Tuesday, August 14, 2007

August 14: Macbeth Day

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1057 of the Scottish monarch Macbeth about whom Shakespeare wrote in his tragedy Macbeth. The facts of the historical Macbeth differ somewhat from the Macbeth of the Elizabethan stage, but like modern writers, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of telling a good story.

Born in 1005, Macbeth rose to the thrown of Scotland by election in place of King Duncan's 14-year old son Malcolm. Duncan was not murdered at Macbeth's home as in the play; instead, he was killed in battle. The Macbeth of history was a Christian king who ruled for 14 years until August 14, 1057 (some sources say August 15) when he met Malcolm man-to-man in a fight to the death in a stone circle near Lumphanan. Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, locations referred to in Shakespeare's play, were actual locations of battle; however, these battles took place earlier than 1057. At Lumphanan, Malcolm was victorious, and it was he, not Macduff, who beheaded Macbeth (1).

Shakespeare adapts history in the Tragedy of Macbeth to examine the themes of free will, fate, ambition, betrayal, good, and evil. In his play, Macbeth is transformed from war hero to serial killer after he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters. Although he is warned by his friend Banquo to disregard the witches' words, Macbeth is unable to shake their spellbinding words. There is not a lot of subtlety or subplot in Macbeth. The action is swift and bloody. Even when the action on the stage is seemingly calm, the imagery of the dialogue is full of violent, grotesque images, such as in Lady Macbeth's plea to her husband to keep his promise to kill Duncan even though the king has honored Macbeth with a promotion and has come to their home as a guest for the night:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.(Act I, scene 7, lines 58-63)

It's probably no accident that a play about a Scottish king was written by Shakespeare during the reign of King James, the first Scottish King of England and the king whose most famous act was the commissioning of the King James Translation of the Bible, completed in 1611.

The history of the play's production, however, is full of accidents and superstition. From the very start the Macbeth acquired a reputation as a cursed play. During the first production of the play in 1606, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage. It seems the dark and sinister events of the on-stage plot are echoed backstage. To this day superstitious actors refuse to identify the play by name, alluding to it only by the euphemism: "The Scottish Play." (2)

Today's Challenge: Macquotes
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most read and performed plays. See if you can identify the speaker of each of the quotes below.

Here are the names of the key players to refresh your memory: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Macduff, Banquo, The Porter, The Witches

1. Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

2. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

3. And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths…

4. There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face…

5. Is this a dagger I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?

6. Here's a knocking, indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate he should have old turning the key. Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub?

7. He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

8. Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

Quote of the Day:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
--Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 19-28: Macbeth to himself

Answers: 1. Macbeth 2. The Witches 3. Banquo 4. King Duncan 5. Macbeth 6. The Porter
7. Macduff 8. Lady Macbeth

1 - - Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Winokur/Boates, 1993.

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