THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Some brief thoughts on Macbeth…

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So, I first found the Scottish play at the age of 16, somewhere in english or drama classes at school. I think maybe both. Deeply, I knew this story. It seemed written into my adolescent psyche already along with a glut of horror movies, heavy metal and protestant caution. ‘Vaulting ambition’ was the crux of the tale; the desire to grasp more, to be more, than you naturally were and its inevitably dark consequences.

Thinking back, this sentiment is not greatly alien to the teenage mentality. Those years are a time of striving for transformation, for prestige, a figurative slaughter of innocence. Teens often turn to things unholy in a bid to outrun their meager station in life, and Macbeth’s yearning to climb the ranks of the elite through magic and murder does not differ too greatly from many young people who hope to ascend the social ladder by adopting rituals of sexual experimentation, the occult, drugs, subterfuge, gossip or a bit of boyish biffo.

Think of Lady Macbeth’s unholy invocation in Act 5, that all her humanity would be taken and replaced with dark determination:

Under my battlements, come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

I still recall reading this passage for the first time when I was a teen, maybe disturbed by its stygian resolve. The imagery of this sacrifice is unforgettable, that her softer, feminine instincts be undone, her breast-milk be taken with gall in its place. She begs murdering phantoms the numbing of her emotion and the dumbing of her conscience. Effectively, she sells her soul.

Think, how many aching teens tried to spurn their childhood, burn their birth certificate, embrace all that’s wrong and set their feet on paths of destruction? In cruelty, new names, secrets, addictions or acts of destruction the young often make their way. How many lost children opened up their tremulous hearts to the impenetrable night and wept as they watched corruption take hold?

… anyway, with that very ilk of melodrama is how I viewed Macbeth when I first read it, through a teenage lens of Marilyn Manson and the pre-millennial spate of apocalyptic horror films, so inspired as to even once write an essay designing a cyberpunk stage production of Macbeth (it got an A). There’s rivers of angst there, but I’m getting nostalgic again.

As a morality tale, Macbeth is finely crafted and formidable. As did the snake in Eden, the witches actually speak a degree of truth, though the deception is subtle and not realised until the Caesarian twist. So the righteous rise and run through our foolish protagonist, his head soon on a spike and throughout the sound of swords and screaming children, the sight of fingers perennially stained with blood, it is evident that good stories must have plenty of badness, and often blood and guts.

Revisiting the text again now, I find it still offers profound lessons in the counsel we keep, the methods we use and the motivations that guide us as we journey through life. It is a valuable fable in what ambition costs for the old and young alike. A cautionary tale. Not all of us sold our soul to Satan in their teen years, some saw Macbeth and thought better of it…




March 21, 2012 at 8:54 am

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  1. […] at the age of seven. Nostalgia’s been significant to some of my responses here (Man of Steel, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet) and Batman is no exception. However, this isn’t just about sentiment, but […]

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