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October 08, 2003

Macbeth Through The Years


Do you have certain works of art that you return to repeatedly as you go through life?

One of these works that keeps coming back in my own life is “Macbeth.” I grant you that “Hamlet” is a work of greater eloquence, and “Lear” a work of greater moral vision, but “Macbeth”—that murderous son of a bitch—is still my son of a bitch.

H. Fuseli, Macbeth and the Witches; H. Fuseli, Lady Macbeth

I first read Macbeth in 10th grade English. I started out reading it purely as an assignment, a few pages at a time, but on the third day or so of that I got hooked and read the rest in an hour. When I snapped out of my trance, I found myself staring at the end page, my back sore from the hunched over posture I had assumed reading. I knew this story was compelling as all get out—that, on some level, Macbeth was the story, or one of the stories, of my life—although I had no idea why.

In my twenties I went another round with Macbeth. After being out on my own for a few years, I had moved back into my parents’ home so I could go to law school—thus committing two capital crimes against myself. I was also still suffering from the nasty breakup of my first serious relationship. As I contemplated the gloomy Scot in my state of unwanted celibacy, it suddenly dawned on me that Macbeth’s childlessness was the key to his character. It made him vulnerable to his ambitious wife, who browbeat him into killing Duncan the king by hinting broadly that he wasn’t “a real man.” A Macbeth who was afraid of not being a “real man” would clearly be hostile to Banquo, MacDuff and Duncan, all of whom had children.

Pondering Macbeth's fate as well as my then-current state of regressed sexuality, I decided that it was my duty to bail out on law school, move out of my parent's basement and get on with starting a family. Otherwise, I might well end up stabbing my own parents in their beds. (Listen, after months of living at home as an adult, it got touch-and-go there for a while.)

In my thirties, a small businessman and a father twice over with plenty of ambivalence over having assumed so much “adult” responsibility, it was the similarities between Hamlet and Macbeth that I noticed:

Both are emotionally involved with morally questionable mothers. In "Hamlet," Hamlet’s mother married her husband’s murderer and presumably had an affair with him before the murder. In "Macbeth," Lady Macbeth—who’s had children by another man--is eager for our hero to move up in the world via butchery.

Both Hamlet and Macbeth are hostile to fathers and father figures. Hamlet hates and mistrusts his uncle and is passive-aggressive about revenging his father's murder. Macbeth actually kills his mild mannered father-king, Duncan.

Both Macbeth and Hamlet seem reluctant to assume an adult role. Hamlet seems very unwilling to step up to being king of Denmark and has no serious thought of marriage. Macbeth—who needs plenty of urging to pursue the crown—either can’t or won’t have children. What, I pondered (without, unfortunately, any textual hints to go by) was the nature of their “ambivalence” towards taking on adult reproductive and social roles? Why are both Hamlet (the perpetual college student) and Macbeth (the dutiful soldier) so much more comfortable in non-adult roles? Had their relationships with their own fathers made adulthood seem forbidden—or, at least, not quite natural—to them? Was this perverse training the source of their anger towards father-figures, manifesting itself as passive-aggressiveness in Hamlet and murderous rage in Macbeth?

My most recent round with “Macbeth” was the result of my posting—which you can read here—on the notion of story structure. Having come up with a model of how stories are structured based on that great work of the cinema, “Stuart Little II,” I was wondering if it was possible to develop an even more reductionist theory of character. And what character in great literature is simpler than my man Macbeth?

Having found a scene list and very nice plot summary of the page on the Internet (which you can see here) I first tried to see if my “SLII” model made any sense in the context of Macbeth. As you may recall, the model supposes a four part structure:

Part I: introduction to the character’s inner problem
Part II: introduction to the character’s outer, or practical problem
Part III: serious (but unsuccessful) attempt to deal with the practical problem
Part IV: final attempt to deal with the practical problem

Well, Macbeth does break up fairly nicely into four parts:

Part I: Macbeth’s success in battle, the prophecies of the witches, and the urging of his wife suggest to Macbeth that he assassinate the king and become king of Scotland himself

Part II: Macbeth murders Duncan the king, is crowned King of Scotland, and decides that his one-time peer Banquo—who also received favorable omens from the witches—should be assassinated. This occurs, although Banquo’s son Fleance—another intended victim—escapes and Banquo’s ghost shows up at Macbeth’s banquet.

Part III: Macbeth, after fortifying his resolution with another visit to the witches, learns that another senior nobleman, Macduff (presumably standing in for a crowd of his peers) has “defected” to the Scottish government-in-exile which has gathered around Duncan’s son, Malcolm. Macbeth orders Duncan’s family executed. Lady Macbeth suffers a nervous breakdown and admits her guilt in Duncan’s death while sleepwalking. Malcolm's government-in-exile makes plans to invade Scotland.

Part IV: Despite the mass defections of Macbeth’s supporters to the invading Scottish/English army and despite the suicide of his wife, Macbeth refuses to abdicate or flee and awaits the invaders at his castle, Dunsinane. Even in the face of omens that indicate his time has come, Macbeth goes out to fight, killing many foes until he finally confronts Macduff and is slain.

In trying to put Macbeth into the SLII scheme, the question becomes: exactly what constitutes Macbeth’s “inner” and “outer” problems? The standard answer regarding the “inner problem” is that Macbeth is ambitious, but that seems iffy to me. There’s very little to suggest that he gets a huge kick out of being made Thane of Cawdor, he has to be browbeaten into killing Duncan, and he’s not exactly dancing in the street after being crowned. In fact, Macbeth complains once he’s king that it’s a life of insecurity and fear.

Another problem with ambition as Macbeth's inner problem: by the beginning of Part IV any hopes Macbeth could have about being king are pretty much toast—all of Scotland is deserting him like rats from a sinking ship. Yet Macbeth doesn’t skip a beat, but instead pushes on, despite the virtual certainty that he will die in battle or be executed as a traitor. So it seems as if conventional ambition--which would be pointless in such a situation--can’t be his real motivating “inner problem.” By the same token, trying to live happily ever after as king on the throne of Scotland won't work as his outer or practical problem.


I then looked at the play scene by scene to see exactly what Macbeth does during the play. He has two active roles—(1) he encounters women and (2) he either kills people or has them killed. The encounters with women—e.g., the first meeting with the witches, the scene where his wife winds him up to kill Duncan, and the second meeting with the witches—all involve Macbeth being deluded. The witches tell him “lying” truths that apparently incite him to crime while actually luring him on to his doom. His wife suggests that if he kills Duncan and becomes king, then he’ll qualify a “real man”—which of course is nonsense. Interestingly, while Macbeth is passive at the beginning, merely running into the witches and pretty much enduring his wife's murderous pep-talk, by the start of Part III he is actively seeking out the witches for another hit of their “delusions.” This suggests that instead of being the poor manipulated victim of these women, he uses their blandishments to fool himself into thinking that his real goal is to seize the kingship.

So what is his real goal? I think Macbeth’s murders—his acts—point to the true agenda: he kills a father figure (Duncan), he orders the assassination of a father (Banquo), he tries to have Banquo’s son (Fleance) killed, he orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, and in the final fight he kills an adolescent, young Siward, before falling victim to a father (Macduff).

In short, it would appear that Macbeth’s “inner problem” is that he craves revenge on families, perhaps even on the notion of reproduction, or maybe on nature itself. Such a craving obviously entails his own extinction. His “outer problem” is thus to provoke society and nature into, ahem, killing him, although he would like to delay this consummation, at least temporarily, in order to get in as many licks as he can along the way (“Why should I play the Roman fool, and die on mine own sword—while I see lives, the gashes do better on them!”)

Well, that’s how it looks to me now, speaking as a middle-aged man who a few years ago decided to add a baby boy to my existing portfolio of offspring. Who knows what I’ll have cooked up by the next time I consider Macbeth. Maybe I’ll be able to look at it from the perspective of Duncan—an elderly man with a grown son. It’ll probably look altogether different by then.



posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2003


"Macbeth" as your fave self-help book?... Wait, there's another by-the-cash-register book idea in that. "The Macbeth Way to Wisdom," something like that ...

Fascinating ruminations on the play, thanks. I always took it as a hotsy-totsy gangster melodrama myself, thus revealing my shallowness once again. I'm not sure I do have an artwork I return to over and over, which is making me feel a little inadequate to admit. Surely I must be more interesting than that. But, but ... Hmm, no. I stumble across various artworks at different ages, but mostly pop music -- Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" seems to follow me around, and the Stones' "Sweet Virginia" was on the p.a. at the gym this morning, sounding very different than it had when I last listened to it, probably 20 years ago. But even the artworks that made big-turning-point style impacts on me years ago (Stendhal, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "The Wild Child," a few others) aren't things I tend to turn back to. Do you have others too?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 8, 2003 03:57 PM

Thanks for sharing your musings. I find them refreshing, speaking about re-reading books, and intelligently done. Are you an English prof, by chance;)

Posted by: courtney on October 8, 2003 10:05 PM

Macbeth is good stuff indeed (particularly in Roman Polanski's film version). Just don't mistake it for one of big Bill's history plays...

Posted by: James Russell on October 9, 2003 12:08 AM

It's funny, but I could never make Freudian psychoanalysis work with Shakespeare. In some ways his characters are much like us, but in many ways ... well, they're not.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 9, 2003 02:15 AM


I don't think returning to ponder Macbeth makes me deep, more likely just mentally slow. I also continue to contemplate, at regular intervals, Michelangelo, Rubens, El Greco, and Durer--but they are much less susceptible to my penchant for theorizing.


Thanks for your compliments; I am a small businessman, which I think makes me about as unlike an English professor as it is possible to be.

Mr. Russell:

I've never seen Polanski's Macbeth, as what I'd heard about it wasn't all that promising. But I should undoubtedly get off my fundament and see it.

Mr. Hulsey:

I wouldn't say my theorizing, however weak, is particularly Freudian in nature; surely men turned to violence to avoid being characterized as being less than a "real man" long before Freud. My musings about Hamlet's and Macbeth's relationships with their fathers, are simply a guess to account for their otherwise inexplicable choices...a guess that derives from my own experience, but still merely a guess. Have you got a better one?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2003 02:34 AM

Funny, I always saw "Macbeth" as a sort of twisted love story: Lady Macbeth convinces herself that he really wants to be King, so she has to provide the backbone he lacks, while Macbeth doesn't want to disappoint his wife and so goes along with it. Both push each other into doing what neither really wants. It's kind of "O' Henry" as high tragedy...

Posted by: jimbo on October 9, 2003 10:28 AM

Well, Jimbo's comment has startled me, and it would imply a recurring theme for Will: lovers who miscommunicate. "MacBeth", "Much Ado About Nothing", "Romeo and Juliet." More, I'm sure.

Posted by: annette on October 9, 2003 10:51 AM

Rats, now I have to go back and reread MacBeth.

Have you seen Akira Kurasawa's version--"Throne of Blood"? Worth the time and the price of the rental.

Posted by: Deb on October 9, 2003 11:36 AM

FvB: Do I have a better idea? Probably not. I still feel a strong psychoanalytic tendency in your interpretation. Me, I could never make psychoanalysis work in Shakespeare. The sensibilities of Freud and the Bard feel fundamentally different to me (even though Freud derived many of his models of human behavior from the Bard, esp. the "Oedipus complex" he lifted from Hamlet).

Rather than "king-as-father," the idea of "King-as-God" might be more to my taste. Shakespeare's mind seems poised between the medieval and the modern, never more precariously than in MacBeth. (I suspect that the gulf between Shakespeare's thought and our own is what makes "The Scottish Play" so difficult to stage.)

For the medieval mind, regicide was a particularly detestable crime, on the order of killing Christ or rebelling against Almighty God. That's why Dante placed Judas, Brutus and Cassius in the deepest circle of Hell, sharing real estate with Satan himself. It also makes the bizarre supernatural machinery fit the scope of the crime: The three witches are servants of Satan, and they stir up not only rebellion, but outright blasphemy and a perversion of the natural order.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 10, 2003 12:44 AM

BTW, I'll second that recommendation of Throne of Blood. The new DVD edition from Criterion is fantastic. However, the film's politics are more subtly delineated than Shakespeare's: Kurosawa questions the power relationships that Shakespeare takes for granted. Again, that's a basic difference between Shakespeare's mind and our own.

As for Polanski's Macbeth, it's angry, bitter, perverse, and cinematically brilliant -- like most of his work, truth be told. Orson Welles's Macbeth is pretty good (esp. in its 112-minute restored version), but most of the man's trademark eccentricities just don't work here. In particular, I'm thinking of Welles's odd Scottish accent, his inappropriate reliance on the earlier "Voodoo MacBeth," and the vapid glamour queen he cast as Lady MacBeth.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 10, 2003 01:03 AM

Mr. Hulsey:

Obviously I can't speak for Shakespeare, but he did leave some evidence lying about, so to speak. Differences between medieval and modern thought don't seem--to me--to account for the many similarities between Hamlet and Macbeth: the murders of kings, the morally questionable women both mothers), the murders of non-royal fathers (Banquo and Polonius), the powerful reluctance on both character's parts to "get on" with becoming part of the reproductive chain of life (stranding both men as "adult" children)? I can't prove this, but I find it impossible not to speculate on the parallels between these characteristics and situations and the circumstances of Shakespeare's own life--marrying an older woman, taking off to London to indulge in something quite different from ordinary adult life of the time. And, of course, ultimately to make different choices than his tragic heroes, to have children, to ultimately return to play a role as a respectable squire in Stratford. Like and

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 10, 2003 01:11 AM

Like and unlike? I suppose so. It sounds as though you've worked this idea out pretty thoroughly. It's just that, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, I've never made the psychological connection work for me. Still, if we were directing dueling productions of MacBeth, the psychoanalytic, personal stuff would serve you well, whereas my thoughts about Shakespeare's medieval bent just wouldn't work on a stage.

Overall, I think we view the Bard very differently. You focus on the continuity between Shakespeare's characters and modern psychological understanding -- which is a valid move, esp. considering that much psychology as we understand it is clearly derived from the Bard. So in that respect, you're very much in league with Harold Bloom, and could even find tremendous sympathy with Mark Edmundson's "reverse readings" of Freud (Edmundson is one of Bloom's pupils).

I tend to focus on the discontinuities between Shakespeare and modernity, paying particular attention to elements in his plays which don't translate well to the here and now. That leads me to MacBeth, true, but it also leads me to lesser works like Timon of Athens and Coriolanus. (Some months ago I wrote an extended essay/review on Coriolanus for my own blog.)

The problem with my approach -- and where I think you hold a definite advantage -- is that you can make a much better case for why people ought to read/stage/view Shakespeare's plays. In contrast, I get bogged down in arcana.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 10, 2003 07:50 AM

Tim, Didnt Polanski film his version of MacBeth just after his wife was butchered by Manson and his crew?

Posted by: Deb on October 10, 2003 02:49 PM

Polanski's MacBeth was indeed his first project after the Sharon Tate murders.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 11:11 AM

Enjoyed these musings on Macbeth, but what about Hamlet, the ultimate mirror of human folly?
Friedrich,please follow up with some similar reflections on this masterpiece by the Bard!

Posted by: fordlford on October 12, 2003 01:59 PM

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