Tag: The Western Canon

Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 2

Act 1 was exciting. The scene was set, a gloomy war-torn Scotland. The principal actors were introduced, the good King Duncan, his son Prince Malcolm, victorious Macbeth and his ambitious ice cold wife Lady Macbeth. Her first name is Gruoch if you were wondering, I had to look it up.

The main thrust of the play is revealed. Macbeth is ambitious, he wants more than just honors, he wants to be the king. His wife swears to stop at nothing to help her husband attain his desires. Act 1 ends with King Duncan and his crew spending a pleasant night at Macbeth’s castle, unknown to them their honey tongued hosts have regicide on the mind.

Scene 1

SUMMARY:  Act 2 starts off with Banquo and his son Fleance at Inverness castle whispering by torchlight while everybody else is sleeping. Banquo tells his son that he’s been sleeping poorly, revealed later because he’s been dreaming about the Witches and the prophecy.

The conversation is interrupted when Macbeth stumbles upon them. Macbeth is of course about to commit regicide. Banquo tells Macbeth that King Duncan is very pleased with his reception and gives him a diamond meant for Lady Mcbeth as a reward for her loyal hospitality. After having a quick conversation Banquo and his son retire for the night leaving Macbeth by himself.

Macbeth dismisses all his servants and continues to make his way through the castle towards King Duncan’s chamber when he is startled by an apparition. In front of him is a floating dagger that becomes clearer and clearer as he realizes that he must commit the murder. His vision or hallucination is interrupted by a chiming bell that is being used as the signal that it is time to kill Duncan.duncans-death

Commentary: Banquo is a bit skeeved out by the prophecy, he mentions to his son that he would not sleep. Deep down I think that he knows something dark is about to go down and that suspicion increases once he comes across Macbeth creeping around in the middle of the night. The majority of their interaction is Banquo reminding Macbeth how appreciative Duncan is and gives him the gift of the diamond.

This scene is also the first of Macbeth’s crazy visions, the bloody floating knife. I just don’t understand why when he saw a bloody floating knife he didn’t take that as a warning to not be a murdering bastard.

I also want to mention a meta element here. During Macbeth’s floating knife speech he compares himself to Tarquin. This is a classical reference to Ancient Rome and the legendary Rape of Lucerne where king Tarquin raped the beautiful Lucerne sparking a civil war that eventually led to the creation of the Roman Republic. It’s basically a reference to Roman creation mythology and interesting because it illustrates the level of classic education Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have had in order to understand such a reference. It’s safe to say that most modern readers would not understand what he is talking about because the histories and classical studies are no longer a critical part of our education.

To make the above reference, even more meta, Shakespeare is also alluding to his own previous writing. One of his most famous long form poems is The Rape of Lucerne, so he is basically advertising himself in his own play. But, let’s get more meta. I recognized the reference right away because I recently listened to a podcast on ancient pre-republican  Roman mythology. I even tried to be smart and named a location in the short story I’m working on Tarquin’s Manor for some obvious plot reasons.

Scene 2

Summary: Scene 2 starts with Lady Macbeth in the dark courtyard of the castle(or creeping around). She just drugged the milk and alcohol drinks of Duncan’s guards and is not waiting for Macbeth to finish the murder.

Macbeth wanders into the courtyard carrying the bloody daggers he just used to murder Duncan. He is spooked and hears voices and startles at every noise and snore from the castle. The two conspirators whisper and Lady Macbeth is upset that he brought the daggers. She takes them from him and goes to Duncan’s chambers to place them on the sleeping guards in order to make them look like the murderers.

macbethmovieWhen she returns Macbeth is freaked out and they start hearing a knock, most likely the morning bell ringer or castle guards making their rounds. She tells him to quickly go back to his chamber and change into his morning clothes so they appear to of just woken up.

Commentary:  This is the post murder scene, an interesting murder from a dramatic perspective because it happens off screen. Duncan’s murder is the catalyst of the whole play but we don’t see it. We see the before and the after, yet the whole thing is very effective, we fill in the blank with our own imagination.

Personally, this is the scene where I started to despise Macbeth. He went from being a great warrior to a sniveling coward. He has ambition but no heart doesn’t even have the balls to put his plans into words. It’s his wife who pushes him, it’s his wife who comes up with the plan, and after he finally murders a sleeping man, it’s his wife who has to clean up the scene of the crime and frame the guards. Macbeth is a weak coward.

Scene 3

Summary: A drunk porter is joking about being a gateman in hell, sadly the gags don’t translate well 400 years later. Macduff and Lennox, who were two of the  Thanes at the beginning of the play just arrived at the castle. They walk in and are met by Macbeth who is dressed like he just woke up. Macduff goes to wake up the king while Lennox talks about the horrible night full of bad weather, spooky animals, and ill omens.

Macduff returns shouting after discovering Duncan’s murdered body. Bells of alarm are rung and the whole castle is woken. Banquo and the kings two sons Malcolm and Donalbain show up along with Lady Macbeth. In the chaos of the discovery, Macbeth quickly kills the two guards he framed. When questioned by Macduff he says that the sight of Duncan’s body put him into a rage, but the scene is quickly interrupted by Lady Macbeth shouting for help as she is fainting.

The scene ends with Duncan’s sons realizing that they are prime targets for being framed or murdered themselves so they decide to split. Malcolm runs off to England and Donalbain to Ireland.

Commentary: This scene is your basic sequel follow up if you know about the Scene and Sequel method of writing. There is a reaction, then a dilemma, followed by a decision. In this case we see the reaction stemming from the murder, the dilemmas are implied for different characters, and finally, Donalbain and Malcolm decide to get the hell out of Scotland.

Interesting to note is the supernatural element throughout the play is strong. The discussion about the weather being furious, filled with strange beasts and wild omens. All of this happening while the murder was being committed.

Scene 4

Summary: Sometime after the murder Ross another Thane is walking in the courtyard talking to an old man about the tragedy that befell Scotland due to Duncan’s murder. The old man is listing ill omens such as night lasting longer, hawks dying, and all of Duncan’s prized horses going wild and eating each other.

Macduff joins them, just out of a council meeting. He informs them that the blame is being put on Duncan’s sons and that Macbeth has been elected to become king. He lets Ross know that Duncan’s body has been taken to Colmkill the resting place of Scottish kings and that Macbeth is already on the way to Scone where he will be crowned king. Ross asks Macduff if he will be going to Scone and he says no, he’s heading home to his own castle at Fife.

Commentary: This scene is a closer and lets us know that everything has gone to hell through the words of the old man. Most importantly it hints that Macduff and Ross aren’t buying the official story, most importantly Macduff skipping the coronation, most likely to get his boys ready for a throw down.


Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 1


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.

Scene 2

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.

Scene 3

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 witches

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.

Scene 4

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.

Scene 5

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.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925She 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

murd’ring ministers,

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.

Scene 6

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.

Scene 7

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.


Reading Shakespeare: part II


Since I last posted I’ve received a bunch of messages and comments from people interested in my reading through Bloom’s Western Canon, specifically my upcoming read of Shakespeare. A few interested in reading along.

Originally I was going to update sporadically but due to the interest, I’m going to blog the entire thing. Hopefully putting my thoughts into words on here will help me understand the material better and enrich the overall experience. I’m not exactly sure on the format but I’m thinking that I will try to make a big post per act with supplementary side posts when needed.

After a bit of deliberation, I decided that the first read will be Macbeth. It’s the shortest of the tragedies and also has plenty of witches, ghosts, madness, and murder. Also, I haven’t read it before so it will be exciting for me.

Right now the plan is to start the read sometime this week. I’m currently finishing Clavell’s excellent Noble House, but I should be done soon. So, go ahead and pick up a copy of Macbeth, preferably the Folger Shakespeare Library edition, and join me.

But first I wanted to go over a few simple points about the language of Shakespeare and poetic style. During a throwaway conversation,  my coworker commented that reading Shakespeare was too hard due to the Old English. Now, I don’t blame him for that comment, he is a product of the LAUSD so it’s a miracle he knows how to read in the first place, but he does bring up an interesting point. Shakespeare’s language wasn’t Old English, it was Early Modern English. Check out this video and fall down the rabbit hole of watching videos of people reading Baewolf like I did.

What makes Shakespeare hard to read is that his plays are written in Poetic Meter, specifically Blank Verse(non-rhyming) predominantly in Iambic Pentameter.

Meter is the basic rhythmic structure of poetry. The most common meter in the English language is Iambic Pentameter, used by Shakespeare extensively.

An Iamb is a unit made up of one unstress syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A line of Iambic PENTAmeter is made up of five Iambs. Some examples include the following:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Another type of meter used by Shakespeare is Trochaic Tetrameter, made up of stressed followed by unstressed syllables in fours. He used this chant like meter for a lot of magical scenes or scenes involving prophecies.  The best example is from Macbeth of course.

Double, double toil and trouble; 

Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Shakespeare does a lot of really cool things with meter such as using Iambic for high-born nobles and main characters and plain English for low born. The topic of poetic meter is vast and far beyond what I want to go into but having a bit of an outline is beneficial. Also, most of what I posted above is what I remember from my Shakespeare class from over a decade ago. If any of you guys have some input or corrections please send them my way.

Oh, did I mention, the play itself is supposedly cursed.


Reading Shakespeare: part I

Last week I outlined my goal to read through The Western Canon, focusing on the twenty-six writers Bloom considers key to understanding Western Literature. Shakespeare is the first, considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time, and propped up by Bloom as the pinnacle of The Western Canon.

I decided to read through several of his plays and to supplement my reading with audio and video versions. I chose three of the major tragedies, one history, and two lighter magical themed plays. Out of the six, only Hamlet will be a re-read. I read it in a British Literature class I took over a decade ago and remember really enjoying it, so I figured it’s ripe for revisiting.

Breaking my digital only reading habit I decided to go with paper this time around. The Folger editions are filled with footnotes and supplemental material which is arranged on the left side of the page while the lines of the play are on the right. This format does not work on my Kindle. I also plan to read along while watching or listening to the play being performed so cheap paperbacks I can fold real quick will be easier to handle.

So now I have to pick a starting point.


The Western Canon

Canon, defined as a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.


Reading has always been an essential part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother reading. My maternal grandparents had an impressive book collection made up of classic literature, poetry, and histories. They loved books and would always give each other books as presents. After my grandfather’s death, my family moved to the United States and most of the books were left behind. But, even now, all the way in Japan I have a well-preserved copy of Mihai Eminescu’s poems dated and inscribed with my grandparent’s names.

My father was also a voracious reader. From him, I got my love of adventure and mystery novels. As a kindergartener he got me hooked on Jules Verne and stories of lost worlds, sailing ships, and submarines. A common occurrence in my house was coming home from school and finding a stack of books waiting for me. Histories, novels, biographies, everything and anything he found interesting while digging through the local used book store. Some of them are still on my shelf, used, ugly things of no particular value to anybody but me.

Unfortunately, my love of history and literature did not translate into a good relationship with education. My high school experience was defined by boredom and tedium. By my senior year, I would regularly skip school and spend the whole day at the nearby Border’s bookstore reading. At one point I took a senior International Literature course and the teacher, one of the few good ones, handed me a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and told me not to bother coming to class until I finished because the rest of the curriculum would bore me.

My college experience was even more disappointing. The few English, Literature, and Creative Writing classes I managed to take were disappointing. I remember an introductory literature course where the dreadlocked grandma professor informed the class on day one that she would only focus on feminist literature through a feminist perspective. I walked out. Another English class I took a few years ago for a professional requirement consisted of the professor putting on videos and having marijuana reeking students complete fill in the blank worksheets. I hung in there because my work required it but otherwise considered a tremendous waste of time and money.

I consider myself an autodidact. I try to read, write and learn as much as possible. While I lack a formal education I will claim with reasonable confidence that my grasp of history, philosophy, and literature is well above the average American’s, and I’m pretty sure I can hold my own against most diploma holders.

Unfortunately, I suffer from some significant insecurities due to my lack of formal education. Yes, I’ve read everything from Ovid to Hemingway. Yes, I can talk about Dostoevsky for hours on end. But what did I miss?

So, I decided to remedy this situation by doing what I do best. Reading. I going to treat my personal education like a workout routine, focusing on base building and linear progression. I will use Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon as a roadmap for reading through the greats of Western Literature.

The Western Canon is a discussion and critique outlining twenty-six writers critical to Western literature. My goal is to spend the next few years reading through the critically recommended works vastly expanding my knowledge of literature and hopefully giving me a solid foundation that I lack due to skipping school.

The twenty-six writers Bloom considers critical to Western literature:

While I have read a fair amount from the above list and recognize most of the others, I plan on spending some time researching each writer. I’m going to have a tough time with the poets, but plan on challenging myself and breaking out of my comfort zone.

I don’t plan on sticking to a rigid schedule but to meander through the material at a leisurely pace, making my way through the list in between my regular reading. If a topic interests me I will branch off and focus on that subject for how ever long it pleases but the goal will be to accumulate a significant grasp of the material.

Of course, the idea is to write about and discuss the project on here, hopefully sparking some interesting discussion and debate.

Now, I’m off to spend some time with the Bard.