Thoughts on “Macbeth”

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, being less than 30 pages in the collection I’m reading — most are between 30 and 40 pages — and only taking me about an hour to read.  It’s also a play that I read in high school and wrote a couple of essays on, one that cast Banquo as a mostly noble person and not one wracked by ambition, and another that compared “Macbeth” to Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” series noting that in “Macbeth” people trusted too much and that caused the issues while in the “Amber” series people trusted too little and that caused the issues.  At any rate, this is a play that I’m pretty familiar with and that I probably had a rosier view of than most people do.  So I came in expecting to like it and so there really shouldn’t be any surprises here.

Anyway, the basic plot is that Macbeth and his lieutenant Banquo have just heroically won a major battle against an invasion force supported by some traitors against huge odds.  As they are returning to meet their king, Duncan, they encounter some witches who say that Macbeth will get additional lands and will eventually become king, while Banquo’s sons will be king (interestingly, I’m currently also rewatching “Babylon 5” and the similarities between this prophecy and the prophecy that both Londo and Vir will become Emperor, one becoming Emperor after the other is dead are striking).  When they meet the king, it turns out that he has given Macbeth those lands because of his heroism and because the previous owner was actually the traitor who allowed for the invasion in the first place, thus confirming the prophecy of the witches.  Given this, Macbeth and his wife start to believe that he will become king, but that is hampered by the fact that Duncan soon afterwards elevates his son to the position that would normally spawn the next king.  Macbeth and his wife hatch a plan to kill Duncan and frame Malcolm for the deed, leaving the throne open for Macbeth.  Macbeth is hesitant, but his wife pushes him into doing that, and it succeeds.  But Macbeth starts to worry about potential opposition, first wanting to try to break the prophecy of Banquo’s sons becoming king by killing Banquo and his son.  Lady Macbeth actually demurs at this, but in a shift Macbeth is now more ambitious and active and says that he’ll handle it.  He manages to kill Banquo with hired murderers but they don’t manage to kill his son.  Soon after, Banquo’s ghost starts to appear to Macbeth, and Macbeth’s reaction to that causes Macduff to be suspicious of Macbeth, and he leaves to join up with the exiled Malcolm.  In response, Macbeth kills Macduff’s family.  After being assured that he is invulnerable unless a couple of rather impossible things occur, he ends up setting off to fight the army of Malcolm and Macduff, while Lady Macbeth seems to have been driven insane by her guilt over her role in things.  Circumstances then conspire for those impossible things to happen, and Macduff manages to kill Macbeth and return Malcolm to the throne.

Now, back in high school I was also asked to help someone from a lower grade with her Macbeth essay, and she took the exact opposite tack with Banquo, focusing on him being in it for ambition, which I couldn’t really grasp.  I suspect that one of the reasons that she didn’t ask me to follow up with that — whereas my friend managed to have his charge ask him to follow up later — was because at the time I wasn’t as good at dealing with arguments that opposed mine and likely argued too much for my own opinion instead of simply assessing whether or not her own argument worked (something that philosophy has certainly helped with).  And re-reading it this time, I did manage to see how Banquo could be seen as someone who was primarily ambitious and only not ratting Macbeth out in the hopes of having his sons become king.  The reasons for seeing Banquo as that ambitious is that he is quick to ask the witches if he will gain anything in the future, and after musing that Macbeth has paid most foully for his kingship wonders if the prophecy will thus also come true for him like it did for Macbeth.  The reasons against that is that he does indeed say that Macbeth paid foully for his role and that the others definitely see him as being trustworthy.  Yes, that other characters see him as trustworthy even if they start to suspect Macbeth doesn’t mean much since he could be fooling them, but Shakespeare very much likes to throw in asides and speeches after everyone leaves to highlight this, and we don’t have that for Banquo.  A lot of the interpretation, it seems to me, will come down to how one presents Banquo’s question to the witches early in the play.  If the presentation is one where he seems to asking out of a sense of trying to make sure that he gets what he deserves or with overt curiosity, then that would lean towards him being ambitious, but if the presentation is more him mocking the idea of prophecy and making light of it then that would lean to him not being ambitious at all.  But, yeah, it is more ambiguous than I thought way, way back then.

The other impression that I had of the play is that the witches were more passive than they actually were.  I had remembered them simply making the prophecies, but here the Wyrd Sisters deliberately seek out Macbeth to tell him that, and Hecate is angry that they did that and tells Macbeth about his “invulnerability” to in some way correct the mistake they made.  This has interesting implications for the idea of Destiny wrt the play.  The play presents it as though the prophecies were going to come true, and they both do come true.  But if Hecate needed to “fix” things, then that suggested that what the Wyrd Sisters’ action changed something that Hecate didn’t want changed.  So if their prophecy was going to be correct, Macbeth was going to become king, but something about his becoming king because of the prophecy led to some kind of result that Hecate didn’t like.  So this suggests that maybe the endpoints were fixed — Macbeth would become king and Banquo’s sons would become king — but how that happened could change.  Which suggests that if Macbeth had been more patient, he might have become king in a more stable way and avoided the end that he came to at the end, and that instead of seeing Banquo’s sons as displacing his own perhaps a more stable way for that could have happened as well, with perhaps one of Banquo’s sons marrying a daughter of Macbeth and taking the throne that way.  The tragedy, then, would be that Macbeth’s approach to achieving his ambitions was the one that would lead to the worst possible outcome for him … and if he hadn’t done it he would have achieved them anyway.

Which brings me to what struck me about Macbeth, which is that out of all of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read it’s the one that has the least direct musings on philosophical and thematic points while having as part of it the most philosophical and thematic implications.  In addition to the ones above, we have the nature of ambition itself, the interesting reversal between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth when it comes to directly satisfying their ambitions and the impact attempting to do that has on their sanity, along with issues over trust and the ambiguity of numerous characters.  If I look at plays like “Hamlet”, Hamlet muses a lot about the various issues but they only come up in those musings and it’s not the case that they just fall out from the situations themselves.  Yes, deeper themes are there as well, but it seems to me like you have to go looking for them more than you have to in “Macbeth”, where they are more natural consequences and considerations from what actually happens.

Now, given my experience with the play, I was always going to like “Macbeth”.  And despite the ambiguity over one of my favourite characters, I still like it, and like it even more now that I’ve seen some of the other thematic and philosophical implications of the play.  It’s probably my favourite of the plays so far.

Up next, one that I also read as part of an English class in “King Lear”.


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