Monday, April 30, 2012

"Out out..."

Surely many readers are familiar with these words without even having read Macbeth. This passage has been referenced contemporarily in everything from a Robert Frost poem, to a television series Six Feet Under. This passage certainly has much to say about the brevity of life, how quickly and steadily time passes by, and theater. On the surface, in this passage Macbeth is comparing the suicide and life of Lady Macbeth to a brief candle – the candle has burned for a limited amount of time, supplying light to the life of Macbeth, but has now been extinguished. The first line, “she should have died hereafter” is commenting on how he wishes she had died under different circumstances and in a different time. This can also be interpreted on a much grander scale to signify the delicate fragility of the human condition that throughout life can be easily forgotten. The lines “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day” to me comments on how many people often lose themselves in the promises of “tomorrow”; so often people are wishing for a new day, for school to end, for work to end, for a class to end, that they simply just forget that time itself is creeping rather quickly. Many people find themselves wishing for a never ending stream of tomorrows and simply wish their lives away in the process. Although in the context of the play this passage is usually interpreted much more negatively, I think it can be read inversely as a message to enjoy the present moment, for it will soon be the past.
In the next three lines Macbeth, although in a nihilistic and detached manner, is seemingly in touch with both the past and present. “All our yesterdays have lighted fools/the way to dust death” is signifying that all of these days that have come to pass have done little more than help us to become closer and closer to death. Although the overall tone is completely despairing and hopeless, there is still some good advice here being conveyed by Macbeth about the brevity and fragility of existence. Again, I feel that despite the negative connotations these lines have in the play, this passage can be utilized to enhance the reader’s awareness of how brief one’s life is and how quickly and steadily time passes by.
In the next lines, Macbeth continues with the images of light and darkness first initiated by the candle by comparing life to a walking shadow and a player on a stage which can be interpreted in (at least) two different ways. One being an obvious comparison of how in life all of us are given a mere “hour upon the stage” further elaborating on the idea of how brief and essentially pointless life is. Of course Macbeth is merely an actor on the stage, a “poor player strutting and fretting his hour” as well. This is surely a direct acknowledgement to the audience about the play itself, encouraging the viewer to realize that what they are watching is merely a play. The last lines: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” On one level, Macbeth has surely completed his full descent into complete nihilism and depression, implying that life itself has no purpose at all. Shakespeare also seems to be encouraging the viewer of his plays to realize that even this play is nothing more than a tale. Whether interpreted positively or negatively, literally or figuratively, this passage has much to say about the nature of existence and the human condition. 

Lady Macbeth

Before Macbeth had visions of ghosts, now his wife, Lady Macbeth, is having visions and is sleep walking. While sleeping she is doing the action of washing and cleaning her hands from the blood of Duncan’s. She says, “Yet here’s a spot. Out, damned spot; out, I say; One, two – why, then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear who knows it when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (5.1 27-34). Even the doctor says that Lady Macbeth is not sick but has visions and that she must cure herself. “No so sick, my lord, As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies That keep her from rest.” (5.3 39-41). Later on in Act 5.5, we hear Lady Macbeth cry out and then that she has died. Macbeth say, “She would certainly have died someday; she should have died at another, more peaceful time”. He is saying that he knew she was going to die eventually, but he would rather have her died when he wasn’t going to war with England. At first we see Lady Macbeth’s thirst for power rise while her husband just sits back and watch. However as the play progresses, Macbeth gets the thirst for hunger and Lady Macbeth takes the back seat. The only thing that they have in common is the visions that they get. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, while Lady Macbeth sees Duncan’s blood on her hands that she can’t seem to wash away. Throughout this play, it doesn’t seem like Macbeth loves his wife or that Lady Macbeth loves her husband. The only thing on their mind is power, but in the end it turns out that everything they tried to earn has gone down the drain. Lady Macbeth is killed because of her delusions and Macbeth is killed because he went to war with England.
While Lady Macbeth is in the process of dying, Macbeth is preparing for the war against England. When talking to the doctor about Lady Macbeth’s condition, he just asks him to find some solution to cure her, but he doesn’t go and tend to her needs and help her. However, Lady Macbeth wasn’t helpful towards Macbeth either because when he was having his visions she just played it off has a childhood problem so that their guest wouldn’t get suspicious and wouldn’t stop supporting him. I believe that they both got what they deserved when they were seeing things. If Macbeth didn’t take it into his own hands to fulfill the prophecy, then he wouldn’t need to kill Duncan and then eventually have himself killed. 

The Witches of Macbeth

   The play Macbeth tells the story of the Scottish lord Macbeth, his ambitions to gain more and more powers, and his subsequent actions to obtain it. The actions that Macbeth takes in order to get power is precipitated by his meeting with the three witches. While it is clear that Macbeth's actions are his own, the fact is that the instigating event that leads to the truly bloody and ruthless actions is this meeting with the witches and their prophecies of his future glory that starts him on his path. What makes this meeting so instrumental in the subsequent events of the play is not so much the what that is said, but the how.
   Some of the most important events that occurs in this play are the ones in which the witches play a direct role in them. This is seen in the one of the earliest scenes of the play, 1.3, in which Macbeth first meets the witches and they then tell him of the his future. What makes this interaction even more interesting is the way that he is told that he will gain all of this power. This is seen in "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis. / All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor. / All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!" (1.3.46-48). Here the witches tell Macbeth of the potential for power that he has, interestingly enough without actually telling him that he is going to have this power. The way that the witches tell Macbeth of his future glory is done in a way that is both very clear and also implicit as well. This is seen in the fact that by simply calling Macbeth all these titles that they show what he can accomplish and thus giving life into Macbeth's already large ambition. The way that this is done also shifts the responsibility of Macbeth's  later actions much more onto him, as the fact is that the witches never explicitly tell him to do anything but rather show him the path and let him walk it.This is something that occurs in all of his meetings with the witches, in a later meeting with them Macbeth is much more accepting of their prophecies. This is seen in "I conjure you by that which you profess, / howe'er you come to know it, answer me . . . answer me to what I ask." (4.1.66-77). It is clear from this statement that almost immediately after Macbeth meets the witches again he wants their advice and prophecy to help him. This statement also shows that any compunction that Macbeth has of his actions in taking power is completely gone and that he is willing to do anything for it. This is seen in "Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn / the power of man, for none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth." (4.1.9-97). This prophecy causes Macbeth to believe that he is truly invincible, something that will become all to apparent that is quite false and which eventually results in his death. This is yet another example of the way that vague prophecies are used in order to give Macbeth just enough rope to hang himself with.
   The play of Macbeth is about the character of Macbeth and his efforts to take power in Scotland by any means necessary. One of the most important aspects of this story is the way that his meetings with the witches is what begins him on his path of ruthless exploits. At the end of the day it is Macbeth's own interpretation of the witches prophecies that leads him on his path to power and his downfall.

Lady Macbeth's not so tough after all.

We saw throughout the play Macbeth breaking down and becoming more and more insane. Macbeth's insanity peaked, when he saw the ghost of Banquo at the banquet dinner. While he was doing this, it was Lady Macbeth who was keeping it together and tell Macbeth to snap out of it. She also made excuses for his outrageous behavior at the banquet, telling the guests not to pay attention to him because it would only make the insanity worse. In Act 5 scene 1 we get the first glimpse of Lady Macbeth's guilt coming back to haunt her. This is seen through her sleep walking. Lady Macbeth sleep walks some nights because of the burden she has on her because of the murders that were committed. She is seen rubbing her hands together and saying, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" (5.1), Lady Macbeth is trying to rub out the blood from the murders. We get evidence of this from, "Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." Also Lady Macbeth could be constantly smelling blood on her hands, because of the guilt she feels about the murder of the King and Banquo. As long as Lady Macbeth has feelings of guilt she will always have blood on her hands. When the doctor tells Macbeth that his wife is distressed, you would think he would have a reaction like she did and tell her to pull herself together. Instead he brushes the problem off to the doctor and just tells him to find a way to cure her. He is more concerned with saving his country which is on the brink of destruction from an attack led by Malcolm. Scene 1 in Act 5 is the last time we here from Lady Macbeth. We only here news of her death in scene 5, which Macbeth does not seem to care about, he simply says, "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word." Macbeth does not seem upset by the death of his wife at all, even though she has been the one who held his sanity together. I think it is ironic how Shakespeare started this play portraying Lady Macbeth as a strong woman with a masculine role. She was basically Shakespeare's rock. As Macbeth began to crumble as well as the kingdom she was keeping him together. In the end it was Lady Macbeth who lost her complete sanity which I think could represent the complete destruction of Scotland, which started out strong under the rule of Duncan, just like Lady Macbeth did. 

The Kingly Curse

    Oh isnt it ironic  that once again we find our king to be in the hands of karma. It just clearly does not work out for kings, especially those with ill intentions or those who kill to be on the throne. Macbeth finds himself at odds with the kingdom and is so overwhelmed that he forfeits Dunsinane Castle. Not only does everyone in the kingdom hate Macbeth so much that they call him a tyrant, but they all think that he is going mad.
   When it comes to being cursed Lady Macbeth is also done in. Lady Macbeth is so terrified from the murder that she begins to sleep walk and chant out what she has done. Talk about a loose wire in the mix, Macbeth is doomed by his wife's unstable mind games. Lady Macbeth even begins to see blood on her hands and is so delirious that she scrubs to try to get it off, but it will not go away no matter how hard she tries.
    We have seen these cases in so many of Shakespeare's plays. In "Richard II" Richard is unfair to his people of England and completely abuses his power, leaving Boolingbroke to seek revenge on him for the rightful place as king. In the end everyone hates him, so Richard promises his throne to Bolingbroke. Richard ends up having to have an un-ceremony out of losing his crown. As a curse to being a follower of Richard, Amerelle loses his power and title. And we all know that Richard's bad rule ends up having him murdered by Exton at the end of the play.
    In Lear's case his greed ended in his death as well as his own daughters. Lear starts of the play by giving away sections of his kingdom away to his daughters based on how well they brag. He assumes that even though he does not have a kingdom anymore that he should still be thought of as a king and treated with the same respect. Then the curse of the kings happened and people lost all respect for him, his knights did not mean anything, and his own daughters did not even want to care for him when it was part of the agreement for the land. He ends up losing everything and becomes completely mad and even ends up homeless for a while.
    Of course I have to assume that Shakespeare knows what he is doing here and knows that there is an obvious turn of events in a kings life that either gets him killed, or gets him overthrown. How else can we explain this all too common pattern of kings. I think maybe it is a warning by Shakespeare to all future kings, that if they mess up or become to greedy they are not going to last.
    So we can see now that there is a pattern to this curse, and a combination that has an eventual outcome. I would classify it like this; Bad King + Bad intentions = Curse, Good King + Too nice = dead, and Kings who give their kingdom away + people taking too much = disaster. Then there is always the people who end up siding with the bad king who get intertwined in the curse too. It is clear that something is to be said about being king. Perhaps Shakespeare is saying that the only way to be a king is to be a queen.

Prophecy Power

The power of prophecy is a tricky thing, and that is certainly showcased in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We often talk about the power of the supernatural in this place, and surely it does feature through out, but the most prominent of all the supernatural features that occurs is that of prophecy. It is the reason that the actions of the play even occur, for who is to say that without the witches telling Macbeth he would one day rule that he would have killed Duncan in order to become king when he did? We assume eventually Lady Macbeth would have thought it up being the type of woman she is, but basically the assumption is that it is the witches’ prophecy that leads us there. It is mostly Macbeth, as well, that is tricked within the course of this play.

It also causes Macbeth to have his own friend murdered when he begins to fear the other part of the prophecy, for as Macbeth himself put it “Only for them [Banquo’s sons] and mine eternal jewel/Given to the common enemy of man/To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings./Rather than so, come fate into the list/And champion me to th’utterance.” (3.1.69-73). Which is basically him saying that he only became king to give it to Banquo’s sons, or at least so the prophecy goes, and again he is the one who helps this to eventually happen through his actions. So how much is prophecy and how much happens because the prophecy happens? It is a question that can always be asked with any form of prophecy.

The big prophecy that we see tricking Macbeth within this play is the one that states “…for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.” (4.1.96-97). This makes Macbeth believe that he is safe, and shall not be harmed, thus he says right after this that there’s no point in killing Macduff, he might as well not fear him because no one can kill him, in his mind everyone is born of woman because natural birth was the main form of birth in this time. No one was really born via Cesarean section. He still says he’ll kill Macduff, but now he is not afraid of dying by the other man’s hand, as he really should be considering how Macbeth meets his end.

This prophecy is tricky in how its worded, and how it gives Macbeth his sense of security. Everyone is born from a woman, that’s just the way that it goes, but it means that it would have to be a natural birth, not the baby taken from the woman. And thus, feeling assured, Macbeth meets his end via Macduff because he wasn’t afraid of him. Of course it could be said that whether or not he was ready for it, he was going to die. But the basic idea is that the prophecy tricked him into a false sense of security, which allowed him to not make the preparations he should have for his own safety.

Prophecy is truly not something to be messed with, the future is always changing after all and Shakespeare makes this very clear within this.

Shakespeare's Theatre

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.  It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing" (5.5 23-27).  This is one of Macbeth's most famous quotations, and for a good reason.  I'd like to analyze this passage because it says a lot not only about life, but about Shakespeare's continuous theatrical themes and his own views on life and theatre. 

When Macbeth speaks these words, it reminds the audience that they are in a theatre watching a play because it mentions a "player" acting "upon the stage."  This idea is reoccurring in Shakespeare's plays, where he brings theatrical language into the dialogue to remind us that we are watching a performance.  Portia, in The Merchant of Venice is "acting" when she dresses as a man and gives a speech to the crowd in the court scene, Sly sits in the back in The Taming of the Shrew and watches the action like an audience member, and many of the kings in the history plays have to put on a type of "mask" to seem brave and in control.  All of this directly relates to the theatre itself and the process of putting on a performance. 

When Shakespeare writes this, he is not only referring to the triviality of life, but also to plays themselves.  He reminds the audience that they are not viewing reality, but merely "a tale/ told by an idiot" which "signif[ies] nothing."  The audience members will leave this theatre and nothing will have been changed in their lives.  Maybe they will get something from the performance, but it won't be much and will maybe even be forgotten in the future.  This is a very interesting way to view Shakespeare's opinion on theatre.  He seems to be more interested in the immediate and short-lived emotions that acting gives the audience and not concerned with the long-term impact it would have.  Theatre during Shakespeare's time was all about pure entertainment, rather than giving a message.  Even if Shakespeare's plays end with a clear moral message, who knows how many people it would have reached in the actual audience.   

Sympathy and Emotion

Macbeth is a play which has an incredible number of thematic elements at work throughout. While the main premise seems political, the ideas of fate and destiny are also prominent and even love and family come into play at times. Each theme serves a different purpose and many of the characters are put against one another in a constant game of compare and contrast. In Act IV, scene III, one of the biggest contrasts occurs when we see how emotional the characters are capable of being. It is a very real scene when Macduff finds out what has happened to his family, and Ross is shown too as being a character that is very full of human sympathy and emotion. While there are other characters in this play and in other Shakespearean works who have had these traits, this scene for some reason just really stood out. This is probably because it is in such stark opposition to Macbeth, the character who the reader is mostly being shown throughout the exposition of this story who has very little natural human emotion. 

When Ross originally goes to tell Macduff what has happened, he cannot even bring himself to do so. He tells him that he left his family “at peace” which is technically true, but obviously beating around the point of what he needs to say (p. 2622, 4.3.180). He continues the conversation and doesn’t tell Macduff the truth for several minutes. Finally, when Macduff is let in on the horrible reality that his family has all been killed, we get another very real look at human emotion. Macduff cannot even handle the news. He keeps repeating everything being said to him even though it is simple to understand simply because of his own emotional refusal to understand. For example, he asks about his wife twice in a row, and this moment really just made me sympathize with him. 

Finally, the ultimate display of human emotion comes into play when Malcolm tells Macduff that he must seek revenge. Macduff replies that he “shall do so, but [he] must also feel it as a man” first (p. 2623, 4.3.222-223). His refusal to merely get angry and hunt down the murderer but rather to allow himself a grieving period for a bit first really embodies the idea of human sympathy and emotion, and this places him and Macbeth in complete opposition in a very right vs. wrong type of way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Equality: The best of the worst, the worst of the best

            Macbeth begins with three witches who turn out to be prophets through out the play.  They already say they will talk with Macbeth after the battle even though, the reader has no idea that he is in battle let alone that he will survive.  The witches are a strong driving force in the play representing the evil motivation that is within all humans.  The witches' next appearance is to tell Macbeth and his cohort Banquo about their future.  The men ponder if the witches are even women because of their beards and are scared of their physical presence alone.  Shakespeare is playing at the notion that the witches represent both male and female characteristics almost making them sexless.  Shakespeare throughout this play plays on the roles of women and men, but also roles of all people in general.  The witches tell Macbeth of his future role as king but also of Banquo's children sitting at the throne.  Both of these prophecies are aimed towards both of their own personal greed and want.  The witches give these men an out into which to put purpose to their plans, more Macbeth than Banquo though.  But either way these witches almost inherently put these two men against each other for the fact that neither has the correct path to the throne so there must be wrong doing to achieve their goals.  Macbeth wonders that to himself but doesn't really care either way.  This insight shows the reader what type of character Macbeth is how he will do anything to become King.  Shakespeare has Macbeth see Banquo later after another part of the Witches prophecy come true.  At this junction Banquo seems ready to discuss the interaction with the witches but Macbeth almost throws him away in fear of Banquo exposing Macbeths plans and desires.  He can't even trust his fellow war hero who he just won a big battle with.  His ruthless ways will surely lead to his demise even though by the end of this reading we see he becomes king. 

In contrast to the evil raw human tendencies, which the witches represent, King Duncan represents all that is religious and holy.  His divine right to king and his want to live up to that makes him a strong moral character.  The play starts with a rebellion, which is inherently questioning the king's power, but the people are wrong for the fact the he is divinely chosen.  Shakespeare compares the power of law to religion constantly and loves to have paradoxes in his characters to show the flaws in society's thinking.  This is clear with lady Macbeth who literally asks god "to unsex" her.  She is also the one pushing Macbeth in his deed, almost being his backbone in the situation.  As he is faltering in his plan, Lady Macbeth is keen to make sure it works and even questions his manhood.  She shouldn't be the one being the more aggressive strong character for women at that time, Shakespeare's shows his insistence that everyone is equal in their own way.  Every character could almost be played by someone of the opposite sex or class. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Supernatural

The first thing that stood out to me while reading was the obvious element of the supernatural, which hadn't been present in the other Shakespeare plays we've read. As I continued reading, I asked myself why is this? What is the purpose? I feel that adding a supernatural element serves to downplay the power of man. It emphasizes the element of uncertainty that man truly has in the face of Fate.

 The witches are the most blatant embodiment of the supernatural. They control nature and the order of things --two factors that man spends much of his time abiding by (as we've seen in previous works). The presence of the witches not only defies the omnipotent power of nature, but challenges the idea that Fate is predetermined. For example, the First Witch states, "A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,/ and munched, and munched, and munched, “Give me,”/ quoth I./ “Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries" (1.3. 3-6). These lines reveal that the First Witch encountered a woman who did not comply to her simple hunger craving, so she will now curse her husband for revenge. The witches seem to be making it up as they go. In the first scene of the play, they are undecided about where to meet later on, until one suggests and open field where they would cross paths with Macbeth. There doesn't seem to be a reason to meet him specifically; it seems like a spur of the moment decision. The supernatural seems to be toying with the order of the natural world just for the hell of it. The witches make quick appearances (such as to Macbeth and Banquo), dropping vague information. Then then vanish as soon as the human characters wants answers. They serve as an interference and distraction to the natural order of the world, maybe even as a test to weed out the good and bad people. Banquo touches on this idea when he says that devils tell half-truths to “win us to our harm” (1.3.121). It seems that the witches intentionally cause confusion.

Even their indistinguishable gender, which the men question, challenges traditional elements of nature. The witches seems to span both genders because they have beards and lack feminine features. This issue of gender is unsettling to Banquo and Macbeth, causing them to question an element of nature that is usually fixed and stable. Macbeth and Banquo's power is threatened in the presence of the witches because they cause confusion and offer insight that does not fit into conventional society. The fact that there is a presence that can manipulate Fate is bound to cause destruction later on.

Prophecy, Temptation, Corruption, and Women

Macbeth, right off the bat, is very forward about what it's going to be about. The first scene is devoted to the mysterious and foreboding dark-plottings of three witches who are obviously evil and deal in all things  black and wrong. Their chant of "fair is foul and foul is fair" (1.1. 10) suggests an inversion of all things natural and understood by the inhabitants of this world. A few scenes later, in 1.3, the witches meet Macbeth upon the Heath just as they had planned and inform him and Banquo of a few prophecies. The two that pertain to Macbeth call him Thane of Cawdor and then King. The prophecy of kingship excites Macbeth in a way which makes him very uncomfortable and deliveres dark thoughts to his mind about how to make this prophecy true, "Present fears/ Are less than horrible imaginings./  My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/ Shakes so my single state of man that function/ Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not" (1.3.136-41). Macbeth is concerned about the dark thoughts that enter his mind when this prophecy is given to him. In that same scene, these thoughts and worries are only intensified when the first prophecy is fulfilled and Macbeth is given the title of Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth now believes the prophecies and his thoughts are taken to darker places.

Now, from the beginning of this play, we are told about Macbeth's valiance and bravery in battle and his loyalty to king and country. He is clearly a good man and so these dark prophecies throw a monkey wrench in his moral gears. Once he sees that these prophecies are true, his mind speculates more and more on how to gain his foretold kingship. He is now tortured, trying hard to fight these thoughts and figure out a way to make this prophecy happen, comforting himself with the thought, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/ Without my stir" (1.3. 143-4).

Macbeth sends all of this news to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who sees a golden opportunity. Immediately when she hears of this prophecy she is planning on how to make it come true. She comments to herself about Macbeth's virtue and how it will get in the way of him attaining Kingship and when they are united, she requests that he leave all of the dirty work to her because she can handle it.

In a quick summary, I find Shakespeare's portrayal of women at this point in the play to be a decidedly negative one. The men in this play are all virtuous and good (Duncan, Macbeth) and those who are not are killed (Thane of Cawdor). When Macbeth learns about the prophecy, he is deeply disturbed by the thoughts that run through his head and tries his hardest to push them down and forget them. Lady Macbeth on the other hand, takes them and runs with them. Immediately, she is chastising Macbeth's virtue and honor and is single-mindedly thinking of how to wi that crown. She plans to kill the king right away when she learns that he will be staying at her castle, there isn't even a second of doubt in her thoughts. She will do whatever it takes to fulfill that prophecy. Further, the deliverers of the prophecy are the other three women in the beginning of this play, the three terrible witches.

The power of corruption and temptation comes solely from women in this play. Maybe Shakespeare was having some lady trouble at the time of the writing of this play, but it is clear that here women are labeled as the corruptors of men.

Why Witches?

I’m curious as to why witches play such a key role in the beginning of Macbeth. What is the relationship between their prophecy and Macbeth’s own ambition? And Lady Macbeth’s influence?

I would guess that the witches’ role in the story is to sort of unlock Macbeth’s inner ambition. While Lady Macbeth does not interact directly with the witches, she knows from Macbeth’s letter of their prophecy, and I would guess that the witches unlock ambition in her too.

Shakespeare is playing with human and inhuman sources of ambition. Every person goes through life with some amount of ambition, and some people do truly awful things to reach their ambitions. I’m not convinced that the witches in the play are real witches (I know they are supposed to vanish into thin air, but who knows, right?), so I’m wondering if the witches are kind of a sad “joke” or commentary on human ambition. Some people have to feel like a power greater than themselves has sealed their fate and led them to do terrible things. In other words, it’s apparently really easy to justify something by a made-up twisted logic if the supernatural is involved.

It’s really important to note that the witches never tell Macbeth how he will become King. It’s never implied that he is supposed to do so actively. How old is King Duncan? Old enough to die of old age soon? And Malcolm? He could be killed in another battle. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide that Duncan must be killed.

 I also interpret the witches as being a collective physical manifestation of ambition. That is to say, witches are traditionally thought of as ugly, and ambition can be very ugly too. I also think their paradoxes are a linguistic manifestation of ambition. Paradoxes can be confusing, just like ambition confuses your reasoning. They also have double meanings, of course, while ambition has a sort of double meaning—the chasing after whatever is desired and the consequences of getting it.

King Duncan says to Banquo after promoting him, “I have begun to plant thee and will labor to make thee full of growing” (1.4.29-30). I think this is a great allusion to the witches and to Lady Macbeth. They’ve all planted a sort of “seed” in Macbeth’s head (that he should kill the king). If this is the way to think about the witches and Lady Macbeth, then there’s also a sort of reverse fertilization/pregnancy metaphor going on here (maybe?), which is pretty fascinating. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lady Macbeth, the Bad-Ass Bitch

Having read Macbeth many times before, I am still drawn to Lady Macbeth. Macbeth, a play that deals with the dark roads of ambition, has perhaps one of the most ambitious female characters in Shakespeare, if not in drama as a whole. Lady Macbeth not only encourages her husband to kill Duncan, she literally plans it, and executes half of it. Her great speech “unsex me” in Act I, scene V, deals with her plotting, manipulations, and plays into Act II, scene II, where she is clearly in control over her husband, who is drawn into the madness of the act he has just committed. When confronted by her husband’s fear, she yells at him, and basically tells him to man up. Macbeth is emasculated by his wife by her strength in comparison to his refusal to finish the deed and lay the daggers with them men they wished to frame. By literally taking the knives from him, removing the phallic objects from his hands, Lady Macbeth takes away his power and masculinity in the scene.
It is interesting that, as the play continues, the madness the Macbeths experience, manifests itself in two opposing ways. In one sense, the maddest we see Macbeth act is in the first couple of scenes after he murders Duncan, he proceeds to sober up. While he continues with mad decisions, his actual behavior is no longer extreme, like seeing daggers and the ghost of Banquo. Lady Macbeth, however, seems to become more physically and emotionally mad as the play progresses. She is first to cover up the murders, her husband’s delusions, and play hostess, but by the end her madness manifests itself in sleepwalking, and obsessive washing of hands that are only stained in the figurative sense. In this way, Lady Macbeth contains her wits longer, eventually falling into madness, where as Macbeth falls into madness, and ends up being consumed by madness immediately, and never recovers from the madness, but rather adopts it into his regular decision making.
I would be loath not to mention the various ways these two characters can be interpreted on the stage. Having seen several productions, and eagerly awaiting the campus’s production next semester, it is fascinating how the dynamic between these two characters changes with every interpretation. I have seen minx-like Lady’s, who seduce their husbands, or domineering women who batter the Macbeths into action. Even the physical size of actors come into play, because if you get a skinny, scrawny Macbeth, it feminizes the role already, and Lady Macbeth’s manipulations are easier believed, and become less frightening. On the other hand, with a strong, soldier of a Macbeth, the power which Lady Macbeth holds Macbeth can become either forced by the text of the script, or completely chilling and utterly terrifying to watch play out on stage. It all depends on the performance of the actress playing Lady Macbeth.

Emasculation at it's finest

After reading Acts I and II of Macbeth, I was most intrigued by the constant emasculation of Macbeth by his wife.   It is clear that Lady Macbeth “wears the pants” in this marriage.  She is displayed in these two acts as more driven and unshaken; unlike her husband, once she makes up her mind there is no wavering or turning back.
We first see Lady Macbeth in 1.5 when she is reading the letter her husband has written her about his encounter with the witches.  Immediately upon reading the letter, she is willing to do anything to realize the prophesy and seize the crown. This is certainly different than Macbeth’s reaction in 1.3; he know what he must do in order to become king, yet he is very uneasy about it and begins to engage in an internal argument with himself.  In Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy starting a 1.5.13, she begins to list all of Macbeth’s qualities that make him less of a man and less able to complete such a task as killing Duncan.  “Yet I do fear thy nature./It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way.” (1.5.14-16).  The ability to produce milk is obviously something unique to females.  By stating that her husband is “too full o’th’ milk” is extremely emasculating. 
Once Macbeth enters, Lady Macbeth acts as though she is a football coach giving Macbeth the play and a pep talk.  “To beguile the time,/ Look like the time.  Bear welcome in your eye,/ Your hand, your tongue.  Look like the’ innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under’t…/Only look up clear./ To alter favour ever is to fear./ Leave all the rest to me.” (1.5.61-71).  Almost always in Shakespeare’s time, the man takes the position of authority and leadership, while the woman remains submissive.  Here, we have the complete reversal and, strangely, Macbeth doesn’t seem to be upset by this.  He follows his wife’s every direction without an argument of who’s in charge.  Later, in 1.7, Lady Macbeth again mocks her husband and ridicules him for acting “unmanly.”  “When you durst do it, the you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man.../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.” (1.7.49-59).  In this instance, not only is she emasculating her husband, but she is also de-feminizing herself by claiming that she would so brutally and violently abandon her maternal instincts in order to get what she wants.