01 November 2009

Book Review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Classics Challenge #3

Macbeth While travelling, Scottish nobleman Macbeth is met by three witches who predict, among other things, that he will become king. Macbeth is sceptical, but when the first part of the prophecy comes true, he sees no reason why the rest shouldn’t also. Nor does his wife; indeed, when the current king stays at their castle she encourages Macbeth to make the prediction a reality. Killing for a throne turns out to be easier than keeping it and the witches haven’t finished with him yet.

For the first time I’ve re-read something that was required reading in high school English. You really do appreciate literature much more without the threat of an essay hanging over your head. And it’s testament to how much I’ve come to appreciate Shakespeare that I chose to read anything carrying memories of Year 9.

I have to feel a little sorry for the historical Macbeth, as Shakespeare’s depiction is ... well, not the most flattering. The theatrical Macbeth is a rather weak man, pushed by the stronger personality of his wife into seizing the throne by murder, necessitating other crimes to retain his ill-gotten crown. Neither one stops to look closely at the witches’ prophecies, taking for granted that they’re as straightforward as they seem and falling headlong into the perils of heedless and excessive ambition. Like any good prophecy, there are hidden snags, and they come true in unexpected but perfectly logical ways; and Macbeth’s inner tyrant in unleashed along the way. I haven’t quite decided whether the witches simply revealed what portents came to them, or knew all along what the result would be and perhaps even intended to cause Macbeth’s rise and fall.

Lady Macbeth fascinated me when I first met her and continues to do so. She’s one of the most compelling women in literature - encouraging, aiding, and abetting murder to secure her husband’s advancement and through his, her own. When she discovers that she is not in fact able to cope with the path she’s embarked on the results are dramatic. Even though she’s one of the bad guys I do pity her just a little for her fate.

As well as one of the great villainesses, Macbeth contains a number of highly memorable images: the procession of phantom kings, "Out, damned spot!", Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. (Phantom kings ... a ghost ... almost R.I.P. IV material!) And for anyone wary of Shakespeare, it has the advantage of being short.

Rating: A-


Jenny said...

I was just talking about this play yesterday! It was the first Shakespeare play I ever read in school, as part of a massive Shakespeare unit we did in eighth grade. We read the thing straight through, and then we listened to a BBC radio production of the whole thing - my memories of that unit are magical. I need to reread this!

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

I think I would be much more interested in Shakespeare's original works now than I was in high school when it was simply a tortuous chore to finish for a grade. Kudos to you for rereading!

Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776