Macbeth, Makers, “The Scottish Play”, “The Porter Show”: Macbeth (Mac) goes by many names and comes in many forms. I would argue that Mac enjoys the widest range of persons amongst all of Shakespeare’s plays. People who don’t necessarily like Shakespeare will still get excited about this play. It is the biggest hit (usually) with high school students who have the “great tragedies” (and Romeo and Juliet) thrust upon them. And why not? With witches, ghosts, invisible daggers, murder most foul (or is that just Hamlet?), revenge – Mac is an explosion of excitement! It is also one of the shortest plays, which means that beyond a bit of a lull in Act IV, there is not much taking away from the
good bits. The language is also quite captivating, unlike All’s Well That Ends Well, which would have Bartlett scratching his head looking for a good quote, in Mac they constantly jump out at you. Lines like: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” (I.vii): lines that do not carry much meaning but have a great sound to them. And you don’t need to have any knowledge of the play to love Lady Macbeth’s speech:
“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, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’” (I.v)
And then there’s the opposing view: those “great Shakespeare scholars” who hide in their metaphorical tower looking down on the rest of us. I tried to get into the tower once or twice to use the washroom but was pointed out by old men with large beards. At any rate, they claim that Mac is for the lowest of the low, a piece of populist drivel, the shallowest of Shakespeare’s works since Two Gentlemen of Verona. There is nothing to get out of it but cheap entertainment. This may be an extreme, but I have seen and heard this view expressed many times. I will grant these scholars that Mac may not have the same web-like structure of Hamlet, where when you begin to pull one thread, a hundred more spawn. With Mac there is a bit of “what you see is what you get” happening. Wilson Knight in this excellent, albeit out-dated, book The Wheel of Fire, does a good job of disproving the point I just made. He points to the vagueness that runs through the play that makes us question how much we really know about what is happening. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to read an essay that makes you think: “wow, Timon of Athens is a great play,” look at The Wheel of Fire because that is the only place (that I have found so far) that you will find it. In what follows I want to demonstrate that just because Mac is a popular work, perhaps at times full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, it still has the greatness and depth that the five High Tragedies are celebrated for.
Now, it is true, or mostly likely true, that Mac was put on to impress the new king, James I. In this way it has a lot in common with Vergil’s Aeneid: Vergil was told to write an epic that glorified Augustus Caesar. Similarly, Shakespeare tries to glorify his King through the character of Banquo. Banquo was Macbeth’s faithful companion in battle, and a great soldier, and a great man. King James I claimed that his lineage could be traced back to Banquo, as Augustus claimed his lineage back to Aeneas. Now, according to the source of Mac, Banquo was a bloody warrior – as was Macbeth, as well as Duncan – everyone in Scotland who vied for power was ruthless. But Shakespeare wanted to please his king so he made Banquo a more saintly man. But this is really the only concession that Shakespeare makes in an otherwise brilliant play.
The play famously starts with the three witches talking about when they will meet again: “in thunder, lighting, or in rain” – why not all three? Having the power to forecast the weather they decide that their meeting will be later that day, and they will go to meet Macbeth. Then they leave. Yes, they leave. The thing is that in several productions, as well as according to many people who describe the play, being only slightly familiar with it, Macbeth and Banquo appear right at the start and are confronted by the witches. Many cut out the scene between the two scenes with the witches – the one where King Duncan is talking with his men. And why not? It is a boring scene in between two exciting ones. However, there is a really interesting element to this oft lost scene. In Act I, scene ii we learn that the Thane of Cawdor is a coward. Duncan removes his title and says to present it to Macbeth. In the next scene, the witches “foretell” that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor (and then of course it happens). So because of the dramatic irony, we know what is going to happen even before the witches do. We are given the same prophetic power that they are – and we don’t even have to handle the eye of newt! What does this say about the witches’ powers? Should we think less of them because they aren’t really prophesizing anything? Some people are like Macbeth, whose mind is rapt by the fact that the witches have accurately “prophesized” that he will be Thane of Cawdor, and who further prophesize that he will be King. Others are like Banquo, who is more sceptical of the witches. Banquo is told by them that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (I.iii). They are of course referring to the eventual ascendency of King James I. This blending of fact and fiction, as well as the witches foretelling what we already know makes them more interesting than just weird women with beards, meant to entertain the lowest common denominator. They are not characters in the play but the directors of Macbeth’s actions. They control how Macbeth acts, and by extension they also control how Lady Macbeth acts. They create in these two characters that poor player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage”: they anticipate what Pirandello will do in the 20th century and trap his characters in a play. And there are consequences to this – which I will get to shortly. But when it comes down to it, Mac is really a meta-theatrical work.
So, Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawsor and believes that he soon will be king. He sends a letter home to his wife about everything that has happened thus far, and she immediately decides that Duncan must die so her husband can be king (see her speech that I posted earlier). Much has been made of L. Macbeth, some say she is a product of misogyny, some say she is wonderful. It is hard to explain why she so quickly bends her thoughts to murdering the king. All she has is a letter about an encounter with witches who said that her husband would be king. I would think that she might want to wait until Macbeth gets home, get him to explain this a bit more, maybe decide where she stands on witches; but no, she goes straight to scheming about murder. I can’t decide if this is brilliance or poor character development. Her rashness either makes her more of a villain than Iago or Edmund – who are cruel for the sake of being cruel – or demonstrates some weakness in women. I’m not sure. But Macbeth gets home and she lays out her plan. He is sceptical but says he will go with it. Duncan comes and there is a feast for him and then we learn that Macbeth is having second thoughts. Duncan has been so good to him, given him so much – why should he kill him? L. Macbeth scolds him, questions his manhood, and convinces him to carry forward with the plan. They will murder Duncan in his sleep, drug his two guards and place the bloody dagger on their bodies (smeared with blood). So Macbeth finally “screws his courage to the sticking-place” and after a wonderful monologue with an invisible dagger, he goes to kill the king. He comes back and tells his wife about the deed and she scolds him for not leaving the dagger. He, immediately filled with remorse will not go back to return the dagger so she does it, and she too is now sickened by the whole thing. They go off to bed and immediately there is a knocking at the door, and we meet the Porter – a drunk gatekeeper. Much has been made about the Porter’s rant, but I don’t really want to go into it. Essentially he talks about being the gatekeeper of Hell, and invites all manner of professional scoundrels into Hell and mocks them in that comic style you find in the eighth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Many actors have given an astounding performance in this role, and succeeded in bringing the one moment of laughter to this dark play. Thomas De Quincey, in an essay which I will post at the bottom, focuses on the act of knocking in this scene. He explores the idea of knocking as a transition from pre-Duncan’s death to post-Duncan’s death. Duncan’s death causes this ripple of death and lamentation, as Lennox explains:
“The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake” (II.iii).
And Macduff’s knocking and entrance is the entrance of life into death – the progression of the play after this halting act. Of course, there is another way to view this scene, and it goes back to my meta-theatrical point.
Macbeth is promised in I.iii that he will be King. This becomes his ambition, his goal – and his wife’s as well. We may think back to an earlier work of Shakespeare: Richard III. From the start of that play Richard schemes on how to be king. He completes a series of plots and eventually gets the crown: in Act IV, over halfway through the play. And even after he gets the crown he is not satisfied, but continues to scheme.All Macbeth really wanted was to be king, or least that’s all he was told that he was going to be. The problem is that he becomes king part way through Act II. The dead Duncan’s sons – Malcolm and Donalbain – flee the scene and are because of this suspected of planning to murder their father. Macbeth conveniently kills the two guards before they can deny anything and so things are wrapped up neatly: Macbeth is king! Yay! But he quickly realizes that he is trapped. He is a character in a play who senses the end of the play is at hand. Or perhaps he realizes that the play the witches have written for him is a tragedy: he knows that he is at his height and he can only go down from here. Either way, he tries to take control of his own play: if the witches will not give him any more direction, he will direct himself. He decides that he needs to kill Banquo: his reasoning is that he did not want to go through all of that just to see Banquo’s offspring become king. You would think that he might try to remedy this by planting a child in his wife, but the thought never really occurred to him. Why not? That would solve everything! Oh well, might as well kill Banquo. And so he does, or gets some murderers to do it. Banquo’s son, Fleance, escapes murder and eventually goes on to father a line of failed English kings: well James I was alright I suppose. And Macbeth is left wondering, “now what?” Once again, he is a character in a play without direction. He just cannot accept that his play is done. He cannot take his bow, he continues to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. And the more he does, the worse it gets. He is haunted by the ghost of Banquo at a banquet, has a freak-out which his wife tries to cover up, and makes some of his lords suspicious. Macbeth decides that in order for his play to continue he needs to go speak to the directors: “give me the rest of my script,” he wishes to say.
We then get an interesting scene with the witches and Hecate – the “leader” of the witches. Hecate seems to be mad because the witches convinced Macbeth to kill Duncan without consulting her. Hecate could be seen as the overbearing Producer, who needs to have a strong hold over the Director of the play because it is her money and reputation on the line. “What have you done,” she seems to say to the witches, “I told you that Duncan has to die towards the end of the play! You’ve gone and finished this whole show off in half an hour! What are we going to do now?” She then leaves, telling them that they must speak with Macbeth again in order to keep this show going.
What follows next is the same thing that happened at the start of the play. In IV.i Macbeth goes back to the witches and learns – amongst other things – that he should fear Macduff. Macduff is a threat. What is often forgotten is the previous scene, III.vi, in which we learn that Macduff has gone to England – where Duncan’s son Malcolm is – to treat with Edward, King of England. So when the witches, through an apparition, tell Macbeth: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; beware the thane of Fife” (Iv.i), we already know that he is a threat. These witches can really only see into the present, not the future. This once again established the witches not as supernatural beings, but as directors of the play – pushing Macbeth onward. Macbeth also learns that none of woman born could ever harm him, and that he would never fall until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth is quite pleased because of course there is no such thing as a man not born of woman, and the thought of a wood moving is absurd – he is untouchable! And he is also happy because he once again has direction: his play now has a plot and can move forward. He will conquer his enemy Macduff, and the English forces that come against him.
Macbeth sends a murderer to Macduff’s home in Fife: Macduff is not home. The murder kills Lady Macduff, Macduff’s children, and everyone else in the home. In England, Malcolm and Macduff receive word of what is happening and prepare for battle. Back in Scotland, Macbeth also prepares for battle, confident that he could never fall. Also, Lady Macbeth dies – I’ll get back to that. Malcolm comes up with the plan that all his men should cut down a tree and hide behind it to conceal their numbers. Macbeth receives report that Birnam Wood is moving towards them at Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth finds himself severely outnumbered and trapped in his castle. He meets Young Siward, a young man (probably 16), and kills him – this bolsters his confidence; killing children will do that, or something. He is resolved that no one of woman born will kill him. Macduff finally meets up with them and they have a good old fashioned fight. During the battle Macduff reveals that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” (V.viii). This detail has always been a bit iffy for me – I mean he still came from his mother, does it really matter that he wasn’t born vaginally? Written in the 20th century, Macduff would probably be a test-tube baby. But the prophecy had to be fulfilled. So Macbeth immediately loses his confidence, but he refuses to yield. They exit fighting and Macduff returns a bit later with Macbeth’s head. Malcolm is proclaimed King and all is well!
Why wasn’t Macbeth killed on stage? Claudius gets to die twice on stage but Macbeth, twice the villain as Claudius does not get that honour? During the interval between Macduff’s exit and entrance, Malcolm, Ross, and Siward talk of Young Siward’s death, and how honourable it was. The fact that we see this insignificant character die on stage but not Macbeth seems to be part of the glorifying James I’s past – Macbeth is a stain upon Scotland’s past and does not even deserve to be shown dying. He must be wiped away from history.
Just a quick jump-back to the ladies before I wrap-up. We do not see much of Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. She has that one moment during the banquet where she tries to keep order while Macbeth talks to the ghost of Banquo, and then the next time we see her, a doctor is talking with her gentlewoman about how she sleepwalks and talks in her sleep, confessing the evil deeds done. We see her famously wringing her hands, saying “out damn spot” and trying to wash the invisible blood from her hands. Shortly after, there is a scream from off-stage and Macbeth is told that his wife is dead. His response:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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” (V.v)
He just doesn’t have the time to process this information, and neither do we as audience members. We seem to lose all care for Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. And despite the infamy of her madness, it does not produce the same effect as Ophelia’s madness. Her death just seems meaningless and is so quickly taken over by the battle at hand. Macbeth has realized the way his play is going, and has even accepted that he and his wife are poor players who will come to nothing. But he is in too deep to turn back so he continues to the fight. Once again, I don’t know what to make of Lady Macbeth. Given her attitude in Act 1 you’d think she would be fighting with Macbeth at the end, continuing to fill herself with blackness – but instead she goes mad. I can’t help but think this is a cop-out.
A very forgettable character in this play is Lady Macduff, who appears for one scene and is killed. She is everything Lady Macbeth (at least Act 1 and 2 Lady Macbeth) isn’t. She is weak, she is defeated in a battle of wits by her son, and she scorns her husband for leaving them and calls him a traitor: she is all-in-all unpleasing. I can’t help but wonder why Shakespeare did not draw out her character further, as well as Lady Macbeth’s, in order to really present them as foils and demonstrate how great a character Lady Macbeth is, sort of like Octavia to Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, if we accept the fact that this is the witches’ play, then we can accept that the singular focus is on the fall of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is really just a casualty by association, as is Lady Macduff. I think what I have decided is that Macbeth is like the anti-Truman Show. In The Truman Show, Jim Carey is a free agent in a scripted world, in Macbeth, Macbeth is a scripted character (scripted by the witches) in a free world, and his scripted actions have natural consequences on those around him. The witches did not direct Malcolm and Donalbain to flee after the murder of Duncan. They did not direct Macduff to side with England, these happened naturally. All they did was get Macbeth to kill the King and get him to stand his ground so that he may die. They gave him his hour (or two) on stage so that he may strut and fret, knowing full well that it signified nothing. I keep coming back to that speech because it really is the thesis of the play.
So for those who criticize Mac for not being deep enough, they are both right and wrong. The complexity of Mac lies in the fact that it is full of sound and fury and signifies nothing – and all the inherit consequences that this entails.
*Here is a link to De Quincey’s essay:
Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved