Saturday, February 14, 2015

Macbeth (Shakespeare Re-Read #13)

My trek through Shakespeare’s dramatic catalogue is mostly being done at random, with a few significant exceptions.  “Julius Caesar” and “Antony & Cleopatra” went consecutively, fitting the actual order of events in Antony’s life.  (Likewise, when I get to the history plays, I’ll be reading them in chronological order.)  I have a few plays specifically picked out to be the last three of the 38, though at the rate I’m getting through these, this trio might not be revealed until around 2021.  “Twelfth Night,” naturally, had to be the twelfth play on my list, and “Macbeth” almost as fittingly had to be thirteenth.  What better fit than to put the so-called cursed play* tied together with the cursed number?  To cap it all off, I re-read the play on Friday the 13th, so by this point I’m basically just mocking fate and inviting a meteor to strike me dead or something.

* = In keeping with the unlucky spirit, I’ll also be henceforth referring to the play as ‘The Scottish Tragedy’ or just ‘TST.’  This is less out of superstition than it is trying to avoid confusion between the play’s title and the actual character Macbeth.

It’s ironic that The Scottish Tragedy is the Shakespeare play so tied to the concept of bad luck when Macbeth isn’t a man undone by misfortune but rather overwhelmed by destiny.  It’s almost a version of the paradox that lies at the heart of many a time-travel story; can the future be altered, or is it written in stone and all of one’s actions are merely the lead-up to what “actually happens.”  (As in, Macbeth is the catalyst that makes the future possible, a la Bruce Willis in “Twelve Monkeys.”)  Keep in mind that the witches are only telling prophecies — Macbeth is the one who makes the leap to thinking that he actually has to take an active role in making his promised future happen.  He’s a soldier, a natural man of action, so his mind just assumes that he must kill Duncan himself to become the king, whereas if he’d just sat back and waited (no matter how unlikely a path to the throne may seem) he might have become king anyway, just like how he basically fell ass-backward into being Thane of Cawdor. 

I found the beginning of Act II, Scene i interesting since it seems like Banquo is similarly troubled by the witches’ prophecy.  He and Macbeth promising to discuss the matter in the future is particularly interesting, as had Macbeth not already put a plan in motion to assassinate King Duncan, I wonder if Banquo considers the murder himself in order to ensure that his future generations rule Scotland.  If Banquo harbours such dark thoughts, however, he has nobody to nurture them — he’s spending his time with the seemingly endless number of hearty Scottish thanes that populate the cast, as well as his good-natured son Fleance. 

Macbeth, on the other hand, has his embers of treachery brought to flame by Lady Macbeth.  Let’s take a moment to bask in the phrase “embers of treachery” for a second (wordplay, brilliant) before diving into this thoroughly messed-up marriage.  If there was ever a prequel I wish Shakespeare had written, it was a story that explains what the Macbeths were like prior to the events of The Scottish Tragedy.  We first meet Lady Macbeth when she’s reading his husband’s account of his meeting with the witches, so we get precious little sense of their relationship outside of their shared plot to kill Duncan.  Where Macbeth hems and haws about becoming a traitor, Lady Macbeth is basically just “welp, the witches said so, let’s get on with the regicide!”  Has her dismay at his perceived lack of ambition always been part of their marriage?  Or, to flip things around, is Lady Macbeth just an enabler rather than the driving force that inspires Macbeth’s treachery?  This would perhaps tie into the later events of the play, when she is ruined by guilt over his actions whereas Macbeth seems to grimly embrace being a tyrant.    

It’s interesting and, truth be told, somewhat sexist that Lady Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare’s great villains while Macbeth gets off somewhat scot-free (or Scottish-free!…uh, this wordplay was less brilliant) as just the titular “tragic figure.”  There might actually be more evidence of my enabler theory, as she can’t bring herself to stab Duncan, indicating that Lady Macbeth might be all talk and ultimately isn’t willing to cross the line.  (This isn’t an Iago-esque “you do it so I can stay blameless” tactic, Lady Macbeth simply couldn’t bring herself to do it.)  That’s another one of those turning-point moments in the play, as had Macbeth also not already stabbed Duncan, I wonder if they would’ve just called the whole thing off or if Lady Macbeth would’ve again ripped him for being a coward as she did in Act I, Scene vii.

Consider that Lady Macbeth, unlike several wife characters in Shakespeare’s plays, isn’t even given the benefit of her own name.  She is just “Lady Macbeth,” forever defined throughout literary history only in connection to her husband.  The two are never entirely on the same page, as either you have Macbeth resisting the temptation to kill Duncan and Lady Macbeth egging him on, or, as things evolve throughout the play, eventually she’s the one who is horrified while he goes fully mad.  She exists only as the corrective to what Macbeth is *not* doing, whether it’s going along with an assassination or acting properly at a royal banquet. 

We see the flip between the husband and wife really take place in the scene with Macbeth and the murderers, as Macbeth seems to be taking a page from his lady’s book in convincing (or maybe just outright tricking) the killers that Banquo is responsible for their poor lot in life.  I’d never noticed this aspect of the play before, reading the Scottish Tragedy for the first time in well over a decade — are these guys really assassins?  They’re cited in the cast list only as ‘murderers’ and they’re paid for their work, though Macbeth still feels the need to induce some personal animosity between they and Banquo.  Is this Macbeth trying to convince them that Banquo needs to die, or is he still trying to convince himself?   

Let’s go back to I.vii for a second since it also invokes one of the much-debated hidden plotlines of the play, which is the curious case of the Macbeths’ child.  Lady Macbeth mentions having nursed a child before, which begs the question of where exactly young Macbeth Jr. or cute little Beth Macbeth is during the course of this play.  Some argue the child is simply never mentioned, which makes little sense, while others believe that the child has died prior to the events of the play, which goes a long way to explaining the Macbeths’ ambition.  Children are the most standard way of leaving a legacy in the world, but if their child is gone (and, carrying along that implication, they can’t have another) then the Macbeth legacy shall have to be the throne of Scotland. 

This adds another layer to Macbeth’s desire to kill Banquo and Fleance in III.i, as Macbeth isn’t just responding to the witches’ prophecy, he’s also doing it out of bitterness for his own situation as an heirless ruler.  Going back to the time-travel/predestination thing, it’s also telling that this is where Macbeth is actively trying to change the witches’ vision of the future rather than embracing it.*  He doesn’t realize that the three murderers are literally destined to fail in their mission to assassinate Fleance.**  This doesn’t stop Macbeth from adopting child-killing as his signature move, as he kills both Macduff’s children and Young Siward.  Macbeth is both metaphorically and literally trying to destroy the future.

* = and then he immediately goes back to fully believing that the witches’ next set of prophecies (from IV.i) are all foolproof, which immediately breaks him when Macduff reveals that he was a C-section baby.  Given that Macbeth literally compares himself to Mark Antony at one point, I wonder if this was Shakespeare’s clever way of having Macbeth undone just as Antony ultimately was by defeated by Caesar Augustus.

** = For some reason, I’ve always thought the line was “Fly Fleance, fly!”, perhaps influenced by the fact that my buddy Dave has actually uttered this line in reference to any case where we need to make a quick exit.  It’s actually “Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!”  Thanks for nothing, Dave!

I’ve always loved the theory that Macbeth himself was the seemingly redundant “third murderer” in the Banquo plot, hiding in a mask to do the deed himself since he was already too paranoid to entrust the task to someone else.  It makes no logical sense, of course, since the very next scene has Macbeth being getting the report from the first murderer and being disheartened by the news of Fleance’s escape, but still, it’s just fun to make up reasons for some of these occasional purposeless tertiary characters in Shakespeare’s plays.  Maybe future generations will one day argue over the meaning of, say, Steven in ’The Room’ as they do the purpose of the third murderer.

Macbeth as the third murderer would almost make sense just because it would fit into how unusually character-centric this is for a Shakespearean work.  While the play has the usual large array of characters in major to minor parts, virtually all of them are interchangeable, as the large majority of the focus is directly on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  Banquo gets a bit of colour, you have the one scene in England with Malcolm and Macduff that’s meant to humanize both men as the ideal ones to take Macbeth down, Lady Macduff gets a juicy scene, the Porter gets his one bit of comic relief….besides that, as noted earlier, most of the supporting cast is comprised of decent Scottish noblemen, none of whom really stand out.  This is fully the Macbeths’ story.  It’s a short*, compact cautionary tale of how ambition can instantly lead someone awry.  As noted theatre director Gregory Doran put it, this is a play where “if anyone had time to think, the events wouldn’t happen.”

* = literally so, it’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays.  The initial version may have been even shorter, to the point that it is widely assumed that Shakespeare collaborator Thomas Middleton adapted the play for the First Folio by beefing up the later scenes involving the witches.  Amusingly, Middleton also added a couple of songs from one of his own earlier plays about witches, which is a hilarious dick move.  This would be like if Jay Z died tomorrow and someone asked Kanye to finish producing some unreleased tracks, leading Kanye to add one of his own samples to every song just to get extra royalties.  I wonder if Thomas Middleton thought Beck should’ve won that Grammy.

TST has always been one of my favourites, ever since I first read this play back in the twelfth grade.  I was always amused by how our high school so blatantly ramped things up with the Shakespeare curriculum.  You went from the funny mistaken-identity comedy (Twelfth Night) in Grade 10 to the teen angst suicide tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) in Grade 11 and then right into this violent Scottish bloodbath the next year.  Finally, seniors got either King Lear or Hamlet to top their high school Shakespearean-ce off with some royal family drama.  Good times!

And a final note about Macb…uh, the Scottish Tragedy being the 13th play in line.  I thought about holding this entry off until the new film adaptation is released later this year, though it was just too much longer to wait.  Needless to say, I’m fired up about this movie.  Marion Cotillard, my favourite actress, as Lady Macbeth?  Michael F. Assbender as Macbeth?  Take all my money, Hollywood!



13. Pericles
12. The Taming Of The Shrew
11. Antony & Cleopatra
10. Much Ado About Nothing
9. Coriolanus
8. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona
7. The Comedy Of Errors
6. The Winter's Tale
5. A Midsummer Night's Dream
4. Julius Caesar
3. Macbeth
2. Twelfth Night
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

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