By the prickling of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. (Act IV, Scene I)
So say the witches of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. I must confess that when I ran across Shakespeare Reading Month hosted by Allie from A Literary Odyssey, the only thing that came to my mind were the Macbeth witches. Not because I’m unfamiliar with Shakespeare, but because I somehow managed to make it through two intense Shakespeare courses in college without getting to read the famous speeches I had been reciting since childhood. How could you not love:
Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (Act IV, Scene I)
After these speeches, I knew nothing about Macbeth – the villain or the play as a whole. I headed over to Barnes and Noble to pick up a single, readable copy and immediately dove in. Of course, having let 5 years go by without reading Shakespeare’s language meant I had a huge learning curve to sort out, but with a little help from the reference notes and Sparknotes, I was quickly on my way. And once I found the rhythm, I needed the extra help less and less – almost like riding a bike!
Macbeth is a Scottish land owner, prominent citizen, and loyal servant of Duncan, the King of Scotland. Upon returning victoriously from battle, he encounters the three witches who alert him to a prophesy they’ve had which shows Macbeth becoming King. Unable to get this newly planted notion out of his mind, Macbeth proceeds to do whatever he can to become King and stay King. He murders royalty, friends, women, and children alike. He’s driven by ambition, but unlike Shakespeare’s Richard III (or any other villain, really), Macbeth is crippled off and on by self-doubt. His darling wife (evil future queen that she is) steps into the role of masculine leader, challenges her husband’s manhood, and gives him the swift kick he needs to see the murder done. But what comes around goes around and Macbeth eventually finds himself slain by those who genuinely hope for a better Scotland.
All that’s great, but what’s the point? My favorite recurring literary question/theme/motif that Shakespeare loves to tackle is gender identity. Macbeth is chastised by his wife for being a coward for wanting to back out of killing the King. She equates masculinity with cruelty, violence, and murder. I love Lady Macbeth’s speech from Act I, Scene VII:
I have given suck and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
That is one intense and powerful little speech – the 17th century emasculating smack-down. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have several scenes where gender role reversal is portrayed and he does these reversals oh-so-well.
In the same vein, Shakespeare also loves to write some authoritative women. Lady Macbeth and the witches are really the play’s most evil characters – no dainty princesses here, thank you very much. Now, Lady Macbeth does go a bit mad at the end, but can you really blame her with so much blood on her hands?
The supernatural elements also delight – ghosts, visions, witches, creaking gates, freaky weather, and ominous omens abound. I loved the image of Lady Macbeth trying to wash the blood off of her hands over and over again but never seemingly able to cleanse herself completely.
Go read Macbeth – right now! You won’t be disappointed. I just gushed all over this post and could continue for PAGES. I can’t believe I took such a long break from the Bard – will not happen again, Dr. Iyengar, I promise!