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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 28 October 2018

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

The Scottish play. One of the very best. Witches tell Macbeth he will be king. His wife encourages him to assassinate King Duncan and assume the throne. One murder engenders more until the forces of retribution assemble outside the castle.

I hope to see this play on Saturday 12th January at the Barbican in an RSC production. I have previously seen a youth production which was marred by the fact that nearly every line was shouted. There is a lot of dark in Macbeth and a lot of drama; it is perhaps the most unremitting of Shakespeare's plays with only a single comic pause; even Hamlet lets up more than this intense play. But for that very reason the actors have to vary to tone. Evil can be shouty but perhaps a whispered evil is more scary, especially when it acts as contrast.

Macbeth is a play with many themes. It was first performed in 1606 at Hampton Court in front of King James who was descended from Banquo. It was a few months after the Gunpowder Plot so the idea of treason was very topical. There are a couple of references to 'equivocation' in Macbeth, most notably in Act 2 Scene 3. Equivocation was practised by some Roman Catholic priests (who were banned persons in Shakespeare's time) because their vows would not permit them to tell a lie to the authorities but they could say things that were true if you interpreted them correctly. Thus, for example, the prophecies made by the witches in Act Four Scene One are equivocal; they are taken by Macbeth to mean that he cannot be killed but in fact outline the circumstances of his downfall. Since the trial of Father Garnet which brought equivocation to the attention of the Jacobean public was in the Spring of 1606 it would seem that Macbeth was almost certainly written after this time. These poses problems for those who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's plays since he died in 1604.

Macbeth is full of motifs which play to the idea of equivocation, or saying one thing when the other is true. For example, in the very first scene, the dramatic opening of three witches on a blasted heath, they talk about losing and winning (they will meet again "when the battle's lost and won"), a theme continued in the last line of scene 2 when King Duncan says “What he [Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.”; and they say that "fair is foul and foul is fair" which is repeated in Macbeth's first line (A1S3): “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. Shakespeare repeatedly uses irony to underscore this point about equivocation: Macbeth is called 'noble', his wife is called 'gentle'; we will see these are very far from the truth.

The story is that Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy that he will become King. When the King comes to stay in Macbeth's castle, M, urged on by his wife, Lady M, assassinates the King. The King's sons flee and Macbeth becomes King. But “To be thus is nothing; /But to be safely thus.” To secure his crown Macbeth must murder his friend Banquo and those who are suspicious of how he attained the throne, killing Macduff's wife and children when he is unable to capture Macduff. Eventually, the forces of opposition lead an army against him and he goes down fighting.

This play has some wonderful dramatic moments, such as the witches, and in the very centre of the play the ghost of Banquo, seen only by Macbeth. It has Lady Macbeth sleep-walking, maddened by her conscience. It only has one comic moment which occurs immediately after the assassination of Duncan. It also has some profound and some heart-rending meditations on betrayal, murder, and death.
  • Prophecy:
    • If you can look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not, /Speak then to me” 
  • Fate:
    • If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/ Without my stir.
  • Ambition:
    • "I fear thy nature, /It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness /To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, /Art not without ambition, but without /The illness should attend it."
  • Wicked womanhood:
    • "Come, you spirits /That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, /And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full /Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; /Stop up the access and passage to remorse, /That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between /The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, /And take my milk for gall"
    • "I have given suck, and know /How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: /I would, while it was smiling in my face, /Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, /And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you /Have done to this."
  • Uncertainty:
    • "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well /It were done quickly: if the assassination /Could trammel up the consequence, and catch /With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, /But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, /We'd jump the life to come."
  • Insomnia (as a result of a guilty conscience):
    • "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! /Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, /Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, / The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, /Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, /Chief nourisher in life's feast .../Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor /Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more."
  • Life and death:
    • To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, /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.”
Professor Sir Jonathan Bate in a Gresham College Lecture originally delivered 27th March 2019 at the Museum of London points out that “in classical literature, ghosts have three main functions: to call for vengeance if they have been murdered, to warn society of bad times to come, and to demand proper burial, without which they cannot proceed into the underworld. ... Shakespeare’s development of the figure of the ghost is to combine what could be described as the classical nemesis and augury functions – the ghost as sign that the downfall of the murderer is nigh or that something is rotten in the state – with a modern conscience function, the idea that the apparition is a figment of the guilty imagination of the person who thinks they see it.” He then suggests that in Macbeth the nemesis function is provided by the witches while the auguries come from the strange things happening in the natural world.

Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship suggests that the biggest problem facing Macbeth's author was that “Tragedy demands some sympathy with the fortunes of its hero.”. That this is achieved in Macbeth is shown by the fact that the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth alone (and the audience). Furthermore, as Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, the proper subject for tragedy has to be a good man who goes wrong through weakness. But Macbeth goes spectacularly wrong along every dimension. He is a soldier who betrays his general, a subject who betrays his king, a host who murders his guest, a gift-receiver who betrays the trusting giver, a strong man who murders the defenceless. Q-C compares him to Milton's Satan who says “Evil, be thou my good”, which is a version of “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. The only way in which the audience can understand the multiply evil Macbeth is if they feel that he is somehow not in his right mind. For Elizabethan audiences madness was unlovely (they punished lunatics) but they believed that witches could enchant. This is the reason for the witches.

Q-C also suggests that Shakespeare “has deliberately flattened down every other character to throw up Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into high relief.” The only other character of interest is that of Banquo who acts as "a peaceful focus radiating the calm of moral solution throughout all the difficulties and disasters of surrounding fate; a vital centre, which, like that of a great wheel, has little motion in itself, but which at once transmits and controls the fierce revolution of the circumference.” Shakespeare often used such a character: Horatio in Hamlet and Kent in King Lear are other examples. This is why Shakespeare changes history to ensure the Banquo does not take part in Duncan's assassination and this is why Macbeth has Banquo killed: not because B is a danger to him but because B acts as a reproach.

Finally, Q-C suggests that Macbeth is like a Greek tragedy: “Though it is full of blood and images of blood, the important blood-shedding is hidden, removed from the spectator’s sight ... Duncan is murdered off the stage; Lady Macbeth dies off the stage; Macbeth makes his final exit fighting, to be killed off the stage.

October 2018

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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