I think it is a true thing that within each person there resides a heart of light and a heart of darkness. I also think that were the radiant or good part of our hearts not predominant, we would have obliterated ourselves, as a race, long ago. That is the good news. Unfortunately, however, there are times, too many times, when the heart of darkness seems to eamerge too powerfully in too many people at the same time, and then evil becomes almost tangible, like shadows all around us. It becomes a palpable force, and the world tips seriously out of balance, not just in the political sphere, but throughout the whole fabric of society as well. Such is the world of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and, I daresay, such is our own, here and now.
Laila Robins as Lady Macbeth. Photo © Gerry Goodstein.
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair," the now famous motto from our play, remains a universal truth. So often, bad things succeed because they seem good. They play on our fears and weaknesses, appeal to our egos, seduce us with promises, and tempt us through our appetites. Macbeth is a brilliant cautionary tale that asks us to examine the hearts of darkness that reside within and emerge from, with chilling vigor, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They are, indeed, a fair couple gone foul.
The play begins with a nation severely rocked by a violent invasion from without. The conflict begun by outside forces demands a violent defensive response, and it breeds a far worse brand of terror — for now it comes from within its own defending ranks. Horror breeds horror, and in the short span of time in which our tale unfolds, moral judgment is rendered impotent, ambition runs riot, murder becomes habit, paranoia and rumor reign, and equivocation and lies become the de rigueur mode of communication.
Fresh from the killing fields of battle against invaders and conspiring traitors, it does not take long for Macbeth to move from warrior to murderer — with the encouragement of his powerful and upwardly mobile wife. It takes far too long for Macbeth's fellow Thanes to emerge from their shock and reticence over their King's assassination to suspect one of their own. Taking advantage of their confusion, panic, fear and outrage, he moves his agenda forward with alarming agility, maneuvering himself and manipulating others into a quick coronation. Thus begins his reign of terror.
Make no mistake, Macbeth's tyranny is not part of their original plan. The Macbeths are not the personification of evil with some grand scheme to rule as arch-villains or despots over their world. The tyranny results from their own fears that their initial criminal act will be discovered. Thus, Macbeth's journey begins with "self-promotion," moves to "self-defense" and quickly spirals into addiction. He becomes addicted to violence as a solution, immune to fear, seduced by power, monstrous in his arrogance and an expert in twisting truth — not only for others but for himself as well.
When the men of Scotland finally rebel, terrible damage has already been wreaked. Not only are those who oppose or pose a threat to Macbeth being obliterated, but so are their wives and children. Even the natural world spins into havoc — the weather, the animals, the very air has become infected. All things bright have dimmed. Trust disappears, good men have fled and the nation has become spiritually bankrupt.
Happily, though, Macbeth is not only a story about hearts of darkness; it is about the rebellion against them, and the necessity of keeping humanity's dark side in check. Good men, noble ideals and true moral fortitude win out in this tale, though the cost is great. The play ends with hope, in the hands of the young, uncorrupted and untested Malcolm. All that is left for Macbeth, at the end of his reign, are the thinnest shreds of remorse for his choices, a vast emptiness in his soul and a violent death.
The tragedy is that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin as people "fair" with great possibilities before them. They are intelligent, admired, loved, in love and powerful. They allow their demons — demons that we all confront — to win them over. It is not a new tale, just a brilliantly told one. And it has never been more apt than in our world today, when hearts of darkness abound and swirl about us from without and from within. There is a vast history of violence, cruelty, indifference, ill deeds and bad choices in mankind's saga, but "what's done is done." I think this magnificent masterpiece is telling us that the time is always ripe to say, "Hold, enough!" — ironically, Macbeth's final words in the play.
—Bonnie J. Monte
“…There is a place beneath,
From Belzebub as distant, as extends
The vaulted tomb: discovered not by sight,
But by the sound of brooklet, that descends
This way along the hollow of a rock,
Which, as it winds with no precipitous course,
The wave hath eaten. By that hidden way
My Guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climbed, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of heaven
Dawned through a circular opening in the cave:
Thence issuing we again beheld the stars."
—Dante, The Divine Comedy, “Inferno,” c. 1310-1321
* The words “blood” or “bloody” appear more than 100 times in the play
* The first actor to play Macbeth was Richard Burbage, and Lady Macbeth was played by the famous boy actor, Edmans
* Shakespeare took 17 years of Scottish history and condensed it into a few weeks to create the story of Macbeth
* Of the many examples of "cursed" productions of The Scottish Play, the worst is the 1849 New York production which provoked a bloody riot resulting in 31 deaths and 150 injuries
* There are many film versions of the play, including Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Orson Welles' Macbeth (complete with Scottish brogue!), Joe Macbeth (film noir/mobster version), Roman Polanski's Macbeth (lots of nude witches!), and the more recent Men of Respect (more mobsters!) and Scotland, PA
* There is little doubt that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, in part, as a response to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which, had it not been discovered, would have annihilated not only the King and his heir, the Prince, but also all the members of the Court and Parliament
"Macbeth is a tale told by a genius, full of soundness and fury, signifying many things."
"To mankind in general, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth stand out as the supreme type of all that a host and hostess should not be."
"A number of Shakespearean revisionists now believe that Macbeth spied the ghost of Banquo at the banquet not out of guilt, but as a result of having just dined on haggis."
—Mark Starr, Newsweek