|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
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- 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
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