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?