The Characters in the Play
Duncan, King of Scotland
Malcolm, Donalbain: his sons
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, later of Cawdor, later King of Scotland
Banquo, Macduff, Lennox, Ross, Menteth, Angus, Cathness: Thanes of Scotland
Fleance, Banquo's son
Seyward, Earl of Northumberland
Young Seyward, his son
Seyton, Macbeth's armour-bearer
Son of Macduff
Wife of Macduff
A Captain, An English Doctor, A Scottish Doctor, A Porter, An Old Man, Gentlewoman attendant on Lady Macbeth, Three Weird Sisters, Three Other Witches, Hecat, Apparitions, Three Murderers, Other Murderers, Lords, Gentlemen, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants, Messengers
"Macbeth" is not really a play. It's a screenplay. It should not be staged at all. It should be filmed. For one thing, it is full of supernatural elements (witches, ghosts, apparitions) that modern cinema can explore in a truly magnificent way. For another, its 23 scenes and (about) 2100 lines are superbly organized to provide an action story with many exciting moments; many of the scenes, indeed, are so short that resemble movie stills. The whole play can be turned into a script with minimal cutting and re-arranging. Of course the cast and the director must be first-class. I am dismayed to note how few notable movie versions of Macbeth there are.
I often hear "Macbeth" described as Shakespeare's darkest play and now I see why. There is some relentless grimness that pervades the whole work. Coleridge was perfectly right that the opening scene, full of witches and thunder, serves only one purpose and this is to set the atmosphere of the whole play. Even the stage directions are often disturbing: ''Enter Ghost'', ''Enter Murderers''. Yes, it's a bloody play, too, with four murders on the stage (Macbeth, Macduff's son, Banquo, Seyward's son) and nobody knows how many offstage but at least five are referred to in the text (Duncan, his two servants, Macduff's wife, Lady Macbeth). The only comic relief in the whole play is the lively prose of the talkative Porter in the beginning of II.3. He is a welcome relief, indeed, and he has some amusing reflections about the momentous effects of alcohol:
"Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to: in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him."
Despite its tight organization, the play may well survive some cuts, indeed it would benefit from them. The scene with Hecate's tedious song (III.5.) is so completely unnecessary that it must have been either a later interpolation or a deliberate catering to the taste of King James. Pretty much the same is true for the pastiche in the beginning of the scene with the visions (IV.1.); apparently the King was nuts about witches. The only other episode which seems to me unduly extended is the conversation between Malcolm and Macduff (IV.3.). Who cares about these fellows? They are not characters. They are stage conventions.
This is true for all characters except the Macbeths. And, of course, it should be expected. To depict a character in drama is hard enough. To depict two, and their whole degradation, in mere 2000 lines is a towering achievement. The Macbeths, apart from their deeds, are very likeable couple. They share everything, including their ultimate fate, and support each other with all possible means. Two things fascinate me about them: the fluctuations in their relationship and the different ways by which they end their single journeys in this world.
In the beginning Lady Macbeth takes the upper hand. It is she, after receiving the faithful letter from her husband, who plans Duncan's assassination with meticulous care. In her first soliloquy (I.5.13-27), unusually clumsy and repetitive one, she makes an accurate diagnosis of her Macbeth's weakness: ''yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o' the milk of human kindness''. Two scenes later she scolds him - very perceptively - for his pusillanimity: ''Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?'' (I.7.39-41.). The Lady's second soliloquy is justly famous. And very scary:
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 mill for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, 'Hold, Hold!'
The witches are cheerful and harmless creatures by comparison. Yet it must be mentioned that the Lady is pretty disingenuous here. She masterminds everything, that's true, but she commits no murder herself. So she needn't have worried about ''my keen knife see not the wound it makes''. Nevertheless, after the murder she acts coolly and with remarkable composure, much unlike Macbeth's distress. (Even his condition, however, is nothing like ''ecstasy of moral hysteria'', as idiotically described by the editor; Macbeth is horrified more on physical grounds, I think, rather than on moral ones.) When he refuses to go back and leave the bloody daggers where they should be, the Lady shows her ''undaunted mettle'':
Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures. 'Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.
Much has been made of the pun here, how inappropriate to the situation is and so on. The editor here supplies a much more interesting insight, quoting one Cleanth Brooks; for Lady Macbeth ''guilt is something like gilt - one can wash it off or paint it on.'' If I may add, the pun fits superbly the Lady's famous Sleepwalking Scene (V.1.) where she tried, pathetically and unsuccessfully, to wash the imaginary blood from her hands - and the guilt from her already deranged mind.
With the progress of the play, the condition of Lady Macbeth steadily deteriorates. She discovers that ambition taken to extremes becomes self-destructive. There is a short soliloquy in the beginning of III.2. which eloquently conveys her anxiety. It's in sharp contrast with Macbeth's overbearing and over-confident, indeed arrogant, attitude as King of Scotland. But his wife knows better:
Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.
Nevertheless, the Lady still stands by her husband. In the chilling scene with Banquo's ghost (III.4.), a weird mixture of comedy and tragedy, she takes the comical part by trying to convince the guests that her husband regularly behaves like that. Apparently the royal family could get away with it. But the Lady continues to be haunted by the bloody deed they had committed. By the time of the Sleepwalking Scene (V.1.) she is completely mad; in the next scene she commits suicide offstage. Her incoherent ramblings are not easy to forget:
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! - One: two: why then, 'tis time to do't. - Hell is murky! - Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard? - What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to accompt? - Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Both Macbeths finally lose their grip of reality, which is of course prerequisite of madness, but the truly amazing thing is the different ways by which they do that. While Lady Macbeth is haunted by bloody memories, Macbeth himself is obsessed by completely irrational visions of a glorious future. Naturally, he doesn't commit suicide. Yet in the end of the play, though driven by different forces than his wife, he becomes mad, too.
In the beginning Macbeth is timid and refuses to take seriously his wife's dark plans. ''We will speak further'' (I.5.69), he evades the matter. Later he brings some objections, but note that these deal, not with pangs of conscience, but with the danger of failure: ''If we should fail?'' (I.7.59). Lady Macbeth has, of course, no problem demolishing such weak arguments. Despite further hesitations in his famous ''Dagger Monologue'' (II.1.33-64.), Macbeth finally cuts Duncan's throat.
Macbeth's crime is aggravated by a number of circumstances. Firstly, Duncan appears to be a good king, so any ideas of saving Scotland from tyranny are out of the question. Secondly, it is perfectly clear that the King actually regards Macbeth with great respect, even affection. Thirdly, Duncan is a guest of honour in Macbeth's house; a double-edged circumstance, this one, though probably more in the host's disfavour. Fourthly, as soon as the body is discovered (III.3.), Macbeth kills the two servants who were found with the bloody daggers and were thus suspected to be the murderers. Thus he creates immediate suspicions, as clearly reflected in Macduff's brusque question ''Wherefore did you so?'' (II.3.4). Macbeth replies with a passage of hollow rhetoric to which even the Lady's brilliant fainting (surely deliberate simulation) cannot attach much veracity, nor dispel the rising suspicions.
Those suspicions are the beginning of Macbeth's end. As every usurper, he discovers that, if not your conscience (which doesn't bother him in the least), the constant fear of being overthrown will finally take its toll. This leads to the murders of Banquo (III.3.) and the family of Macduff (IV.2.); the latter manages to escape in England where he joins forces with Malcolm. Macbeth's insecurity on the throne may be at least partly responsible for his despotic rule of the country, something that's made abundantly clear by the short III.6.
Banquo is a somewhat superfluous character, but Shakespeare has made a marvellously effective use of him. He accompanies Macbeth from the very beginning with the Weird Sisters, so it stands to reason that he does suspect his ambition and the planned assassination; when Macbeth wishes him ''Good repose the while!'' in the fatal night, he replies (ironically?) ''Thanks, sir: the like to you'' (II.1.29-30). In addition to his highly effective ghost appearances, Banquo also has the honour to supply the most accurate description of the Witches. If only Macbeth had listened to it more carefully:
But 'tis strange;
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Macbeth's chief defect of character is, of course, the lust for power. It is typically insatiable: thane of Glamis is not enough, nor is thane of Cawdor. But there is another defect that shouldn't be neglected. This is Macbeth's superstitious nature. He keeps repeating, especially towards the end, the two most important prophesies of the witches: that the Birnam wood would never come to Dunsinane, and that no man that's born of woman shall kill him. This seems to ensure his invisibility. It never occurs to Macbeth that these lovely messages, if not exactly untrue (for the Weird Sisters cannot lie), may be highly misleading.
Macbeth's downfall is a terrifying spectacle. Already in III.2., soon after he has become king, the vastly changed attitude to his wife, so different than the warmth of the earlier acts, indicates that his mind is already profoundly disturbed. Thereafter the tension escalates violently: Banquo's ghost, the escape of Fleance, the news from England that Malcolm and Macduff prepare invasion. By the end of the play (V.3.), Macbeth is way out of his mind. He chants his superstitious with an air of supreme confidence, he insists of putting his armour long before it is necessary, he requests a psychiatrist to cure his wife. The last deviation is perhaps the most remarkable of all - and quite a few centuries premature:
Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
[V.3.36-46, slight mislineation above.]
In this feverish condition, Macbeth often has striking flashes of lucidity. They are not only clad in some of the most gorgeous poetry in the whole play (perhaps in the whole of Shakespeare?), but they also offer a candid self-analysis of his present state of mind as well as a merciless summing-up of his life. It is in these moments that Macbeth becomes a real tragic character, and I understand many great people (Verdi, for one) described this play as one of the greatest tragedies ever written:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.
I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. I have supped full with horrors,
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.
When he is informed that his wife is dead, Macbeth's answer is almost painfully poignant: ''She should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word.'' (V.3.17-8), which I take it to mean that had she died later, he could have mourned her. In his present condition he is no longer capable of that. This leads to his most famous soliloquy - ''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'' - which has become almost as well-known as Hamlet's ''To be, or not to be''. It is much shorter, but its power and beauty are undeniable:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
"Macbeth" is a mighty tragedy, no mistake about that. The fates of Macbeth and his Lady, so different yet so alike, are pathetic. But they are conveyed with such stunning force, with such pervasive spiritual desolation, that they never look tawdry or melodramatic. The completely ordinary conclusion, with Malcolm's indifferent speech, is a typical stroke of Shakespearean irony. (Cf. Horatio's final words in Hamlet.) Malcolm would doubtless make a much finer King of Scotland than Macbeth did. But about his rule only boring dramas can be written, never heartrending tragedies.
PS The above reflections refer to the edition of the text by G. K. Hunter, first pulbished in the New Penguin Shakespeare. It was later reprinted, together with his introduction, in the 1994 Penguin Classics edition titled Four Tragedies. The Penguin Shakespeare edition which is currently in print uses absolutely the same text; only the introduction and other additional essays are different.