Book review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare


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–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    The complete title of the play is, ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ written by one and only one, William Shakespeare. The play is thought to have been first performed in 1606. It dramatizes the political ambition of those who seek power for their own sake. Of all the plays that Shakespeare wrote during the reign of James I, who was the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, Macbeth, most clearly, reflects, the playwright’s relationship with his sovereign. It was first published in the Folio of 1623, possibly from a prompt book, and is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. Some famous quotes of Macbeth are …

    ‘Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble—this is a rhyming couplet in the play chanted by the supernatural three witches. The witches represent pure evil. They are not real characters, and, indeed, they can be seen simply as the voice of temptation in the mind of Macbeth.

    Another quote that I liked was, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ 

    Vishal Bhardwaj’s movie, Maqbool is an adaptation of the play Macbeth. The master quote of the play is, ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ rhymed by the second witch in the play.

    Macbeth has a sinister plot. A brave Scottish General named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a witch-trio that one day he will become the King of Scotland. Driven by ambition, and spurred to action, by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and occupies the Scottish throne. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of madness and death.

    Shakespeare’s source for the story is the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Although, the events in the play differ extensively from the history of the real Macbeth. The events of the tragedy are usually associated with the execution of Henry Garnet for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

    In the backstage world of theatre, some believe that the play is cursed, and generally they don’t mention, its title aloud, referring to it instead as, “The Scottish Play”. Over the course of many centuries, the play has attracted some of the most renowned actors to the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It has been adapted to film, television, opera, novels, comics, and other media.

    Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will one day be King of Scotland. Prompted by his wife, Macbeth kills the king, becomes the new king, and kills more people out of paranoia. Civil war erupts to overthrow Macbeth, resulting in more deaths.

    On a bleak Scottish moorland, Macbeth and Banquo, two of King Duncan’s generals, discover three strange women (witches). The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be promoted twice. Once to the Thane of Cawdor (a rank of the aristocracy bestowed by grateful kings) and second as the King of Scotland. But the caution is, only Banquo’s descendants, will be further kings, and where Banquo isn’t promised any kingdom himself. The generals want to hear more, but the “weird sisters” the witches suddenly disappear. 

    Soon afterwards, King Duncan names Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his success in the recent battles. The promotion seems to support the prophecy. The King then proposes to make a brief visit that night to Macbeth’s castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth receives news from her husband about the prophecy and his new title. She vows to help him become king by whatever means necessary. 

    Macbeth returns to his castle, followed almost immediately, by King Duncan. The Macbeths plot together, to kill Duncan and wait until everyone is asleep. At the appointed time, Lady Macbeth gives the guards, drugged wine, so that Macbeth can enter and kill the King. But he regrets the act almost immediately, but his wife reassures him. She leaves the bloody daggers by the side of the dead king, just before Macduff, a nobleman, arrives. When Macduff discovers the murder, Macbeth kills the drunken guards in a show of rage and retribution. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee, fearing for their own lives; but they are, nevertheless, blamed for the murder. 

    Macbeth becomes the King of Scotland but is plagued by feelings of insecurity. He remembers the prophecy that Banquo’s descendants will inherit the throne and arranges for Banquo and his son Fleance to be killed. In the darkness, Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes the assassins. At his state banquet that night, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and worries the courtiers with his mad response. Lady Macbeth dismisses the court and unsuccessfully tries to calm her husband.

    The witches still prophesy that the Scottish succession will still come from Banquo’s son. Macbeth embarks on a reign of terror, slaughtering many, including Macduff’s family. Macduff goes to seek Malcolm (one of Duncan’s sons who had fled) at the court of the English King. Malcolm is young and unsure of himself, but Macduff, pained with grief, persuades him to lead an army against Macbeth. 

    Macbeth looks out for the witches who say that he will be safe until the local wood, by the name of Birnam Wood, marches into the battle against him. Finally the wood of Birnam from Perthshire, Scotland comes to Dunsinane, Macbeth’s castle.

    Macbeth feels safe in his remote castle at Dunsinane until he is told that now Birnam Wood is moving towards him. Malcolm’s army is carrying branches from the forest as camouflage for their assault on Macbeth’s stronghold. Meanwhile, an overwrought, and conscience-ridden, Lady Macbeth, walks in her sleep and tells her secrets to her doctor. She then commits suicide. As the final battle commences, Macbeth hears of Lady Macbeth’s suicide and mourns.

    In the battle, Macbeth hews violently, but the English forces gradually, overwhelm his army and castle. On the battlefield, Macbeth encounters the vengeful Macduff, who declares that he was not “of woman born” but was instead “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb (what we now call birth by caesarean section). Though he realizes that he is doomed, Macbeth continues to fight until Macduff kills and beheads him. Malcolm, now the King of Scotland, declares his benevolent intentions for the country and invites all to see him crowned at Scone in Scotland.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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