Shakespeare : Macbeth.

Scotland, 11th century

What a picture.

Two Scottish generals, trudging across the moor, on their way home after crushing the Norwegians in an attempted uprising. There was headchopping and all sorts of stuff that made them happy, especially one of them: Macbeth.

Why is General Macbeth extra happy? Because there was a traitor - yuck! - who was a thane. A thane was a guy (always a guy) who owned land. The title was higher than an average fellow, and lower than a hereditary noble. And in Scotland, it meant you got to be chief of a clan and be pretty important. So the Thane of Cawdor, a Scot named Macdonwald,  helped out the Norwegians, which made him a traitor. Norway lost, which meant the Macdonwald also lost; not only the battle, but also his head, which Macbeth stuck on top of a wall. Victory. How much better could life get?

Well, apparently quite a lot better, according to three sister-witches the two generals run into. They have hair all over and are quite unattractive and have these prophecies to give. They tell Macbeth that King Duncan is going to make him Thane of Cawdor and eventually he’s going to be King of Scotland. What?! Huh?!

They go on to tell his buddy, General Banquo, that he’s not going to ever be King, but that his sons will be someday. Hmm. So they head home.

Back home.

Because Macbeth was so brave and awesome during the battle, Scottish King Duncan decides to have Macbeth take over the Thaneship. So now he’s Thane of Cawdor. This makes the three witch-sisters and the first part of their prophecy...correct.

King Duncan is so happy with Macbeth that he informs him he’s coming to visit. Nice! This should be a wonderful thing. Meanwhile on the Macbeth ranch-castle, Macbeth makes the unfortunate decision to tell his wife, Lady Macbeth, about the prophecy.

If you have children, and have ever made the mistake of telling them about something super fun that you’re going to do soon, at a later point, and then you suffer the consequences of having told them that and have them become fixated on that one thing to the exclusion of all else, then you may have some empathy for Macbeth in this situation. Lady Macbeth is fixated, obsessed, totally focused on the prophecy and is determined to do anything and everything necessary to make the rest of it come true. Her husband will be king. By any means necessary.

Any means necessary.

Coincidentally, King Duncan arrives soon thereafter, and they enjoy a wonderful feast and celebration together, and everyone - almost everyone - gets super full and drunk and tired. Duncan and his guards are a little extra sleepy cause Lady Macbeth roofied their drinks. So he heads to his chambers, along with his two guards who sleep on either side of him. Snugglers. So they’re all asleep. Dead out.

Soon to be just dead.

After a whole bunch of back and forth, Macbeth eventually and sort of reluctantly kills the King and his guards, and Lady leaves the bloody dagger by the bed. Killing a king is called regicide. Panic in the household the next morning. Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, hightail it out because they’re (rightfully) scared for their lives. Sadly, they’re blamed for the murders, even though it’s ridiculous and most everyone knows it. Who has the most to gain? Even in 11th century Scotland, it’s not that difficult to figure out.

So Macbeth fulfills destiny and becomes King of Scotland.

Whoo-hoo! He is a rightous and just king and rules wonderfully for many years. The End.

Not the end.

Sorry. I desperately wanted to write in a happy ending. But really, that wouldn’t be happy either, would it? Macbeth committed a horrible deed and we don’t want him to get away with it, do we? You might have heard the phrase “accidental hero.” Macbeth is sort of like the great “accidental villain” in literature. He found himself heading down the slippery slope of making one poor and tragic decision after another that inevitably led to...well, we’ll get there.

So he’s King.

And not a good King. And not a happy King. He’s having horrible dreams every night and ghosts keep appearing and telling him these awful things and reminding him of what he did and warning him what’s going to happen and...sometimes it’s not so great to be King. He’s guilty, he’s ashamed, but not ashamed enough to confess and give up his throne, and he’s lonely. But maybe things will get better from here on out.

Just a few loose ends to tidy up. He remembers the part of the prophecy about General Banquo’s heirs becoming king, and decides to host another banquet, where he arranges for Banquo and his son, Fleance, to be assassinated. It works fifty percent. By that I don’t mean that each were injured half to death, I mean that Banquo was killed but his son escaped. Remember him.  Also, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and weirds everyone out with his odd reaction and behavior. Lady Macbeth tries to make him go to bed and chill out.

Old friends, revisited.

He goes back to visit the witches and finds out that he’ll be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, where his castle is at. They also tell him that he doesn’t need to worry about anyone born of woman. However, they also remind him that Banquo’s sons will eventually ascend to the throne. Yikes.

Tyrant

Macbeth goes on a reign of terror presaging by 6oo years Robespierre and the French storming the Bastille - that’s a different story - and murders a bunch of people, including the family of Macduff, the Thane of Fife. Macduff is a smart dude and has been super suspicious of Macbeth ever since Duncan’s murder. Macduff is not happy about his family being murdered and runs off to England to join Malcolm in raising an army to fight Macbeth.

He’s feeling pretty good overall in his Dunisnane castle. Until he is informed that...the forest is heading his way. Specifically, Birnam Wood. Now, even though there are witches and ghosts and other magic stuff in this story, this part of it is not that. Turns out that Malcolm’s army is employing an ingenious little strategic move and is carrying branches in front of them as they march to disguise their numbers. Smart.

Macbeth is feeling less and less safe, and more and more lonely. Especially lonely now that his co-conspirator and wife is dead. Oh yes, she kills herself as the battle gets underway. Guilt and such. Sad. And now Macbeth has no one else to share the burden of all his reprehensible actions with. Sad.

This section is also the stage for one of Shakespeare’s greatest lines. Macbeth is reflecting on his existence and where things are ending up, and he says this about life:

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

It is one of the saddest and most nihilistic statements ever uttered. He has become resigned to the knowledge that everything he’s done up to this point in his life means almost nothing...and soon will mean absolutely nothing. His wife is dead, all of the intricate plotting and murders he’s done in the name of gaining the throne are amounting to...nothing. He’s going into battle, knowing that if the prophecy holds true - which the others have so far - that he’s going to die. His life and what he did with it has meant nothing and is about to mean nothing. There is no purpose for his existence any more, and in the end, all the things he fought for mean...nothing. He is resigned to the absurdity, sadness, and futility of what his life has become, and prepares for what his nemeses the Norse called Ragnarök: the total destruction of the world. In this case, his world. Not the world at large.

fight

The battle commences. Commences means “begins.” Nobody really likes King Macbeth, even his own soldiers, so he’s kind of doomed from the beginning. Eventually Macduff battles his way to Macbeth and challenges him to combat. They start yelling mean stuff at each other, and somewhere in this heated exchange, set amidst the heated exchanges of swords severing heads and spears skewering spleens, Macduff explains to Macbeth that his mum gave birth to him via Cesarean section. On first listen, this would appear to be the kind of information that two good dad chums would talk about over pints at an Irish pub in the context of talking kids and family and such, but if you remember back to the prophecy, you’ll remember that the prophecy was that Macbeth would not be defeated by a man born of woman.

{ A short aside on medical procedures of the Middle Ages }

Apparently Caesarian sections in the 11th century were not considered to be a full-on birthing experience, so Macduff, ipso facto, was not born of a woman. I’m not sure what he was born of, since he was grown inside a woman and came out of her. But apparently since he didn’t exit the “normal” way, he wasn’t considered to have been born by her. By the witches anyway. Good thing they were witches and not midwives or doulas.

At this point Macbeth has to know things are not looking good. But he briefly remembers his bravery and the good parts, sort of like Darth Vader in a similar circumstance, and goes into combat against Macduff. Macduff, of course, wins, and gently removes Macbeth’s head and brings it to Malcolm as a gift. It’s a Scottish thing.

Resolution

Malcolm accepts the gift, declares peace in the land, becomes king, and the descendants of Banquo go on to become rulers of Scotland for generations to come, thus fulfilling the prophecy.  The witches? Don’t know. Future inspiration for Roald Dahl stories down the road.

All’s well that ends well, except for Macbeth and his family, of course. It’s a slippery slope.

The End.