Monday, 15 October 2018

October Nightmares IV #15: Macbeth (1606) by William Shakespeare - The Scottish Play

The works of Shakespeare sit amongst my favourite pieces of fiction ever written. If that makes me some kind of weirdo, then so be it. But what really pisses me off, is when people overreact to having been forced to read Shakespeare in school; pretending as though reading Shakespeare is somehow equivocal to being touched up by the scoutmaster.

Funnily enough, if you claim not to like Shakespeare then you're really admitting you're a boring bastard who hates fiction. Most stories in the last 400 years are, in someway, derived from The Bard's plays - or, more accurately, derived from the unused ancient sources Shakespeare lifted from. This includes, but is not limited to, sci-fi films (such as 1956's Forbidden Planet - The Tempest), Japanese Samurai movies (Ran - King Lear), and beloved Disney classics (The Lion King - Hamlet).

Macbeth is a play you should know well if you went to a depressing British state school. It is a staple of English Lit curriculums the whole nation over. This makes sense when you consider it's a play in which the lead character is utterly determined to make something of himself. But, given his downfall, it also has a cautionary message advising against being too ambitious - lest we empower all the plebs and run out of McDonald's workers.

The play begins with Macbeth and Banquo, generals in Duncan the King of Scotland's army, fresh from victory over the forces of Norway and Ireland. During a storm, the pair stumble onto a heath and encounter Three Witches who deliver a series of prophecies. Macbeth is greeted as "Thane of Glamis," (which he already is), "Thane of Cawdor," (a title belonging to a traitor Macbeth had just defeated), and "King hereafter." Banquo receives more cryptic prophecies, including that he will progenate a line of Kings without ever becoming one himself. They should also have told him to accept any dinner party RSVPs in the foreseeable future.

When Macbeth is immediately made Thane of Cawdor - like immediately afterwards, he doesn't even have time to jizz his pants in excitement - he begins to wonder if he can make a play for the Kingdom. It's only a light bit of treason. However, Macbeth makes the mistake of telling his wife of the prophecy and she's all like "you better kill that fool King right now or you're a cuck - if destroyed still true". And this is only Act I of a 5 act play.

What follows is the usual Shakespearean rollercoaster of death: Macbeth kills Duncan, frames two innocent servants, becomes King; goes mad, has Banquo murdered, goes mad; has Macduff's (Thane of Fife) family murdered, finds out his wife has killed herself, goes mad, and is then defeated by Duncan's sons and Macduff after a bit of bullshit prophecy trickery. There's a lot of political manoeuvring and murdering in this play, so it's fairly heavy going. Which I wholeheartedly get after playing Crusader Kings II and having the children of my rivals murdered.

This play earns its place on this list for its morose depiction of a Medieval world filled with corruption and violence and bordered by primordial forces of evil. The Three Witches represent chaos and are repulsive figures able to conjure spectral heads and bloodied children. In their own way, they're King-makers. At no point do they tell Macbeth to kill Duncan. Nor do they tell him what the prophecy of 'no one born of a woman shall be able to harm him [Macbeth]' actually means. As with all insidious agents of chaos, The Witches exist on the periphery, in dark foreboding places outside of the sanctuary of the castle, and gain influence over order through suggestion.

Macbeth's world operates on a twisted logic comparable to Gordon Gekko's 'greed is good' mantra - only here it's evil which is good. It gets results. The social order of laws, Kings, and succession - the Great Chain of Being - has been broken, allowing a tyrant to run roughshod over everyone who relies on order to protect them from the evil forces outside of civilisation. Shakespeare employs a disturbing depiction of the consequences of ambition and murder. Macbeth is haunted by the spectres of those he has killed, and driven mad by grisly visions of blood, death, and daggers. Similarly, Lady Macbeth is unable live with what she done.

Earlier this year, Sam and I went to see The Royal Shakespeare Society's most recent adaptation of Macbeth (which starred Christopher Eccleston in the titular role). There was a pre-show segment that featured interviews with members of the cast. One interview in particular flummoxed us. It was with actress Niamh Cusack, who played that production's Lady Macbeth. Cusack was extremely keen to emphasise that her character is not a villain, and elucidate all the little quirks she put in to make Lady Macbeth sympathetic. Such as highlighting the fact Lady Macbeth is as devoid of eggs as my vegan mate's fridge. You fucking what?

Of course Lady Macbeth is a villain. She's the one who orchestrates the play's entire events. The Witches may have ignited the spark of ambition within the deeply flawed Macbeth, but he's fairly nonplussed about the whole affair. At the start anyway. It's his wife who busts his balls about seizing the mantle. I'm so sick to fucking death of this sympathy for the female devil bullshit. Lady Macbeth is a good villain. Let her be one.

Just read your goddamn lines, Cusack; it's theatre, darling, not the fucking United Nations.

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