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Macbeth (Cambridge School Shakespeare)

Macbeth (Cambridge School Shakespeare) - Rex Gibson, William Shakespeare Review #1 in a series of 3Tonight's episode: Greed and Being Seduced by PowerOVERVIEWCatching just a glimpse of Olympic weightlifting earlier, I noticed these guys get this real intense look on their faces right before they begin, when they're bent down, looking at that giant barbell they're about to pick up, and they know it's going to be difficult. Then they sort of gulp and go for it. That's how I feel, looking at my copy of Macbeth sitting on the chair over there. Am I really going to try to review it? Yeah, I am, but to make it more manageable, I’m going to break the task into three parts and tackle them separately. There are a lot of themes going through this book, but the three biggies for me are:1) Greed, and being seduced by power2) Fate and personal decisions3) Data interpretation and data qualityThis review will address the first of these.Greed and Being Seduced by PowerThe story starts with Macbeth a faithful servant of the sitting king, Duncan. Macbeth is a general and a "Thane" (of Glamis, it happens), which I'm not too clear on what exactly that title means, but it obviously carries with it some privilege and local power, because Macbeth does live in a castle, after all. And he's happy with that. He's a General, putting himself in harm's way in service to his king, beating down a rebellion and fighting off Norwegian hostilities. It’s not a life without hardships, but Macbeth has honor, and his work gives him a sense of purpose. What more can a guy ask for?Along come the three "weird sisters"... they're witches, I guess, or some supernatural equivalent... who prophesize Macbeth’s rise to power. He's already Thane of Glamis, but they tell him he's going to be Thane of Cawdor as well, and after that: king. In short order, the Thane of Ross comes in with a message from the King: as a reward for his battlefield success, Macbeth is to be the new Thane of Cawdor (the old one was a traitor). Double Thane! Sweet!! At first he's stoked about the big promotion, and he dashes off a proud letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth. (there is actually a real Cawdor Castle you can visit),I guess I need to take time here to say a little something about her. It seems like a lot of readers blame the whole assassination of Duncan on Lady Macbeth, and it's true that when Macbeth gets cold feet about the plan, it's Lady M who pushes him to go through with it, so she's definitely in on it, but you can't lay the whole thing on her. Early on, right after Macbeth is pronounced Thane of Cawdor, he briefly meets with King Duncan. At the meeting, Duncan pronounces his son Malcolm "Prince of Cumberland". Malcolm was a prince already, but it appears that being prince "of Cumberland" is better. Everybody around acts like it's a big promotion, so just roll with it. Here is where we get our first glimpse at Macbeth’s avarice. Fresh off of becoming Thane of Cawdor, can he just enjoy himself for a while? No; he's eyeing Malcolm, and says to himself" The prince of Cumberland! That is a stepOn which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;Let not light see my black and deep desires.." For serious, Macbeth? Already? When you woke up this morning, you were a devoted General, pledged to give your life to defend the royal family. Now, three witches and a new thaneship later, it's barely after lunch and you’re contemplating killing the prince! Before day’s end, you and your wife will be plotting a regicide!What makes Macbeth change? The witches' prophecy kindled his ambition, that's what. If they had just said "You'll be Thane of Cawdor"- he would have been content with that. But once he believes the crown is obtainable, he gets impatient to have it. The prophecy casts his situation into a completely different perspective. His station in life is no longer an honor; it's insulting. What's he got? Nothing but two thaneships, a castle, and a general's post! He's being held down by THE MAN!! Don't they know who he is? He's the next KING! Three hags in the forest even said so!Well, that's how greed goes, doesn't it? You always want more. One’s actual circumstances don't have anything to do with one's happiness.Thane of Glamis, with no sense of entitlement: Macbeth is happyThane of Glamis and of Cawdor, but not yet king: he feels like he's getting screwed. Same for Lady Macbeth. Seeing what lies within- or maybe just beyond- their grasp trips them up. And not just them; everybody. Something similar happens to a lot of young doctors fresh out of med school and residency. Most of them live within their means, in very modest conditions, during their training. Then, when they graduate- ironically when they first start earning money, they get into financial trouble because they start thinking about buying cars and houses they really can't afford just yet. Naturally, credit issuers know all about this. You should see all the junk mail I got in my last year of residency, offering me deals on pre-approved loans, and a special sale at the local Mercedes dealership for new graduates... I'm not even joking about that. I sympathize; often these young docs feel entitled to some luxuries, after years of deferred gratification. Greed and a sense of entitlement are entangled co-conspirators in this story. Macbeth certainly has a healthy sense of entitlement, which drives his ambitions.Wait! Wait! Wait!Am I saying ambition is a bad thing? Because that flies in the face of a lot of stuff I was taught, and a lot of assumptions our economy takes for granted. Remember the "Protestant Work Ethic"? (That's a great piece of PR for Protestants, BTW) Wanting a better material life is supposed to lead to hard work, which builds things- gets things done- and that's supposed to benefit us all. That's how capitalism is supposed to work. If it's channeled properly, it can work that way. Young Bill Gates wanted to be a billionaire, so he worked really hard, and now the computer industry is dominated by his crappy, buggy operating systems. Okay, bad example.Ambition can be good, though, as long as it is channeled in a positive direction. Also, a little moderation and patience wouldn't hurt. One of Macbeth’s fatal flaws was a failure to moderate his desires. You know, on hearing the prophecy, Macbeth could have said "Awesome! If my ascent to the throne is a done deal, I guess I'll just kick back and let it come to me! No need to sweat things; my career is on autopilot- I'm gonna be the MF King!" How much happier he would have been! I think the same thing happened to M.C. Hammer-- made all that money in the 90's and then ended up bankrupt because he bought all those mansions and fancy sports cars. You think before he made it big he would have been excited if the three sisters told him one day he'd drive a Ferrari? Of course! But when he had eight Ferraris, he went ahead and bought a ninth, because.. you know, the other 8 were cool, but that 9th would be pretty cool too. If he kept making records, he probably could have afforded it too, but he was impatient, and he failed to moderate himself. Wealth and power are intoxicating.So there is that.But there's something more to the story: there's momentum and pushback too. I think of the Roman Empire when I think of this. When they were a little city-state fighting in Latium, they were lean and hungry and ambitious. In those early days, the Romans were no doubt exhilarated when their careful planning and hard work won them new territories. Later, when they grew to become a giant empire which spanned their known world, they had to expend effort still... not to win new territory, but simply to keep the territory they had. The Empire had a huge perimeter to defend, and enemies on every side. The Romans had "made it", but with "making it" comes the burden of keeping it. It is much the same with Macbeth. In the beginning, he kills Duncan and his aides to win the crown. The three murders weigh on him, but he figures they're worth the price of the office. What he doesn't calculate is how much blood he'll need to shed to hold onto his power. It turns out, old King Duncan and his aides were just the beginning. Macbeth kills (through agents) Banquo, and tries to kill Banquo's son Fleance, to prevent the witches' prophecy (that Fleance will overthrow Macbeth) from coming to pass. Then he has MacDuff's family killed. Then he starts to go for various generals and other underlings he perceives as a threat. By the time Malcolm returns to Scotland with 10,000 English troops, Macbeth’s rule is starting to resemble Stalin's Soviet Union... and at this point, none of the blood on his hands is to advance his career; it's just to keep treading water. Supposing Macbeth wanted to just settle down, go back to being the humble Thane of Glamis, he'd still have to kill all the enemies he's created, who want to kill him. I think this is what Macbeth means when he says"It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood." and"For mine own good,All causes shall give way. I am in bloodStepped in so far that, should I wade no more,Returning were as tedious as go o'er."Funny, you'd think sitting in the seat of power, holding the highest office in the land, Macbeth would be master of his own destiny, but really it has narrowed his long-term options; he can only continue expanding his tyrannical rule (and this course will eventually exceed his capacities), or die by the blade of one of his ballooning list of enemies. It's worthwhile wondering how people like Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein managed to survive for decades in office, when they too climbed over so many bodies to grab power. I think the answer is that they managed to construct systems where enough devoted underlings were willing to get blood on their hands, keeping the dictator in power. Saddam had the Baathist Party and the Elite Republican Guard. Stalin had the NKVD (secret police) and a core following in the inner party. Macbeth really goes it alone; the only people he can depend on, and who depend on his success- are Lady Macbeth and his servant Seyton. The 2010 PBS (Public Broadcasting System) production of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart takes the Stalin comparison the whole nine yards, setting the entire story in a very Soviet-looking alternate universe.Of course Stalin and Saddam (who apparently had an obsession with Stalin, owning every book on the man ever translated into Arabic) were megalomaniacal psychopaths. There is a more human response to the trap of power, even though it doesn't seem to get much attention: Lady Macbeth's. She's participates in the plot, and is certainly ambitious to be queen. She carries the daggers back to the murder site, so Macbeth can plausibly pin Duncan's murder on Malcolm and Donalbain. She doesn't come under political fire the way Macbeth does, but she does pay a personal price- a spiritual price for her ambitions. For as coldhearted and calculating her reputation is, it turns out she has a pretty robust conscience. She descends into madness (and intractable insomnia), imagining she is covered with blood which can never be washed off. Eventually she commits suicide. I feel bad for her, because to go mad and take her own life shows that she was filled with remorse, yet there is no sense of redemption or forgiveness for her. Even at the end, when he holds Macbeth’s severed head in his hands, Malcolm paints (unrepentant) Macbeth and (remorseful) Lady Macbeth with the same broad brush: as vanquished tyrants. And so she goes down in the story's history, and that’s pretty much how she goes down in our literature too. Or do I have that wrong? Does anybody out there see Lady Macbeth (or even Macbeth himself) as sympathetic or pathetic? It would have been a fun variation of the story if instead of taking her life, Shakespeare would have written Lady Macbeth as killing Macbeth and restoring the crown to Malcolm. HAHAAHAHAHAHAHA! Me telling Shakespeare what he should have written! I’m such a backseat driver!I guess this wraps up the first third of my review. As a parting gift, let me leave you with a great movie recommendation. Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood is a retelling of Macbeth, set in 13th century feudal Japan. Toshiro Mafune stars as Macbeth:And Isuzu Yamada gives a freaky, almost otherworldly portrayal of Lady Macbeth: Instead of three witches in this production, Throne of Blood has a single male “oni” (demon spirit). Enjoy, and see you next time, when I take on Fate and Personal Decisions!-BB[Link to next review in the series]