A little over a year since I read Macbeth and posted on the first four Acts, and I realise I hadn’t done my post on Act V, so am doing it now. Reading Macbeth was part of my attempt to read through Shakespeare’s plays which I haven’t really read (except ones at school; and other than that the Charles and Mary Lamb versions; my plans are here), and writing posts act by act (or sometimes two acts at a time) as I go along. Macbeth is only the second play I picked up, the first being A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I will be reading others as well. But first, to wrap this one up.

After hearing prophecies of his future from the wyrd sisters, and having the first (his becoming Thane of Cawdor) come true on its own, Macbeth with much encouragement from his wife, decides not to leave the second prophecy, of his becoming the King, to fate and make it come true. For this, he must rid himself of the King, Duncan, and so he does; the blame falls on the king’s sons and they escape with the result that Macbeth becomes King. But evil deeds have many consequences, as Macbeth soon learns. For one, as we see in all murder mysteries, once Macbeth has crossed the line, he does not stop; Banquo and his son are his next targets (and later Lady Macduff and her children), and while Banquo’s son Fleance escapes, Banquo does not. But these aren’t the only ones, for Macbeth’s actions have effect on himself too, as sleep is taken away from him, and Banquo’s ghost appears to haunt him. Also, he is increasingly making plans to which he no longer makes Lady Macbeth party. Meanwhile the witches have found him unworthy of their prophecies and decided to mislead him while Malcolm, the king’s son, and Macduff prepare to battle Macbeth who they know has come by the throne wrongfully.

Act V opens in Dunsinane, where a doctor and a waiting-gentlewoman (attending on Lady Macbeth) are having a conversation regarding Lady’s Macbeth current state. The waiting woman is unwilling to go into all the details other than the fact that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking, but we learn them soon enough, for the she sleepwalks in front of the doctor. And so we see that it is not only Macbeth whose mind has been affected by his ill deeds but also his lady, who now cannot sleep without having a light besides her; and worse, during her state of sleepwalking is constantly washing her hands, for in her mind the blood of the king cannot be washed away [‘who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him‘]. She continues to talk about this, going on to also reveal that Banquo has been buried and cannot leave his grave. The doctor realises the gravity of the revelations saying both that she has a disease beyond his powers to cure, and that she needs a priest more than she does a doctor.

Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Fussli
via wikimedia commons: Henry Fuseli / Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Heinrich_F%C3%BCssli_030.jpg
The Birnam Oak (what remains of the Wood)
via Wikimedia Commons: W. L. Tarbert / Public domain
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birnam_Oak#/media/File:Birnam_Oak.JPG

In the scene that follows, we are taken a little away from Dusinane, to the country where soldiers are assembling, among them, Meneteith, Caithness, Angus, and Lennox, who discuss the progress of the English army (Malcolm and Macduff had escaped there for help) lead by Malcolm, his uncle Siward, and Macduff, all burning with revenge. They also discuss how Macbeth is fortifying his castle, and beginning to feel the blood of his enemies on his hands. His orders may be being followed but none bear him any love. The soldiers, meanwhile are proceeding towards Birnam Wood, the very wood of the witches third prophecy.

Back at the Castle in Dunsinane, Macbeth is reflecting on the two prophecies the witches had made on his being undefeatable until Birnam Wood moves, and also that he cannot be defeated by any man born of a woman. He is thus rather confident of victory, when a servant comes in to report of the soldiers that are gathering to battle him. Macbeth is confident of securing his reign, but realises that the things he should normally have had in old age–like honour, love, obedience, and loyal friends–are things he never will. Meanwhile the doctor who has been attending Lady Macbeth arrives to tell Macbeth that his lady is haunted by visions, something that she must heal herself. Macbeth, preparing for battle, asks him whether he can find anything to cure the disease that afflicts his country; the poor doctor wishes himself far from Dusinane.

As we rejoin Malcolm, Siward, and others in Scene IV, they have arrived at Birnam Wood. Here Malcolm decides that every soldier must break off a branch from the wood and carry it in front of him so as to conceal how many people they actually have; and with this decision, one of the witches’ prophecies comes true for with the soldiers, the Wood actually begins to march.

Macbeth, prepared for battle, gives orders for banners to be hung, still confident that his castle is strong enough to withstand any siege. As he speaks, a woman is heard crying, and on inquiring, he learns that the queen is dead, to which he cynically retorts that this was something bound to happen, for life is no more than an illusion. To make matters worse for him, a messenger comes in informing Macbeth that he has seen the forest begin to move. Macbeth stunned threatens the poor man with death should he be found lying, but his confidence has begun to be shaken. He raises the alarm while on the other side, the army moves forward, Macduff directing the blowing of trumpets to announce ‘blood and death’.

The battle commences, and in the confrontation between Macbeth and young Siward, the latter is killed. Macbeth once again feels confident for no one born of a woman can being about his death. Meanwhile Macduff, whose family Macbeth has had killed, is keen to face him and only him in battle, while Siward (the elder) and Malcolm become more confident of victory. Macbeth does not wish to face Macduff or kill him for he feels the guilt of having killed his family, and boasts of the fact that he cannot be killed by any man born of a woman, only to learn to his horror that Macduff’s mother could not bear him naturally. Macbeth, his confidence shaken further, is not prepared to surrender, and the fight begins. Siward learns that his young son has been killed but is proud that he died well while Macduff enters with Macbeth’s head, hailing the new King.

Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth had its basis in Holinshed’s chronicles which dated to 1587, and differs from the history of the real-life Macbeth (who ruled from 1040 to 1057). In the theatre world, the play is believed to be cursed (here).

Macbeth might well have decided to commit a crime to realise his ambitions, but little does he realise when he takes that first step (despite all his qualms) what this will lead to–not only more conspiracy and murder, but his own guilt driving him nearly to to edge even if not over, and not only that, the achievement of his dream not giving him and pleasure or happiness. Lady Macbeth who seems colder and more cruel than her husband, for she is unwavering in her resolve, with not even the slightest hesitation at what she is going to do also pays the price, not consciously but in her subconscious, unable to sleep or wash off the blood of the dead from her hands. But even after finishing the play, I’m still not able to decide whether I find either of them better or worse than the other. Or why indeed the witches picked Macbeth, or was it only that they merely did only tell what was going to occur rather than making him act a certain way–they put temptation in his way but the choice to act on it was his own. But then why did Hecate think him undeserving? Was it that the prophecies would have come true, with more positive consequences had he chosen not to act so?

So many questions; still, I enjoyed my reading of this one.

How do you like Macbeth (the play)? What did you think of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth–did you think her more sinister, or was he worse, or both equally bad? And the events that took place, merely fate playing out or the consequences of choices made? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Find my posts on Act I (here), II (here), III (here), and IV (here).

3 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Project: Macbeth Act V

  1. I’ve had Macbeth as a text both for my school leaving exams and at the graduate level, so am literally well-versed in it. Of course, its been many, many years, so I would need to read it again before commenting.

    Liked by 2 people

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