Gender, Guilt, and Fate – Macbeth, Part 2: Crash Course Literature #410


Hi I’m John Green. This is Crash Course Literature and today
we’ll be doubling, bubbling, toiling and troubling as we continue our discussion of
Macbeth. Today we’ll be looking more closely at the
characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well as discussing the play’s treatment
of gender roles and its downer ending. INTRO
One of the most remarkable things about Macbeth is that
it presents us with a hero who is also a villain. As we discussed last time, when we first meet
Macbeth he’s helped win a major battle for Scotland. The first time he’s mentioned, a sergeant
introduces him as “brave Macbeth.” Being brave and winning battles were two of
the major signs of Great Mandom at the time. And okay, maybe this Macbeth is a little violent;
he slices an opponent down the middle and spikes his head on the battlements. But he’s definitely the hero of the day
and Duncan, the King, rewards him. Even if that whole beheading thing seems a
little extreme, at the beginning of the play we’re on Macbeth’s side. And we stay on his side when he has a lot
of second thoughts about his wife’s plan to kill the king. /
His wife has to talk him into it—basically she attacks his masculinity, but more on that
later—and I think our sympathies mostly stay with him even after the murder. We worry that someone is going to find him
out, maybe the same someone who knocks so unrelentingly on the gate, and hope he gets
away with it, even though it’s horrible. (The fact that it sickens even him is another
way to get us on his side.) Once he becomes king, his paranoia kicks in
and so does his cruelty. He starts ordering more murders, maybe even
some he doesn’t have to order, like that of Banquo. Now he’s the one encouraging murderers,
not his wife–he’s gone from hero to antihero, a journey that has since been undertaken by
everyone from Walter White to Tony Soprano to Pablo Escobar to Don Draper to Jamie Lannister
to that Hannibal Lecter guy in Westworld. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that all
those dudes are dudes. But before we get there, let’s examine how
to understand Macbeth’s choices in the Thoughtbubble: Could we argue that Macbeth’s encounter
with the witches has made him evil? I mean, there’s no suggestion that they’ve
enchanted him, and they never tell him to kill Duncan or even suggest that killing Duncan
is a possibility. They let Macbeth and his wife figure that
part out for themselves—along with all the blood and the daggers. But the witches do light up his ambition with
their prophecies. Now, maybe Macbeth has been a terrible guy
from the get-go, a Thane who just needed the excuse of the witches prophecies to act on
his worst impulses. As we saw, there are signs of his cruelty
even from the beginning; splitting open opponents from neck to belly is not the work of an especially
meek and mild person. But then if Macbeth is inherently evil, in
the manner of some Shakespeare villains, then why do his actions trouble him so much? Almost immediately, Macbeth loses the ability
to pray and sleep and he even seems to envy Duncan:
“After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” Meanwhile Macbeth is an insomniac. He also doesn’t seem to enjoy being king,
a job he was literally willing to kill for. And whether he actually sees Banquo’s ghost
in the banquet scene or just hallucinates him, neither suggests a man who is happy in
his life choices. A sociopathic villain, like I’d argue Iago
is from Othello, just wouldn’t be haunted in that way. But for a guy who maybe isn’t evil to begin
with, he does keep getting a lot of people murdered. Or maybe, seeing that the murder of Duncan
has already damned him for eternity, he figures there’s no point repenting now. As he says to his wife… “I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that,
should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Basically, if you’re midway through fording
the River of Blood, might as well cross to the other side. Thanks, Thoughtbubble. However we understand Macbeth, by the midpoint
of the play, probably around when he orders the murder of Banquo and his son, we’ve
stopped rooting for Macbeth and his wife to get away with their crimes. Instead, we’re hoping they’ll get their
comeuppance, preferably before Macduff’s wife and kids are brutally murdered in front
of us. But alas. Shakespeare keeps the violence offstage until
that scene, then he allows it full rein, which should shake anyone who still feels sympathy
for Macbeth. Even the witches now acknowledge his evil. The next time he approaches them, they say,
“Something wicked this way comes.” And as for nameless Lady Macbeth, Holinshed,
in the play’s source material, describes her as “verie ambitious, burning in unquenchable
desire to beare the name of a quéene.” She’s the one spurring him on to murder
when he’s reluctant or frightened or listening to his conscience. In her opinion, at least early in the play,
stabbing a king is no big deal. /
She even offers to go frame the guards by smearing them with Duncan’s blood, saying,
“A little water clears us of this deed.” It’s interesting to see the opposite effects
the murder has on them. It hardens Macbeth into a serial murderer,
but it softens Lady Macbeth into a victim. Her mind disturbed, she brings to sleepwalk,
miming washing her hands over, desperate for the little water to clear her of her deed. But she can’t get the spot of blood out–not
even after its visibly gone. Instead her guilt seems to drive her to suicide. To understand more about this dynamic, let’s
look at how the play treats masculinity and femininity. This tragedy has a particular interest in
what it means to be a man, but we get our first taste of this by characters who don’t
really seem male or female, the witches. Banquo says to them, “you should be women,/
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.” These are the weird sisters, which may be
a corruption of “the wayward sisters,” and there’s definitely a suggestion that
characters who aren’t identifiable as either male or female are destabilizing and upsetting. This was a period that oppressed gender fluidity,
even though it’s worth noting that theater was a place of gender complexity, since male
actors played female roles, and Shakespeare’s characters often play with traditional gender
constructions. We get another example when Lady Macbeth reads
her husband’s letter and starts worrying that he won’t be man enough to get himself
the crown. Knowing he’ll need her help she calls on
spirits to “unsex her”: “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! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall,” Okay. Wow. So Lady Macbeth is saying, stop me from menstruating,
stop me from lactating, basically take everything about me that’s liquid and feminine and
pliable and make me harder and crueler. When Macbeth tells her he’s not going to
kill the king, she tells him he’s unmanly. “When you durst do it, then you were a man,”
she says. Ouch. And it gets worse. She says that she’s breastfed children (where
those children have gone is the sort of problem that gives scholars fits) and loved those
children but that she would happily “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.” Again: Wow. And just a cool poetic meter note: When they’re
having these kinds of arguments, especially the one about killing Duncan, many of Macbeth’s
lines have so-called feminine endings (an extra syllable in the line) and hers don’t. /
Because she’s the one behaving in the more traditionally macho way. So far the play seems to be suggesting that
there’s something cruel and almost unnatural about masculinity, about manning up. And maybe we can see this as another reason
why Macbeth gets so murder-y. /
Having committed to such a hard and unyielding vision of masculinity like the kind his wife
offers, he doesn’t really know how to soften up again. But that’s not the only vision of masculinity
that the play provides. There’s a scene between Malcolm and Macduff
where Malcolm tries to brag that he’s really evil and greedy and lecherous. But then he takes it all back, suggesting
that it’s his innocence and even his virginity, his unmanliness, that will actually make him
an honorable king. In that same scene, Macduff learns that his
wife and all of his children have been murdered and nice virginal Malcolm tries to tell him,
Lady Macbeth-style, to man up. “Dispute it like a man,” Malcolm says. But here’s the difference between Macduff
and Macbeth. Instead of Macbeth going along with his wife’s
toxic vision of masculinity, Macduff finds another way. He says:
/ “I shall do so
“But I must also feel it as a man: I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me.” Yes, Macduff is not of woman born so you could
argue that he’s the manliest of anyone in this play, but his definition of manliness
is different. It involves fighting, but it also involves
feeling. And loving. And mourning. Not that any of this is going to stop him
from cutting off Macbeth’s head at the end. Let’s look at that ending. Before the final battle, Macbeth receives
the news that his wife has died and recites a soliloquy saying that at this point life
means nothing. He says:
/ “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, Signifying nothing.” Those beautifully written nihilistic lines
have resonated through the last four hundred years–Faulkner titled his most famous book
after them. /
And here at the end, Macbeth doesn’t seem anything like the Thane we met at the beginning
of the play–he doesn’t seem worried or brave or ambitious or bloodthirsty–just tired. /
The dagger, the line of kings, Banquo’s ghost, even his wife’s death–none of it
matters. And not really the go-getter we got to know
at the top of the play. He doesn’t seem worried or ambitious or
bloodthirsty, just really, really tired. The shadows and illusions he’s witnessed—the
dagger, the line of kings, Banquo’s ghost—don’t matter. His wife’s death doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. But that’s not going to stop him from going
on one last murderous rampage before his own death. His humanity seems gone and it’s almost
as though he’d like someone to stop him, but he can’t bring himself to commit suicide
and he’s worried that no one equals him in battle. But surprise! Macduff is a C-section baby. Even here, at this revelation, Macbeth is
still worrying about his manliness, saying, “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,/
For it hath cow’d my better part of man!” /
Grieving Macduff is more worried about cutting off his head. Which he does. /
He presents them to Malcolm who says a fond farewell to “the dead butcher and his fiendlike
queen.” Those words don’t describe the Macbeth and
Lady Macbeth we meet early in the play, /
/ but maybe they do portray the ones who die
in the final act. Macbeth is a short play and that’s a lot
of change to compass in a couple of hours. At the end, we still don’t really know if
Macbeth’s fall was inevitable, even divinely ordained, or whether he brought it on himself
through his choices. /
/ But one of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays
have hung around is because the best characters in them aren’t one thing or another–they
aren’t only good or evil, only ambitious or meek, only weak or strong. /
Macbeth endures because ambition and its costs endure, and because we are still asking that
old question: Was I doomed to this, or did I choose it? Thanks for watching. See you next time.

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