Friday, March 23, 2012

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, 1603-1607

MACBETH: 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.
---- (page 77, Dover edition)

Like many of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth is a searing psychological portrait of a tortured antihero. Although not a very long play, it's rich and multilayered in that classic Shakespearean way, weaving a story that seamlessly mixes the weird and supernatural with a twisted alternate history of Scotland. It may have been written hundreds of years ago, but like all of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth still feels fresh, fiery and surprisingly powerful.

At the play's beginning, Macbeth is a battle-hardened Scottish general with a reputation for daring and bravery. He is put to the test when confronted with three eerie witches (some of Shakespeare's most bizarre and mysterious characters) who tell him that he will be king. The only way for him to ascend to this position is to kill Duncan, the current king and his personal friend. Macbeth is full of untapped ambition and the potential for evil. This potential is activated by the witches, who awaken Macbeth's latent amorality by planting the idea of regicide in his mind. Although he vacillates back and forth between killing Duncan and remaining loyal, he ultimately commits the murder, influenced and egged on by his wife. These scenes, arguably the most famous in the play, are harrowing even to read.

The debate between Macbeth and his wife (and between Macbeth and himself) as he prepares to kill his king is a brilliant, hair-raising piece of writing. The dagger scene has been parodied so many times that it should feel goofy and insipid. It feels anything but. There is something almost electrifying about Macbeth's murder of Duncan, and the way that that one act haunts the entire play.

After Duncan's death, the play is a roller coaster descent into darkness. Macbeth and his wife sink deeper into madness and total corruption. The forces gathering against them, led by a nobleman named Macduff and Malcolm, Duncan's eldest son, are sketched out with less attention than Macbeth, but Macduff is still a dynamically human foil for Macbeth. Even Malcolm, a fairly minor character in terms of his actual "screen time," gets an interesting little arc of his own. Overall though, this is a play that's pretty squarely focused on its protagonist and his hellish descent.

The play's heavy use of the supernatural as a device also makes it notable. Although magic, superstition and eerie presentiments are common in Shakespearean tragedies, few of his plays have as overt an otherwordly presence as Macbeth. The witches are truly frightening and malignant characters who overshadow the play despite their relatively few scenes. The strange scene where Hecate appears to them is a highly unusual mixture of Elizabethan pageantry and pagan mythology. It also suggests a kind of ordered paranormal hierarchy, an example of the way the supernatural directly effects the play's action. While in, say, Romeo and Juliet fate and destiny are oblique concepts that hang over the play, the forces of evil show up in person to wreak havoc in Macbeth. Heck, they're even organized (shades of Wolfram and Hart, anyone?).

By the end of the play, the witches have achieved their goal of chaos. Macbeth is a warped and maniacal ruler, a shadow of his former self, lacking even the most basic moral compass. He attempts to hide or belittle his crushing guilt, but it eventually overcomes him. By the time Macduff kills him, Macbeth has become an unambiguously evil character. The cumulative effects of the murder and cruelty he has perpetrated destroy him, and it all stems from his decision to kill Duncan in Act 2, the one act that sent him down the path to pure evil.

NEXT UP: Jack Reacher, a bizarre murder case, a military cover-up, a small town with secrets. What's not to love?

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