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Friday, 31 January 2014


Macbeth or, in Gaelic, Mac Bethad, was King of Alba (Scotland) from 1040 to 1057 so he died almost a thousand years ago. Although this post is about William Shakespeare's play it is important to know that (1) Macbeth was a real person and (2) the play is, historically, very inaccurate.
Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

A brief description of the background to this play is important and relevant. King James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland when the two nations were united in 1603 and William Shakespeare's company of players wisely became known as The King's Men instead of the The Queen's Men. They depended upon a certain amount of Royal patronage so when Macbeth was written, probably in 1606, it was natural that he wanted to please the new King.
James was known to have been a believer in Witchcraft and had actually written a book on the subject. Our William was rather clever in making the witches central to the Macbeth's tragedy. You are probably aware of the famous opening scene with the three witches. Click here to view that opening scene. The witches occur at intervals throughout the play.
Here is a brief synopsis of the plot: At the outset of the play Macbeth and Banquo are shown as heroic generals who have bravely helped Scotland defeat two invading armies. When the witches predict that Macbeth will be King he is sceptical until the King promotes him to a high rank (Thane of Cawdor) so he begins to believe the prediction. The themes that develop are deception and the destructive power of unchecked ambition (through hallucinations and 'blood'). When King Duncan comes to stay at Macbeth's castle in Inverness Lady Macbeth (the original femme fatale?) persuades him to murder the King, which he does. He then decides that his friend Banquo is a rival so he kills him too.
However, at a feast hosted by the newly-crowned Macbeths, Banquo's ghost appears at the dinner table and Macbeth begins to loose his mind. He is eventually killed by MacDuff, whose family Macbeth has also had murdered.
Shakespeare's genius shows in his psychological insight (before psychology existed!) such as this scene where, on his way to murder King Duncan, Macbeth hallucinates about a dagger, "Is this a dagger I see before me?", brilliantly played by Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard of Star Trek if you prefer). This speech is a superb example of Shakespeare's craft and, in this clip, I especially love the menace evoked by the wonderful background music that hovers behind Macbeth's soliloquy.
It is often not appreciated how much the English language owes to the creations of William Shakespeare. Here are just a few quotes that originated in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair"
   - The witches indicating that all is not as it seems in life.
"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it"
   - Malcolm's description of Macbeth's slaying of the traitor Macdonwald.
"Yet I do fear thy nature; it is too full of the milk of human kindness"
  - Lady Macbeth fearing that her husband isn't evil enough!
"Double,double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble."
"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."
   - The witches awaiting the arrival of Macbeth.
"Out damned spot!, out I say!"
  - Lady Macbeth referring to blood on her clothing, while she is sleep-walking.
"She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day 
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle
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."
  - Macbeth on hearing of the death of his wife.
Macbeth: "If we should fail?"
Lady Macbeth: "We fail.But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we'll not fail."

Finally, my favourite part of the play (and there are many contenders) is this:
Macbeth has asked the witches if all of their predictions will come true, will no-one defeat him? and they tell him:
"Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Burnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him."and
"No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth." 
Burham Wood is a small forest about five miles from Dunsinane Hill where Macbeth's castle is situated.
Naturally Macbeth is pleased to hear this declaring that his overthrow "can never be"
However when an English army of 10,000 men advances on Macbeth in support of the legitimate Scottish King, their general tells them to cut branches from the trees in the wood to camouflage themselves.
So, when a servant informs Macbeth that Burnham Wood is advancing on the castle, Macbeth becomes even more unhinged (well, wouldn't you?)
And at the end of the play when Macbeth is fighting MacDuff, he still believes himself to be invincible because "no man of woman born" can harm him.
But he is then in informed by MacDuff that he was "ripped from his mother's womb" (ie: came into the world by Caesarean section).....oops!
MacDuff kills Macbeth

If you would like to see a BBC production of the play click here


David said...

Hi bazza,
I think that "Macbeth" may well be my favourite Shakespeare play. I like what it has to say about attaining and trying to maintain power. Of course, with my fondness for language I also love its poetry. How could one not like a line such as "tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing", especially if, like me, you have a fondness for existential despair!
Thanks for another illuminating post, bazza.
Best Wishes,

bazza said...

Hello David.
You may have deduced that Macbeth is also my favourite of Shakespeare's plays! The poetry is sublime and the insight into human weakness is unparalleled.
This was by far my longest-ever post but it has been a labour of love.
Have a great weekend David.

Anonymous said...

The rather saucy Sir Tom Eagerly says:
Well Bazza old chap. This reminds me of my student days when I was cast in the college production of the 'Scottish Play'.(We theatricals, being superstitious, never mention the name 'Macbeth'.....oh dear!)
Some say I was the best Lady Macbeth they ever saw.

bazza said...

Sir Tom, I would have thought that you would have been cast as two of the three witches. But maybe they recognised your aristocratic blood!.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I had no idea that Macbeth was a real person. I always learn something from your posts, Bazza

bazza said...

I think there are those who believe that Bazza is a fictional character!

Sherry Ellis said...

Macbeth has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, but I hadn't realized that Macbeth was a real person.

bazza said...

Yes, it seems that many people didn't realise including my own family!
They are probably aware in Scotland though.....

John said...

Hi Bazza!
I have read a fair bit about the real MacBeth, a very forward looking king who was killed in his prime, so to speak! Did you know that he is buried on Iona, I am sure that you did! Did the play at school, I seem to remember something about Glamis castle having something to do with the play, or was it to do with the historical figure? Not sure!
Anyway, great post, as usual!

bazza said...

Hi John. No I didn't know where he was buried. Thanks for that.
Macbeth was Thane of Glamis and the castle features (inaccurately)in the play. The current Lord of Glamis accompanied James I when he came to England in 1603 so Shakespeare's imagination must have been fired by that. Will sourced the play from an unreliable history book by Ralph Holinhead published in 1587.

All Consuming said...

Superb post bazza :D Now you must watch the following of course;

bazza said...

That Blackadder clip is hilarious. I must have seen it before but I don't remember it. Thanks for linking it.
When you have two hours plus to spare I recommend the BBC Macbeth with Nichol Williamson.

bazza said...

AC: Also - Macbeth has it's own humour too. Did you know that "Knock knock, who's there?" come from the play.

klahanie said...

Bazza, old chap,

Macbeth was real. Bazza is imaginary. A comprehensive account of my second favourite Shakespeare play. Of course, my favourite is still the collaboration Willie did with Dr. Seuss. "Green Eggs and Hamlet."

And now I have to prove I'm not a robot. Yuck!


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the connection with "knock, knock" jokes.

I've watched the Polanski film of Macbeth many times (incidentally the soundtrack by the Third Ear Band is quite good).

....the most memorable quote for me is when Lady Macbeth says, "a little water will clear us of this deed".......a chilling example of the power of self-deception!


bazza said...

Hi Rob. It's always good to hear your perceptive insights.
I'm not sure if we can say that the 'knock, knock' joke comes from Macbeth but the expression certainly does.
I think the Polanski version is really inventive and shows that with first-rate material you can bend it into any period or style.
As for The Third Ear Band, I didn't know about that. I wonder if they made the music I referred to behind the Patrick Stewart clip. Perhaps the Third Ear is the 'Final Front Ear' and that's why Polanski used Patrick Stewart (Geddit?)
Good to hear from you, I hope you are well.

bazza said...

Gary aka Klahanie: Ha ha! Very drole.
Gary, I'm horrified - do you have to do the robot thing to comment here? I though I had disabled it - I hate having to do that. Please let me know.

klahanie said...

Hey bazza,

The robot thingy is still there, my friend. It might be the reason you don't get as many comments as I think you should.


bazza said...

Thanks for that Gary. I'll try to reset it again.
I don't promote my Blog at all; I'm happy just writing it and dealing with what I get! The number of visitors recorded seems incredibly high but I'm not sure why.