It’s been a hot minute since I last read a play, and especially a Shakespeare play. Occasionally I like one, but I can’t name a single play I’ve ever really loved the way I love a good novel. But my 2017 reading challenge urged me to try again, so I picked up William Shakepeare’s Macbeth. I even bought my own copy so that I’d have no excuse to skip over this part of my reading challenge, which turned out to be a successful move.
About the book: Three witches appear to the recently-victorious-in-battle Macbeth, and his friend Banquo. They prophesy the two men’s futures, but Macbeth dismisses them as liars. Soon after, the king honors him with a new title as reward for his victory, and Macbeth realizes that the witches must have been telling the truth. And if they told the truth in that instance, perhaps it is also true that Macbeth will be king, as they claimed. But Macbeth is greedy and afraid, and he sets out to take the throne by removing competitors rather than securing the royal title honestly, which earns him a growing list of enemies and assures that the witches will be correct about Banquo’s future too– which doesn’t look so good for Macbeth.
“Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble. / Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog; / Adder’s fork, and blindworm’s sting, / Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing – / For a charm of powerful trouble / Like a hellbroth boil and bubble.”
This is probably one of the easiest plays to understand right from the start that I’ve ever read. For some reason in plays, though not in novels or other mediums, it’s usually difficult for me to keep track of all the characters and the implications of early plot points. But Macbeth has a single plot arc, focusing solely on Macbeth and his affect on other characters, rather than weaving multiple threads together. It is easy to determine the relation of every character to Macbeth, and how they will help or impede his goals.
“False face must hide what false heart doth know.”
“By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.”
Here’s a comment more generally applicable to Shakespeare’s works than specifically for Macbeth, but it applies to Macbeth as well as to any other of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read. I find the inventiveness of the language so notable– the use of familiar words as different parts of speech than are typically found, and the use of familiar word pieces doctored with different prefixes or suffixes (or even morphed with whole other words) to give new meaning. I love seeing writers stretch the language. I’m talking about examples like “ravined”: made ravenous, and “incarnadine”: to redden. Unusual turns of phrase, like “water’s breach” for breaking waves, and “eternal gem” for immortal soul. To some extent, this is a product of the medium, and the time period in which it was written. But some of these examples have the same sort of whimsical and unexpectedly apt feel that Dr. Suess’s made-up words do, and I think playing with language in that way, making new connections with the bare pieces of it, is so commendable. There are footnotes in case you miss the meanings, but all of the examples I’ve listed here were clear enough in context despite my unfamiliarity with them that I took notice, and appreciated the author’s willingness to experiment.
The downside to Macbeth, for me, was that a significant portion of it seemed much like filler. There’s miscellaneous magic babble. There’s much talk about the action, but very little action seems to be going on. They’re always talking about battles coming and ending, but only part of one battle is right there in the text. The murders are talked over more than anything else, and yet they also pass fleetingly and without much struggle. At one point a ghost appears, does nothing but frighten someone with his presence, disappears, reappears, does nothing, and then is gone from the play entirely. The most exciting action moments were seen in the all-too-brief stage directions that said merely: [Dies.] I know there are some Shakespeare plays with long and impressive monologues, and I did mark some interesting passages from Macbeth, but for a story so focused on death, I was disappointed with how little fight and action actually appeared in the play. So much of it was tucked behind the scenes. But there were some interesting “last words,” at least:
“Whither should I fly? / I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve only read a couple of plays outside of school (although in all fairness let’s acknowledge that I took an entire class on 15th-16th century plays in college so I have read a healthy number). Maybe if I read more of them for fun, I’d enjoy more of them. I did like this Pelican Shakespeare edition, with the line art on the outside and just enough extra info packed between the covers. Maybe I’ll make a note to read more of them. Any recommendations? (I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.)
What’s next: On to the next title of my 2017 reading challenge, which is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is also my classic of the month for December, so it’s got that two-birds-one-stone sort of productivity feel. And of course, ’tis the season. Expect another mini-review coming soon, this one featuring the ghosts of Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Literary Elephant