The Shakespeare Project is all about me reading Shakespeare, Act by Act, and posting my thoughts on it as I go. Usually, I read (and write on) one Act every other week (my introductory post on this feature is here). It has been a while since I picked up this project, but since I had planned to read Macbeth next, October seems the perfect month to get started. [I ended up starting this very late, but still have at least managed to get started this month.] This post does contain spoilers, so don’t read on if this will bother you.
1884 Macbeth poster
Source: By W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The opening scene, in fact, is just so fitting for a Halloween read, with thunder and lightning in an open place where the weird sisters (incidentally, and I only ‘discovered’ this when I started to write this post, ‘weird’ or ‘wyrd’ in this context means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ and not what we understand in the modern context, as supernatural or even sometimes, otherwise ‘than normal’ (shmoop/wikipedia)), the three witches have gathered and are asking of each other, when they will meet again. They decide to do so after the war, upon the heath, which is where they will meet Macbeth.
The Witches in a Painting by Fussli
Source: Henry Fuseli [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A much prettier version
Image Source: Daniel Gardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the next scene, we find ourselves in a camp near Forres where the King of Scotland, Duncan is with his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, attendants, and nobles. The battle has just come to an end, a bleeding sergeant is speaking to the King and informs him of Macbeth’s selfless bravery on the battlefield, and defeat of the rebel, Macdonwald. Macbeth, incidentally, is not only a general, but also kinsman to the King. The thane of Ross arrives on the scene, speaking of the defeat of the King of Norway. Duncan decides to execute a traitor, the thane of Cawdor, and gives that title to Macbeth. Ross is charged with delivering this good news to Macbeth.
Now, we return to the heath, that very same heath where the Witches had planned to waylay Macbeth. On the heath, there is once again thunder, and definitely a tone of the mysterious, and perhaps a touch of the scary. The witches discuss where each of them have been–one apparently has been killing swine, the other was refused chestnuts by a sailor’s wife and is planning revenge upon the sailor (‘vicarious liability’?). But honestly, is just simply to get back at her by getting at him, or does one read more into it?
Macbeth and Banquo waylaid by the Witches
Image source: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anyway, as their conversation progresses, Macbeth and Banquo arrive. The first words (this again I noticed only thanks to the mention on shmoop) that Macbeth speaks, “so fair and foul a day” link up to the witches initial observation, “fair is foul, and foul is fair”, so perhaps they were merely foretelling what was to come. It is Banquo who first seems to notice the witches and can’t quite make them out for they look like women, yet they have beards. As Macbeth inquires who they are, the witches hail him, as thane of Glamis, then thane of Cawdor, and as “king hereafter”. Banquo asks the sisters to predict his future as well as they have done for Macbeth. The witches greet him too, and make some more complicated predictions, calling him “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater“; “Not so happy, yet much happier“, and that his children shall be kings but not he himself. Macbeth questions them about where these predictions are coming from, for although he is the thane of Glamis, the thane of Cawdor is very much alive. But the witches vanish, leaving Banquo to wonder whether it is something they have eaten (“insane root“) that has taken their reason prisoner.
And another of Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches
Image Source: Théodore Chassériau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As Macbeth and Banquo discuss what they’ve just been told, Ross and another nobleman, Angus arrive, and give Macbeth the news, proving the witches’ first prophecy true. Now Macbeth’s thoughts have begun to turn to the rest of those prophecies, asking Banquo whether he doesn’t hope that his children would be kings, as the sisters foretold. And he is also imagining to himself whether the other prophecy would also come true, but those thoughts at this stage seem horrid to him and leave him feeling rather uncomfortable.
We’re back at Forres now, but at the palace. Cawdor has been put to death, having confessed, and repented his deeds. Meanwhile, Macbeth arrives, and Duncan acknowledges that more is due to him than he is giving, to which Macbeth replies, claiming that his service and loyalty are payment in itself (are they, considering his thoughts, one wonders?). Banquo too, receives praise. Duncan also announces that his son Malcolm will be his heir, naming him the Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth thinks this over observing that this is an obstacle in his path, his thoughts once again in dark places.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Image Source: John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene shifts again, and the fifth one in this act sees us now in Macbeth’s castle where we finally meet the formidable Lady Macbeth, who has received a letter from her husband, telling her all about the witches’ prophecies, and of the greatness that lies ahead for her. A messenger comes in just as she has read the letter, and informs her that the King will spend the night at their castle, and that Macbeth has sent someone ahead with this information. Lady Macbeth wishes that all compassion and remorse, all the qualities of a woman leave her, and she is able to be cruel as will be required of her, if all that is predicted is to be achieved. Macbeth soon arrives, and Lady Macbeth pretty much tells him that Duncan might well be coming to the castle that night, but will not be leaving the next morning. Unlike her husband, she doesn’t seem to have had any hesitation in deciding what to do, and takes charge of the situation.
Duncan has now arrived with his sons, noblemen, and attendants, looking forward to a pleasant visit in the castle that many birds have made their home. He greets his “honored hostess”, little knowing what she has planned for him, and Lady Macbeth responds warmly extend her welcome and thanks.
Still in the castle, in the final scene of this Act we once again witness a conversation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who are talking over the details of their conspiracy. Macbeth is planning to do away with Duncan, yet also taking over the reasons that make it wrong for him to do so, he being not only the king’s kinsman but also his host. Duncan’s goodness and humility will ensure that the news of the awful deed they are about to commit spreads all over, and all of this is causing Macbeth some hesitation in doing what he plots to do. He wants to back down and not proceed, but Lady Macbeth tries to talk him out of his fears. She is quite ruthless compared to Macbeth and claims that she would dash her own baby’s head against a wall had she so sworn to Macbeth to do so. While Macbeth still fears failure, she points out that if they have courage, they won’t fail. She plans to get Duncan’s servants drunk and place all the blame on them. Macbeth is now convinced and agrees to use the servant’s daggers and cover them with blood so that all the blame falls on them, telling his wife to continue to pretend to be a friendly hostess, so closing the first act.
Image source: By Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So, in Macbeth we are plunged into a world of morality, power, ambition, conspiracy, intrigue, murder, and betrayal. Almost from the start, the moment the witches make their prophecies known to Macbeth, and the first of them proves true, Macbeth is considering ‘murder’ straightway while outwardly still speaking of loyalty as its own reward. While the first prophecy, of his becoming the thane of Cawdor may have come true on its own, he does not want to leave the second–power, kingship–to chance and is actively plotting his path to attain it, wanting to do away with King Duncan and also his heir Malcolm (though he hasn’t plotted the second quite yet). He has some hesitation, initially at least a little repulsed by the awful thoughts entering his mind, and later when plotting with his wife, hesitant because of fear more than for propriety or morality, although he brings up these reasons for being so. Lady Macbeth on the other hand, has no such compunctions. She has not the slightest hesitation, and is prepared not only to do what it takes, but also give her husband the courage (and support) that he needs to achieve their ambitions.
One question that came to mind was what made the witches pick Macbeth–was it that they were merely foretelling what would happen, and therefore didn’t really ‘pick’ him as such? Or was it that they knew he was so corruptible that the slightest hint would get his mind working? Banquo too has heard those predictions, but he is not paying as much heed.
Overall, I am enjoying the whole atmosphere of the play, which as I’ve been saying from the beginning, is just perfect for the season. [I wonder how they did the thunder and lightning effects in Shakespeare’s day?]
Also, I’d plain forgotten that ‘the cat in the adage’ was from Macbeth!
Macbeth has started off on the path to power, and perhaps to his own doom. I can’t wait to read the next act to see what happens next, and whether their plans as to Duncan move forward quite as smoothly as they imagine they will. And what of Malcolm and Donalbain?
Have you read Macbeth? What are you thoughts on this Act? Looking forward to hearing all about them!