Shakespeare Saturday: Macbeth

Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.

The Scottish is still my favourite of all Shakespeare plays. It is a Gothic tale of ambition and desire for power, the main character destroying himself through his obsession with the prophecy that one day he will become King, his obsession driven on by his wife. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is the one most steeped in magic and superstition, and not just on the stage – actors widely believe it’s cursed, and the performance history is supposedly checkered with mayhem and tragedy (more often than not brought on by a self-fulfilling prophecy, I’m sure).

macbethandbanquo-witchesMacbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army; he and Banquo have successfully defeated the invading Irish and Norse (vikings!) armies led by two traitorous Scotts, McDonald and the Thane of Cawdor. On their way back from the battle, they are stopped by the three witches. The witches offer prophecies to both men – from hereafter, Macbeth will become first the Thane of Cawdor and then the King.

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, thou shalt be king hereafter!

To Banquo they tell that he will be less successful than Macbeth, but happier, and although he will not become king, his offspring will.

First Witch:
Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.

Second Witch:
Not so happy, yet much happier.

Third Witch:
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!

As soon as the witches vanish, the first part of their prophecy if fulfilled; as the traitorous Thane of Cawdor is being put to death, Macbeth will inherit the title. If he was skeptical at first, he isn’t anymore. He tells his wife about the prediction, and she pushes him into murdering King Duncan, who is staying in their castle that night. Macbeth cannot bring himself to finish the deed, and so she steps in, stabbing the King. Duncan’s sons flee to England and Ireland respectively, and Macbeth assumes the throne.

Both he and Banquo are aware of the dual nature of the witches’ prophecy – Banquo’s heir will become king one day. To secure his power, the heirless Macbeth tries to murder both the father and the son, and while he succeeds in having Banquo killed, his son Fleance escapes. During a royal banquet, Macbeth is visited by Banquo’s ghost, who (invisible to everyone else) accusingly sits on Macbeth’s chair. Horrified, Macbeth visits the three witches again, and they show him three apparitions – an armoured head, a bloody child, and a crowned child.

First Apparition:
Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;
Beware the thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.

Second Apparition:
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Third Apparition:
Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

banquoHe then asks if Banquo’s heirs will ever reign Scotland, and the witches show him a procession of eight kings, the last one carrying a mirror showing more kings, each resembling Banquo. After the witches have disappeared, the Thane of Lennox arrives bringing news that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth orders his castle to be seized and his family and servants killed.

Back in the castle, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, rubbing her hands together as if washing them, trying to get the invisible blood of Duncan, Banquo and Lady Macduff out of them.

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

soubreIn England, Macduff receives the news of his family’s death, and enraged with grief joins forces with Malcolm; they will return to Scotland to challenge Macbeth. They stop at Birnam Wood, cutting down trees to use as camouflage, and when Macbeth hears of this, he is terrified. Macduff and Macbeth meet in the battlefield; when Macbeth tells of the prophecy – that he cannot be killed by a man born of a woman – Macduff tells him that he was cut from his mother’s womb, not born of her.

And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripp’d.

Macbeth realises too late, that he has misunderstood the witches’ prophecies – they were warnings, not promises. Doomed, he continues to fight until Macduff beheads him, fulfilling the last part of the prophecy. Malcolm takes his father’s place as the King of Scotland, promising peace; he also tells that Lady Macbeth took her own life. The fate of Banquo’s heirs is left open, but the contemporary audiences would have thought that King James VI and I was a descendant of him (as per Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, he was considered a historical figure).

004536Macbeth is the only Shakespeare play that leaves me at complete awe.  There’s a darkness, literal and figurative, sense of futility, eeriness, and yet its language is perhaps more beautiful than in any other of his plays.

The weird sisters on the heath, their magic cauldrons and their prophecies, the sinister portents all show themselves in a different light when we put them in the context of the time. Macbeth was written around 1606; six years later the Pendle witches – twelve people accused of using magic to murder ten people – were brought on trial at the Lancashire assizes, and executed by hanging. King James VI and I had become obsessed with and paranoid about witchcraft, believing that Scottish witches were trying to kill him. For the contemporary audiences the witches and their magic would have been genuinely terrifying and real. Yet what they do is protective – they tell Macbeth that he’s to become king, but they also warn him, and it is Macbeth’s own character, rather than the witches’ doing, that he pursues the course he has chosen.

Macbeth is a man ill-suited for the roles he takes – he is not a charming man or natural leader, nor is he a murderer. One of the English scholars I know described him as a man gripped by psychosis – the meeting with the witches unleashes something in him, and spirals deeper into the darkness of it as the play progresses. Shakespeare dresses him in ill-fitting clothes, suggesting that he’s uncomfortable in his very skin. It is his wife who is the more resolute, more powerful party in this marriage; she is a terrifying character – her conflicted femininity, her unquestioning willingness to murder those on her husband’s way, her claim that she’d kill her own child had she decided/promised to do so – but somehow she also manages to be the more sympathetic one. She (perhaps as a concession to her femininity) is also the one who suffers the remorse and guilt that Macbeth (who mostly seems afraid for himself, for his own sake) is incapable of feeling.

Every time I search for pictures of Lady Macbeth, this Mrs Wertheimer portrait by John Singer Sargent comes up.
Every time I search for pictures of Lady Macbeth, this Mrs Wertheimer portrait by John Singer Sargent comes up.

Another aspect of Macbeth is family and (perhaps even) love – between fathers and sons, within families, even between Macbeth and his wife. The loss of a child, perhaps the inability to have more, is a silent sorrow between the husband and the wife, the lack of heir a source of anxiety to Macbeth (when the murderers tell him that Banquo’s son has fled, he claims to be “cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears” by this). When Macduff receives the news that his whole family has been killed, he exclaims “he has no children”, meaning that in his eyes Macbeth cannot begin to understand the injustice done to Macduff, the sheer horror of killing young children. He fled and left his family behind, because he couldn’t even imagine that they would not be safe, so unthinkable this deed is.

Is is any good?

As said, it’s my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

Fun fact

The phrase goes Lay on, Macduff (and be damned he who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!), not Lead on, Macduff.

What say thou?

Macbeth has too many good lines to mention, despite the fact that it’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays (it has about 2500 lines against, say, Hamlet’s little over 4000). The most famous speech is in Act 5, scene 5; Macbeth has found out that his wife dead, and knows that Malcolm’s army is approaching. In a burst of existential anguish, he speaks what are to me the finest words Shakespeare wrote.

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 is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Best character

Lady Macbeth – she’s one of the very few grown women in Shakespeare, and perhaps more complex and fully rounded than any of them. She is ambitious and ruthless, and yet so human that she is brought down by horrible guilty conscious following the horrors she and Macbeth commit. She is a woman who is (presumably) both unable to have children, and desiring to overcome the limitations (unsex me now) the medieval society puts on women, to overcome what is seen as the the feminine weaknesses.


The 2015 Justin Kurzel film starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. It is fittingly awe-inspiring, set in a bleak world of muddy fields and grey skies, the highlanders living in wooden houses and worshipping in wooden churches, the viking influence on the aesthetics clear. The three witches are a little girl, a young woman, and an older woman, mutely observing the events as they unroll, stripped off any hocus pocus magicks and for that, all the more sinister. Some text and some characters have been cut, but the spirit of the play doesn’t suffer.


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