The Tragedie of Macbeth
There is a first time for everything and the moment for a blog post dedicated to Shakespeare has finally come.
Between his comedies, history plays and tragedies I must say that the last have always been my great passion and an admirable way of understanding life and people around me.
But what are the ingredients of the Shakesperean tragedy that speak so truly to our hearts? Let’s talk about Macbeth, then, in search of meaning.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.“
The Tragedie of Macbeth was written between 1603 and 1607, during what was called Shakespeare’s tragic phase. After publishing Romeo and Juliet in 1597, the dramatist dedicated half a dozen years to comedies and light-hearted pieces, but something weighing upon his own life turned the tides and the next seven years period was spent on thinking and creating over several dimensions of the human decadence.
The concept of tragedy in Shakespeare has only partial identification with the classic aspects of the Greek tragedy, where the hero falls by a stroke of bad luck, a reversal of fortune, or victim of the envious Gods, proving that human purpose, choice and will cannot undermine fate.
Shakespeare, on the contrary, considers men and women the center of his universe; nothing compares to their power of choice, and little is unveiled outside the sphere of the consequences of their actions. The English playwright is undoubtedly a humanist and even the supernatural appeal he uses in his plays does not escape from this definition.
The historical context of the play
Macbeth can be comfortably classified as a tragedy with an influential, even determinant historical context. To make a long story short and not drift away from the dramatical and existential interpretation of the play, watching this brief and excellent animation will give you a good panoramic view as to understand how much Shakespeare followed historical references and how much he created upon them.
The mystery of the three weird sisters
The Tragedie of Macbeth opens with the mysterious apparition of three “weird sisters”, who are nothing more nothing less than peasants, in the traditional Elizabethan sense of the term – destitute, ragged, skinny, “full of vulgar spite”, excluded from the high society and precluded from receiving formal education, but familiar to the contact with natural forces, something that could not be apprehended by the artificial, futile and alienated British nobility.
“What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t?”Banquo
Asks Banquo puzzled by the encounter with the three poor women.
Like the servant who knows the secret desires of his master much better than him; like the stable hand who tells his Lord’s armor and horse a mile off, they greet Macbeth with great solemnity.
“All hail, Macbeth. Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
All hail, Macbeth. Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.”Three weird sisters
Macbeth is startled by the greeting, by this alien intelligence that seems to rise beyond ordinary comprehension.
Now, by birth Macbeth inherited the title of Thane of Glamis; by treason the former Thane of Cawdor will be executed and his title bestowed on the war hero who defeated his conspiratorial efforts; in a war-ravaged kingdom the successor to the throne is also its bravest and most skilled warrior; and this is the Scotland the play depicts.
The ironies that permeate Shakespeare’s tragedies are again reinforced by Banquo’s words to Macbeth:
“Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?”Banquo
Things that do sound so fair and obvious, under those circumstances, in those days, to that society. This has always been the admirable power of oracles – to bring into words what the collective unconscious already knows.
The witches therefore do represent the supernatural powers of prediction, which greatly come from observing nature, facts and people; which greatly are the ability to call a spade a spade.
We must remember that Shakespeare wrote to entertain a rich and selected audience, which he seemed to quietly loathe and despise, but who he could not attack straightforwardly, so whoever reads and studies his work must train one’s eyes to find ironies, euphemisms, and social criticism hidden here and there, everywhere.
The weight of the supernatural on human actions
Much has been speculated about the influence of the supernatural on human actions. To Shakespeare external forces concur with but do not determine the hero’s fate.
When the sisters announce that Macbeth shall be king from that day forth, they allude to the logical sequence of facts, but they do not induce any sort of action to the realization of the prophecy and if Macbeth feels particularly moved to them, it is because their words reflect his deepest desires and ambitions.
“This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good, If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise – and nothing is,
But what is not.”Macbeth
From this moment on the die is cast and the inner struggle ravages the soul of the hero until his last breath. Macbeth shall be king by merit. His excellence as a warrior would give him the crown, but Duncan, despite his admiration and gratitude, has other plans for the royal succession.
“Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland; which honor must
Not unaccompanied invest him only,
But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine
On all deservers.”Duncan
If until this moment Macbeth was considering himself the natural successor to the king, the rules are suddenly changed and the warrior experiences the outrage of having his value wasted.
“The Prince of Cumberland — that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else overleap,
For on my way it lies.”Macbeth
And here one of the most representative passages which carries the hero’s dialectical dilemma:
“Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”Macbeth
This is a decisive moment to the hero’s saga, when he rebels against the gods’ design (represented here by the monarch’s arbitrary rule) and decides to act, taking fate into his own hands, claiming what is his by honour and merit.
And nothing is more predictable than a military man using the method he uses in battles to pursue his goals; Macbeth is used to kill and the crime of murdering the king does not haunt his consciousness as does the sin of treason against his sovereign, as does the fear of its consequences.
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.”Macbeth
Henceforth, the drama develops in a feedback loop – to fear, to fight, to be mortified, to lose one’s mind.
To fear, to fight, to be mortified, to lose one’s mind.
We witness the fundamental downward spiral of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, which include Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth: the hero, a man or woman of high position, falls from grace into moral decay and death due to one’s own character flaws and misjudgments.
Although not entitling a proper heroine, this tragedy has its own iron lady, as iron might rightly have been her maiden name.
Lady Macbeth is the most brilliant character in the play, not only for her sharp argumentative skills but for the clever, rhymed elaboration of her speech. It feels like Shakespeare poured all his poetic genius into her malevolence and it is something fascinating.
“The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. 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!’”Lady Macbeth
As a matter of fact, when sharing the augury spelled by the three sisters with his consort, Macbeth inadvertently casts the most cold-blooded partner in crime he has ever dared to desire and unleashes a density of evil hardly conjured in literature.
“What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”Lady Macbeth
But Shakespeare also knows how to play mind games with the unshaken cruelty of our iron lady, bringing it down like a house of cards.
Who once shamed and scolded her husband for the guilt and remorse he felt over the crime of murdering the king:
“My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white.”
“A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it, then! Your constancy
Hath left you unattended.”Lady Macbeth
She now walks and talks in her sleep, purging the evil that her heart cannot keep in secret anymore, immersed in the madness that will claim her own life.
“Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?—Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.”
“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!”Lady Macbeth
The Thane of Ross
Although seen as only a messenger by most Shakespeare scholars, the Thane of Ross (shortly known as Ross) is the most controversial character in the Tragedie of Macbeth.
He is portrayed by Shakespeare as a true sociopath – friendly to everyone, always solicitous, playing all sides, without showing actionable compassion to any, aware of the most tyrannical plans and actions without a pinch of remorse, without a wrinkle of conflict on his face.
If you think of the world in terms of good and evil, there is a place where nothing is clear – this is the limbo where Ross belongs to.
He is always present, but forgotten by everyone. No one pays attention to him because he acts surreptitiously. He represents diplomacy and is the most political of all characters.
For none of woman born shall harm Macbeth
“Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.”The weird sisters
The final combat between Macbeth and a broken-hearted Macduff aims at representing the battle of moral integrity against tyranny, by which the corrupted hero falls and perishes.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare has never been truly judgemental about the characters he gives life to. All of them, without exceptions, have great qualities and ambushing flaws, in the sense that they can abruptly succumb to earthly temptations.
Actually, the decisive battle between good and evil takes place in the heart and soul of each character. This is so much evident in Macbeth. At this point we pity the hero, who finally understands all the damage his fear and ambition has caused.
“Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back; my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.”Macbeth
Macbeth refuses to fight against Macduff because he still believes himself invulnerable.
“Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.”Macbeth
Only when the spell is broken he then allows himself to be killed.
“Despair thy charm;
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Once more and in an incredibly beautiful and poetical manner Shakespeare declares man the master of his own fate.
Remember that Macbeth would be king by merit, and his insurrection has been against an arbitrary rule that raised hereditary right above worthiness. His cause is noble and just but his methods vicious and unjustifiable.
Do you live by the means or for the results?
If you live for the results, you are corruptible.
Macbeth stands for his cause, though:
“I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’”Macbeth’s last words
The Tragedy of Macbeth by Joel Cohen
All pictures in this post were taken from scenes of the new adaptation of Macbeth for the big screen, written and directed by Joel Cohen and launched in 2021.
I invite you to watch it. It is greatly loyal to the original play without being heavy, visually and emotionally appealing without exhibiting excess. There is nothing excessive in this movie. It is frugal and visceral as theatre should be, still it delivers maximum performance and sensorial impact.
You will be transported to the dryness of the Elizabethan stage scenery where attention was focused on the actors, their lines and movements, boldly defined against a simple background and where nothing interfered. This dryness is symbolically represented by the desert landscape in exterior scenes, the palatial frugality in interior ones, powerful lighting and sound effects with a minimalist but excellent soundtrack by Carter Burwell.
Casting choices for this movie were really impressive, starting with the giant Kathryn Hunter who played the three weird sisters and also the old father. Her generosity and talent gave me more than I could ever expect. She is indeed a virtuoso physical performer and it is difficult for the audience to understand if she plays a bird, a spirit, a man or a woman. Grandiose.
Macbeth is essentially a passionate, impulsive warrior, not a reflective philosopher as Hamlet. The selection of Denzel Washington then was perfect. He is an intuitive, visceral actor and imposed energy and roughness to Macbeth’s madness and impetuosity. A great interpretation.
Frances McDormand is absolutely convincing in her buffonic malevolence. She poured on us some of the most evil, cold-blooded verses in literature with great spontaneity and even humour. Fascinating.
Alex Hassell positively surprised me as the Thane of Ross. He understood, absorbed and gave us back the elusive obliquity of a character that has been traditionally forgotten or overlooked in many adaptations. So good.
It has been said that the actors who play Macduff and Macbeth need to be physically distinct from one another so we do not confuse them during the fight scenes, but Joel Cohen dared to disagree and brought to the audience an amazing new perspective. Denzel Washington and Corey Hawkins look like father and son and it seems they also nurture this filial affection and respect backstage. Their confrontation, thus, reminds us of a dialogue between a corrupted, old, damned Macbeth and his timeless, honourable, immaculate self or essence. Cheers to that.
Shakespeare can be incredibly actual and true to human form and still magnificently serves our education and enlightenment.
I leave you with the essence of the human anguish:
“Nought’s had, all’s spent,Lady Macbeth
Where our desire is got without content:
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.“
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth . WS. Kindle Edition.