"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."
More than perhaps any other play, Macbeth signals the change in the English monarchy that occured during Shakespeare's career. It is believed to have been written after the ascension of King James I to the throne, ending the reign of the House of Tudor and ushering the reign of the Scottish House of Stuart. It is a story of ambition, witchcraft, superstition, and Scottish history. Today, it continues to fascinate actors and audiences alike, and carries a stigma with it that haunts the theatrical world.
The play opens on three witches, huddling together during a thunderstorm. The forces of King Duncan of Scotland, led by Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated the armies of the kings of Norway and Ireland. As Macbeth and Banquo return home, they encounter the witches who prophesy that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor and will one day be King of Scotland. Macbeth scoffs at this idea until a messenger arrives announcing that King Duncan has made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his victory.
Macbeth bears the news to his wife who latches onto the idea of her husband becoming king. She persuades him to murder Duncan while he stays at their home, questioning his manhood when he initially refuses. The deed is done and Macbeth is pronounced king. But his guilt and paranoia plague him and he is forced to commit more murders in order to keep his throne secure.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
I had only a vague idea of Macbeth's plot and was unsure of how it would appeal to me. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and think it might just be my favorite of the Shakespeare's tragedies that I have read.
Of all of the Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one probably has the best atmosphere. King James I was fascinated by the idea of the supernatural and Shakespeare certainly feeds that fascination with this play. It is full of storms, witches, omens, ghosts, and prophecies. The image of the three witches casting spells and cooking potions is vivid even on the page. Over time, this sense of evil foreboding has penetrated even the stage where it is enacted. Many in the the theatrical world consider the play to be unlucky and refer to it simply as "The Scottish Play" rather than as Macbeth. As someone who enjoys some darker touches and Gothic stories, I found this atmosphere to be utterly delicious.
The other fascinating aspect of this play are the two lead characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. While Macbeth has some similarities to Richard III, he lacks the magnetism and pure evilness of that character. He is a man driven by ambition (as well as insecurity about his own manliness). He doesn't even think about being king until the idea is suggested to him, but once it is nothing seems more important. To him, not attaining the crown is worse than murdering his king and guest in cold blood. As for Lady Macbeth, her very name has become synonymous with the idea of the supreme villainess. She is also consumed by ambition and suppresses all "feminine" emotions in favor of more brutal, "masculine" ones. Though it is not seen by the audience, her smearing of King Duncan's blood on his bodyguards faces is horrifying. But ambition is never satisfied and as murder after murder is committed, both characters go mad with guilt and are unable to wash the blood from their hands.
Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's most unique play. It's dark atmosphere, ruthless characters, and morality overtones make it stand out. I really enjoyed it. And it is also the shortest of the tragedies, so I highly recommend it as a starting point.
Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed. Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 1981 performance starring Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie. Though it was very much a "stage" setting compared to the other plays I've watched, it was still good. I love Jeremy Brett's acting and he was wonderful here as well. Worth a watch, though I really can't wait for the new version with Michael Fassbender to come out!
Do you have a favorite performance of this play? Share it with us in the comments.