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Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, probably because it was one of the first ones I encountered. I think it could be argued that the popular concept of witches comes largely from this play, with lines in it being frequently quoted "hubble bubble, toil and trouble" and of course those gloriously strange spell sessions.
The plot: Macbeth is on his way home from fighting, and meets three witches on the road. They tell him he will be made Thane of Cawdor and that he will become King. He writes this to his wife. As he is made Thane of Cawdor, she decides that the logical next step if to murder Duncan, the King. Once they begin this bloody plot, the duo soon find that they need to take other lives in order to protect their claim to the thrown. The violence drives Lady Macbeth from her wits. The witches tell Macbeth he cannot be killed, save by one not of woman born. He thinks this means he is imortal, but he is wrong. High Burnham wood, as the witches fortell, does march upon his stronghold, or seem to, and Macbeth must reap as he has sown.
It is easy to trace the influnces of the three witches through every event, as they push Macbeth onwards towards his fate. A few years ago I saw a production in which the witches were always on stage, sometimes disguised, and I think this made the point very well and was quite spooky to watch. Their lines "Fiar is foul and foul is fair" are echoed throughout the play, in the actions of macbeth and his lady.
In this play, the state of the natural world is often used symbolically, to conjur up impressions of the unnatural state of the kingdom - storms that rise up when the king is killed and the like. The witches personify the unnatural and manipulate the natural. There are supernatural events aplenty, with spell casing, ghosts and visions of the future, as well as curses and prophecy. The play exists in a sinister world where men and women cannot control their own fates, and all of nature seems permentantly to threaten.
Women - there are two kinds of women in this play (as is often true with Shakespeare) there are the sweet and docile ones like Lady Macduff, and there are the strong, evil ones like Lady Macbeth and the witches. Strong women in Shakespeare plays are either evil, or obliged to dress up as boys, as far as I can tell! It is remarked that Lady Macbeth has many manly qualities. Shakespeare is seldom kind to his female characters, often driving them towards madness, death and disaster. There is little doubt that Lady macbeth is evil - it is largely she who plans the murder, and she who pushes the often unwilling Macbeth into action. She is the one moved by the witches words and in many ways is teir agent.
Witches - this is an interesting issue for me, being a pagan. The witches in this are powerful and very real, but they are also portrayed as being entirely evil, which doesn't sit too well with me. However, attitudes at the time were that those practising magical arts were evil. The magical sequences are very potent. I have seen productions in which one or more of the witches are played by men - which can be interesting. In some verions, the sexuality of the witches is played up, in others they are vile and hideous - which creates a fascinating range of effects and can re invent the play dramatically. I saw an otherwsie dire production which had the witches on stage throughout - its one saving grace. The took bit parts, and seemed to be an all pervading force, a symbol of evil eating into a community like a cancer.
I was lucky in that I saw this play performed at Ludlow castle, a perfect setting, where the castle itself provides the backdrop - if you ever get a chance to see it there, or in any other outdoors venue, I would have to reomend it. It rained for us, which if anything, added to the expereince.
A must for anyone reading this as an exam text, it Terry Pratchett's "Wyrd Sisters" which tells a similar story but does't give the witches such a bad press. A very funny read, it may help you no end if you are bored or struggling. Not everyone takes naturally to Shakespeare, but being able to laugh at it can help. I would also recomend looking for the annimated versions the BBC did some years ago, as these are very good. The best known film version is of course Roman Polanski's, but having seen it, I am not enormously enamoured. While this play has some sexual elements, I think they work best when happening almost subliminally, and the nude witch scenes distract from the plot rather! Watching this film can lead you off in entirely unhelpful directions, so best to steer clear of it if you are actually trying to study the text. If you don't need to sit an exam, it's interesting and worth looking at.
This is a great play, wonderfully grim and violent, if you happen to go for that sort of thing, but also clever, well written, linguistically beautiful and very thought provoking. I am a huge fan of the bard, and if can convince anyone to give him a go, I will feel that I have done something worthwhile. (and don't be put off by the notion that it's highbrow, most of his work is at least partly about sex and violence!)
A powerful and entertaining play = My personal favourite. Maureen x
ronnie1955 07.03.2005 11:52
Did this for GCSEW English and really enjoyed it. This review makes me want to read it again!!
schrodingerspussy 08.01.2004 18:00
You either love this play or hate it. When i was forced into it at school i was determined to hate it but dissapointed myself by liking it a lot. I even read King Lear volunterrily afterwards so he really did know his stuff!!