The other day I re-read Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the umpteenth time. The introductory scene of the witches I once committed to memory. Let’s see how much I remember:
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lighting, or in rain?
When the hurley burley’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Where the place?
Upon the heath.
There to meet with MacBeth.
Paddock calls anon.
Fair is foul and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
I made a small boo-boo now that I check through my Penguin Shakespeare. Line eight should read, ‘I come, Graymalkin.’. A Graymalkin is a cat. Plus I forgot to put in first witch, second witch etc. Otherwise it’s pretty correct.
Macbeth is about eighty pages, and boy how quickly everything moves along. Macbeth’s valiant and noble performance as a soldier gains him a promotion. From Thane of Glamis he picks up the title Thane of Cawdor.
For anyone who knows the story, and what MacBeth ends up doing, you gasp when you realise that the previous Thane of Cawdor had lost his title, and his life, for treason. ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ the King laments after having pronounced a sentence of death on the man's head. (Interestingly, George Orwell thought your face was pretty well fixed by age 50.)
What a bad omen that Macbeth should have this honoured title bestowed on him, straight from such a ‘disloyal traitor’. ‘What he hath lost,’ King Duncan says, ‘noble Macbeth hath won.’
Are the odds stacked against Macbeth behaving properly from the beginning?
Like the Greek tragedies, Macbeth’s destiny appears pre-determined. The play begins by three witches tantalising Macbeth with a prophecy that he will be Thane of Cawdor, then King. Yet right off the bat these seemingly happy fortune tellings are mixed in with so much darkness. The three witches are hardly the types you’d like to get this news from – they represent foulness and filth, able to conjure up evil merely at the ‘pricking of my thumbs’.
They also give Macbeth a strange kind of consolement. They tell him that no man of woman born shall harm him. Hence he thinks himself utterly invincible.
His inability to think a little more subtly undoes him, for Macduff tells him,
‘Despair they charm,
And let the Angel whom thou still hast serv’d
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
D’oh! Then there’s the highly improbable Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Macbeth rightly thinks this is impossible (‘That will never be’), but an inability for subtle thinking again undoes him. The soldiers cut off branches from Birnam wood to use as camoflaugue. Didn’t Oscar Wilde say something about the improbable always happening? How right he was.
Macbeth is given a false sense of security by this advice, allowing him to plunge headlong into some of his maddest exploits. Strange how it is women who spur on so much of the action – after all, it’s Lady Macbeth who eggs him onto the first murder which makes all the other murders possible. Then of course there are the witches.
Reading Macbeth you also marvel at how Shakespeare actually imagined Macbeth, imagined someone so deep and wide. It’s as though Skakespeare could completely, utterly and truly realise things he’d never experienced.
Then there's the language. Camille Paglia said that Shakeapeare wrote in a super tongue. I think he wrote in his own language entirely. I'm not one for sporting analogies, but Shakespeare took the English language and kicked it so far into the future that we'll never be able to catch up with his genius.
Indeed, open up the play at any of Macbeth’s major speeches and there you have the genius of the English language. And to think, he never bothered to get any of his great works published, but would have been content (or so one presumes) to let them slide into obscurity.