It has put a spell on me, this play. The assignment at the University of Stockholm was to read a few pages from Macbeth. Ever the dutiful student, I read them. And read them again. Then went home, sat at the kitchen table, alone in the flat, and read the whole play. Aloud. And my life as a Shakespeare freak was firmly established.
I’m not the only one, obviously, to regard Macbeth as one of the absolute giants of world literature. But what is it that caught me in its spell that day at the kitchen table, and continues to do so to this day? The answer is so obvious it’s almost trite, but still true. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the three weird sisters. Far from the stereotypes they have become, these three characters (if I may regard the sisters as one) are so complex and mysterious that they continue to confound and elude us, and to fascinate.
And so, a brief look at the witches, the lady and the king hereafter.
The three witches open the play with some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines:
First witch: When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second witch: When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
First witch: Where the place?
Second witch: Upon the heath.
Third witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
What an atmosphere these few lines create! Storm, tumult, battle, paradox – “fair is foul, and foul is fair”. It doesn’t bode well for the poor fellow Macbeth, whoever he is. How much are the witches simply predicting, and how much are they engineering? From the very beginning, there is the magic of uncertainty in the play.
We meet the trio soon again in Act 1.3. Again it is stormy and they are discussing a local sailor and his wife. He’s on his way to Aleppo and they’re planning on sending a storm to destroy him? Why? What do the witches have against these two? There is a hint in the unkindness shown the witches by the wife who refused to share her chestnuts and told them to go away but more than that, the three aren’t telling. They are outcasts, they are dangerous.
Enter Banquo and Macbeth. Banquo describes them as “withered”, “wild”, “skinny”, “bearded” and possibly not of this earth, but he seems more amused by them than frightened. They say little in the exchange. Simply the fateful, “All hail, Macbeth…thane of Glamis…of Cawdor…the king hereafter.” And to Banquo: “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater…thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”
And so the paths of Macbeth and Banquo are set. Why are the witches doing this? “Are they responsible,” Stephen Greenblatt asks in the Norton introduction, “by magical influence or by planting the idea in his mind, for his decision to kill Duncan? Are they somehow privy to a predestined fate…Or… are they uncanny emblems of Macbeth’s psychological condition…?” (page 2573). We don’t know. Like all magic, we don’t know if it causes our fate to take place, or simply predicts it, or if it comes from within ourselves.
The next time we see the witches is in Act 3.5 but here they are being chastised by their boss Hecate for taking their own initiative without letting her be part of the fun. She’s very keen to be part of Macbeth’s downfall and willingly or not the three let her get involved.
Which leads us to the famous “Double, double” scene.
Both hugely comical and horrible, this scene has more or less brainwashed us in the past four hundred years into believing this is how witches are. Who in the western world, and possibly the rest, has not heard, “Eye of newt and toe of frog” and recognized it as a magic spell? Who has not pictured all the yucky things being tossed into the cauldron, forever identifying this once everyday object – it’s just a big pot, after all – with magic? “Poisoned entrails…wool of bat…scale of dragon…liver of blaspheming Jew [OMG!]…nose of Turk [these witches are terrible racists if nothing else]…Finger of birth-strangled babe…” Talk about having to laugh in order not to throw up!
If Shakespeare tells us what they actually do with this ghastly potion, I’ve missed it. I can’t see that Macbeth drinks it or anything. And in fact after the famous line, “Something wicked this way comes”, announcing the arrival of Macbeth, the three witches step back, allowing their masters to give Macbeth the three prophesies: watch out for Macduff, don’t worry otherwise, you’ll be OK as long as you stay away from men not born of women and moving forests. The role of the three witches now is to admonish Macbeth to shut up and listen. And then they vanish.
They’ve certainly done their bit. Macbeth is on his way to his violent doom. But what exactly have they done? The question remains unanswered. “…the status of the witches in Shakespeare’s play remains uncertain and seems to be so by design,” writes Greenblatt (page 2574). Oh Shakespeare! You’re such a master of confounding and enthralling your readers! How can I not love these witches?
Lady Macbeth, then. Everyone loves to hate her. She’s one of the most hated women in literature. What’s magical about her? Only that she has bewitched the world into seeing her as evilly ambitious when she, in fact, isn’t so different from the rest of us.
Ambitious, yes, of course. Evil? Well, define evil. Her role is so often played as a vicious sexpot and that is so wrong. She is, when she gets her husband’s letter, happy for his success and aware of the aspects of his character that will make it difficult for him to step into the unexpected role of king. She is a keen observer of character and an astute politician in an era when most kings are murdered so that their successor may take over the throne. Her lines, as she reads and ponders the letter, should not be read viciously or insanely or lustfully but thoughtfully and with just a suggestion of enjoyment over their royal prospects.
She does not then say, “OK, we’ll just have to kill Duncan because he’s in our way.” She says instead a whole lot of other things that show that the murder is fated and necessary and that to carry it out she will have to summon the power of the spirits to unsex her, to fill her with cruelty, to stop remorse, to bring darkness so that her “keen knife not see the wound it makes…” (Act 1.5). Lady Macbeth does not want to commit murder. She finds no vicious joy in it. She cannot, in fact, do it without the help of spirits to make her go against her nature. She cannot do it without the help of a kind of magic.
Lady Macbeth’s following lines, in which she urges her husband to fulfill the masculine role demanded of him (not just by her, it must be emphasized, but by society), should be read not with vicious lust but earnestly, analytically, pleadingly. Even the baby image, disturbing as it is, should perhaps be seen more as a symbol of how necessary the murder is (within the framework of the story) than as a literal crime Lady Macbeth would be willing to commit. Or, it could be the sign that in calling on the spirits to give her the strength to kill the king, Lady Macbeth has already stumbled over the edge. She has asked to be made cruel and remorseless, and for the moment, before the deed is actually done, she is. And her husband admires her for it, for her “undaunted mettle” (Act 1.7).
It doesn’t last long. As she waits to hear from Macbeth that the murder has been committed she tells us, “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t” (Act 2.2). Already her cruelty and remorselessness is cracking and from this point onward, through the discovery of the body, through the banquet and through to her death, Lady Macbeth falls apart. She knows from the moment Macbeth tells her the king is dead that madness and fear are going to consume her. “These deeds must not be thought/ After these ways. So it will make us mad” (Act 2.2). And, “You do unbend your noble strength to think/ So brain-sickly of things” (Act 2.2). And, “Help me hence, ho!” (Act 2.3). And
Naught’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
That by destruction dwell in doubtful joy (Act 3.2).
Remorselessness didn’t last long, did it? Be careful what you wish for…
In the banquet scene Lady Macbeth becomes more and more frantic and confused as she watches her husband go mad. Her own madness is not far off. The next we hear of her is the gentlewoman telling the doctor of her agitated insomnia and frantic hand washing. Then we see the tragic figure herself in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in literature:
Out, damned spot; out I say. One, two, - why, then ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky…who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?...What, will these hands ne’er be clean?...Here’s the smell of blood still….look not so pale…To bed, to bed. There’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed” (Act 5-1).
And then, not much later, Seyton tells Macbeth, “The Queen, my lord, is dead” (Act 5.5).
Killed by her own remorse, Lady Macbeth is not a brutal lustful vamp. She is a true victim of tragedy, a woman who does what is demanded of her but who is able to do so only by conjuring spirits – dark magic, if you will – which then leave her once again to herself once the crime is committed. A self that is as frailly human as we all are.
I love the witches and their magic. I grieve for Lady Macbeth and what magic does to her. What then of Macbeth himself?
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
The magic Macbeth works on me culminates and stuns me in these five words, the two preceding lines and in the following nine lines. This monolog is the essence of the play and its magic. It’s the essence of…everything. For everybody.
So much can be written about the character of Macbeth. Like Hamlet, every word he says can be pondered. Like Hamlet he is what we might be. Unlike Hamlet we don’t want to be like Macbeth but we want to know him. We want things to somehow turn out well for Macbeth, even though we know all along that they will not. In the “Tomorrow” monolog we magically encounter the very depth of Macbeth, and ourselves.
And there, in this monolog, to complete this discussion of the play, I will stay.
Macbeth has just been told, “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” And he says:
She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It’s a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Hereafter. King hereafter. Died hereafter. King and Queen forever. So they had been told. So had it been prophesied. “…she, like he, ought to have received what they were virtually promised: never to have died” (Mallin, page 99).
But the Queen had gone mad and is now dead. In front of him Macbeth has a bleak future of creeping days without her and now the days behind him, he sees clearly, have led to this moment. The yesterdays of his glorious victories in war, his meetings with the weird sisters who ignited his lust for power through their taunts and titles, have lit the way for him. A fool. He has been a fool not to listen to his own fears. He knew from the beginning that “this supernatural soliciting/ cannot be ill, cannot be good…If good…” he would not have immediately imagined the murder of Duncan. He should have rejected the “horrid image”, the “present fears”, “the horrible imaginings” (Act 1.3).
But his life became a shadow to his obsession for the throne, to his poor acting as a king who strutted and fretted and murdered and now here he stands, his beloved wife is dead, he has suffered the same madness of guilt that destroyed her, his kingdom has become his enemy. He knows, even though he still tries to believe in what he has thought are prophesies of his invincibility, that soon he will be “heard no more.” He knows that his life, his tale, which seems to have been so certain and successful, has in the last short time become the tale of an idiot who believed in his own delusions of grandeur. He knows that the sound and the fury, his “dread exploits” (Act 4.1) have turned “th’ingredience of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips” (Act 1.7) and that “these terrible dreams/ that shake us nightly” turn the fury onto himself and that he would “Better be with the dead...Than on the torture of the mind to lie/ In restless ecstasy” (Act 3.2).
Macbeth has known all along that his tale, in spite of the sound and fury of his crazed ambition, his crimes of murder that tortured him before and after they were committed, is the tale of an idiot. He has been so stupid! And now his wife is dead and he soon will be. It all signified…nothing.
And so it is.
The magnificence of this ultimately devastating monolog is the culmination of the magic of Macbeth. The unbreakable spell of this funny, horrifying and tragic play. This magic is not the magic of clever tricks. It is the magic of life itself and though it’s true that it signifies nothing, the magic is that at the end of the play, after the witches, after Lady Macbeth, after Macbeth himself leave the stage, we remain caught in the tragic web and we know that the sound and the fury signify…everything.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Godless Shakespeare. Mallin, Erik S. 2007.
- “Intoduction” by Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
Spinoffs and Macbeth related films seen:
- Throne of Blood 1957. Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Macbeth - Toshiro Mifune; Lady Macbeth - Isuzu Yamada. Oh what a disappointment! I had high hopes for a Kurosawa masterpiece and many people regard it as such. Not me. Boring!
- Macbeth Retold, 2005. Director: Mark Brozel. Cast: Joe Macbeth – James McAvoy ; Ella Macbeth – Keeley Hawes; Billy Banquo – Joseph Millson; Trash in collectors (Witches) – Ralph Ineson, Richard Ridings, Charles Abomeli. Not a totally successful transformation into modern times but a powerful performance by the entire cast, especially James McAvoy.
- Macbeth, BBC, 1982. Director: Jack Gold. Cast: Macbeth – Nicol Williamson; Lady Macbeth – Jane Lapotaire; Banquo – Ian Hogg; Witches – Brenda Bruce, Eileen Way and Anne Dyson. It’s very difficult to live up to my expectations of this play and the BBC version doesn’t. Williamson is just not right for the part. Lapotiare, though she starts out sleazily, does well after the murder of the king but generally the production is hammy and overacted and the music is more irritating than atmospheric. Visually it’s beautiful though. Mostly done in a somber monochrome with effective flashes of brightness and colour.
- Macbeth, 2006. Director: Geoffrey Wright. Cast: Macbeth – Sam Worthington; Lady Macbeth – Victoria Hill; Banquo – Steve Bastoni; Witches – Chloe Armstrong, Kate Bell, Miranda Nation. Set in today’s Australia in the midst of a drug lord war, this updated version works quite well. It has its problems but I quite liked it.
- Macbeth, 2010. Director: Rupert Goold. Cast: Macbeth – Patrick Stewart; Lady Macbeth – Kate Fleetwood; Banquo – Martin Turner; Witches – Niamh McGrady, Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter. I expected so much more of this version. It had its moments but as a whole, a big disappointment.
- Macbeth, 1971. Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Macbeth – Jon Finch; Lady Macbeth – Fransesca Annis ; Banquo – Martin Shaw; Witches – Maisie MacFarquhar, Elsie Taylor, Noelle Rimmington. This one is better than I remembered and the best of the actual films (as opposed to filmed stage productions) so far.
- Macbeth, 1948. Director: Orson Welles. Cast: Macbeth – Orson Welles; Lady Macbeth – Jeanette Nolan; Banquo – Edgar Barrier; Witches – Peggy Webber, Lurene Tuttle, Brainerd Duffield. Another bitter disappointment, this one. Beautiful black and white, but boring, pretentious and silly.
- A Performance of Macbeth, 1979, Director: Philip Casson. Cast: Macbeth – Ian McKellen; Lady Macbeth – Judi Dench ; Banquo – John Woodvine; Witches – Marie Kean, Judith Harte, Susan Dury. Oh see it, see it! It’s very good!
All of these except the BBC version have been reviewed on http://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/
Seen on stage:
- June 16, 2013 at the Globe Theater in London. A riveting performance. We are so lucky to have been in London and to succeed in getting tickets of this play! http://rubyjandshakespearecalling.blogspot.se/2013/07/the-globe-x-3-tempest-taming-of-shrew.html