Macbeth was the first of Shakespeare’s plays I read knowing of his greatness, though I was far from understanding it. I had enjoyed Merchant of Venice as a joyful romp of disguise and a not very difficult puzzle, in which a an obvious bad guy gets his comeuppance and the virtuous are rewarded with justice and a little bit more. And I had loathed As You Like It when I did it for O level (ie, when aged 15 – God knows who thought this a suitable study for boys of that age), and truth to tell, I’ve never got on with the comedies – I’d much rather be reading or watching Jonson.
But when I read Macbeth – and reading is the operative word, I read it long before I ever saw it on the stage, and I still feel that reading is the purest form of dramatic pleasure – I was knocked sideways, a crashing blow of violence and poetry straight between the eyes. I think even then I was most taken with the drama of the puzzling prophecies, the physical clash of Macbeth with his enemies, the drama of the ghost, and the stage magic (even in my head) of the final coup when Birnam Wood moves on for Macduff's victory and retribution. The psychological intensity, and the sheer poetry, were probably secondary.
No longer: the bloody murders and the wars are almost incidental – what matters is what is happening inside (primarily) Macbeth’s head. And the words – I could be drunk on them – the insight, the beauty, the music and the perfect fit of word, metre, rhythm and meaning – all clear and powerful listening to a Naxos performance on the iPod on a long Pacific flight recently, in spite of some slightly dramatically uneven early passages. The cast included the wonderful Fiona Shaw as Lady Macbeth, which for me is always almost enough of a recommendation by itself. Take just this, when Macbeth is summoning up his strength for the first murder, that of his lawful king, whom he has nobly served so far - and now meditates on Duncan's virtues and realises that the deed will put him beyond all human comfort:
... we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed: then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
But who was the real Macbeth, and was he such a villain? A quick look at a basic history suggests that Macbeth came to the throne by killing Duncan indeed, although this was quite normal in the period. Andrew Fisher calls Duncan "an ineffectual king", and says that Macbeth - who murdered him in 1040 - was an "active and conscientious king", although unable to hold on to all his territory. He lost Cumbria to Siward of Northumbria, no doubt the reason Shakespeare gives Macduff Siward's help in the overthrow of Macbeth himself, though Siward was actually already dead by 1058. Does any of this matter? I suppose not, though I do worry about the way history is shaped by tiny myths and great dramas which may bear no relation to reality!
By the way, if you want a splendid serving of Shakespearean nonsense in an elegant murder mystery, look no further than Michael Innes' The Long Farewell, featuring the scholar Lewis Packford and mysterious evidence that Willy the Shake had actually been to Italy, and could read Italian. Murder most foul, but also most charming!