Tips to understanding Macbeth
Note: Some topics may be overlapped.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, Act V
Like this speech, there are parts of Macbeth that are as powerful as anything William Shakespeare ever wrote, yet The Tragedy of Macbeth is in many ways the least satisfactory of his tragedies. Although the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are complex and fascinating, many of the others, particularly the minor characters, are flat in comparison. There are scenes where the rhythm and language seem stilted or rushed. And, especially for the person experiencing Macbeth for the first time, it is difficult to enjoy a hero who is also a villain. Macbeth’s life, as Shakespeare writes, seems to “signify nothing”.
So how do you tackle such a play? From what angle do you come at it and develop appreciation and understanding for its weaknesses and strengths?
Start with Contexts
Understanding the time in which Shakespeare wrote Macbeth will help make sense of unfamiliar objects and baffling choices as well as put the play on a timeline peg. Although there is disagreement on the exact year Shakespeare wroteMacbeth (some say 1606, others 1607), none argue its Renaissance beginning. Elizabethan England gives a glimpse into the Renaissance world which Shakespeare lived and Educating Shakespeare provides insight into the type of school he attended and the education he received. William Harrison, a collaborator with Raphael Holinshed on writing the histories of England and Britain, gives detail on Elizabethan views on food, dogs, and punishment. World Timelines can put many concurrent world events into perspective.
Once you understand the time in which Macbeth was created, it is helpful to investigate whyShakespeare wrote it. Many
scholars believe it was written by royal command for King James I when King Christian IV of Denmark came to England for a visit. Shakespeare's players were the King's Players so it would have been natural for them to produce a story of Scottish history touching on the ancestry of King James. The Royal Play of Macbeth (subscription required) can provide details on why, when, and how the play was written.
Looking at the sources Shakespeare used to write Macbeth, you can see how Shakespeare blended superstition, witchcraft, and history. He drew upon Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577), King James' Daemonolgie (1597), and Reginald Scot'sDiscovery of Witchcraft (1584). Philip Weller has created a helpful index of Holinshed's entries with Macbeth references.
Rounding out the circumstances and context surrounding Macbeth are Dr. Simon Forman's comments on the play after attending a public performance in April, 1610.
Read for Themes
Reading or watching the play with the purpose of finding a theme or motif is a way to organize impressions into manageable opinion. Many people discuss Macbeth around the themes of ambition, power, sleep, blood, manhood, witchcraft, superstitions, fate, predestination, weapons, water, light, and darkness so they can share their take on what it means. When a scene or word or phrase sparks an interest, following it can lead to a new insight into the play. For instance Royal Shakespeare Company gives performance clips with interviews from directors, actors, and stage directors to discuss their ideas about power and control, murder and consequences, fate and free will, and destiny. Peter J. Liethart’s uses Bible stories to find Christian themes of redemption and restoration in Macbeth. Other people have used Dialogue and Atmosphere to provide the foundations for themes on witchcraft and nature.
Visualize the Play
It is easy to skim over Macbeth since the language, objects, and places are often unfamiliar. Theside-by-side translations are helpful for immediate help, but taking the time to go beyond instant translation will pay off with a richer understanding of the play. For instance, reading the the play it is necessary to picture the difference between the sword Macbeth would have used to "unseam" Macdonwald and the dagger which Macbeth dreams is leading him to Duncan. Also, grasping the size of Glamis Castle or the distance between Birnam Wood and Dunsinane can put the setting and action into perspective.
Watching a stage performance is the way to experience Macbeth as Shakespeare intended, butvideo and film performances are also helpful experiences.
Finally write it out
Writing out ideas, thoughts, and opinions will reveal the gap between true and borrowed knowledge. This gap is where studying Macbeth should begin in earnest and could mean learninghow an actor interprets Banquo, the legends and superstitions of Macbeth, the proper Elizabethan insult, where the Globe is or why the 5th Earl of Cawdor said, "I wish the Bard had never written his damn play!"
So while Macbeth may feel that everything is futile, you will know that your study is not.