[See series intro here.]
The last time I read the Scottish play, I was a first-year undergraduate taking an introduction to Shakespeare course. (I’m still using my second edition Riverside text from that class, for those of you who note such things.) Our professor was detail-oriented enough to time the end of the unit with a performance at the student union, giving us a chance to see the play performed. This is always a boon when studying plays, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity. That said, I’m also enjoying the dictatorial freedom of playing director in my own mind, coupled with an unlimited effects budget.
However, I’ve rediscovered a good reason to read Shakespeare on the page, one that I often forget when I go too long between readings of Shakespeare: The man knew how to coin, turn, and just plain play with words and phrases. A good performance of his work will help the modern audience understand the meaning, but many of the nuances slip by. Grappling with the piece line by line on the page, with unlimited rewinding to go over a line or speech again, adds greatly to the experience for the seeker of poetry. Transparent this prose is not, and I find the complexity part of the joy in tackling the text. (This is especially true for someone like me who has spent a couple years of professional life writing and refining analytical nonfiction for a general audience, poetics frequently being ill-suited to such a task.)
Enough throat-clearing…on to the play!
Upon This Blasted Heath
This act is very efficient, yet rarely feels rushed. In seven brisk scenes, Shakespeare establishes most of the significant characters, sets up the major conflict, kicks off the inevitable tragic slide, and establishes a compelling atmosphere.
So. Much. Atmosphere. From the use of mists-and-moors Scotland as the setting, to the Weird Sisters’ ominous foreshadowing and darkly evocative dialogue, to character introductions coming in the aftermath of a major battle, to the talk of blood and murder running through the dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, everything about this act swathes the plot in grimness, death, and intrigue. In other words, terrific October reading.
Spoilers follow beyond this point! (Perhaps not particularly necessary for this particular text, but I’m trying to build good habits here…)
New Horrors Come Upon Him
Our scenes alternate between the characters who push Macbeth towards his fatal decision and those who will suffer for it.
Scene 1 gives us a brief exchange between the Weird Sisters (uberwitches, essentially) that is primarily about building the aforementioned sense of atmosphere.
Scene 2 introduces us to Duncan (the king), his son Malcolm, and the court of Scotland generally. We learn along with Duncan that his forces have just met with great success in battle against the allied might of the traitorous Thane (lord, roughly) of Cawdor and invading Norwegians. Key to the victory were Macbeth and another general, Banquo. Macbeth himself does not appear here. Instead, we hear him described at possibly the most triumphant moment of his life, as a victorious and loyal general who serves a good king and is rewarded with the lands and title of the traitor he defeats.
Then Scene 3 happens. The Weird Sisters, after a discussion of their power that establishes they can act very directly when they choose, meet Macbeth and in their greeting alone plant the seeds of his eventual fall.
It’s so simple. The first sister greets him as the Thane of Glamis, his current title. The second greets him as the Thane of Cawdor, the title we know he’s about to be given by Duncan. The last greets him as the future king. When Banquo is skeptical, they offer up a more elaborate prophecy for him. This is enough to satisfy the two for the time being, and the Sisters depart. A messenger arrives and lets them know of Macbeth’s new title. Banquo expresses his concern as he watches the seed of Macbeth’s ambition grow.
That growth continues in Scene 4, when Macbeth and Banquo meet up with Duncan. After his congratulations, the king clarifies the order of succession, naming Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth cranks the ambitious plotting up another level, noting that Malcolm is now an obstacle to Macbeth’s prophesied ascension to king.
Running with the seed metaphor, Scene 5 introduces us to the watering can: Lady Macbeth. The Sisters may have been the ones to plant in Macbeth’s fertile mind, but Lady Macbeth is the one who will ensure the plant grows. Her first reaction to Macbeth’s letter informing her of his recent accomplishments and plans is to expound on her belief that he does not have the necessary wickedness to do what is necessary in pursuit of the crown. She mentally prepares herself for the bloody deeds ahead.
Scene 6 brings Duncan back to us as he and his entourage visit the Macbeth household. Lady Macbeth plays the dutiful hostess, but we know that deadly plans are afoot.
Finally, Scene 7 kicks off with a hedging Macbeth soliloquy, followed by a pep talk with Lady Macbeth in which the plot to kill Duncan is developed and agreed to. Those first bloody shoots wait just beneath the surface, and Act II will let us see if they flower. (Take a guess…)
Speak Then to Me
First, a pair of quotations from our first odd-numbered scenes. Describing what is about to happen, we get this from the Sisters: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air,” (I.i.11-12). And whoosh! – they’re gone! In addition to capping off their atmosphere-thickening introduction, this sets us up for Macbeth’s first appearance two scenes later, when he remarks to Banquo, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” (I.iii.38). It’s a nice bit of connective tissue that pays off quickly and reminds us of the Sisters’ other foreshadowing work that will take longer to materialize.
Scene 3 also gives us a couple great lines from Banquo, perhaps my favorite of which is, “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths,” (I.iii.124-25). That sums up the scene, the act, and to some degree the entire play. It’s not too anvilicious, in part because Banquo’s articulating what many of us are already thinking as we watch Macbeth start to dream of being king. Sure, Macbeth (being Macbeth) brushes this aside, but at least somebody said what we were all thinking, right?
As I’m winnowing the list of lines I put down, I’ve noticed that all my favorites come from the odd-numbered (i.e. push-Macbeth-to-his-doom) scenes. The next comes from Lady Macbeth’s much discussed “unsex me here” speech in Scene 5, following right after that famous bit. Still addressing the spirits, Lady Macbeth asks them to, “…Make thick my blood, / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose…” (I.v.43-46). So visceral, so self-aware, and such a great character moment.
To wrap up, here’s a taste of ambitious-yet-wavering Macbeth at the top of Scene 7: “If it were done, when tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly…” (I.vii.1-2). I love all the hedging going on here. We’ve got subjunctive mood, passive voice, and multiple layers of dithering all over this before he gets around to his core sentiment, which is a wish to get the dirty business over and done with. No wonder Lady M is worried he might not commit. Her “fell purpose” is his hypothetical “it” which he’s ready to have done, even if he can’t quite describe himself as doing it. Excellent character work, handled very efficiently.
The Knowledge of the Broil
Since NaNoWriMo is about to begin, I find myself thinking of beginnings.
Here, Shakespeare gives us two short scenes to build context before putting the title character on stage. This is different from how my NaNo project will start – it’s going to kick off in the proud pulp tradition of throwing a pile of trouble in the hero’s face from the first (albeit currently unwritten) lines – but it’s a good technique to note. This is especially true given that our main character, while established as being very competent when given a task (such as, “Beat the rebels and vikings,”), is not so great at picking goals and tasks for himself. The entire story depends on an idea given to him by the Sisters and encouraged at critical moments by Lady Macbeth.
Also note that this act tells us how the rest of the story will play out. It may not be quite as direct as, say, Romeo and Juliet’s prologue, but we can guess from here that the Macbeths will engage in some murdering, become royalty on account of that murdering, and win their harm (to use Banquo’s term) when their dark and bloody castle built of schemes and murdering crashes down around them. It’s a good reminder that, if the story is well told, it doesn’t need a Lost-style Perpetual Mystery Device to engage the audience. We know this will end in tears for the Macbeths; the drama and entertainment will come in seeing how it happens.
When the Hurlyburly’s Done
I’m not invested in arguments about which writer is The Greatest of All Time, but it doesn’t take much Shakespeare to see why he’s frequently in contention. This act, and this play, are not perfect. Some pieces of dialogue do cross the line into anvil territory. At least on first read, all of the women are evil schemers who push the leading man headfirst into his tragic fall and make sure to keep him pushing him as he tumbles. Et cetera. However, Shakespeare’s genius with language is the delightful icing on a complex, many-layered cake of foreboding atmosphere, effective characterization, and clear plot.
Act II looms on the horizon like a fog-shrouded castle across the dim, damp moors. Murder, malice, and skulduggery crouch eagerly around the shadowed corners, and yet we push open the creaking door…