Macbeth: brave gentleman and bloody villain

9:44 AM

I have to be honest here: Macbeth scared the hell out of me.

The witches, the ghosts, the brutal murders, the madness, the blood... Visualizing the three witches saying "Fair is foul and foul is fair" gave me goosebumps. I'm not sure which is more horrifying, the witches or the doublespeak.

Now, many of Shakespeare's plays have violence. Othello strangles Desdemona, Cornwall plucks out Gloucester's eyes in King Lear. Why is Macbeth much more shocking?

In King Lear and Othello, for example, we have a distinct separation between villains and heroes. Who's the villain in Macbeth?

In the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a brave soldier, a "worthy gentleman" in the eyes of the king. Along come three witches that say he'll become Thane of Cawdor and later on king. They also say Macbeth's friend, Banquo, will be the father of kings.

Macbeth and his wife then set out to murder the king and more and more they became the villains of the play. Who is the villain that made them fall, the witches?

They have no personal motivation to destroy Macbeth, so there's no way you can stop them - they're evil for evil's sake.

They didn't force Macbeth to do anything, they used much less convincing and manipulation than Iago, for example. Bottom line: he did all those terrible things knowing they were wrong because of his "vaulting ambition".

And ambition is a key word. Macbeth, like most Shakespeare’s plays, is open to misinterpretations solely because of the reversal of values we see in our modern culture. 

It’s good to be ambitious, so we are told. The means justify the ends, we hear time and again. Many  dictators act just like Macbeth.  

Wanting to be king is not bad in itself, but killing people to get there is. Since Macbeth wanted to be king, it is too clear that he turned himself into a villain. No one else is responsible for it.

Following this train of thought we might conclude that he would also have the power to go back to being a good man. He could repent and stop murdering people, but that would mean abandoning his lust for power and abiding to two judgments: earthly and divine. 

He had the option of going back, but he didn't. Not only because this is very difficult but because he still thought he could succeed. "And you all know security is mortal's chiefest enemy". Eventually he becomes so used to evil that all he has left is despair and the nihilistic notion that "life's but a walking shadow".

Macbeth being both the hero and the villain is something unique. Shakespeare seems to put Macbeth between the pagan world of Greek tragedies and the neo-pagan world of our contemporary culture. 

Take Oedipus for example. Oedipus was also a murderer. But the poor guy had absolutely no choice. He killed his father and married his mother without knowing it. He thought he was defending himself and marrying a queen. 

So why did he fall? Because the gods said so. The end of the play is the fulfillment of the oracle's prophecy. 

And then there’s Macbeth. The witches didn't establish he would be king, they have little power over human events, they could be just as well lying. Macbeth knew murdering the king to get his place is wrong. Doing this doesn't go according to some pre-established divine plan, on the contrary, the murder goes against it.

Maybe this is why this play is so scary. We see just how easy it is for a brave and noble man to become a villain. Most Shakespeare plays show that the corruption of the best is the worst of all. Macbeth shows that the best can bring corruption to themselves.

What do you think of Macbeth? What called your attention the most?

This was the first book I read for the Classic's Club Reading Challenge. In November, I'll talk about Elizabeth Barret Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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  1. i have never read macbeth, but i have a collection of shakespeare so i should definitely read it during the halloween season! i got goosebumps just reading this!

    1. I never thought of Macbeth as a Halloween reading, but you're right, it's perfect for Halloween! Let me know what you think of this play ;)

  2. Macbeth is definitely one of my favorites just because it is so creepy! The lines between good and bad and crazy are all blurred, and that's what makes it the best to read around Halloween time :)

    1. It's funny how I unintentionally read Macbeth in October... I can't say it's one of my favorites right now, specially because yesterday I had a nightmare involving a witch poisoning my food!

  3. I didn't read MacBeth (yet), butI'll give it a try (I have the complete works of William, somewhere at home). Once I had a class with a professional soap opera writer and she told us that Oedipus is the first mystery story evah!! The first "investigative" story! That's great, eh? Until now, my favorite William play is Othello. Great opera, too.

    1. How great that you guys have the complete works of Shakespeare. I'm a huge fan and admirer and my books are all old, used copies.

      Othello is also one of my favorites. I was just going to quote some lines from it, but I better not (My husband?!).

      Oedipus King as a detective story? That is interesting. I've always thought of it as utterly tragic and the detective stories I like are more exciting and of the funny sort. If the detective died I wouldn't be able to take it! xx

  4. It has been a long time since I've read Macbeth, but you've brought all the creepiness back for me in this review. -Sarah

    1. I couldn't help it! It is, so far, the creepiest Shakespeare play I've read. It will take me a while to read it again. xx


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