My adventure through the Western Canon begins with Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. First performed around 1606 during the reign of James I traditionally believed to be cursed by the world of theater, its name not spoken aloud instead referred to as The Scottish Play. Macbeth is a bloodbath of murder and the descent into madness that follows.
For the duration of my, Shakespeare read I’m going to post my notes and observations one act at a time. I’m going to use the popular read along format of summary and commentary per scene. The whole point of this is for me to jot down notes and maybe enlighten myself to some deeper meaning in the text. Feel free to read along and comment.
Act 1 Scene 1
Summary: Thunder and lightning, a ferocious battle raging in the distance. Three hideous witches materialize out of the wind, chanting to each other, cryptically mentioning a future meeting with Macbeth when the battle ends then disappearing through the fog and filthy air.
Commentary: So the play starts off dark and supernatural. Three witches, the Weird Sisters, the Fates, proclaiming their love of evil “fair is foul, and foul is fair” in the midst of a thunderstorm, plotting a meeting with the titular character. Right away the tone is dark, evil is real and active in this world. The verse is also notable because it uses the trochaic tetrameter that has a chant-like rhythm giving the scene a sinister occult feeling.
Summary: At a camp on the edge of the battle the Scottish King Duncan is getting briefed by his attendants and comes across a wounded soldier fresh from the battle. The King is informed of Macbeth’s glorious victories against the Norwegian invaders and the Scottish rebels. Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and the Kings cousin and according to all present, he savagely destroyed the Kings enemies. During this conversation, another Thane by the name of Ross enters, reporting that the traitorous Thane of Cawdor was also defeated by the Kings armies. Duncan is pleased with Macbeth’s deeds and decides to award him the position of Thane of Cawdor.
Commentary: This scene sets the background. Scotland under King Duncan is at war with Norwegians and Scottish traitors. It’s a violent medieval place where nobles lead armies against each other battling over titles and treasure. This scene introduces Macbeth through others, painting him as a complete badass who cut the traitor Macdonwald in half from his navel to his jaw and stuck his severed head on the battlements. Macbeth is a warrior who just defeated two armies and brought victory to his King who plans to award him with titles and honors.
I’m enjoying this so far, occult witches and Scottish Thanes hacking their enemies in half, Macbeth has a bit of Conan in him. The wounded soldier describes how “he unseamed him from the nave to th’chops, and fixed his head upon our battlements.” Good stuff.
Summary: Back in the thunderstorm the three witches are chanting to each other, listing the evil deeds committed since their last meeting when Macbeth and his fellow Noble Banquo come across them. Banquo is disgusted by their hideous appearance and obvious supernatural nature orders them to speak. The three witches in their chant greet Macbeth as the Thane of Glamis, Thane of Gwador, and future king. Macbeth is startled by the prophecy but Banquo is unfazed, demanding the witches address him also. When they do they tell him that he is lesser but greater and that he shall be the father of kings but not one himself. Then in a magical wind, the three witches disappear.
The two men discuss what just happened, Macbeth saying that the witches were wrong, he isn’t he Thane of Gwador, and Banquo brushes the whole thing off. During this conversation, Thane Ross and Malcom arrive with news from King Duncan that the Thane of Gwador was defeated as a traitor and Duncan has awarded his title to Macbeth making him the Thane of Glamis and Gwador fulfilling the witches prophecy. Macbeth reels at this news and begins to contemplate the idea of kingship.
Commentary: Scene 3 is where the play finally begins and Macbeth the main character takes center stage. The witches clearly supernatural put the idea of becoming king in his head, an idea that he had to consider because once mentioned he startles and becomes solemn and morose, unlike Banquo who initially laughs the whole thing off and warns against the initial truths that lure one to evil deeds.
The main lure of evil is laid out in this scene. The victorious hero Macbeth is tempted by the fates with the lure of ultimate power. What is he going to do? From the previous scene, King Duncan appears to be a good ruler, one that awarded Macbeth with higher titles. Will Duncan declare Macbeth his heir? Yeah…. ok.
Summary: Sometime after the battle King Duncan, his son Malcolm, Macbeth, Banquo, and other knights and attendants are celebrating the victory. The King praises Macbeth who in return humbly accepts all honors and pledges his loyalty. Then King Duncan declares that they will all go visit Macbeth’s castle Inverness to celebrate and then critically announces that Prince Malcolm will be his heir and the next King. Macbeth who was expecting to be named heir based on the witches prophecy asks for permission to head home ahead of the King to prepare Inverness for the visit.
Commentary: So now things are starting to go wrong. Macbeth was hoping that all he had to do to become king was wait for the whole thing to work itself out. But now that Duncan named Malcolm heir his plan is ruined, all Thanes must pledge allegiance to the Prince. He has to do something and something quick, luckily the King is planning on visiting his castle so Macbeth races off ahead of everybody to plot.
By this scene, it’s clear that Macbeth is thinking murder. Which makes the scene even more brutal because Duncan does nothing but praise and honor him the whole time. Macbeth even claims to love Duncan and speaks about loyalty and duty towards his king, while secretly hoping to replace him.
The truth is that I can sympathize with him. He’s a badass, a hero who just defeated two armies. Duncan himself is praising him as the savior of the kingdom so why shouldn’t he be the chosen heir? Why should Malcolm, his punk nephew become king? When Macbeth heard the witches hail him as king it made perfect sense and I think he expected the announcement that he would be his Duncan’s heir.
Whats interesting is that in a modern day novel or movie Macbeth would be given the position of the heir by the grateful king. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator has the Emperor Marcus Aurelius bestow upon Maximus the honors that Macbeth expected for himself. Macbeth and Maximus are nearly identical characters. Both honorable warriors recently victorious against the enemy while loyally serving their king. One is awarded the other is not. But what makes Macbeth more interesting is that unlike in Gladiator the son is not evil and there is no ill will or intent in the act. Duncan, unlike Aurelius, felt that his son would make a good heir and chose accordingly. Macbeth while deserving was not cheated or denied. This makes the drama even more engaging because, on one hand, one can understand why a badass hero like Macbeth should be king but at the same time understands why he was passed up in favor of a capable son.
Summary: At Castle Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads the letter from her husband explaining the recent events and letting her know about what the Witches predicted. She laments the fact that Macbeth is ambitious but lacks the strength and drive to follow his convictions.
She is interrupted by a messenger who informs her that Macbeth is hastily on his way ahead of King Duncan himself who is planning on spending the night at Inverness. Once the messenger leaves Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits asking for strength so she could aid her husband in becoming king. Shortly after Macbeth arrives and she tells him that she will handle the situation, that she will handle the murder of the King.
Commentary: With the introduction of Lady Macbeth things start to get really dark and really interesting. Right away she admits that her husband is not strong enough to follow through with regicide “too full o’the milk of human kindness” and that she needs to push and prop him towards his goal.
When Macbeth arrives she immediately brings up murder, an idea not mentioned in his letter. When he tells her that Duncan is on his way to spend the night she spits out this ice cold line “O Never shall sun that morrow see.” Then proceeds to chide her husband for looking suspicious, telling him to act like a good host but be a snake deep inside.
The best part of the scene is when she prays to spirits for strength to commit her evil deeds.
Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you
Whatever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the
dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”
This right here is a solid villain. She wants to be Queen and knows that she has to be the one to push her husband to commit the regicide needed to accomplish that goal.
Summary: King Duncan, Prince Malcolm, Banquo, and the other Thanes arrive at Inverness. The weather is pleasant and King Duncan comments on how lovely Macbeth’s home is as he is greeted by a smiling Lady Macbeth that professes humble loyalty.
Commentary: A short but critical scene. This is the typical victim arrives ignorantly into the jaws of the villain. If this was a horror movie this would be the scene where the soon to be doomed teenagers stop at the gas station where the smiling locals look on. Duncan even comments on how nice the castle looks mentioning the Martlets(a type of sparrow) nesting on the walls.
Lady Macbeth is your typical smiling villainess in this scene, honey tongued while leading her King to imminent death. Good stuff.
Summary: Macbeth leaves the feast for Duncan to be by himself in a side room or kitchen. He despairs about the coming plot realizing that his cousin King Duncan has been nothing but a good King esteemed by his people and who has treated him fairly awarding him with honors and titles.
Lady Macbeth enters and he tells her that the plot is off, but immediately she takes charge, going into a heavy speech calling him a coward and stating that unlike him she would do anything and everything for their well-being. He finally agrees to continue with the regicide and listens to her outline the final plan which is to entertain Duncans guards with wine, getting them drunk, and once incapacitated to murder the King while he sleeps.
Commentary: The final scene of Act 1 and probably the most important in the whole play. This is where Macbeth stands at the crossroads of decision, will he accept his honors and stay loyal or will he commit regicide and steal the crown. At first, it seems that the good in him triumphs and he decide to be a good man, but in comes his wife who spits out a vicious bit of encouragement basically calling him a coward and that if it was her in his position she would do anything to secure the crown.
At one point in her speech, she spits out a line that would make today’s grimdark characters shiver.
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had i so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Basically, shes saying that if she was in his position she wouldn’t think twice about smashing her own baby’s brains if it would lead to her becoming queen. Lady Macbeth makes Cersei look like an amateur.
So this completes Act 1, excellent so far. What a fantastic plot. We have Macbeth who is your typical hero. A warrior who just defeated invaders and traitors for his king who lavishly praises him and bestows honors. But, inside him stirs the desire for more, a desire awakened by a supernatural prophecy from the witches and encouraged by his domineering wife.
This play is over 400 years old yet after a single act, I am engrossed.