Why read Shakespeare's Macbeth

2021-02-04 @Literature

Being drawn to Gothic narratives featuring the macabre, the tempestuous and the supernatural, I thought of rereading one among my favourite plays Macbeth. The tragedy, by the way, is comparatively short, fast-paced, and the rhetoric fairly accessible next to the more confounding works. It can serve as one of those starting plays for new Shakespeare readers.

It’s not a historical play, though the play does borrow from history, albeit at severe liberty in manipulating events. Shakespeare’s common source for this and other English/Irish/Scottish historical accounts has been Holinshed’s Chronicles, for whoever interested.

In this case, there was indeed a reign of the Scottish King Duncun followed by Macbeth in the first half of the eleventh century.

But the play really gains an edge by the presence of the hideous witches. Their prophesying, the nasty concoctions they undertake in their bubbly cauldrons amidst shroud, thunder, lightening (and such ghastly ambiance), these are stellar additions to the story. The witches seem to just materialize and dematerialize like some vaporous spume, whenever convenient.

Now I say it’s a stellar addition because, based on background notes, many of the witch scenes, including their ever-entertaining lyric, are derived (or sometimes borrowed verbatim) from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, supposedly an otherwise unsuccessful play. A noble collaborative effort:

90% Shakespeare + 10% Middleton = 100% raging bliss

A bit on Macbeth film adaptations. I don’t recommend any: not of Macbeth, not of Shakespeare, not of any plays or poems, excepting extremely rare cases.

Granted, I haven’t watched any Macbeth adaptation in its entirety; only excerpts. I quickly lose the patience to watch visuals unfold in one contrived interpretation. I rather perform the imagination labor myself in the course or reading, free of preconceived visuals, no matter how appropriately creepy.

The Orson Welles 1940’s version, for example, is a noble cinematic achievement, sure. Superb acting, I guess … play dialogue adapted verbatim with all the thrilled ‘R’s characteristic of the supposed Scottish accent of the period. But I feel nothing in the viewing next to reading the play.

Really, unless you’ve notable interest in the craft of acting per se, read the bloody play. Be rewarded by the imagery your mind is perfectly capable of projecting.

It’s a hell of a fun exercise visualizing how many of the Macbeth scenes might unfold.

Most of the narrative takes place at night; or immersed in dreary darkness even in midst of supposed daylight hours. Everything seems to whisper decay and death. And then don’t forget the witches.

Without narrative spoilers, behold some excerpts I found memorable:

1.5.39-54 Lady Macbeth:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
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 th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, your murd’ring 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!”


Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:—
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest: I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.—There’s no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.—Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep. Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s off’rings; and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.—Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.—Whiles I threat, he lives.
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

2.3.71-4. I love the allegory:

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building.

2.4.1-20. Embodies the setting to perfection:

Threescore and ten I can remember well,
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.

Ha, good father,
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage: by the clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?

’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.

And Duncan’s horses (a thing most strange and certain)
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ’gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.

’Tis said they eat each other.


It will have blood, they say, blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak;
Augurs, and understood relations, have
By magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks, brought forth
The secret’st man of blood.—What is the night?

An excerpt from one of the witch songs:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ th’ charmed pot!

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch’s mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ th’ dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For th’ ingredients of our cauldron.


Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave, where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs, and groans, and shrieks, that rent the air,
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

Questions, comments? Connect.