December 6, 2008

Macbeth (1603? play)

Written by William Shakespeare.

I'll be honest, the last time I had to read Shakespeare was in high school, and even then I largely cheated my way through with cliff-notes. But my tastes and abilities have improved a great deal when it comes to my reading, so it was with a surprising amount of anticipation that I once again approached the final subject of my Senior Year English class.

The story begins with a simple setup: on the eve of a decisive military battle, Macbeth, a general in the king's army, learns from a trio of witches that he will one day be king... and proceeds to do everything in his power to achieve and defend that title.

While it's since become a traditional character arc, this play does a wonderful job of displaying Macbeth as a fallen hero. As a general, he is praised for his virtue and loyalty and is, in fact, a noble soul who will stop at nothing to serve his friends and leader. But then comes the prophecy, which brings with it details that quickly prove true, and everything changes in the heart of this soldier. With the promise of power comes a craving to obtain it. With the achieved victory comes a paranoia that his secret will be discovered. With each and every friend that he turns on and stabs in the back, his bloodlust and fury grow and grow and grow until this man, who initially stood outside the King's door, doubting and questioning and vowing to turn away and leave the deed undone, becomes a monster, a tyrant, a devil.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Lady Macbeth. She starts out devious and ambitious, setting up the traps, prodding her uncertain husband on, and even helping out in the deed, literally bloodying her hands alongside his. But, over time, the pressures that drive her husband's quest for power begin to wear on her and she sinks deeper and deeper into a guilt-ridden madness.

These two character arcs have been played out time and time again to the point where they are now considered common archetypes, but rarely have they been executed with such skill as they are here. The Macbeths could have led a prosperous, successful life under the rule of King Duncan, but instead commit actions which lead to a strained rule which is destined to collapse.

And with this comes the inevitable question of all prophecies: was it always meant to be such, or did it merely happen because the prophecy was first delivered? While it's an intriguing question, the latter is the likely route here, for it was only with the witches' words that the valiant Macbeth started his turn.

And then there's Banquo, the other man of the prophecy. He would never be king, but his sons would be. It's through him that we both get the promise of the future and the beginnings of Macbeth's paranoia. Since he was present at the prophecy's reading, he already has suspicions against his friend, his new king, and yet stands by him... only to fall victim to his own loyalty, a virtue Macbeth once shared.

The other major player in the story is Macduff, a fellow general in the King's forces. He fled the country at the time of the assassination to protect the prince from a potential coup but, when Macbeth's power hunger leads to the family left behind, it is Macduff and his allies that raise an army to fight the former friend who deceived them. It's amazing how epic this part of the story gets, with characters running across the stage and descriptions of tens of thousands of soldiers using camouflage to make an entire forest move into battle. Is it any surprise J.R.R. Tolkien took that last part as inspiration?

I know that this is the part of the review that will make most of my literary betters scoff with laughter, but I'll admit that the language of Shakespeare was quite daunting to me in my teens and I was a little afraid of it here. Thankfully, I found it quite easy to read, having a surprisingly naturalistic poetic flow that easily covers for the barest of skeletal scenic descriptions. I won't get into the sentence structure or rhyming scheme because I still can't tell a person what an adverb is. All I do is read the stuff and this read well.

With my high school degree and tendency to read comics and tie-in novels, I'm probably among the least qualified to comment on one of the greatest dramatic works ever to hit the stage, but this is my blog, dammit, and I'll say what I want to say. And what I want to say is: me like.

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