There's a tangible futility in reviewing Shakespeare's plays, particularly his great tragedies. Is there anything that hasn't yet been said? And even a unique thought, what can that add to the infinite edifice of Shakespeare's four-centuries of fame and praise? Thankfully, that isn't the point of reviews, at least not for this humble reviewer on GoodReads. Reviewing, for me, is about unlocking what I think and what I believe, by rummaging around in my feeble brain for things to say about great (and not-so-great) literature which has affected me in some way - and Shakespeare always manages to unearth something in me. Macbeth
has so much to say of the ugly, but natural, side of human nature. Surely it is Shakespeare's most terrifying work. While it doesn't reach the sublimely horrible bleakness of King Lear
, or the existential infinitude of Hamlet
, nor even the terrible evil of Othello
. What makes Macbeth
so chilling is the humanity of Macbeth - he is not the larger-than-life Othello or Lear, nor the plotting genius Iago, nor the haunted genius Hamlet, he is distinctly human in his minor flaws, modest grandeur, and an all-to-human impetuosity. What raises Macbeth to the memorable murderer which he is, which surpasses him even to his brilliant wife, is his terrible, and amazing, creative capacity.
Like Twelfth Night
's Malvolio, Macbeth has an incredible imagination of his own potential greatness, and also of the horrible conditions which stand in his way. What makes Macbeth so human is his struggle with his own actions. What high school students remember of Macbeth is his "ambition" - but his ambition for what? That is unclear. While he ostensibly seeks the thrown, his dedication to that cause is unconvincing. Lady Macbeth, a wonderfully conceived woman and complement to the initially timid Macbeth, is far more ambitious. Failed as a mother, she is so ambitious in supportive wifehood that she nearly usurps husbandhood from Macbeth. I hear often Lady Macbeth branded as the play's villain. But do we sympathize with Macduff and the other fungible Scottish lords? I think we mostly are unmoved by their plight, in fact we are not moved, really, by any of the dead, only by the murderers. We watch with morbid fascination as the couple of Macbeths are drawn deeper and deeper into their descent of iniquity: murder begetting murder.
Guilt is the mainstay of Macbeth
, and it is the great undoing of both Lady and Lord Macbeth. While Macbeth's guilt, like Hamlet's, is manifest in the visitation of a ghost, Banquo's, his wife suffers a more secret guilt, leading her to cry "Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One, two; why, then ‘tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie!
" before giving up the stage. Macbeth's decline after his wife's death is rapid, his deep love and admiration for his wife (which is perhaps the most sincere in all of Shakespeare's married couples, despite their horrible fate) dissolves his passions leaving him to a pervasive nihilism, bringing from him, in unusual poesy and insight from the King: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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,
His love for his wife is so deep that his life without her remains only a procession of days, of shadows, signifying nothing, leading nowhere.
The question of guilt, as previously mentioned and lost in digression, is central. But it is not only a moral guilt, it is an observable guilt. It is not only the guilt of having wronged
, but the fear of being caught
which spurs Macbeth into hastier and hastier action. As with Macbeth's literary heirs, among them the memorable Ahab from Moby Dick
, the pressure to of crime-begetting-crime, the over investment and descent, the gambling with morality, ultimately leads to insanity and death. But we observe in Macbeth both genuine remorse and a calamitous fear of being caught: Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.
I am baffled to hear people who cannot relate to Macbeth - for me, he is, with Hamlet, the most relatable of Shakespeare's tragedians. Who hasn't been so overwhelmed with paranoia from a singular crime, that you are forced to lie, steal, trick and deceive, to cover it up? Something which begins minor, stealing a candy-bar in your youth, or cheating on an exam, which explodes into an vast plot of iniquity! The guilt plagues you day and night, drives you against your own nature - anything to calm your mind, to regain your composure. That is the struggle of Macbeth, a man with an almost unnatural drive for self-preservation, not a power-hungry man, but most definitely a man, and so human a man he is.