Wednesday, 8 October 2014

'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare (1623)

Synopsis: Macbeth is set in medieval Scotland. It opens with a scene of three sinister witches gathering together during a thunderstorm. King Duncan of Scotland and his army, led by the nobleman Macbeth, have won a great victory in battle against the King of Norway. Later that night, Macbeth and his friend Banquo go travelling across the heath and encounter the three witches. They promise Macbeth that he will one day become the king of Scotland. When Macbeth is made the Thane of Cawdor he naturally begins to think that he will be the next in line for the throne. When King Duncan then visits their castle, Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to murder the king and frame a couple of innocent servants for it. As the witches prophesied, Macbeth becomes the new king of Scotland. However, since the witches also predicted that Banquo would be the father of kings, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his young son. He also sends assassins after a thane called Macduff, who is suspicious of him, and all of Macduff's family. Fear, madness and guilt tear Macbeth and his wife apart.

Macbeth is an extremely powerful play. It's full of intense and emotional dialogue and some of its scenes are downright iconic (the opening scene, Banquo's ghost crashing the party, Lady Macbeth trying to scrub her hands clean). At the time Macbeth was written the House of Tudor was no longer on the English throne and it was King James I of the Scottish House of Stuart who reigned. Shakespeare probably wrote Macbeth as a present for the king. The Stuarts believed themselves to be the descendants of Banquo and James I was obsessed with the supernatural. James would have certainly found the play interesting because when it comes to the supernatural the play completely delivers. It's got storms, menacing witches, ghosts covered in blood, prophecies, omens, murder, and an ominous and eerie atmosphere throughout. As someone who loves gothic literature I thought this was just marvellous! :)

As a character, Macbeth is both fascinating and despicable. At the start of the play he seems decent enough but his insecurities about his masculinity and the pressure from his ruthlessly ambitious wife drives him into doing some appalling acts of violence. By the end of the play he's become a paranoid, homicidal lunatic. Lady Macbeth isn't all that much better although interestingly she does show some signs of genuine remorse towards the end. By far the most sympathetic character in the play is Macduff. It's really not long before you'll start rooting for the man to take Macbeth down.

Macbeth isn't my favourite out of the Shakespearean tragedies that I've read so far. This is partly because of the way that the "No man born of a woman" conclusion is handled. It's... well surely I can't be only one who thinks it's a bit weak?! And even in the time that the play is set I'm sure that a caesarian would still have counted as being "born of a woman!" But I still think that Macbeth is a brilliant play. I don't rate it as highly as Hamlet and Othello, which are my favourite Shakespeare tragedies, but I like it slightly more than Coriolanus and a lot more than Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. It's a powerful story about evil and how we can be consumed by it.

Rating: 4.5/5

P.S. Recently I also watched a filmed stage production of the play from 1981. It starred Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie as Macbeth and his wife. I've never seen Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes but I do really love his performances in My Fair Lady and the BBC's Rebecca so I was looking forward to seeing him as Macbeth. But oh dear! Unfortunately the production is hampered by some horrible direction. Scenes which should have been creepy I found unintentionally hilarious! I didn't like Piper Laurie as Lady Macbeth. In fact most of the actors in this production were bad and the only scenes that I actually liked were Brett's solo scenes and soliloquies. Such a pity. I'm really excited about seeing the upcoming Michael Fassbender-Marion Cotillard Macbeth film though! :)


Joanna said...

I have a love/hate relationship with Macbeth. It was such a good play, and you could discuss the themes for hours, but it was so creepy and sad. Or, at least, I thought it was creepier than most Shakespeare, and the only Shakespeare sadder than Macbeth was King Lear. I never liked Lady Macbeth, though, and I'm permanently afraid of her now, because I had a nightmare where she and some clowns murdered me in my sleep. It was traumatic. LOL

I am also looking forward to the new movie. It's been on my IMDb watchlist for about a year, and I totally forgot about Fassbender being in it. He's one of my new favorite actors, so I think it ought to be good. :-)

Manette said...

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play! I admire how it manages to be so dark without being melodramatic (for which I have a very low tolerance, I have to admit) and I find all of the main characters wonderfully interesting. I had the wonderful opportunity to see Macbeth at the Globe a year ago, and Billy Boyd played Banquo – that scene where his ghost crashes the party was absolutely bone-chilling! They also had extremely cool voodoo witches.

The final duel between Macbeth and Macduff has always been one of my favourite scenes, and I actually find the C-section loophole kind of clever and amusing :D I find that premise endlessly funny, perhaps because I was born by C-section myself... I also think that that little word play was an inspiration to Tolkien when the poor Witch King boasted how he can't be killed by a living man.

Hamlette said...

I really don't care for Macbeth. However, I did really enjoy a YA book called Lady Macbeth's Daughter by Lisa Klein. Cool retelling from a character that doesn't appear in the play -- I found it very engaging, while Macbeth itself doesn't reach me.

But I'll probably give the Michael Fassbender version a chance.