Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Classic of the Week: Macbeth

Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

If you’ve been reading the blog over the past few days, you might have noticed me talking a fair bit about the summer course I’m taking at UPEI: Intro to Shakespeare. I read a couple of his plays while I was homeschooled (Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet) but now I’m learning five new ones for this course. This particular one is a fairly famous tragedy, with a scene that is so well known I was able to use it in my short story, ‘Because You Laughed’ without having ever read the play. This week’s classic is:

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

First off, I’ve got to say that this is not a nice play. It’s very good, but extremely disturbing. It chronicles the life of Macbeth, a Scottish thane who meets three witches and is told that he’ll be King someday. Hearing this, Macbeth decides to kill the King. He then becomes king, but he has to deal with several other predictions by the witches; that his friend’s son would become king (rather than Macbeth’s offspring; he has no children yet) and that he will be killed by one not of woman born. Macbeth’s obsession with stopping these other predictions leads him to murder his best friend and many other people. In the end, it’s Macbeth who ends up dead.
The Ian McKellen Macbeth

Since this is a play with so many deaths, it’s obviously going to be very bloody. Many of the murders actually happen offstage, but the characters still end up covered in blood. While this is all very symbolic, it means that this is not a play for children.

What hurts me the most about this story is Macbeth’s decent into darkness. At the beginning of the play he is a genuinely nice guy. He’s a war hero, fighting for his country against a traitor. Throughout the play, he grows worse and worse. He stops questioning the morality of his actions and instead plunges into them wholeheartedly. All he seems to be worried about is the possibility of getting caught. Shakespeare is an expert at crafting a drama that begins with a likeable protagonist, but then progresses until we have lost all sympathy for Macbeth.

Macbeth and his wife, deciding to kill the King
So far I’ve seen one film version of this play, the 2010 Patrick Stuart version. It’s set in modern day but the dialogue is unchanged (they did cut some lines, but every version does that.) I thought this version portrayed the feeling of the play extremely well. It was so intense that while I was watching it I had to stop myself every so often and go on Facebook or Twitter… anything to take my mind off the story. That’s one thing about Macbeth; it’s not very funny. Hamlet, for instance, is hilarious. There is virtually no ‘comic relief’ in Macbeth.

(Please note, there are bloody images in this trailer. Nothing too graphic, but not for younger viewers)

Would I recommend that you read this play? Yes, I most certainly would. If you don’t study this in school, then take the time to read it yourself. Immerse yourself in it. Perhaps read a synopsis first, so you have some idea of what’s going on, and then read the play. Make sure to watch a film version, as well. The Patrick Stuart version is excellent, and Ian McKellen (Gandalf from Lord of the Rings) also played Macbeth back in the 70s. Nothing by Shakespeare is an easy read, but he has invaluable insights into human nature. This is a chilling story, not just because of all the violence, but because it feels so true.

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