An Education: Macbeth

Alastair Muir MacbethBy

‘By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.’

Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is a tale of the occult, murder, mayhem and darkness, which has enraptured generations of audiences. It is murky, it is dark and we just cannot get enough of it. It has had massive influence on popular culture with lines from it featuring in everything from Harry Potter to the Mumford and Sons’ track ‘Roll Away Your Stone’; even the name of the play holds dark superstitions leading modern day actors to still call it ‘The Scottish Play.’

So what is it that makes the play so compelling to us over four hundred years on?

The play tells the tragic tale of Macbeth, a soldier and nobleman, who, on hearing a prophesy told to him by three witches, plots to murder the King of Scotland (King Duncan). With the persuasion of his wife, Lady Macbeth, the character’s over-leaping ambition leads to the killing of Duncan and then, in frenzied paranoia, killing anyone who could stand between him and his throne.

The question of who is to blame for this downward spiral is an ambiguous query. The witches gave Macbeth the prophecy, probably with the foresight and intent Macbeth would act upon it. Yet blame may lie with Lady Macbeth, who pushed the initially indecisive Macbeth into action. At the same time Macbeth isn’t utterly blameless, as upon the character hearing the prophecy, he confesses that he had already considered such an act with the famous line ‘Stars hide your fires/ Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ This is something at which Shakespeare is utterly brilliant: his plays refuse to be entirely clear cut, and as soon as you have reconciled your own opinion on a matter, something happens to make you change perspective.

On an interesting side­-note, the witches are never actually called witches in the play. They are merely referred to as ‘weird sisters’ and are given an androgynous quality when Banquo states that they look like women ‘yet your beards forbid me to interpret, That you are so.’ The reference to witches is the acknowledgement of the play’s contemporary society in which King James I of England was ordering the witch trials and wrote a book on the occult entitled Daemonologie.

Lady Macbeth, without a shadow of a doubt, is one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most compelling female roles. The character calls upon dark spirits so that she may do what must be done in order to help her husband in her famous soliloquy of ‘unsex me here.’ However the character goes a step further when convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan stating that is she had promised to her husband to do so, she would have ‘dash’d the brains out’ of her child. This abandonment of her feminine nature is disturbing for a modern audience, so would have been deemed monstrous for a contemporary one.

The character later unravels in the sleepwalking scene (Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk after her husband has killed so many) and we see a huge contrast between the strong, determined character earlier in the play and the vulnerable tortured soul we see in this scene. If you were to watch an interpretation of the scene, Judi Dench’s performance is excellent; her horrid wail sheds light on how unstable and traumatised the character truly is, and is immensely convincing.

The Porter’s scene is also a captivating scene though in rather a different way. Initially introduced as some comic relief to the play (and so that the actor playing Macbeth can have a breather), this scene is really amusing an open to interpretation. It is in this scene that the ‘knock, knock’ joke found its origins, and the line about what drink does to a man – ‘makes him stand to and not stand to’ – is an overt innuendo with great comic potential.

Undoubtedly one of his most violent plays, Shakespeare creates a character who begins as painfully aware of his flaws of ambition, to a morally repugnant and nihilistic character towards the end. This is difficult for the audience: we have seen the inner most workings of his mind, his indecisions and later his determinations. We thus cannot help but retain an element of sympathy for his predicament. There is then a great complexity and subtlety to this sympathy. We feel sympathy for Macbeth because of what he was, or what he might have been; we grieve for something that we never truly saw in the character during the course of the play.

Hence, Macbeth, ‘that Scottish play’, is one of my favourites; and it is proof of why Shakespeare’s writing is truly special.


Photograph: Alastair Muir.

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