The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. 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 the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!
Act 1, scene 5, 39-51
Of all the tragedies, Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to be the most accessible to readers and theater audiences. At least that was the case in my high-school days. Julius Caesar was the other extreme, as dusty and dry as a history lesson or translating a Latin text. Shakespeare having a bad day at the office.
Macbeth is one of four plays of Shakespeare Re-told. What is the appeal? Macbeth is as atmospheric as noir, visual and violent, dark, edgy. In it the characters exhibit outsized ambition and rage; and then there is the element of the supernatural. Who doesn’t remember the witches at their cauldron and their prophecy? We know Macbeth as well as we know Hamlet, but we seem to prefer the Thane of Cawdor and his ‘fiend like queen’ to Prince Hamlet.
Macbeth might be Shakespeare’s most ‘medieval’ play, and Hamlet his most ‘modern.’ An ordered universe versus existentialist angst; ‘medieval’ because Shakespeare, like Dante and Milton, comprehends the external world as a manifestation of God’s presence. Everything will go to Hell, evil have temporary sway, but in the end order and harmony are restored. Dante is lost, wanders off the path, but makes it to Paradise. Milton discusses how the music of the spheres has gone awry but harmony is heard again.
But is social order restored? Is Shakespeare prejudicial towards the Scots?
‘Untimely ripped’ Macduff will triumph over the Macbeths. The prophecy has predicted that. The question is whether Macduff and his cohorts are no less bloodier than the Macbeths. The body count seems to suggest that they are equally violent. In the path to the throne, Macduff causes the deaths of his mother (unintentional), his wife, and his children (Macbeth has them slaughtered).
Shakespeare reverts to the medieval tradition of portraying the ultimate disruption of society with the slaughter of children. In medieval drama the prototype for the Tyrant is King Herod who had all the male children in Bethlehem slaughtered in order to protect his power from the Chirst-child. Again, Herod is reacting to prophecy. In Henry V, the slaughter of the pages, ‘Tis expressly against the law of arms’ (Henry V, IV. vii.1–2). In Macbeth as in Richard III, killing children is the act of a desperate scoundrel and an abomination to all things moral, right…divinely ordered. ‘By the grace of grace’ that is God (Act 5.scene 82) .
A question should be asked: Was Shakespeare prejudiced against Scotland as a northern land of savagery? Macbeth as propaganda? Scotland is a place where King Duncan takes delight when the Captain reports Macbeth’s actions in battle: ‘he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops/ And fixed his head upon our battlements’ (Act 1, scene 1).
As for propaganda…there is no evidence that Richard III murdered his nephews or that he was hunchbacked (the uneven shoulders were painted into his portraiture.)
When Lady Macbeth suggests the murder of children, when she prays to evil spirits to fulfill the Witches initial prophecy, things do go out of joint. The royal horses in Duncan’s stables go amok and resort to cannibalism. All a matter of prophecy?
Those who succeed the Macbeths are a violent bunch, indeed; they are ‘murdering ministers.’ At the end of the play, the new Thanes Anglicize their titles and declare themselves Earls. Shakespeare’s patron was James I.
Is it all a matter of prophecy or is Shakespeare debating free will and predestination?