Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Groucho Marx once said that "Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife." Macbeth doesn’t need another woman. Lady Macbeth has enough ambition for both of them. She gives him nerves of steel to do whatever it takes to get to the top. And Lady Macbeth’s ambition is to be Queen of Scotland. She won’t let anything stand in her way of climbing to the top. Whether she likes it when she gets there is a different story. We know from the start of the play that something’s wrong. Three witches meet on an open stage. FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain? SECOND WITCH: When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won. No good can come of this. Some people think witchcraft and sorcery is childish. Others take it seriously but avoid it like the plague. Macbeth and his companion Banquo are intrigued by it. What power do these three witches have? Banquo isn’t afraid of them and asks a direct question: If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear Your favours nor your hate… Do they have the power to tell the future? Who among us can look into the seeds of time and know what will happen? Maybe no one. Would we really want to? Even if we knew the future, would it help us? Banquo himself admits that 'tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray's In deepest consequence. In his opinion spirits tell us “the truth.” But it’s a truth that’s slanted. Macbeth will be king. Good news? Herodotus tells a story about an ancient king consulting an oracle. He’s about to invade another country with his army and wants to know if he’ll succeed. The oracle says that if he invades a great kingdom will fall. The king is pleased that the oracle has given a good omen. So the king invades and a great kingdom does indeed fall. Unfortunately it’s his own kingdom. So much for oracles. Lady Macbeth falls for the same trick. She’s a sharp student of human nature and knows her husband well: yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it… You’ve almost got what it takes. You just don’t quite have the spine to take care of the rough stuff. You've done well becoming a Duke. But I can make you a King. Even Lady Macbeth herself almost shrinks from the task at hand. Not only will they assassinate a king, they’ll also be killing their honored guest. In Scottish culture that’s breaking two strongly-held taboos at once. Nevertheless, she’s determined to go through with it: 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… Once Lady Macbeth makes up her mind to do something, it will get done. You can count on it. She may be a woman but she can do a man’s job better than any man, if that's what it takes (unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!). You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Lady Macbeth. She may be the most dangerous woman on stage since Euripides’ Medea. But in the end even Lady Macbeth falters. She doesn’t sleep well. She wanders around in the night sleepwalking and sighing things like Out, damn’d spot! A disturbed conscience may be the most fitting punishment for Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth says: Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve 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,-- So the three witches told the truth. Macbeth did become king and Lady Macbeth his queen. But neither of them ever knew another good night’s sleep until they died. That’s the part the witches left out. Banquo was right: oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths. Or half-truths.


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2/27/2011 7:41 PM  

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