Remember Pope Night? Probably not, considering it hasn’t really been a thing in the U.S. since the 1770s, but this extinct anti-Catholicism holiday is worth looking up because everything about it is just odd, from how it stemmed directly from Guy Fawkes Day and likely led in part to Halloween, to how it involved children trick-or-treating from house to house holding little Popes carved out of potatoes (Pope-tatoes, if you will), to how it was centered in Boston (in Boston), to how gangs fought (often violently) over who got to burn the effigies (typically including the Devil, the Pope, and the Tax Collector — also sometimes Guy Fawkes), to how George Washington had to tamp down the late revival of Pope Night out of fear of offending the Canadians (which was perhaps fair, because burning religious figures of the people who give you money isn’t a particularly good war strategy), to how organized efforts to control Pope Night played a role in priming organized resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765 which, you know, kicked off the American Revolution. If you want to follow that to its natural conclusion, the absurdity that is Pope Night is at least partially responsible for the existence of the United States.
What does any of this have to do with the famous Scottish Play, Macbeth? Well, more than you might think, actually. It’s easy to forget (or just not know, if you’re a normal person) that the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, the event Guy Fawkes Day is based on (and also Pope Night) happened during Shakespeare’s lifetime. He even included a reference to it in the play he was working on at the time (and although Pope Night wouldn’t be celebrated until seven years after Shakespeare died, because of the many traditions contributing to Halloween, Shakespeare did know and write about trick-or treating).
This is that play. You may have heard of it.
3P Reviews Series: Macbeth
Audience Assumptions: Non-academic
Part One: The Four
Here’s a confession: I love Shakespeare plays. I have since I was ten and got my family hooked on them after hearing a librarian explain the basic plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thought it was the funniest fucking thing I’d ever heard, everyone confused about who their boyfriends and girlfriends were because some fairy fucked things up. That’s Shakespeare for you, though. It’s not right if it doesn’t have puns, cross-dressing, dick jokes, and at least one ghost.
It’s a bit of a pity we often still put Shakespeare on the shelf with the rest of the Dead White Male Canon. I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t belong there, fitting the criteria. But where a lot of classic works of literature, even plays, aim for an elite, educated audience, Shakespeare only does so because of historical bias. Shakespeare’s works are written in Early Modern English, the same language we speak today, but a bit too far removed from its original context for the layperson to make much sense of the story or characters without a bit of practice. A lot of the vocabulary is antiquated (or just made up, because we’ve all done that when we can’t be bothered to scrounge up a thesaurus), and the word order often sounds unfamiliar to modern ears. Associations we’ve built up with Early Modern English from the King James Bible (written around the same time), perpetuated over the years by scholars, give us a sense of Shakespeare’s plays as being fancy entertainment for the elite.
Which they weren’t originally. Well, partly. Shakespeare wrote to a broad audience, from royalty to commonfolk, and his plays reflect that. They are clever and well-written, and the versions we have have likely been adapted a bit from their original condition, but at their core, they’re supposed to be for everyone. Like, to the point of having many dirty jokes. Many, many dirty jokes. So many that scholars keep finding them. You’d have thunk that after four hundred years, we’d have found all of the dirty jokes, but apparently not.
Rather than, for instance, opt to not let people take rotten eggs with them to the theatre, Shakespeare just wrote scenes to reduce the probability that people would get bored and throw them in the first place.
I want to make this clear, because I never had a high school English class that adequately impressed how completely batshit a lot of Shakespeare’s works were in-context. And I haven’t even gotten to the gay stuff yet.
Still, these plays persist, and among them are some of the most highly regarded works of literary fiction in the English language. And with good reason.
We continue to tell these stories because they’re worth telling. They make their way into our parks, our classrooms, our Oscars, our Disney movies, our internet memes, everywhere. You’ve probably used a word or phrase attributed to Shakespeare this week or possibly this day. Stories don’t last four hundred years with continuous retelling without making an impact.
The thing about Shakespeare, though, is that his plays are surprisingly bare. Not in the dialogue, of course, though the nature of plays means that even long soliloquies are often a lot shorter on the page than they sound. The plays don’t have a lot of recorded context beyond simple stage directions, so as a result, each iteration has to make many adaptational changes. Shakespeare is constantly worked and reworked, adapted to modern contexts and media, and made to reflect the concerns of the time. And it fits them. There’s a reason we bring up Shakespeare in discussion of LGBT+ themes in classical media, even though the meaning of queerness was quite literally a completely different thing when Shakespeare was writing. It doesn’t matter. The plays are still relevant because we deem them to be. That’s how language works. Whether it’s the literal words that are both beautiful and beautifully obsolete at times, or the stories, which have been torn apart and put back together by a thousand hands, the better-known of Shakespeare’s plays are nearly mythological in today’s world.
So yeah, I should probably finally talk about Macbeth, then.
Part Two: Fables and Fairy Tales
First, a proper myth. This plays is supposedly cursed by witches, to the point where theatre workers fear its very name. A lot of people think this means you should never ever say the name, but that’s not quite accurate to theatre lore, and also doesn’t make much sense from a logistical standpoint given it’s the main character’s name. The general rule is, you’re just not supposed to call it by name when you’re in a theatre, unless the play is actively being performed. You can call it “The Scottish Play,” “Mackers,” “The Bard’s Play,” “Macbee,” “Mr. and Mrs. M,” or the thousand other nicknames it has, just not “Macbeth.” (I’d actively encourage playing into the curse superstition if you work at a theatre, because it’s utterly adorable how many people participate for the sake of a weird tradition. Just don’t go overboard with the cleansing rituals.)
The internet’s not much of a stage, so I’m pretty sure I’ll live.
The story of Macbeth reads almost like a fable, which is largely by design. A Scottish lord, Macbeth, and his best friend Banquo are riding home after fighting in the war when they come across three witches. The witches each tell them prophecies, greeting Macbeth first as Thane of Cawdor (which he isn’t), and King of Scotland (which he isn’t). They then tell Banquo that he will not be king, but his descendants will be kings. Confused by the prophecies, they continue on their way and run into their leader and friend, King Duncan, who grants Macbeth a new title for his deeds in battle. Wouldn’t you know, Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. This gets Macbeth thinking, so he invites the king to his castle and tells his wife what has happened.
Lady Macbeth does what many fictional characters would at this point and tells her husband, “Yeah, so you’re going to murder the king, right?” Being Thane of Cawdor gives Macbeth a claim to the throne if Duncan’s sons are framed, after all. Macbeth is thinking along the same lines by this point, but he’s a relatively meek man on social matters, preferring the battlefield to the banquet table, and he doesn’t know if he wants to commit to the deed. It’s amoral and Duncan is the king by right, making his murder a sin against God Himself. His wife has greater ambitions, though, and formulates a plan to murder the king, pushing Macbeth whenever he expresses doubts or just generally fucks things up. While she doesn’t kill Duncan, she does get her hands dirty figuratively and literally, because immediately after stabbing the man, Macbeth runs to her with the bloody dagger and is like, “Okay, what now?” Murder and trauma aside, you have to feel for Lady M. in that moment. She literally laid out the details of her plan two scenes ago. She has two drunk guards ready and waiting to be scapegoats, and here her useless husband is bringing her the only incriminating evidence.
They get away with it, Duncan’s sons flee, and once Macbeth becomes king, he changes. He likes the position more than he would have thought, but he grows steadily more paranoid, wracked with guilt and fear at being found a fraud. He remembers Banquo’s part of the prophecy and realizes his friend is the only other person who might suspect him, so he murders him.
Not satisfied with this, Macbeth seeks out the witches and they tell him three new prophecies: he will not be defeated until the forest comes to his castle and he will not be defeated by a man born from a woman, but he should beware Macduff, a fellow lord. His solution? Well, murder Macduff’s entire family of course. Macduff happens to be away when Macbeth sends assassins after him, and soon finds out what happened to his wife and kids, and who was responsible. You can probably see where this is going.
Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth is dealing with her own guilt about the murder of the king. Despite having no qualms earlier, as her husband becomes more bloodthirsty, the weight of what she’s wrought begins to sink in. She sleepwalks and hallucinates bloodstains on her hands, becomes fixated with washing them clean. Macbeth leaves his wife to sort her troubles alone, for Macduff and his allies have figured out Macbeth’s treachery and are amassing an army to attack him.
Macbeth is nervous about his newly-created enemies, but the impossibility of a forest walking to his castle or a man not being born from a woman reassure him, so his defenses remain lax until everything starts to fall apart. His men report seeing the woods themselves moving, Macduff’s men using branches as camouflage. Macbeth’s wife, driven to despair from her madness, kills herself. It finally dawns on Macbeth that he is doomed, as the army pours through the gates and fighting ensues. He steels himself to fight to the bitter end, relying on the last of his prophecies to guard him.
Macduff comes to face him, and, surprise! Guess who was delivered by c-section? So Macbeth is beheaded and Duncan’s eldest son.
What can I offer to the discussion that hasn’t been said already? Well, given there are entire departments in multiple universities dedicated to the study of Shakespeare and people have been talking about this play for over four hundred years, it would be arrogant to think that I should have any unique interpretations of it. You can read the Wikipedia page to learn about popular interpretations and how it was connected to the historical figure of the same way (spoiler: not very). Anyone who’s familiar with the play knows how ti goes already, and my summary is probably far wordier than necessary to set the table.
However, I don’t want to speak to people familiar with the play. Not exactly. This is one of those rare stories I think everyone should have at least a basic familiarity with, not because knowing about it will make you a better person, but because it’s entertaining. The foundation set by Macbeth is the classic antihero narrative, and similar stories crop up a lot, especially in modern fiction. Think about it: a meek man learns disturbing news that prompts him to commit a crime, bringing him power at the cost of his humanity and tuning him into a bloody monster, until eventually the authorities catch up to him and he falls.
That sounds like a story that could appeal to a sizable modern audience, no?
Part Three: Macbething Bad
The play, of course, is endlessly quotable, with many of Shakespeare’s most prescient lines, often associated more directly with the plot than is typical of his style. Despite the length of the play, it’s one of Shakespeare’s most straightforward pieces, with few asides and surprising clarity, even to a modern audience. This is part of the reason it has endured for so long, being full of violence and intense drama.
The thing I find most interesting about it, though, is its morality.
Most classical literature upholds traditional Western values aligned with Biblical morals, or at least the Biblical morals those in positions of power have often held to be important. Deviants and criminals who step outside the bounds of acceptable society get punished, the status quo is maintained, and problems are solved with violence. Often, women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and queer people are forced into tiny boxes of acceptable behavior or else cast aside as antagonists, because that’s how Europeans with power have treated these demographics for much of written history. Shakespeare does the same thing in many of his plays, as did his contemporaries, but one of his most noted tendencies in the modern age is how oddly progressive elements of his plays tend to be. Many of Shakespeare’s protagonists are women, often women of agency, and frequently women who exhibit characteristics atypical of cultural depictions of women at the time. They often dress as men, and while this is sometimes played for laughs, the dialogue just as frequently uses it to comment on gender roles and how they relate to his characters. It’s no coincidence that in As You Like It, for instance, only one of the two women travelling through the forest decides to crossdress. That all of the roles would have been occupied by men in Elizabethan performances offers an additional layer of interpretation for all of the female roles.
The play Macbeth is not especially kind toward women, but it’s arguably more critical of men. There’s certainly a reading of Macbeth that sees it as a good man’s fall from grace driven by evil spirits and the corrupting influence of women, and that’s likely what audiences at the time would have gotten out of Lady Macbeth and the witches. Women feature sparsely in the play outside of these antagonistic roles, mostly there to be killed at the orders of Macbeth.
But it’s easy to forget that Macbeth is not felled by the witches. They are a disturbing force in the play, meant to disorient and frighten, but they are ultimately neutral players. They set out the path, but they remain purposefully vague about its direction.
Macbeth’s wife is the one who proposes he seek that path actively and use violence in the process, but even she doesn’t force him into it. She goads him and prods him and pushes him as much as she can, exerting an immense influence on him despite her restricted position as his wife, but she doesn’t trick him and she can’t hold anything over him to get him to do what she wants, other than her approval.
The thing that gets Macbeth to compromise his morals, and the thing that keeps him pursuing power well beyond the words of his wife or the witches, is an insult to his manhood. If his wife would kill a king in the pursuit of power, while he’s content with his cushy position at the king’s side, who’s the man in their relationship?
Lady Macbeth is one of the most masculine of Shakespeare’s female characters, and also the most toxic. The women he writes often take on traditionally masculine traits, like assertiveness and independence, but they’re rarely aggressive or bloodythirtsty the way Lady Macbeth is at the start of the play. Her lines frequently tie this to gender, too, as Lady M. talks about being turned into a man and losing her motherly qualities so that she can go through with killing Duncan. She accuses Macbeth of being soft and feminine — of being weak because he doesn’t want to kill the king. Femininity then, is framed as the moral path, while masculinity, at least by Macbeth’s standards, is the path of murder and damnation.
And Macbeth sticks to it right through the end. When given the chance to run, knowing all is lost, and knowing violence has led him to his own destruction, Macbeth chooses to fight Macduff anyway.
The framing of Macbeth as an antihero is one of the other intriguing elements of the play. Shakespeare is almost as well-known for his villains as Disney is. Iago, Richard III, Regan and Goneril, all classic assholes who delight in making the people around the miserable. Macbeth is not that, though. He is sympathetic throughout the play, despite the horrible things he does, and the tragedy is how his better qualities become corrupted over the course of the story. His emotions are relatable, and even toward the end, he has a self-awareness more becoming of a tragic hero than the role he fills. When he’s fighting Macduff, some part of us kind of wants him to win, despite our horror at what he’s done — and we are supposed to be horrified by his actions, make no mistake. Macbeth is irredeemable. He’s done monstrous things.
But his lines at the end aren’t those of a monster; they’re those of a timid man afraid to look scared. Macbeth gets no chance at redemption, save perhaps his last line. He casts aside his shield, knowing Macduff will kill him, finally accepting his role as the villain of the story. He can’t surrender, because that’s not what monsters do. He has to be a beast killed in battle, not a former friend led astray, nor a fellow soldier fought on even grounds. He chose his fate, and this is where it ends for him. He can’t change his mind, but he can accept death gracefully, and go out as both the butcher to those fighting him and the warrior in his own mind.