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Today is the anniversary of the death in 1057 of the Scottish monarch Macbeth about whom Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tragedy of Macbeth. The facts of the historical Macbeth differ somewhat from the Macbeth of the Elizabethan stage, but like modern writers, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of telling a good story.
Born in 1005, Macbeth rose to the throne of Scotland by election in place of King Duncan’s 14-year old son Malcolm. Duncan was not murdered at Macbeth’s home as in the play; instead, he was killed in battle. The Macbeth of history was a Christian king who ruled for 14 years until August 14, 1057 (some sources say August 15) when he met Malcolm man-to-man in a fight to the death in a stone circle near Lumphanan. Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, locations referred to in Shakespeare’s play, were actual locations of battles; however, these battles took place earlier than 1057. At Lumphanan, Malcolm was victorious, and it was he, not Macduff, who beheaded Macbeth (1).
Shakespeare adapts history in the Tragedy of Macbeth to examine the themes of free will, fate, ambition, betrayal, good, and evil. In his play, Macbeth transforms from war hero to serial killer after he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters. Although he is warned by his friend Banquo to disregard the witches’ words, Macbeth is unable to shake their spellbinding words. There is not a lot of subtlety or subplot in Macbeth. The action is swift and bloody. Even when the action on the stage is seemingly calm, the imagery of the dialogue is full of violent, grotesque images, such as in Lady Macbeth’s plea to her husband to keep his promise to kill Duncan even though the king has honored Macbeth with a promotion and has come to their home as a guest for the night:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.(Act I, scene 7, lines 58-63)
It’s probably no accident that a play about a Scottish king was written by Shakespeare during the reign of King James, the first Scottish King of England and the king whose most famous act was the commissioning of the King James Translation of the Bible, completed in 1611.
The history of the play’s production, however, is full of accidents and superstition. From the very start, Macbeth acquired a reputation as a cursed play. During its first production in 1606, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage. It seems the dark and sinister events of the on-stage plot are echoed backstage. To this day superstitious actors refuse to identify the play by name, alluding to it only by the euphemism: “The Scottish Play” (2).
You’ll get very little argument if you claim that Shakespeare is the single greatest writer in the history of the English language. So if there are any words worth committing to memory, doesn’t it make sense to memorize some Shakespeare? His words are fun to say, even if you don’t know what they mean exactly or if you don’t know the exact context of the words. One thing you do know, however, is that the words are guaranteed to be brilliant, and once you do study the play and the character from which the words originate, you will discover that the words are well worth remembering and are well worth returning to again and again.
Today’s Challenge: Six From Shakespeare
What lines from a Shakespearean character would you say are most memorable? Select a favorite character from Shakespeare and select a passage of at least six lines. Commit those words to memory. Write them down, read them carefully, and say them aloud over and over until they are a part of your long-term memory. Practice sharing them aloud with friends and family, and try to catch the right tone based on what you know about the character and what you know about the context of the words within the play. (Common Core – Speaking and Listening 4)
Below are three examples of six-line passages from the character Macbeth:
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 55-60
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 46-51
Out, Out brief candle!
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,
-Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 23-28
Quotation of the Day: [Shakespeare] is as a mountain, whose majesty and multitudinous beauty, meaning, and magnitude and impress, must be gotten by slow processes in journeying about it through many days. Who sits under its pines at noon, lies beside its streams for rest, walks under its lengthening shadows as under a cloud, and has listened to the voices of its waterfalls, thrilling the night and calling to the spacious firmament as if with intent to be heard “very far off,” has thus learned the mountain, vast of girth, kingly in altitude, perpetual in sovereignty. -William A. Quayle