Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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When I reviewed and analyzed Julius Caesar in depth back in June, I expected that I’d do the same with all the other Shakespeare plays I read while I have had this blog. And yet, I cannot “analyze” Macbeth. While I enjoyed reading Macbeth, it was not a “deep” reading experience for me. I’ve found I’ve been putting off writing this review because I don’t have such a deep analysis to give you. In fact, while I could reread it a few times, I’m ready to move on.

My first thought when I picked up Macbeth two weeks ago was, “Wow, this is perfect for Halloween.” Macbeth starts with thunder and lightning and three very spooky witches.

My second thought was that Macbeth was amazingly readable. I didn’t find myself stumbling over sentences (especially when I read it aloud with a bad Scottish accent, hehe), but beyond that the play itself is incredibly straight forward, more so than Julius Caesar was, which I read a few months ago. Unlike Julius Caesar, I didn’t need to read commentary to understand it or be fascinated by the setting Shakespeare created.

Macbeth is a Thane (a regional leader) in Scotland, and when he performs boldly on the battle field, King Duncan raises Macbeth’s level of power. Meanwhile, Macbeth meets three witches on the road who predict he will become king. This gives him ideas and when he mentions it to his wife, Lady Macbeth is determined to get that power. Murder, treachery, insanity, and more war subsequently follow.

To me, Macbeth was not as interesting a character as I inevitably found Brutus to be. Macbeth seemed blinded by the concepts of power, and yet he had some goodness in that he felt guilty. He hesitated, he feared, he lacked guts. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, was truly wicked. It seemed to me that her influence was Macbeth’s undoing. While Macbeth was a pretty rotten sort, only Lady Macbeth’s wicked desires and influence convinced Macbeth to go through his ultimate acts of treachery.

I have to say Lady Macbeth’s horrid wickedness is the most interesting aspect of the play. I tremble and shudder when I read her “I want to be more wicked!” soliloquy:

“…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! … 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)

Nevertheless, Lady Macbeth is off stage for most of the play: Macbeth is center-stage. The included commentary by Harold Bloom discusses how Macbeth is every man: we, as the readers or watchers of the play relate to Macbeth’s struggle with the Jekyll and Hyde within him (page 177-8). I didn’t feel like I related to him at all. I felt he was flimsy and followed his wife blindly. It was a fascinating play but I did not like Macbeth.

Harold Bloom also has a lot to say about the sexuality of the characters and other sexual “suggestiveness,” for example, how Lady Macbeth comments on Macbeth’s impotence. It’s almost interesting enough to make me want to reread the play right now (except I won’t). When I do reread it, I think I’ll focus on the gender roles, for it is quite interesting.

Despite the fact that Lady Macbeth does fascinate me, the play is still rather disturbing to me. It is a ghost story: it is horror. I am not commonly a fan of those genres, so I should not be surprised that I wasn’t crazy about the supernatural elements. That said, I did enjoy reading it, and I stayed up late one windy fall night reading it aloud to myself with a horrible Scottish accent.

Some favorite parts: I love the scene when Macbeth is hallucinating, and I’d love to see it acted! I also loved the witches at first, but when they returned they were a bit too scary for me. (Yes, I’m a wimp.) And Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies (like the one I quoted above) were also spine chilling to me.  *Shudder.*  Macbeth is a play I’m going to reread someday, or that I’d love to see acted, despite the fact that (and also because) it is so chilling and fascinating.

Annotated Shakespeare

The version I read was a part of the Annotated Shakespeare series, and I have to say I intend to find my other Shakespeare plays in this same series. It was so fully annotated (by Burton Raffel) that even if I did not understand a line, the glosses on the bottom of the page would have helped me completely. It was annotated almost to a fault (it cluttered up the page with glosses I didn’t feel I needed), but I’d have to say I like it that way because I felt it was completely approachable. I’d suggest if you are intimidated by Shakespeare, you find this series: it will do you good. Each page had few lines, so while the entire play was 180 pages, I made rapid progress and therefore felt good about said progress!

The Annotated Shakespeare series also provides an essay at the end of the play, which is a chapter excerpted from Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Since I was intending to go pick that book up and read the chapter on this play, I was glad Burton Raffel saved me the step!

I read Macbeth for the Readers Imbibing Peril IV challenge.

Reviewed on November 5, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I liked Macbeth when I read it and saw it performed. You’re right — it’s not the most complicated of plays, plot-wise, but I think it does say some interesting things about good and evil and ambition and desire.

    Sort of funny Macbeth related story — about a month ago Boyfriend and I rented a movie called Scotland, PA which is a version of Macbeth set in 1975 around the start of the fast food industry. Macbeth and his wife kill their boss (by pushing him into a fast food fryer) to take over his fast food franchise and then get possessed with guilt, etc. It was an ok movie — a dark comedy with Christopher Walken (who was very funny as McDuff). The silly part was that I didn’t get the Macbeth connection at all until Boyfriend mentioned it even though it was completely obvious!

  • Confession: I haven’t read a Shakespearean play since high school, and I’ve never read or seen any version of Macbeth (or Hamlet for that matter).

    Hmm, these plays aren’t quite old enough for the Really Old Classics challenge, are they? Because there is a book on my TBR list called LADY MACBETH by Susan Fraser King, and I’d love to read Hamlet followed by that book.

    Anyway, glad you enjoyed this one even though it doesn’t seem to be one of your favorites!

  • I have a thing for Macbeth – when we studied it in grade 11 English we had to do group dramatizations. My group had one of the scenes where Macbeth meets the witches and Macbeth has a few soliloquies. I got to play Macbeth and had to memorize those soliloquies. For a long time afterwards I could recite those darn things after the smallest prompt. However I think because of this Macbeth is by far my favorite Shakespeare play.

  • I like Macbeth, and heartily second your point about reading sections aloud in a poor Scots accent (my friend and I in high school used to shout things like ‘Out Damned Spot’ and the part about makign the whole sea incarnidine back and forth to each other… sigh, I am such a loser… 😉 ).

    From an analysis point of view, I agree, the gender roles are interesting, definitely, though for me, I thought the commentary on fate and human choice was really interesting – the witches never lie, so when they say Macbeth will be king, are they predicting it because they already know what Macbeth will do? And if so, does that Macbeth was incapable of choosing good? And in the end – I love how fate lies to us even when it tells the truth.

  • It’s all about the historical setting with Macbeth I think (just because that’s the angle I studied it from) – the fact that the play features witches to please King James and the ways Shakespeare probably shows himself to be aware of the massive witche scepticism that existed at the time. The fact that the historical story behind Macbeth is gretaly mangled to fit in with the politics of the time and James’ relation to the Scottish crown.

    Examinign gender roles sounds like an interesting way to go as well though, what with Macbeth’s wife getting blamed for his lust for power and the importance of the three female witches.

  • Kim, it seems a lot read it in school. I didn’t but it’s one I wouldn’t mind discussing with a group because there are interesting issues at play here.

    That movie sounds outrageous — kind of funny when you put Shakespeare into modern settings! How did it deal with all the witchcraft/supersition stuff? It seems a very 1600s play…

    Heather J., I hadn’t an Shakespeare since college until this year! So don’t feel bad. And I’ve only read two this year.

    Yeah, it was written in 1603, so just missed the deadline. But you could still read it and compare!!

    Suzanne, I do think people who read this in high school have fond memories of it! So it must be a good one for high school!

    Jason, Good point about fate versus human choice. Another thing to look at when I reread it.

    Jodie, see, I don’t know ANYTHING about the historical setting. As I just said to Kim, I think the play relies on the 1600s setting a lot but I’m not familiar with it, so anything relevant kind of just passed over me. Sounds like I need to read up on James-onian England!!

  • I must admit I skipped over much of your review because I’ve never actually read Macbeth! (So embarassing). But I’m encouraged since you said it was readable. I will have to check out this annotated version. And I loved your comment about reading with a bad Scottish accent. I’ll have to try it.

  • I recommend you watch Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth. It’s one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched. It’s unrelentingly bleak and all the colour is washed out so you’re left watching this depressing dull grey.

    If you want to feel like never smiling again then watch it.

  • Good review of Macbeth–it’s one of my favorite Shakespearean plays because of Lady Macbeth. She is a fascinating character. I prefer the Judi Dench filmed version of the play over the others I’ve seen because she is so great in the role, and the set/costumes are minimal to the point of non-existent (i.e., they sit in a circle and stand up to deliver their lines, almost theatre workshop setting), but very effective.

    I’ll have to look for the Annotated Shakespeare series–sounds good.

  • Karen, no need to be embarrassed, as I hadn’t read it either until last month!

    Damned Conjuror, wow, what a recommendation. I’ll have to watch it when I’m in a good mood…

    Jane, I do like Lady Macbeth, probably more than the other characters! Thanks for the film rec. Maybe I’ll find that one!

  • Had it not been for Lady Macbeth’s urgings to Macbeth, he would not have killed King Duncan at all. Sure, the witches prophesized that he would be King of Scotland. But it was Lady Macbeth who challenged him into murdering Duncan when he stayed as a guest in their house. (Bad hospitality manners, to say the least!) Her horrid wickedness brought about Macbeth’s defeat. The powerful and dominating figure of Lady Macbeth goes through a transformation as the play progresses and towards the end, suffers from a psychological breakdown and dies. Even her husband has no `time’ to think about her – ‘She should have died hereafter;/There would have been a time for such a word’.’s in-depth analysis of ‘Macbeth‘ has a lot more to say on the characters in this play. I really enjoyed their take.

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