MACBETH · SHAKESPEARE

FIRE BURN, AND CAULDRON BUBBLE

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According to A.C. Bradley, “[Macbeth’s] inability to understand himself is repeated and exaggerated in the interpretations of actors and critics, who represent him as a coward, cold-blooded, calculating, and pitiless, who shrinks from crime simply because it is dangerous, and suffers afterwards simply because he is not safe. In reality his courage is frightful. He strides from crime to crime, though his soul never ceases to bar his advance with shapes of terror, or to clamor in his ears that he is murdering his peace and casting away his ‘eternal jewel.'”

I think it goes without saying that Macbeth has somewhat of a dual personality – that is, he is very divided. On one hand, he is power hungry and willing to murder. On the other, he feels incredible guilt and worries about what he has done. But I do not necessarily agree with using the word courageous to describe Macbeth. It is not as if he strides from murder to murder because he is fundamentally brave enough to ignore his conscience – he continues to kill because he is easily manipulated, and finds himself in situations where he feels he has no other choices. Courageous is a strong word that Macbeth is not deserving of.

We were asked the following question in class: who has the more flexible and inclusive definition of masculinity? Macbeth, or Lady Macbeth?

The answer is, surprisingly, Macbeth.

MACBETH
We will proceed no further in this business.
He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

LADY MACBETH
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account they love. Art thou afeared
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

MACBETH
Prithee, peace.
I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH
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 plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

And so on. Although Lady Macbeth does not follow strict gender roles herself, she still has a very clear idea of what makes a man. To Macbeth, backing out of his initial plan to murder Duncan doesn’t compromise his manhood in anyway. But his lack of resolve, and the fact that he’s floundering, is decidedly unmanly to Lady Macbeth. If he were truly a man, he would do as he promised. Macbeth is an awful person, yes, but he does seem to have a more open idea of what makes a man.

Moving on – Macbeth’s first public fit happens in a dining room. He sees the ghost of Banquo sit in his chair. I find this image to be very striking. Although Banquo is the most recently murdered of the bunch, technically, any old ghost could have shown up to harass Macbeth. But the fact that it was Banquo makes this scene very dramatic. It forces Macbeth to finally face what he has done. I mean, he’s murdered Banquo – a man he loved very differently from the way he loved Duncan. Look at what you’ve done, Macbeth! Before, Macbeth would only share his inner turmoil with Lady Macbeth. But with this outburst, everyone else in the room is finally seeing Macbeth’s unhinged behavior.

In the fourth act, Malcolm is very suspicious of Macduff. Poor, stupid Macduff. He leaves his wife and child (for shame!) behind in Scotland, goes to England, and is met with distrust from Malcolm. The argument is that this distrust is healthy – after all, Duncan met a gruesome end because he was far too trusting of Macbeth. Hal also has this distrust in Henry V. It is a form of self-protection, and once Malcolm feels he can trust Macduff, he drops his act.

I have to say, however, that as someone who has never read the play, I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. Malcolm basically says that he won’t be better than Macbeth because he’s greedy and addicted to sex. This had become far too soap opera-like to me, and I was seconds away from howling with laughter. Fortunately, it ended up being a giant act. Nice work, Shakespeare. Fooling me is quite the challenge, but he definitely succeeded. In my defense, why would I believe otherwise about Malcolm? We’d seen very little of him up to this point.

Hilariously, Macduff is pretty sure that sex addiction and greed aren’t nearly as bad as all the awful traits Macbeth has. And maybe they aren’t! Fortunately, Scotland will never have to find out, because Malcolm ends up being a total angel.

As I said before, I do not love this play. The characters are a bit too easy to analyze, and the plot is a little bit nonsensical. It’s really difficult to root for anybody, which makes it difficult for me to enjoy. That’s not to say that it’s been torture trying to get through this! Quite the opposite, I haven’t laughed this much during a play since…well, ever.

Not quite the effect Shakespeare intended, I’m sure.

2 thoughts on “FIRE BURN, AND CAULDRON BUBBLE

  1. This play holds a special place in my heart. As a high school senior I was at a crossroad. Do I continue on the path my parents picked or do I rebel? My English teacher had us read the play. I was bored until the I read the hand washing scene. Lady Macbeth’s cry’s “Out damn spot” really hit a nerve. I decided I would never do anything that would stain my soul, I would never do anything that would make me regret an act so badly that I couldn’t, wouldn’t sleep well. The play helped me stay on the right path. I rebelled but it subtle ways.

    1. That’s amazing! It’s really lovely that Shakespeare helped keep you on the right path.

      I find that the play really does pick up in the last act – I only really became engrossed near the end. I really enjoyed how the shorter scenes built up tension. And we had a really interesting conversation about whether or not a reader/play-goer would feel sorry for Macbeth at the end. All in all, not a terrible play! Just not my favorite.

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