Y’all know me. There’s still so much that I haven’t read, despite the passing years and my unending reading list. I’d never read Macbeth before this week, and still haven’t seen it performed.
There are probably others in this same boat, and yet I figure that it’s a familiar enough play that what follows is a casual assemblage of thoughts rather than a proper summary or review.
To start with: I don’t feel guilty for having missed MacScottishplay until now, but I do feel mildly regretful. How many allusions to this have I missed? How many did I catch, but not understand as fully as I might have? I recall a story that quoted “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” verbatim, and based a horrible, torturous curse on a blade which is invisible to all but the victim. If I could find that story again, I might find that scene to be richer than before. I’ve also let references to Banquo’s ghost slip by, because who’s Banquo, and what’s his ghost up to?
But there are certain references that get explained somewhere or other – English classes,playgoers’ conversation, Startled By His Furry Shorts, etc.: witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king; prophecies get fulfilled one way or another; Lady Macbeth becomes a compulsive hand-washer; someone named Macduff gets addressed; and, if you read enough about Tolkien, apparently some copouts happen concerning the movement of Birnam Wood and the nature of vaginal childbirth vs. c-sections. The former inspires the Ents, the latter Eowyn’s greatest moment.
Here are some things I missed until I’d read the text for myself:
– There was a moment where Macbeth thought “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir.” ‘If fate wants me to be king, maybe it’ll happen without me having to, you know, kill anyone.’ It’d make for a quieter play, presumably, but also a less direct plot. I’m checking Ao3 to see if that fanfic’s been written yet.
– Despite the one moment of “Hmm, murder might not be necessary,” Macbeth really gets down to his bloody business quite swiftly. I didn’t expect him to be Hamlet, but I also didn’t expect him to stab three people before the second act ends, hire a couple murderers to stab two more people in the third act, somehow get a third murderer involved (possibly to ensure the silence of the first two murderers, which means it’s turning into one of Doze Plans Vere You Lose You Hat) thereafter, and have all of Scotland at war by the end.
– I read a few pages of lit crit, analyzing whether Macbeth is guiltless (or…less culpable, anyway) because his wife egged him on; these conclude that she didn’t take up the knife herself because her nerve failed her, and the fact that Macbeth did, in fact, stab a bunch of people indicates that it is not solely his wife’s ambition, but also his own, that drives him.
– On account of this, it is the witches who say “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” of Macbeth. I had never realized that the witches say this line, for some reason, nor had I realized that in so doing, they are referring to Macbeth: a man so full of evil that he is no longer a man, and is above all else a wicked Unman.
– Macbeth’s ambition and how it plays out strikes me as somehow naive. Okay, you’ve been hailed as king-to-be…but…is that throne what you really want, if you can’t have it without killing your kinsman and your friends in a complete inversion of every rule of hospitality? Do you really want this power if everyone hates both how you acquired it and how you wield it? One commentary on “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” submits that Macbeth recognizes how much shorter and unhappier his wife’s life became because of their actions. Idjit.
– Relatedly, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” is a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’ve killed so many people to BE thus. There is nowhere to fly from death even when you aren’t a murderous villain, but, you know. Being a murderous villain doesn’t really protect you from the people who frown on that sort of thing. Killing a castle full of civilians just gives your enemies more motivation for revenge!
– Also seemingly foolish: to rely on “Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” without turning the verbiage inside and out. I suppose we 21st-century readers have the benefit of centuries of hindsight/textual analysis here, but…I dunno, it’s not like they defined their terms for you. “None of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,” but no one said you couldn’t get attacked by an animal, or a virus, or a natural disaster – leaving aside the verb “born” and how thin those hairs can be split. Or, where the Wood is concerned…the 2015 film apparently involves Macduff burning the wood, and the ash thereof floats on the wind to the castle and retains its role as screening the soldiers’ numbers. Or perhaps it could be made into paper. If you’re going to be guilt-wracked and paranoid, then by golly be thorough about it.
In sum: Macbeth is a short but crazy ride, chock full of memorable lines and well worth the read. May it take you less time to get around to it than it took me, and may you share all your own thoughts and reactions to it below!