To know Shakespeare’s words – to truly live them, you must drink them in, swirl them around like intellectual mouthwash and allow the greatness to run down your throat, filling every cell of your being with the heartburn of his genius. Some spit out the heady liquid into a spittoon of ignorance, followed by a swig of mind-numbing pablum to remove the lingering taste of the mysterious and, to them, the forever unknowable.
Shakespeare is no franchise, dear Reader; he is a singly owned, top of the line, trendy boutique that never closes.
To demonstrate Shakespeare’s luminosity, I present the Tome of Preeminence that is: Macbeth, the Naughty Scot. Stick with me, dear Reader, and remember: what doesn’t give you a migraine makes you insufferably literary.
Macbeth opens on a triad of haggard women surrounding a cauldron, chanting incoherently – already Shakespeare has lured us in with a sense of familiarity, as this scene could be any old Sunday afternoon at the in-laws’. Except that as soon as you think you understand what these witches are saying, they disappear. Of course, you can go back and reread the witches’ lines multiple times to pick up one word that belongs to our language, but then you’re cheating yourself of the only true mark that you are among those who get Shakespeare as demonstrated by your not getting him. Only Shakespeare gets Shakespeare. Get it?
Moving on to the camp of King Duncan, the Scottish are fighting the Irish, there are traitors – all of whom are put to death. Their corpses make an excellent foundation for one Macbeth’s meteoric rise to prominence. Macbeth and his wingman Banquo visit the witches, who employ a really annoying tactic of speaking to them in rhyme. Neither the characters nor the reader knows what they mean – and that’s the brilliance of Macbeth; you never have any idea of what is going on.
The witches address Macbeth by a title he has not yet been awarded, Thane of Cawdor; they also tell him he will be king. Macbeth implores them to go into detail about the whole Thane thing rather than the king thing, which begs the question: is he a slacker, content to fulfill a cushy middle management position when the CEO chair beckons?
Banquo wants to know what’s up with his future also, and is told he is “lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” and “not so happy, yet much happier.” Aha! Yes… that’s…extremely unclear, which is apparently these witches’ schtick. They add that he will not be king, but that his child will sit on the throne and we are left to presume that Banquo will raise ill-behaved children who play on other people’s furniture.
As Macbeth is told of treachery and traitors and acts of treason, he starts to consider this king business in earnest. Malcolm, the current king’s son, details the execution of the traitorous former Thane of Cawdor, whose title of Thane now goes to Macbeth, who is busy doodling variations of “Big King Mac” on his notepad, possibly losing the gist of what Malcolm says.
When Macbeth looks up, he sees a pastry on the table behind Malcolm he would very much like to eat but Malcolm is in the way, standing between Macbeth and the thing Macbeth wants, which is in no way a premonitive metaphor. Malcolm continues his yarn about traitors and their being destroyed by their treason and the reader is left to wonder just what flavor that pastry was.
We then meet HER – and we are talking about the Her-iest Her of all the Hers ever. Lady Macbeth sits in Inverness Castle, absently snapping a whip as she reads the news from her husband. The toe of her thigh-high, laced leather boot taps on the floor as she learns of Macbeth’s sudden promotion, a result of the execution of another lord who held the title prior to him. Always fashion forward, she wonders if this killing people who impede your upward mobility thing might become a trend – she must stay on the cutting edge.
In addition to bodies dropping and titles awarded, somebody has bandied about the idea of Macbeth being king… and Lady M concludes that King Macbeth has a certain ring to it.
The proverbial candle is lit and Lady M realizes that if Macbeth is made king, she gets some new headwear herself. This idea sits well with her… but how to make it happen? While she ruminates on that she has to deal with the fact that there is too much milk in the castle…and humans…and kindness. She wishes to discuss all this with Macbeth upon his return but discovers King Duncan is preceding him.
When Macbeth arrives, while Duncan walks about bestowing compliments on the Macbeth family, Lady M runs a few action items by her husband.
She deftly slips in that maybe he could kill Duncan and become king. Macbeth chews on this like a bit of gristle. King. King Macbeth. What a lovely sound – it sounds of bells chiming. Chiming of what? He’s not sure because the deafening sound of bells won’t let him think. He tells Lady M he understands, that she is something else and will only have male children.
They embrace, both wondering what the hell the other is talking about (along with the rest of us).
Like a bad smell when company is present, greed and ambition seep into Macbeth’s soul with voices sounding an awful lot like his lovely wife’s. Making his way to King Duncan’s chamber, he sees a dagger floating in the air with the handle pointing at him and the blade pointed toward Duncan. Macbeth wonders if the vision is real, as they had just sprayed for flying unmanned daggers.
Meanwhile, in her bedchamber, Lady M congratulates herself on a job well done. When a bloodstained Macbeth returns, she admonishes him for messing up something as simple as murder and wishes that Duncan had not resembled her father so that she could have executed the plan herself. Here we have a Daddy Issue – the purveyor of tragedy since time immemorial. As much as we could stay on this forever, there is a dagger to put in someone else’s hand, a bit of blood on Lady M that needs to come out, dammit, and then the knocking…the dreaded knocking (obviously Shakespeare disliked dirty dishes, stubborn stains and home solicitation as much as the next person).
The door opens to the nobleman Lennox and the Mighty Macduff, Thane of Fife, here to chat with his king. His king is dead, though obviously Macduff does not know it, because no one would ever want to talk to a dead man…would they? Macbeth offers to take Macduff to the “sleeping” king, which is curious because, and surely this is important, Macbeth has killed the king and the king is dead, so why…?
Oh, right, Shakespeare.
As Macbeth and Lennox discuss the weather, Macduff is horrified to discover the king murdered. And here is another tell that Shakespeare has given us, dear Reader: Macduff declares the king murdered. How does he know? There has been no autopsy, CSI has not arrived on the scene – there is nothing more than several bloody daggers in several chamberlains’ hands and a few gaping holes in the dead king’s chest – and yet Macduff proclaims it so. Macbeth is suddenly and supposedly so blinded by fury that he kills the chamberlains for killing the king. Macduff asks why he would do such a thing and Macbeth informs him it is because he is just so angry; a beautiful example of how a bunny reacts when cornered – it forgets it killed the king and kills the people it had set up for the murder in the first place.
Talk about believing your own press.
The no longer alive King Duncan’s sons arrive on the scene and are given the unfortunate news in quick, exacting terms which is a metaphor for ripping a bandage off quickly to lessen the sting; Shakespeare is not only a brilliant writer, he is a thoughtful one. The boys sense they may be in danger. But how would they know that whoever killed their father might come for them since the chamberlains who killed King Duncan were dead? No matter, it just shows good old Scottish common sense to get your royal young butt out of the way in case any more daggers decide to sprout wings…or somebody decides to film you sans kilt on their cellphone camera.
Malcolm flees to England and Donalbain flees to Ireland. Why? Obviously because Donalbain sounds more Irish than English; Shakespeare thought out all the details of this story… or did he base this on historical fact? We may never know, provided we don’t read any biographies on Shakespeare—a course of inaction we strongly recommend.
The chaos in the castle sends a Thane named Ross to get some fresh air with some random old man. Ross discusses the odd portentous-y events of the past week that include, but are not limited to, an owl killing a falcon and a couple of horses eating each other. One can only assume this scene was a result of Shakespeare’s dislike of pets, and his way of telling his daughter why she could not have a puppy.
Macduff informs Ross that Macbeth has been selected as king and that it looks like the chamberlains were the murderers, so everyone is off to the coronation. But a suspicious eye is turned to the fleeing princes; were they responsible for paying the chamberlains to kill their father? And for what purpose would they have done that? Maybe this was merely a fraternity initiation rite gone horribly wrong – how would we know? Because we flipped back a few pages of impenetrable dialogue to remind ourselves that, yes, Macbeth killed the king and planted the weapon on the chamberlains, for which we are grateful because otherwise we’d have to rewrite this completely. But obviously Macbeth seems to have spaced out about the circumstances surrounding Duncan’s death and would really like if the rest of us would do the same.
Banquo paces the halls thinking about the incredible coincidence of the witches saying Macbeth would be king one day and they all were, at Macbeth’s coronation. If fate had dealt Macbeth a Royal Flush, perhaps Banquo’s horse-cart might come in too; maybe his ill-behaved children would get to play on the throne – what fun that would be for them. Macbeth walks in dressed as king with Lady M beside him and she, dear Reader, is dressed as a queen. In all of this frenzy of activity, we have lost sight of the fact that Lady M would now be made queen and how pleased that must make her.
If this were Hollywood, one would think she’d planned all this herself.
Macbeth broaches the subject of the fled princes and whether they are cause for concern. After all, they did pay to have their own father killed! Except they didn’t – a fact Shakespeare shares only with us… and Macbeth, because he actually killed the king. And Lady M because it was her idea, and the dead king who saw Macbeth kill him and the dead chamberlains who never really knew what was happening, and the princes who know they didn’t kill their father… and, of course, the witches who see everything. So, never happened.
Macbeth does some deep thinking. Fortunately for us, Shakespeare has him think out loud so that we may hear these thoughts he is thinking and ourselves think about what he thinks. The witches’ words come back to him like a ballast that has been ripped from its moorings: “a fruitless crown.” At first you assume that of course Macbeth won’t use his crown to store apples, but when you dig slightly deeper into the roots of what was said, you wonder if perchance there might be more to those words. The fact that he killed Duncan is fluttering around his thoughts like an angry moth and Macbeth decides to put a “No Children Allowed (this means yours, Banquo)” sign on the throne.
Two burly men enter and Macbeth reminds these men of their prior conversation that no one including us, dear Reader, was privy to: that Banquo had done them wrong and they should be man enough to kill him for it.
Macbeth’s logic gets a bit dodgy as he tells the men that they should probably kill Fleance, Banquo’s son, for good measure; because Banquo really was a tit who deserved to die… with his son. But here’s the thing – Banquo had done these men no harm; Macbeth fabricated the whole thing. So why did Macbeth do this? Because he wanted Banquo dead. Well, not Banquo but Fleance. It may have been a problem with pronouncing the names or may have something to do with all this talk of thrones and how Macbeth’s non-existent children would not sit on them; once again we are left to speculate.
Fortunately for Macbeth, these two men just happened to be in the profession of murdering, so carrying out a little totally fabricated vengeance on Banquo and Son was not going to be too much of an issue for them. What a stroke of luck Macbeth would just happen to lie to two men who were already accustomed to murdering people.
Lady M is in her room trying on crowns when it occurs to her that there are people dead because she told other people to kill them and that this fact used to be way more fun. So she puts on her favorite wimple and calls to Macbeth. Hoping he might cheer her up, Macbeth only continues to dampen her mood by declaring that he’s decided more people need to die.
Previously, it was she who made these decisions, and she’d prefer to hang onto the reins, thank you very much. But Macbeth tells Lady M that in order to kill Banquo properly, she needs to be unconditionally charming to Banquo. As Macbeth leaves, Lady M looks at Macbeth’s pants and thinks they really looked better when she wore them. Alas, all do as they are told and Banquo is killed after a nice supper. Only Fleance escapes due to a faulty torch.
One of the murderers tells Macbeth of Banquo’s death and Fleance’s escape which disturbs Macbeth because, you see, the witches did not mention anything about Banquo trying to sit in his chair. So Macbeth lied to some murderers about a man who Macbeth did not need dead in order to have a man he did need dead killed; instead, the now unnecessarily dead Banquo had warned the still annoyingly alive Fleance of Macbeth’s plotting, allowing him to escape.
If only there was a word for this…
Back at the banquet, Macbeth goes to take his rightful seat, but here Shakespeare employs the old ghost-of-the-guy-you-just-had-murdered-is-sitting-there-instead trick used throughout literature back to the dawn of literature. Slightly taken aback to see the newly dead Banquo sitting in his chair, Macbeth conducts a conversation with the ghost that no one else can see. Lady M dismisses his behavior under the umbrella of “weird things Macbeth does” and everyone accepts this because he is king and in politics people talk to empty chairs all the time.
But Lady M realizes things may be a bit out of hand.
Macbeth’s head is swimming with everything that has transpired over the past few days and he thinks a retreat is in order. He decides to revisit the Witch’s Cauldron Spa and Nail Salon since it filled him with such joy previously.
Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, is having a few words with the witches. She admonishes them for telling Macbeth and Banquo all these things and that fate should be allowed to meddle in its own affairs alone. The discerning reader will pick up on the core of the story of Macbeth at this point. It is a hard to find the point but you know I’m always wiling to take one for the team and wade through this stuff so you don’t have to:
It’s the witches’ fault – all of it. Had they kept their misshapen mouths shut, their lisping theories on who was going to rule Scotland to themselves, their singular eyeball under glass – none of this would have happened and much less death would have occurred… except for the poor falcon and horses that ate each other because Shakespeare’s daughter was really pestering him for that puppy. And that is what Shakespeare wants you to know – witches and puppies are not things you should play with.
So Fleance is getting the blame for Banquo’s murder which does play into the underlying raging current of Daddy Issues that runs throughout Macbeth. Only it doesn’t, because none of the sons actually did kill their fathers. The natural reaction of the reader is to call their own father and thank him for just playing ball with them all those years ago – which is exactly what Shakespeare meant to happen.
The nobleman Lennox and his noble buddies think something is amiss. Macduff thinks something is amiss. And Malcolm is fairly certain something is amiss. And all this amissing points to Macbeth, the common denominator; and this is where Shakespeare invented math.
By the pricking of my thumb, we enter a Ray Bradbury novel. But we don’t. We are just lead to believe we are by the clever use of words; words that Shakespeare wrote and Bradbury later borrowed and Jason Robards starred in. But no, we are just back at the witches. They dazzle Macbeth with their CGI effects–there’s a head, which tells him to beware of Macduff, and a bloody child tells him that no one born of a woman shall be able to harm him. Then a crowned child holding a tree (seriously, is there no day care in Scotland?) babbles about how Macbeth is safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, which sounds pretty unlikely. All of this has been added so that the bizarre events that happen in the next few scenes don’t seem quite so strange. It’s as if Shakespeare is asking you, as you read what happens next, to reflect and think well, at least it’s not a floating bloody baby who wasn’t born from a woman, because that’s just weird.
Macduff’s wife is so angry at his running off to England, she tells their son that Macduff is dead. The son is clever enough to figure out Mom is using Freud’s deflection tactics and questions her… or is it the Oedipus Syndrome at play? We don’t know because Macbeth’s thugs stab the poor boy and Mrs. McD runs away. Is the boy alive? Why would his mother abandon him after telling him life-crushing news just before he gets stabbed? Here Shakespeare gives us the basis on which all soap operas teeter.
Ross goes to England to misinform Macduff–who has only just convinced Malcolm that he’s on his side—that all is well at home. Malcolm lends Macduff many soldiers to deal with Macbeth and his growing list of victims, lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Right when the reader has slipped into a warm bath with salts fizzing, Shakespeare pulls the plug and drains the bath. All the Macduffs are dead except Macduff himself and Macbeth is off his nut. Seeing that a massacred family is as good a reason to come home as any, Macduff heads back to Scotland in order to forward the stalled plot.
Back at Dunsinane, a doctor and gentlewoman have looked in on Lady M. Once the Heriest of all Hers, she is slightly less Her of late. Like most wives of murderous kings, she tries quite a few fads to find one that fits; sleepwalking, hallucinations, mumbling to herself of wrong deeds. She wanders off to see about bashing her head into a wall and the doctor and gentlewoman marvel at her determination to lean in. Shakespeare, unbeknownst to him, was writing the feminist manifesto before it was popular. But he still hates stains and his laundry fixation manifests as a non-existent splatter of blood on Lady M’s hands.
Macduff, Ross and Malcolm head off to Dunsinane with Lennox, who cannot decide to whom he owes allegiance. Just for good measure, they grab a few trees from Birnam Wood to camouflage their numbers, which means I lost the over/under on Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
Macbeth can only be killed by one not of woman born, which is Shakespeare’s way of finding out who paid attention in biology. Just when Macbeth feels his most confident, Lady M commits suicide. Macbeth is dismayed by this, because honestly, she had so much to do with everything that was going on, but his lamentations are cut short when a forest walks up to the castle.
It seems like we should read something into this. Macbeth, for his part, decides he hates the sun.
Macbeth is feeling rather cocky about his advantage when Macduff informs him that he himself was in fact ripped from his mother’s womb, a fact I am certain his mother has impressed upon him his entire life, and Macbeth starts to sweat. They go offstage fighting.
Malcolm is in the castle when Macduff walks in declaring him king and presents him with Macbeth’s head. Malcolm mistakes it for the Scottish crown, places it atop his head and tells all the thanes they are earls and we might as well go English because that will probably work out better for Scotland anyway.
I give Macbeth 67 Plumes because of my own love of headwear.
Take Away – Wine is a far more appropriate gift than uprooted trees.
Thank you to SparkNotes.com for the literary assistance and to L.C. Neal of Fictionique.com for editing.