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Macbeth (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare)

Macbeth - David Scott Kastan, Jesse M. Lander, William Shakespeare Review #3 in a series of 3[Link to previous review in the series]Tonight's episode: Data Interpretation and Data QualityThere 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 third of these.Data Interpretation and Data QualityIt strikes me that a lot of Shakespeare boils down to catastrophic misjudgments and miscommunications. And to bring a little bit of my professional life into this, I see the misjudgments fall into two categories:1) Data Interpretation failures; and 2) Data Quality failures. Both are tragic in their own way, but I look at them differently because they mean different things to me.Data Interpretation failures are instances where a character has correct information, but somehow fails to divine its true meaning or significance. There's a lot of this going on in Macbeth because, in truth, everything the weird sisters tell him is 100% factually accurate:✓They say he will become Thane of Cawdor, and so he does.✓They say he will become king, and so he does.✓They say no man of woman born can harm him, and so it is proven true.✓They say he shall never be vanquished until Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill comes, and so it is proven true.Of course, the way this information is presented may seem a bit misleading, but you can't really blame the weird sisters for that. As with so many stories, the words of oracles turn out to have unexpectedly particular meanings, which seem to contradict expectations... but the responsibility for correctly interpreting and acting on information lies with Macbeth, not the sisters. As I said in my previous review, he didn't have to act on their prophecies. He didn't act on the prophecy he'd become Thane of Cawdor, and yet it came true. But Macbeth does act, and things go badly. So badly, in fact, that at play's end he's railing:Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,For it hath cowed my better part of man!And be these juggling fiends no more believed,That palter with us in a double sense,That keep the word of promise to our ear,And break it to our hope. Is he Fate's fool, or is something else going on? So much of life is outside the individual's control; it's easy to feel like Fate's fool, isn't it? Sometimes we are... but I would argue that isn't what's going on with Macbeth. As also explored in a previous review, Macbeth had free will, and all the really horrible things that befall him- his wife's suicide, the fall of his kingdom, his ultimate demise... are all direct results of his own actions. Nobody made him kill King Duncan, not even Lady Macbeth. He did that all himself, and he did it on the basis of the weird sisters' pronouncements. But they didn't tell him he had to kill Duncan; they just told him he'd be king, and he imagined that Duncan's murder was the path to taking the crown. He and Lady Macbeth acted upon just one of infinite possible interpretations of the witches' words. I call that a failure of imagination, and it's been a pitfall in data interpretation from the time lunar eclipses were attributed to mystical spirits, to modern day, when a CIA brief about Nigerian yellowcake led to a war in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. Let's move on to another of the sisters' prophecies: "No man born of woman can harm Macbeth." Naturally, Macbeth takes these words to mean that all mortal men are of woman born, and acts arrogantly, thinking himself invulnerable. But of course the weird sisters have a different definition in mind. To them, a cesarean birth doesn't qualify as a birth "of woman born". This understanding of the prophecy greatly expands the pool of assailants eligible to take Macbeth down. He never considers that. Once he settled on an interpretation of the witches' words, he excluded any alternative readings. That's not being Fate's fool; that's intellectual arrogance, and it is 100% his own fault. George W. Bush was frequently criticized for this same sort of arrogant certitude... and rightly so, because in a complex world where information comes from many sources, of varying quality, it is absolutely insane to charge ahead without humility about the fact that you may have read the data wrong. Constant reassessement with an open mind seems the most prudent course.The same lesson applies for the prophecy about Birnum Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Maybe it sounds like I'm being funny and misapplying technical scientific terms to dramatic events, but I'm actually being serious, and here's why I think it's important: because if you take Macbeth to be a story about a man cursed by Fate, then you come out at the end with the lesson that essentially "Shit happens". And it's true, shit does happen, all the time. There are people who have actually been hit by lighting, after all. But there's not much you can do with that fact. You can accept Fate, deal with it, and move on, but not much more. On the other hand, if you take Macbeth to be a story about a man who failed to imagine all the possible things his prophecy could have meant, and if you take Macbeth to be a story about a man so sure of his interpretations that he failed to be appropriately cautious... well THEN you really have a useful story, because who of us couldn't do with a little more humility and imagination? Those are things we can actually work on improving.Let's move on; let's consider Data Quality failures now. In a sense, this is a specialized subset of Data Interpretation failure, because part of interpreting data is assessing its adequacy and accuracy. This play contains several instances of Macbeth acting on bad information. Most notably, on the eve of killing King Duncan, Macbeth imagines a sword floating before him in the air:Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw.What's all that about? Macbeth sees a sword, but recognizes it's an illusion. Yet, recognizing it is an illusion, he takes it as an omen:Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;In other words, he accepts the hallucination as an sign, and allows it to push him further along the course (murder) he had already decided on. In so many words, Macbeth is saying "I know this isn't real, but I'm going to cite and act on this information, because it supports a conclusion I wish to arrive at." This happens all the time in science, as well as other settings. I don't want to beat the "weapons of mass destruction"/ Iraq War example to death, but it fits so goddamned well here, doesn't it? How about another example? How about all the tobacco company "research" which supposedly disproves the adverse effects of smoking? Sure, the tobacco companies know it's a lie, but haven't you ever met a stubborn smoker who cites these works, to help him rationalize his continued habit? I have. So, even though I've framed my analysis of the play in the very sterile and disaffected terms of Data Quality, it's really a basic human folly that I'm getting at: lying to one's self. It's an interesting character flaw; part arrogance and part naiveté, it seems.Later in the play, Macbeth experiences another hallucination: that of Banquo's ghost visiting him at a dinner party. Perhaps you could read this play and decide that the ghost was real, and that Macbeth's senses weren't lying to him. I'll allow for that, but there's no refuting that as Macbeth saw/imagined Banquo's ghost, Lady Macbeth was right next to him, assuring him that nobody else saw it. Nevertheless, Macbeth makes a big scene, which really undermines his credibility with the subordinates in his fold. Arguably, it is this irrational display which convinces the Thane of Ross to switch sides and ultimately help turn the final battle in favor of young Malcolm. For this reason, I say Macbeth's response to dubious -if not outright bad- (sensory) information is his undoing.In this case, it isn't lying to himself, but Macbeth is allowing himself to be manipulated by information he ought to rightly question. Of course there are all sorts of poetic ways of looking at this... the vision of Banquo is a manifestation of Macbeth's guilt and remorse, etc. Sure. That's fine. It's legitimate, but it doesn't negate what I'm saying: Macbeth's demise is attributable to catastrophic misjudgment, and part of his misjudgment is allowing himself to act on data he should know enough to discount, if not outright reject. In my round-about way, I'm saying what a lot of other people have said in other places: that all the talk about Fate, and being a puppet of the weird sisters, or being manipulated by Lady Macbeth, or being cursed is a distraction. Shakespeare writes about human nature, and the invisible hand of Fate isn't human nature. Macbeth is his own worst enemy, because he decides to believe what he wants to believe, regardless of the facts before him. He is brought down by his own character flaws. That's the only way this story is timelessly relevant, because if he's Fate's fool, then this play is just a bunch of inevitable stuff that happened at the Universe's inscrutable behest- and what use is there in reading or talking about that?Sooooo, at long last, we come to the end of my third review in this series. I want to be the first to say that at this point, I've barely put a chip in the side of a mountain here. You could spend a decade mining this play for its beautifully crafted themes and endlessly interesting language. It is truly another "Grand Canyon" work. Other reviewers can tell you far more than I could about the historical relevance, or the philosophical and religious implications of Macbeth. I feel like I need to say that, because in some ways this feels like a bit of a novelty review, but I want to be clear that there's no disrespect (i.e. frivolity) intended. You know I love ya, Mr. Shakespeare, right?[Link to first review in the series]