I was pleasantly surprised on reading Macbeth. It was our one Shakespeare text in high school, and thus the first full length play I had read (I had a book of shortened children’s versions as a kid). I mainly remembered the boys snickering when one of the girls read out Lady Macbeth’s famous speech
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
And I remember my annoyance at Macbeth making decisions that would obviously lead him down the path of destruction. I was not a big fan of death and destruction, and so tended to stick to the comedies.
What surprised me on my second reading this week, was how easy it was to read. Macbeth is the easiest play I have read this month so far. It had strong action which occurs quickly, with few long, philosophical speeches, and relatively easy to understand text. I read it in just over 2 hours, rather than the 3-4 hours the other plays have taken me, and several key dramatic points had occurred after only half an hour of reading.
The witches were a highlight for me. They are great characters- and I found myself wondering at their place in history. It seems that modern witches draw from Shakespeare’s depiction a lot- they are the typical evil hag witches. But interestingly, the witches are never actually called witches in the text- they are called ‘the weird sisters’, creatures, hags… and of note the term weird doesn’t mean what it did then- wyrd meant fate- and they could be seen as the three fates as much as witches. The term weird came to be associate with odd, strange supernatural things in the 19th century. Macbeth himself struggles with what to make of them- he frequently wonders at what they are and how they come and go as they do, and what their motives are:
The earth has bubbles, as the water has
And these are of them
But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
Perhaps the witches own phrase, “Fair is foul and foul is fair” sums up their philosophy and essence best- all that is foul and gross and destructive is their goal.
Aside from the witches, Macbeth is a story chock a block full of intense, dramatic people. The king and his nobles are strong and battle-minded.
So well thy words become thee as they wounds, They smack of honor both.
Lady Macbeth is forceful and ambitious to the point of manipulation and violence, and then she disintegrates into madness. But not one to be quietly defeated, she again takes matters into her own hands and kills herself.
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.
Macbeth starts of seeming fairly normal- when we meet him he is a noble winning battles for his King, and riding with a friend. But soon he becomes a murderer, wracked by guilt, but consumed by fears which cause him to keep killing. He swings back and forth between paranoia and guilt, until he sees his end coming and almost revels in the final battle.
this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.
All in all it is an enjoyable play to read, and one where I found myself imagining how cool it would be to act this character, and how to stage that scene and so on.