Monday 14 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 135: "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare

Page count: Don't know, read it online
Rating: 4 stars

Just to be clear, I am not going to include any spoiler warnings for this play, since it's somewhere between 406-416 years old (sources seem to disagree exactly when it was written). If, for some reason, you're worried about having major plot points or deaths (there's a whole bunch, guys) ruined for you, then it's probably best that you skip this review entirely.

So Macbeth or the Scottish play. Despite having English lit as my minor at university, and Scottish history as part of my major, I had never actually read the play until now. The new movie version with my future husband, Michael Fassbender, in the title role, comes out here at Christmas, so I wanted to have read the source text before going to see it. I knew most of the major plot beats, because well, I haven't lived in a cave for most of my life. The story is quite frequently referenced in pop culture. One of my favourite references may be the Lancre witches in Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

For those of you who may be fuzzy on the details (but are still here because you don't mind being spoiled about something that's 400+ years old) - Macbeth is a trusted Scottish general, whose forces have just beaten Ireland and Norway at the beginning of the play. On his way from the battlefield, accompanied by fellow general Banquo, the men come across three witches. They hail Macbeth as "thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor and he who will be King hereafter." They also claim that Banquo's descendants will sit on the Scottish throne. The men disregard the prophecies, until they meet King Duncan, who pleased and grateful, does reward Macbeth with the thaneship of Cawdor. The previous thane was convicted of treason and will be executed.

Since two out of three parts of the witches' prophecy have come true, the ambitious Macbeth can't get their words out of his head. When he confides in his lady wife, she's pretty clear that they're going to have to off the king to ensure Macbeth becomes king of Scotland. As Duncan and his men will be staying at Macbeth's castle in Inverness, they'll have the perfect opportunity. Getting his personal guard dead drunk, Macbeth murders the king and blames Duncan's drunken bodyguards. He then has them put to death before they can deny their guilt.

To secure his place on the throne, Macbeth can't just kill the king, of course. Luckily for him, Duncan's two sons flee and can therefore be framed for the murder. Of course, Banquo heard the witches' prophecy and might suspect the truth, plus there was that pesky foretelling that Banquo's heirs would at some point take the throne. So Macbeth sends assassins after his old friend. Banquo's son escapes and Banquo's ghost shows up in the throne room to freak out his former buddy.

As he gets more unstable, unhinged and murderous, Macbeth doesn't exactly gain loyal followers. He feels slightly safer after new prophecies from the witches, claiming "no one born of woman" can harm him. He warned about Macduff, the thane of Fife, though, who was one of Duncan's loyal men. Sending assassins to murder the man's wife and entire family certainly ensures his enmity for life.

As the previously formidable and ruthless Lady Macbeth is driven completely mad with guilt and ends her life, Macbeth keep making deeply questionable choices. Macduff and Malcolm, Duncan's son and heir, gather an army to fight him. Turns out that Macduff was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" and hence can totally kill the power mad tyrant Macbeth has become.

While I may have studied English literature, there are a lot of Shakespeare's plays I've just never gotten round to reading. Macbeth is probably the most famous of the tragedies I still had on my TBR list. The plot didn't really hold any surprises for me, but there were a lot of famous lines and quotations throughout that I hadn't realised was from this specific play.

Not just had I never read the play, I've never seen any of the film versions either. Not the Japanese Throne of Blood or Polanski's adaptation from 70s. I haven't actually read any reviews of the new adaptation, starring Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as his lady. I have heard that apparently they've sidelined Lady Macbeth somewhat, which seems like a moronic choice, as Lady Macbeth clearly is the coolest character in the play. Blood-thirsty, murderously ambitious and utterly ruthless, yes, but much more impressive than any of the male characters. Cinema tickets are pricy nowadays and I won't fork out to see the film in the theatres if it's only going to be of middling quality. Having finally read the play, I can at least have an educated opinion about whatever choices they've made in adapting it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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