A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.

It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would. 

Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.

The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.

Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play. 

Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it. 

That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not. 

Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.

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A Favourite Shakespeare Play: Richard III

I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites. 

At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined  to let the truth get in the way of a great story. 

Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes. 

Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it. 

Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action. 

My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.

The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art. 

It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.   

To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright. 

Why I Love Shakespeare

I’m currently reading a great book titled ‘Blood and Ink’ by DK Marley. It is a really well written historical fiction novel that explores, in part, one of the theories about the identity of the man we know of as William Shakespeare.

Rumours and theories that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else have abounded for a long time. Various people have been proposed as the actual author. 

That’s all very interesting, of course, but the fact is, I really don’t care whether his name was actually Filchin McFarkle. 

My love for Shakespeare isn’t about the person: it’s about the language, the writing, and the craftsmanship that combine to be the genius of the writer. What his name was doesn’t matter one bit. 

The power of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry is that they take something ordinary and transform it into something extraordinary.

Themes of love, passion, ambition, revenge, hatred, despair, desire, and family dysfunction make his work interesting and relatable to just about everyone. And while there are at least a dozen ways to write any story, the way Shakespeare tells each story is absolute magic. 

Shakespeare used rhythm and poetic devices like imagery, allegory and highly emotive language to heighten the feelings and drama of the situations his characters find themselves in. He enmeshes them in a complex web of conflicting emotions and ambitions and then exposes their innermost  thoughts in the most profound ways. He really is the master of intrigue and dramatic irony, able to hold the audience spellbound, even though they probably already know what’s going to happen and what the various characters are thinking.

To be honest, some of the storylines are pretty rubbish. There are very convenient coincidences, leaps of logic, and plot holes galore, particularly in the comedies. The history plays are at times more fiction than history. Despite all that, Shakespeare dramatises the stories and scenes in such a compelling way, and so deeply engages the audience in the dilemmas and conflicts experienced by the characters, that any issue of credibility actually doesn’t matter.  

I will still pick up a play and read it, or watch a performance, or read the sonnets and be as entranced as ever. Even when interpretations change, the magic with which the words are crafted and woven never gets old.