Why This Play?:
I just finished this week’s FutureLearn lesson on Macbeth. It was easily the most interesting yet. We examined Elizabethean attitudes about witchcraft, the idea of frenzy versus actual madness, and medical practices of the time. We asked ourselves about the nature of evil and Shakespeare’s radical idea that in Macbeth, evil comes from within a man himself rather than through divine/demonic intervention.
We all see glimpses of evil every day. Simply turn on your phone, scroll through some daily headlines, and read about horrible things that people do to each other. I thought upon reading this play that I’d probably end up writing about the supernatural (it’s fun and interesting!) in this post. Last weekend’s news out of Lebanon and France shifted my thoughts to this question: how do we deal with everyday evil?
So What Happens?:
In one of his most intriguing and memorable openings, Shakespeare starts this play with a meeting of three witches. They plan to meet again when they can cross Macbeth’s path. Right away, the audience is on edge, knowing that strange and terrible events are about to unfold. The Scots are battling Norway, and the Thane of Cawdor has turned traitor against King Duncan. Macbeth (Thane of Glamis) valiantly fights and leads them on to victory. Macbeth and his buddy Banquo are walking around after the battle when they come upon the witches. They prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and eventually king, and that Banquo will beget kings. Then King Duncan comes along and names Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is STOKED…until Duncan says that his son Malcolm will succeed him as king. Now all Macbeth can do is dwell on how he will become king, as the witches foretold.
He writes all these events in a letter to Lady Macbeth, confessing his ambition. She determines that the only way for her husband to claim the throne will be to kill Duncan. Lo and behold, a messenger shows up to announce that both the king and her husband will be at her castle later that evening. Lady Macbeth instantly goes from hypothetical brainstorming on how to seize power to fully plotting a murder to occur that very night. Macbeth arrives and she urges him to get on board. She’s going to make sure Duncan’s guards fall into a boozy sleep, and Macbeth will have to off the king.
Anticipating the murders, Macbeth starts to freak out. He has visions of a dagger and questions his motivation and ability to commit murder of an innocent. But he goes forth with it anyway and kills Duncan. Lady M berates him for bringing the murder weapons into their chamber instead of leaving them with the sleeping guards to frame them. He won’t go back to fix it, so she does, although her bravado starts to fade after she views Duncan’s bloody corpse. They clean themselves while a drunk Porter gives a funny monologue about tenants of hell knocking on the door of the castle. By morning, Macduff goes to wake Duncan, and comes back screaming that he’s been killed. All the lords go check out the scene, and Macbeth kills the guards under the guise that he’s enraged over their alleged murder of the king. Everyone buys the story, although Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, decide to flee to England and Ireland respectively in case danger would await them, as they are line for the crown. So the only person left to lead Scotland is Macbeth, who is named king.
Banquo recalls the witches’ predictions and realizes that Macbeth’s quick rise to power is a little fishy. He’s out visiting Macbeth, and goes out on a horse ride with his son Fleance before the king’s big banquet. Macbeth also remembers the witches’ words about Banquo fathering kings, so he recruits a few creepy guys to go murder Banquo and Fleance. Macbeth’s really on edge about retaining his power, and Lady M tries to calm him down. Banquo is killed, but Fleance gets away. Macbeth is not happy with this news, but the banquet has begun. He tries to be the gracious host, but when he sees the ghost of Banquo at the party, he loses it. He starts talking to Banquo (whom only he can see), and all the guests are stunned. Lady M tries to brush it off as a common affliction, and asks all the guests to quickly leave. Macbeth is now upset that Macduff wasn’t at the disastrous banquet. He also decides he needs to seek out the witches again. Macduff has fled to England (for incurring the king’s wrath for missing dinner?), meeting up with Malcolm, who is taking refuge with the English king and attempting to build an army.
The witches are back, and they’re brewing up a potion. Macbeth consults with them to see how long his reign will continue. The witches conjure three ghosts to report answers: a guy in armor warns him about Macduff, a bloody child warns him to beware anyone not born of woman, and a kid holding a branch tells him his power will hold until Birnum Wood moves to Dunsinane. Macbeth thinks this means he’s made in the shade…until the witches show him the long line of kings that will descend from Banquo. But in learning that Macduff has run off to England, he vows vengeance.
Lady Macduff laments to kinsman Ross about her husband’s abrupt abandonment of his family. Ross offers the cold comfort that Macduff is viewed as a traitor to Scotland as well. Lady Macduff is talking with her young son about his father when Macbeth’s hired murderers burst into their home. In a horrifying scene that really indicates how far Macbeth’s ambition has pushed him over the edge into evil, the boy is stabbed to death in front of his mother. The murderers then close in on her. In England, Malcolm and Macduff talk in guarded phrases to test each other’s loyalty to Scotland and desire to stage an uprising. Apparently, English King Edward is a magical and generous man who can cure people through his touch and is willing to help Malcolm by lending an army. Ross arrives and reluctantly relays the news of the Macduff family massacre. This is all the tortured Macduff needs to agree to fight with Malcolm. It’s time to take back Scotland.
At Dunsinane castle, a disturbed Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, which has become her new norm. Her waiting woman and doctor observe her hysterical and guilty pantomime of hand washing. It’s clear she’s completely come undone. Macbeth is readying for battle against Malcolm and his supporters (who are cutting down tree branches in Birnum Wood to disguise their troops’ progress as they advance). He receives the news that Lady M has died, and he rails against the futility of life. It now appears that Birnum Wood is marching toward Dunsinane, just as the witches warned. But Macbeth is bold and believes he’s invincible due to the other prophecies, and he dives into battle. When Macduff enters the scene, he reveals that he was not exactly “born from woman” but was birthed by C-section. Macduff kills Macbeth, fulfilling the witches’ tales. Macduff presents Macbeth’s severed head to new King of Scotland, Malcolm. Scotland has been freed from evil reign, and a great kingdom is restored. Bagpipes may or may not now play a hymn.
Check This Out:
I find Led Zeppelin makes for very effective listening when reflecting on Macbeth. Dazed and Confused, Battle of Evermore, When the Levee Breaks…all excellent for highly creepy and atmospheric reflection.
You can’t mention “The Scottish Play” without mentioning the curse. The play itself is supposedly rife with disaster for the actors, to the point where actors (no matter what play they’re staging), simply avoid uttering the name Macbeth. I like to joke that I’m victim of the curse. In a high school production of Take Her, She’s Mine, my co-star Derek taunted the whole idea of the curse, laughingly bellowing “Macbeth!!” backstage prior to one of our shows. The following morning, I woke up with my very first case of laryngitis. I could barely croak out a full sentence, which was problematic as I was playing one of the leads and the school didn’t cast understudies. My father insisted that a smidge of bourbon with the juice of a lemon would help, despite the fact that I was 17 (a remedy I still enjoy to this day!). I’m still not sure if it was that or the copious amounts of tea I drank all day, but I was able to (hoarsely) make it through the final night of the show without having to cancel. I don’t think any of us truly bought into the curse, but Derek was contrite about the whole thing and it added to the list of silly legends the Drama Club liked to tell.
In other posts, you may have heard me wax on and on for my deep love of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows. The second season follows the New Burbage company’s attempt to put on Macbeth, despite the fact that it’s “an extraordinarily difficult play to stage effectively”. This is my favorite season of the show – it’s a careful balance of Macbeth/Lady M’s fall into madness and Geoffrey’s (the director) own struggles with his mental health. Plus GHOSTS. Watch this clip that manages to encompass the question of evil, handling the curse of the Scottish play, and the season’s theme song (utterly hilarious, and each season has a different one).
Orson Wells directed Macbeth in the 1930s, with an African-American cast and a Haitian setting. It’s known as the Voodoo Macbeth, and there are clips of it online. A prime example of how Shakespeare can be reimagined into different settings and times. It’s astounding.
Thoughts and Themes:
Macbeth is an examination on the nature of evil. I’m writing this in the days after the horrible terrorist attacks on Paris and Beirut. Both are insane examples of violence against innocent people as a means of demonstrating power and dominance. And in both circumstances, literary and real, nothing is gained from all the death that is wrought. Neither brings peace of mind or any lasting change that the perpetrator can enjoy.
I don’t want to delve into the motivations of ISIS, or xenophobia in the face of refugees pouring into Europe and elsewhere, or the grisly details of the attacks. These are things that exist, and I’m not ignoring that – more like I don’t want to spout off uninformed opinions on topics that are so volatile and painful for many. But events like these are the core-shaking moments that are inescapable, even half a world away. They are the reminders that evil does exist, and that it absolutely can intrude upon our everyday lives. Targeting innocent bystanders simply to make some horrible point...that’s a tale as old as time.
It’s easy to argue which is the most horrifying scene in the play; there are plenty. For my money, it’s the murder of Macduff’s family. I watched the 1978 production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. This is a marvelously unnerving show (e.g. what the hell is that broken baby doll head Macbeth is toting around in Act V?!?!). Act IV, scene 2 is staged like a modern day horror movie. The murderers simply emerge from the shadows in the Macduff home, black masks obscuring their faces. One of them plays with the son, bouncing the boy on his knee while stabbing him. These men intrude upon a regular evening at home, attacking innocent people who have nothing to do with the political quarrel at hand. It’s the most coldblooded of all the deaths in the play (maybe all of Shakespeare); it is done solely in the name of vengeance, and the version I watched was brutally playful. [Don’t get me started on the Polanski version of the same scene, which is longer and more violent.] I’m the weirdo who likes horror movies, but violence against children literally keeps me awake at night, worrying. It can even be hard for me to sleep after fictional stories where children are terrorized.
Almost anyone who becomes a parent can tell you that from the day you know you’re pregnant, it’s very, very easy to become wracked with fear just by watching the morning newscast. Suddenly, all the terrible things happening in the world are at least 78 times worse, because your tiny, innocent babe is now a part of the same world in which they take place. The ante is upped; you have way more to lose in the event that evil people come into your life. Any news story you hear about children being harmed in any way is gut wrenching, and your empathy levels are at an all-time high. You Google weird things like “how to prevent child sexual abuse” or “escape car in water with baby” (easily my strangest and most irrational fear).
I wake early every morning to the sound of my kids thumping out of their beds and into my room. They bounce onto my husband and me in bed, then worm their way under our covers to wake us up and snuggle. I turn the local morning news on the TV, and there’s a good 10-15 minutes of us in bed before we get up to get started on the day. My daughter has begun paying attention to news stories, and the clever girl asks lots of questions. Hubs and I try to answer as honestly as we can. These questions are getting harder to answer, particularly when she questions the motivations of why we have wars and why people kill one another. She’s far too smart for me to lie or cover up the truth. I can gloss over some bits, but too little info leaves too much room for her imagination to go into overdrive. So we’ve started introducing real world topics in small, controlled doses. For example, to teach her about the concept of war and how it can affect people even when it’s far away, we read the American Girl stories about Molly, a girl growing up while her father is off fighting in World War II. These stories have led to condensed conversations about Hitler and the fact that refugees have to flee their homes.
I’m about to spout off a few clichés, but clichés can hold some powerful truth, right? Mr. Rogers instructed children in times of fear and confusion to “look for the helpers”:
It’s the Facebook meme you see everywhere whenever a natural disaster happens. I adored Mr. Rogers when I was small, and I still believe he’s probably one of the most legitimately kind people who ever walked the earth. This nugget of advice is a lovely way to comfort confused children. But I think we have to take a step further with our kids. I want mine to know that they can look for helpers when they are saddened by bad things happening in the world – but that it will make them feel far better to do something to help as well.
Back to the recent terror attacks. So how does one make it better? How does one help in a situation where one feels powerless and removed? How do we set a good example for our children in the aftermath of horrors that don’t directly affect their day-to-day lives aside from scary news stories? My girl and I have been talking a lot recently about the concept of donation – of your time, your own things, or money. We talk about how we have so much, and others are struggling. She’s starting to get that those with enough have an obligation to help. We talk about some organizations, and how even when we can’t physically help people who are hurting, we have a way to help them get assistance. The following are organizations that we like:
There’s no way for me to forever shield my kids from the goings-on of the world. So we work on how to be observant and inquisitive, empathetic and solution-oriented. Prayers are wonderful, but actions speak louder than words.
How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
(V.i The Merchant of Venice)