John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Difficulties of the Play

March 26, 2011 in Essay

The shortness of the play

Macbeth is the second shortest of all Shakespeare plays, and the shortest of all the tragedies. It was first published in the First Folio of 1623, after Shakespeare’s death. Many have argued that the play as we know it is a cut version of Shakespeare’s original —perhaps cut by Ben Johnson who was not known to like complicated language such as Macbeth is full of (such as, “multitudinous seas incarnadine,” and “with his surcease, success”). And Simon Forman, who left a diary describing the play as he saw it in 1611, points to a different beginning than we have in our text. There is no way of knowing if the play was originally longer, but the historic success of the play in production does suggest that it works as a drama in the extant short and fast version.

Macbeth’s guilt for being led into murder by the witches.

The text doesn’t make it clear that the witches led Macbeth into murder. They do not say he has to kill Duncan in order to be king, they simply tell him he will be king. But their prediction does force readers to wonder whether Macbeth is simply following what is fated, or whether he has free will. This is an issue philosophers have not settled, nor can a reader of Macbeth. But we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deciding on their own to do the murder, so surely we feel they are to blame. And Macbeth has a peculiar psychic bond with the witches, as if they were a part of his own psyche. This bond is made explicit b y Macbeth’s first words in the play, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” words that clearly echo the witches’ first chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

Lady Macbeth’s faint

After the discovery of the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth sham grief. Then surprisingly, Lady Macbeth faints. The text doesn’t tell us whether she is just pretending to faint or not (and actress would have to decide for herself about this). But if the faint is real, then Lady Macbeth is not as strong as she thinks she is or has pretended to be (which weakness fits someone who eventually goes mad with guilt).

The third murderer

In Act III, Scene 1, Macbeth hires two murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, but in the murder scene (III.3), a third murderer surprises the other two. He says he has been sent by Macbeth, he shows familiarity with Banquo’s walking habits, he is the first to recognize Banquo, and he is the first to notice (and care) that Banquo’s son Fleance has escaped. Many readers have felt that this murderer is Macbeth himself, coming along in disguise to try to make sure the job is done right. But when the first murderer returns to the castle, Macbeth is there waiting for him, and Macbeth does seem shocked and dismayed to find that while Banquo has been murdered, Fleance has escaped. So clearly the theory that the third murderer is Macbeth is “fantastic,” as one editor puts it. But many readers still have their suspicions, which suspicions fit the “uncanny” quality of the play Macbeth. And some directors have gone so far as to have Macbeth himself act as the third murderer.

Macduff abandonment of his family

Many readers blame Macduff for fleeing to England and thus leaving his wife and children undefended from Macbeth. In his defense, one can only point out that there was no reason (political, practical, or otherwise) for Macbeth to have murdered Macduff’s family, so Macduff doubtless presumed they were safe. Macduff hadn’t yet realized the pure evil in Macbeth, and so can be blamed perhaps only for naiveté.

The authorship of the Hecate scenes

In Act III, Scene 5, the three witches meet with Hecate (Greek Goddess of the underworld), At the end of the scene, Hecate and some spirits sing a long song, presumably with dancing , “Come away, come away.” Hecate joins the three witches again in Act IV, bringing with her three other witches, and this time they sing the song “Black spirits.” The problem here is that both these songs appear in a play by Thomas Middleton, The Witch, and both these songs were probably written by Middleton (not Shakespeare) and added to Macbeth (perhaps to lengthen the play). On this basis, some argue that all of Hecate’s part is a non-Shakespearean interpolation. But she does speak language that works with the play, for example calling Macbeth “a wayward son,” and pointing out to the witches that he “Loves for his own ends, not for you,” that is that Macbeth doesn’t love evil itself, but rather uses evil to get the power he loves. And Hecate also meaningfully points out, “And you all know, security/ Is mortals’ chiefest enemy” (III.v.32-3). These lines sum up Macbeth’s downfall: he couldn’t just wait for the witches’ prophecy to be fulfilled, he had to make himself secure about his future (by killing the King, then Banquo). People sometimes object to singing and dancing in the middle of a tragedy, but there is singing and dancing in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And indeed at the end of each play at the Globe theatre, the actors would do a jig, an elaborate dance. This practice is adhered to at the New Globe in London, and while it may seem ridiculous, it is remarkably effective. The audience (and the actors) leave the stage happy, after seeing (as in a recent production of Macbeth at the New Globe) Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the witches, the whole cast in a merry dance.

The fate of the witches at the end of the play

Shakespeare not infrequently doesn’t tie up all the threads of his story, doesn’t say what has happened to all the characters (most famously with the fool in King Lear). But the reader or audience should notice and wonder about these characters. While Macbeth is killed, the witches (and Hecate) are not. Presumably they still exist after the play, which suggests that Evil can never finally be defeated, although certain evil people can be.

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