The Classics Eight: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

My daughter recently had to study Macbeth for year 12 senior English, as I had done twenty-five years ago. The assessment itself was essentially unchanged: a monologue presentation followed by an exam. Macbeth is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s works so I was more than happy to revisit the play as a means of helping my daughter out with this final piece of assessment for high school. Out of the two of us, I ended up being the only one to actually read Macbeth in its entirety. Seriously, the internet is a game changer for students today. It puts me in mind of this joke:

My daughter didn’t read the play because she didn’t need to. She could simply Google ‘Macbeth’ and visit any number of useful sites dedicated to dissecting all of the elements in a clear and concise way. If she wanted to, she could have even read a translation of Macbeth – that is, Macbeth rewritten into ‘ordinary’ English. While I acknowledge that this is kind of fantastic, I wonder at the whole point of even studying Shakespeare anymore if students don’t have to even read it. In preparation for her exam, Google provided the quotes along with page numbers so that all my daughter needed to do was insert a bunch of sticky notes into her unread book and take it in with her to the open book exam. Does she know the play, really understand it, as I needed to for my Year 12 assessments? Definitely not. And consequently, she doesn’t like Shakespeare. Why would she when she’s never actually fully experienced it.

When it comes to Macbeth, it’s a work of genius that ticks all of the boxes for me. Macbeth himself is your classic tragic hero. A grave error of judgement crashing with his own ambition sets him on a spiral into chaos, and ultimately, his own death. Macbeth’s belief that his ambition would not be checked by consequence led to delusions of grandeur that were furthered by Shakespeare’s use of supernatural elements: the witches and their prophesies. There is a fateful aspect that emerges from this theme via the implication that Macbeth is simply living out a fate that has already been determined for him. Shakespeare leaves the idea of Macbeth having been able to do anything to avoid his fate very open ended. Likewise, when dealing with the pressure that Macbeth is subjected to from his wife. Was Macbeth’s fate truly unavoidable? It’s all a bit classic Greek tragedy which relies heavily on fate and the will of the gods, and Macbeth has indeed been linked to Greek plays on account of his use of the supernatural element. I think that’s what really hooked me from the get go with Macbeth – this supernatural premise, included in a text at time when consorting with ‘witches’ earned you a beheading. And what of Lady Macbeth? In the beginning, she appears as single-minded in her lust for power, manipulating her husband with apparent ease. But she’s far from a two dimensional character and when you really read her closely, you get a sense that there is divide between who she says she is and who she is actually is. Her empathy sees her slowly begin to lose herself over the course of the play, until we reach the point where she appears to have been driven mad by guilt and remorse, having lost all agency over her own life.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest tragedy. It’s not his most complex play, but it’s right up there in terms of emotional intensity and impact, tumbling madly from its opening to its conclusion. The key themes of the corrupting power of unchecked ambition, the relationship between cruelty and masculinity, and the difference between kingship and tyranny are all powerfully presented in what is a sharp, jagged sketch of theme and character that still, even more than 400 years after it was first penned, continues to shock and fascinate its audience. Or at least, the audience who immerses themselves into the original work. For those who take the Google road, the journey is most likely going to be less impacting and far less immersing. A tragedy unto itself. But I’m a Shakespeare purist, so my view is always going to lean towards the more traditional ways of experiencing Shakespeare, as in, actually picking it up and reading it.

Shakespeare and you: yay or nay?

14 thoughts on “The Classics Eight: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

  1. Hi Theresa, I’m definitely with you on this one! Google is great when you just want to do a quick search, but the only way to experience literature and Shakespeare, for that matter, is to immerse yourself in the text, and if you can, see it performed – that’s when it really comes alive. In a way, I feel sorry for this generation of students – they may be able to do the assessment and pass the exam, but what have they actually learned? I suppose it’s no different to many of my generation who also learned to hate Shakespeare. A pity.

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  2. I agree, Theresa. Reading Shakespeare is so important. And hearing the words spoken aloud is such a wonderful experience, even if I can’t always understand just what they mean — the sound and the flow is so sensuous and beautiful. But seeing a performance has to be the best. When I was a teenager, we were studying King Lear in year 11/ 12 (can’t remember!) and I went to see a performance. The stage setting was a single chair and a backdrop of olive green swirls. My heart sank: it was going to be so boring! But the actors came onto the stage and I think I hardly blinked for the whole performance. I loved every second, and was so caught into it, even though I didn’t understand every word.

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  3. What a great commentary on Macbeth, Theresa. It’s a bit sad that your daughter and many of her cohort won’t have the opportunity to experience the play the way we did. It’s my favourite Shakespeare. I love its turbulence, its deeply flawed characters, the role of the supernatural and itswonderful, poetic language. So many memorable lines and moments.

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  4. Absolutely Shakespeare, me. I studied his plays in the old way at school, and for years I kept the copy of complete Shakespeare with all my annotations in Macbeth, which we studied for the Leaving. It was taught then in a very boring way, parsing and translating each sentence.
    Watching my grandsons study it, it seemed a much better way; they act out the play in class, watch screen versions, and my eldest grandson performed one of the star parts in Macbeth in the senior school’s drama presentation. So he got to know it inside out. I think that’s the way it should be taught, as well as with some context about Shakespeare’s time, the theatre world, the fact that his day job was acting, and that he used various sources for his dramatisations. Wonderful fictional history, albeit often distorted. My favourite play is Hamlet, which I studied for my honours degree at uni. I set out to prove it is not an artistic failure, as T S Eliot said it is. I also love the sonnets. for me, Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language, and has made our language and culture so rich with his plays and with all the wonderful phrases he coined. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” wonderful poetry in Macbeth too: “Tomorrrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps on this petty pace from day to day, till the last syllable of recorded time…”. Perhaps you could get a good screen performance of Macbeth and watch it with your daughter. Even better to see it live. Thank you for this interesting post!

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    • I really would love to see Macbeth performed live! I can’t see my daughter joining me though.
      I love your enthusiasm for Shakespeare. I’m also a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I agree, Shakespeare’s work has enriched our culture so much.


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