Rating: 5 Stars
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be going to London to see Macbeth at the Globe Theatre. I’m unreasonably excited to see one of Shakespeare’s great plays in a pretty close to exact replica of his playhouse. This is essentially the point where literary geek meets history geek. It might spell the end of the universe as we know it.
I’ve seen multiple versions of Macbeth now. I saw a breathtaking version of it a couple of years ago at Ashland. It was the most exciting stage spectacle that I’ve ever seen, complete with extremely intense witches, intense fighting, and a fairly graphic beheading.
Last year I saw the film starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The cinematography was brilliant. It was a gritty depiction of the life of a Medieval Scottish king. However, in my opinion, it suffered by treating the play with too much reverence.
Finally, many years ago, I saw MacHomer. It’s a one man show by Rick Miller, who acts out a good chunk of the entire play, using characters from the Simpsons. You have Homer as Macbeth, Marge as Lady Macbeth, Mr Burns as Duncan, and Barney as Macduff, among many others. It was clearly a stunt, but it was a pretty amazing stunt.
So, in preparation for this awesome upcoming event, I’ve re-read Macbeth.
In some ways, it can be read as a feminist play. Macbeth is, for most of the play, a pawn of women. It is the three weird sisters that put the idea into Macbeth’s head that he can be a king. It is Lady Macbeth that encourages him on to violence, and tries to bolster him when he loses his courage and also when he starts to wallow in his guilt. In fact, it isn’t until the end of the play, when Lady Macbeth herself goes insane and kills herself while Macbeth prepares to grimly attend to his own death, that Macbeth reasserts the traditional masculine role.
Although the play is entitled Macbeth, Macbeth is pretty much screwed over. He is, by all accounts, a brave soldier who has just daringly fought off a rebellion against Duncan. He is clearly, at this point in time, a loyal subject. It is only when the witches enter the treasonous thought into his head that he begins to act. Granted, once his acts of evil start, they snowball on their own volition. Since the witches themselves are agents of Hecate, an argument can be made that this is very much a Greek play, in which the gods, due to boredom or whatever motivates a god, enters into the human realm just to sow discord and then stand back and let the disaster run its course.
When Macbeth pursues the three witches for the second prophecy, they’re pretty much just fucking with him. They use a bloody head to tell Macbeth to be beware of Macduff (Macduff chops off Macbeth’s head), a bloody child is used to tell Macbeth that no man born of a woman can hurt him (Macduff is ripped from his mother’s womb, bloodily it can be assumed), and a crowned child holding a tree tells Macbeth that he is only in danger when the trees of Birnam move to Dunsinane (Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has an army march up to Dunsinane by chopping up the trees of Birnam and using it as a shield). That’s just not fair play by the witches by any definition.
Again, this is not to excuse Macbeth. The worm of ambition was always in him, and once unleashed, there was no stopping it. Arguably it was fate, as expressed by the witches, that set him on his path.
There’s a couple of items of historic note. Shakespeare never operated in a vacuum. He was intensely aware of his political situation and was sensitive to it. This shows up in a couple of ways in Macbeth.
First of all, most obviously, was the witches’ prophecy that heirs of Banquo would occupy the throne as far as the eye can see. Legend has it that the King of England at the time, James I, is in fact a descendant of Banquo. He succeeded as King of England slightly indirectly after the death of Elizabeth. So, making Banquo a pure hero in Macbeth and prophesying a long line of Banquo descendants to the throne was a pretty serious act of royal kiss ass on the part of Shakespeare.
Similarly, there was no doubt that Macbeth was going to be, not just defeated, but absolutely destroyed. There are no heroic last words. There is no final on stage battle. Macduff fights Macbeth, and later Macduff presents Macbeth’s head to Malcolm as tribute. The rule of thumb is that whoever kills a king must be obliterated in the most extreme method possible. Again, considering the fact that his patron was a king, this would be a message well received.
I can’t wait to go to London!