I think everyone knows the plot of Macbeth. Three witches tell an already rich and powerful dude that he's going to get even more rich and powerful, and then become king. He (or, more correctly, his wife) takes this to mean that he should kill the current king. He does so, and the king's sons flee for their lives, which inadvertently makes them look guilty. Macbeth rapidly becomes a tyrant, killing off anyone who he thinks has a chance at overthrowing him, even children. Macduff goes to track down one of the old king's sons, who's hanging out in England, to persuade him to stage an invasion and overthrow Macbeth. Macbeth is all "Pff, whatevs" because the witches told him that he could only be killed by someone who wasn't "of woman born". Except PLOT TWIST! Macduff was born by caesarean. He kills Macbeth, and the old king's son takes the throne.
(Yes, that's vastly oversimplifying things, but you probably knew the basics anyway.)
It took me a while to get into the knack of reading Shakespeare again, simply because I haven't read any of his plays since I studied Hamlet at university in 2001. Thankfully, I was using my year 11 textbook, which is still filled with all my scribbled translations into modern English! Still, I found it much easier to read if I muttered the lines under my breath.
Macbeth is possibly my favourite Shakespeare play. It's filled with murder and spooky supernatural nonsense and ruthlessly ambitious characters. Lady Macbeth is an absolutely brilliant female character, especially given that she was created in the early seventeenth century. She's ruthless and calculating and manipulative. When her husband freaks out about killing Duncan, she tells him to suck it up. When Macbeth can't bring himself to smother the guards in Duncan's blood, framing them, she takes over. And she gets FABULOUS speeches of badassery:
"Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,/ Stop up the access and passage to remorse, /That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between/ The effect and it!" (Act 1, Scene 5)Macbeth is an interesting character, too. He starts out full of disbelief at the witches' prophecies. Then, when he's made Thane of Cawdor, he sees a little glimmer of possibility, and grabs onto it with both hands. He justifies things to himself time and time again, whether it's the murder of Duncan, or of Banquo, or of Macduff's family. He's convinced that the three prophecies about his downfall can't come true, and stares in astonishment when they do.
There's some interesting historical narrative involved on Shakespeare's part. First we get Banquo's kingly descendants appearing to Macbeth in Act 4, Scene 1, who are widely accepted to represent the new Stuart monarchs who finally - in the form of James VI/I - united England, Wales and Scotland under one crown. Though James I had only been king for a couple of years when Macbeth was written, his descendants are still on the throne today.
Then there's a (rather long-winded, to be perfectly honest) section in Act 4, Scene 3 in which Malcolm and Macduff are at the court of Edward the Confessor and discussing how he could cure scrofula by touching the sufferer. Apparently when James I came to the throne, he declared that he wasn't going to practice the whole idea of curing the plebs of scrofula with the king's touch because EW GROSS with a side of THIS SOUNDS TOO CATHOLIC FOR MY LIKING. Though whether Shakespeare was having a sneaky dig at his patron or not should be left to the academics and not the likes of me!
It's not always an easy read - without the descriptions of the character's facial expressions or emotions that we'd get in a novel, and with only limited stage directions, the reactions of some characters to certain events (the death of a child, for instance) seem cold. There's also some serious artistic interpretation of history on Shakespeare's part (really? They had cannons in Scotland in the 11th century?? How interesting, considering the British Isles didn't have gunpowder prior to the 1300s!). It's definitely not a perfect play - some scenes drag longer than necessary while others seem a little short - but it's still excellent.
What do you think? And are you excited by the new movie version coming out next year starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth?