the castle, she starts going on about how he needs to look like "the innocent flower but be the serpent under it". He then responds with "We will speak further."

If this was some new idea, he would have said, "What'choo talking about, Willis?" (Or something like that.) But oh no, he knows exactly what she has in mind. That's because this is a conversation that they've had before.

Age matters - From my understanding, the Macbeths are usually an older couple or middle-aged at the very least. In Roman Polanski's version, he casts a younger couple. I think you're almost telling a different story depending on which you choose. If it's an older couple, they've seen life pass them by and other, less worthy, individuals rise to the top. This becomes their chance to get what should have been theirs. If they're younger, they're maybe a bit less sympathetic. as they see their chance for greatness and have little desire to wait for it. (Although Macbeth does toy with the idea when he thinks for a moment that maybe chance will crown him "without (his) stir".

There ain't much that's funny - Maybe some people will argue the point that there's some black comedy in the play, but from my understanding, this play really takes you down the darkest passages of the human experience. Even the one bit of comic relief, featuring the Porter, is macabre humor. I think that this is why some folks have a hard time engaging in this play. Hamlet jokes around, and you've got plenty of fun word play in Romeo and Juliet. With this one? Man, it's kind of a bummer.

I must point out the following - I thought this would be a short entry. I'm tempted to quit here, but instead I shall gratuitously use the following quote:
I am in bloodStepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,Returning were as tedious as go o'er...
It's really quite awesome what Shakespeare is saying - One of the big lessons that I try to convey when I teach tragedies is that it's not good to think of them as simply being sad. There are many reasons for this, but in the case of Macbeth, Shakespeare is reminding us of something that saves us human beings from being completely depraved, and that is the human conscience. Yes, Macbeth commits horrific acts and even gets away with it for some time. But even if the united Scottish/English army didn't come marching (tree branches in hand) on Dunsinane Hill, he'd still have to live with what he did. By far the worse punishment on him was dealing with his own guilty feelings for what he did. He'd "sleep no more" and his mind was "full of scorpions". The guy would probably never see a moment of happiness again.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
Macbeth even tries to get around his guilty conscience when he has Banquo killed. Instead of doing the bloody deed himself, he hires some murderers. However, the playwright isn't going to let him off the hook that way, as Banquo's ghost makes an appearance at dinner.

This is easily my favorite part of the entire play. The first words out of his mouth to the ghost are, "Thou canst not say I did it! Never shake thy gory locks at me!" It's so great because it's such a psychologically realistic reaction. Yeah, it technically wasn't HIM who did it - but he knows damn well that it's his fault. And then Macbeth completely freaks out. Here's a guy who carves his way through Irish mercenaries and for dessert kicks some Viking ass, but he's completely transformed into a whimpering coward. The man can handle anything...except his guilty conscience.
What man dare, I dare:Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,The arm'd rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;Take any shape but that, and my firm nervesShall never tremble: or be alive again,And dare me to the desert with thy sword;If trembling I inhabit then, protest meThe baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
And what Shakespeare does with Lady Macbeth drives that message home even further. She puts on a brave face throughout the entire ordeal, but eventually she succumbs to madness due to her bottling up all of her guilty feelings.

What kind of a world would this be if we (well, except sociopaths anyway) never felt bad about the things we did?

Macbeth's not a villain - Well, he's not a villain in the sense that Richard III is a villain. Richard III is almost mustache-twirling in his maliciousness, but you never see that in Macbeth. Not only that, but he's aware that what he's doing is horrible, and he doesn't try to make justifications for it and insist that he's a good guy. The audience is forced to contemplate the consequences of horrific acts because we're given a character who feels empathy just like you and I do. Too bad he just didn't think ahead about those consequences. I bet that Hamlet would have though.

As the play goes on, he becomes colder and more ruthless. His first murder was to get ahead. His second (Banquo) was to secure his position as King. His third, the killing of Macduff's family, is brutal and senseless. By that point, yes, he's a villain.

However, we see a glimmer of the human inside of him before the play wraps up. He tells Macduff, "My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already." (Keep in mind that this is before he learns of Macduff's C-section birth.) He doesn't want to fight the guy - not because he's scared. (After all, he fights him even when he learns that Macduff fits the prophecy of one who can defeat him.) He doesn't want to fight him because he's realized the horror that he's committed against the man, and he doesn't want to do any more.

Of course, by this point, it's all too late, and Macbeth absolutely must meet his fate. But still, he's an honorable man who mad the worst choices a person can make.

He comes full circle - At the start of the play, we know Macbeth for being a brave warrior. He then progresses into being a sneaky murderer. At the end, even though he's not fighting for a good cause, he armors up and is willing to take on two armies all by himself. (Pretty much everybody has deserted him by that point.)
Why should I play the Roman fool, and die
On mine own sword? whiles I see lives, the gashes
Do better upon them.
Macduff, the ultimate character foil - Wanna know why it's not Malcolm who gets to kill Macbeth? (It happened that way in history, ya know!) It's because it's Macduff's prerogative. In every way that Macbeth goes wrong, Macduff does the right thing. He's brave and loves Scotland, but he's not willing to stab anybody in the back, and he's loyal to the rightful king. Plus, he knows that being a man means having feelings, as he weeps for his murdered family, saying that he must feel his loss "as a man".
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me.
Mabeth and Lady Macbeth seemed to be under the impression that being a man means being ruthless and willing to kill without feeling. Considering that Macduff is the victor, I guess we can tell what Shakespeare thought what being a man was really all about.

Scotland's a better place in the end - Sure, history will tell you otherwise, but Shakespeare played really fast and loose with historical details when it came to this play. (The real Macbeth was actually known for being a pretty good king.) The bottom line is that Malcolm is a better king than his dad for two very important reasons.

1. He leads from the front. The rightful king is right there in the thick of things during the last battle. His dad had to have some bloody captain tell him what the hell was going on while Macbeth and Banquo were kicking ass on his behalf.

2. He's a better judge of character. Duncan trusted Cawdor, and when he lamented that there's "no art" to telling what's going on in a guy's head, he turned around and praised Macbeth, who just earlier had been toying with the thought of regicide. Malcolm? He does an elaborate series of lies just to make sure that Macduff is on the up and up.

Final thoughts - I recently listened to the audiobook of A.J. Hartley's novelization of Macbeth. (Alan Cumming, who has a terrific and authentic Scottish accent, did the audio.) Anybody who's a fan of the play should check out either the book or the audiobook. It's not a dumbed-down version of the play, nor is it a straight-ahead adaptation of the play. It's a retelling of the story, making use of the strengths of a novel. It opens up the story quite a bit and delves deeper into the characters, providing some motivation that the play leaves somewhat ambiguous.

Man, I thought this blog would be short! Go figure there's lots to say about one of Shakespeare's plays.

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