Macbeth (1606) by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is fantastic, a masterpiece, possibly my favourite Shakespeare play. Everything about it works so well for me. I never tire of it.

The theme that really came out for me in this reading was that of time, how the passage of time informs the narrative of the play and the character’s perspectives. The supernatural figures in the play seem to be removed from the mortal march of time; I’ve read interpretations that propose the witches and Hecate are staging some kind of never-ending cycle of violence and chaos through provoking bloody feudal disputes. I see the sense there, though I find it something as a stretch as it’s never elaborated upon in the actual text, and I like the idea of Macduff “breaking” such a cycle through logical as opposed to immediately violent or emotive response (not reacting with unbridled rage to his family’s death but instead convening with Malcolm to discuss the best plan of action, supporting Malcolm as king instead of himself, thus quashing any personal ambition, and so on). In any case, a more concrete example of the supernatural figures being “beyond” time is their ability to see the future.

Macduff declares “time is free” after besting Macbeth. Macbeth bitterly remarks on how the future (“Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow”) seems in short supply when rudely confronted with one’s own morality, we see hints at eternal (or near enough) rule through the witch’s vision of Banquo’s heirs, Banquo’s “time as field of seeds” metaphor (“If you can look into the seeds of time / And say which grain will grow and which will not / Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate”), Macbeth’s initial resolution to focus on present concerns rather than the potential of the future (“Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day”), Lady Macbeth’s opposite reaction (“Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant”), time beyond time insofar as the possible afterlife (“With his surcease success, that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We’d jump the life to come”), and Macbeth’s explicit musings on time in his final soliloquy – it’s clear that time was on Shakespeare’s mind. One interpretation sees time as “halting” or “breaking” when Macbeth murders with Duncan, not being restored until Macduff vanquishes Macbeth, though that falls neater into the general “breaking of the natural order” theme common in stories about monarchs dying, what with the natural environment expressing the despair of the country itself and all that.

In battle, does Macbeth feel time come to a standstill, as is a common claim of many warriors? So much of the play focuses on the relationship between time and action that I think it’s a fascinating though. Might the crushing inevitability of Macduff’s success against Macbeth, blotting out all the tomorrows Macbeth might have faced if he’d either not murdered the king or at least handled his affairs better, seem infinitesimally small when Macbeth is actually facing him sword to sword, at home on the battlefield? The witch’s scheming and manoeuvring indicates endless time, their apparitions of succeeding generations emphasising how small Macbeth’s life and actions really are, but is not violence, the raw physical contestations of power beyond two people the most human act one could engage in? In a way, Macbeth may have triumphed, if only for a fleeting moment (ironically) in actuality, in his last moments for he engaged in physical battle, not only his greatest skill and natural role in society, but a place where time can seem to crawl, and all else but the immediate conflict in front of you can cease to matter.

While I found myself more intrigued by the examination of time in the play this time around, the gender politics of the play endlessly fascinate me. So much of the play focuses on masculinity; Lady Macbeth insulting Macbeth’s to provoke him to savagery, Malcolm telling Macduff to not react emotionally to news of his family’s deaths, Lady Macbeth initially embracing her more masculine traits, etc.

I don’t read the character of Macbeth as a victim, a figure manipulated by women (the witch’s sparking ambition, his wife pushing him into depravity). Macbeth is not a one-dimensional monster, incapable of having audiences identify with him, but nor is he a cajoled dupe – he is a man pushed to evil by women, but he is the one who grasps it, he is the one who betrays his country, he is the one who pushed his immense self-doubt down and bathes his hands in blood. I find him all the more monstrous for the fact he recognises his evil; it makes him relatable and uncomfortably lucid of the pain he causes, all the while he keeps causing it. Not only is he in full control of himself (the play literally opens with his glorious acts of using his power to end the lives of others in pitched battle), his defining character trait of self-doubt means he is aware of the wickedness of his ambitious acts, yet he does them anyway, and after the first murder is done he figures himself tainted enough to dive back and back into the filth. I can intellectually understand where “Macbeth was totally manipulated by those bitches” style readings stem from, but if anything, such interpretations of the gender politics of the play scathingly attack the way some men place displace responsibility onto the women in their lives, with the play exposing the irrational fear of so-called masculine identity being threatened by women.

Lady Macbeth early indicates desire to “unsex” herself, free herself of the social gender expectations so she may execute her apparently masculine traits of ambition and ruthlessness freely. She has to use the feminine traits of the time (manipulation, verbal goading, courtly intrigue) to express her so-called masculine traits. Lady Macbeth’s expert manipulation of her husband in the first two acts is likely as skilled as Macbeth’s prowess in battle. One could say Lady Macbeth backslides to her “natural” feminine state when she starts expressing guilt, self-doubt, and despair, and yet Macbeth expresses such emotions long before her. I think the best way to understand this (and certainly the accepted real-life reading in actual gender studies) is as personal qualities (e.g. ambition) having no “natural” gender connection, but social gender expectations colouring how a person expresses or suppresses such qualities, in accordance to cultural conformation. Macduff displays the most balanced and enlightened gender politics in the play in dismissing Malcolm’s attempt to goad him to convert any grief he may feel of his family into rage on the battlefield (“Dispute it like a man”), instead offering the balanced perspective of “I shall do so, / But I must also feel it as a man,” indicating he’s comfortable in his own masculinity, rejects the notion that emotional reactions (over his family’s death, no less!) are irrational or feminine, and embraces simply acting in accordance to how he feels, not how he’s expected to feel.

There’s so much more depth to the play – the deftly-done symbolism, the poisonous nature of succumbing to ambition, the conflict between benevolent rule and tyranny – than I’ve prodded at here, but suffice to say I adore the play and always get something new out of it.

I give it five spectral daggers and an eye of newt.

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