Even as an English Literature graduate, there was a time when I could simply not get my head around Shakespeare. My earliest memory of studying Macbeth was for GCSE English. The lesson consisted of taking out my yellow highlighter and marking off a series of meaningless quotes and passages for my English teacher, who took no time to explain, or even try to engage us with the themes and language of the text. I didn’t understand the language, the entire play seemed irrelevant to my life, and I dreaded tackling the questions in the exam.
Fast-forward to the A-Level years, and my attitude towards Shakespeare dramatically changed. My new teacher had an entirely different way of approaching Shakespeare. The first approach was simple. We didn’t have to fear, or feel intimidated by the breadth of the play. It was, and still is important to remember, that plays, no matter how old, are always about people. The themes are directly connected to the human experience and situations we may have, or will encounter in our lives; power family drama, relationships, love and feuds.
The characters of Shakespearian drama are as flawed, tormented and emotionally complicated as any living breathing human. Often, they are morally ambiguous. For instance, It is difficult to define Banqou and Macbeth as simply being ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Initially, Macbeth is a brave, and respected soldier. He is also kind, ‘full of the milk of human kindness’. As we see in his soliloquies, he is tortured by his own ambitious nature, and cannot bear to look at his hands after killing Duncan in Act 2, Scene 2.
Although he spirals out of control, morphing into a brutal murderer at the end of the play, we cannot help but feel empathy for him, as we the audience have been privy to his soliloquies and his inner temptations at the beginning of the play. The ‘noble’ Banqou too, is affected by the witches, and struggles with his own temptations in Act 2 Scene 1. Neither character is perfect. Both are tempted and affected by the witches prophecy. Perhaps if Banqou had not been murdered, he would have followed the same path as Macbeth.
The next task in demystifying Shakespeare, is to read the landscape of the plays. Students can often find the descriptions of nature irrelevant and stuffy, however, it is these ‘tedious’ descriptions which allow for an immediate insight into the world, theme and atmosphere of the play. The opening lines of Macbeth take place on a ‘heath’ in a dark and uncertain world. Shakespearian characters spend a lot of time wandering, and soul searching. Here, the heath is reflective of man’s inner landscape and personal uncertainty.
Further into the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are associated with ‘the dunnest smoke of hell’, while the natural ruler, Duncan, is connected to ‘sweet air’. Their evil deeds associated with pollution and darkness, while Duncan is associated with light, gentle descriptions. In contrast to this, Macbeth continues to be associated with darkness, and therefore the evil of the witches and his ambition; ‘ Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ .
Reading the dramatic landscapes allows us an understanding of the characters, outside of their soliloquies and other characters perspectives. It enables us to read the wider landscape of the play. When Macbeth kills Duncan, the natural order of the word is overturned, and nature runs amok. Horses eat each other, a permanent gloom descends over the castles, and the birds begin to fly backwards. This imagery is important as it indicates that Macbeth is an unlawful king, who has usurped the throne
The most difficult aspect of studying Shakespeare is the language. Although many texts provide an annotation, it doesn’t help enable one to truly understand and admire the depth of Shakespeare’s skills with language. Students often feel they need a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer when approaching Shakespeare in an essay or assignment. However, the beauty is in its ambiguity. The language of the characters, be it their thought and actions always entails more than one meaning and interpretation. Shakespeare
For instance, the language of the witches is our first hint at things to come in Macbeth. On a superficial level, they are gossiping about the weather, and recent events over a cauldron. The use of rhyming couplets brings to mind spells and imagination, and contributes to the witches supernatural nature. However, ‘battle’ and ‘hurlyburly’ implies that Macbeth will be about war and destruction. It also suggests the witches have prophetic powers, and know what the final outcome of the play will be. It sets us up for future disturbances, as well as Macbeth’s subsequent temptation and downfall.
The moral confusion of the play is brought to life through the lines ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, a paradox which introduces a key theme; the difficulty between appearance and reality. So already, by considering landscape, and in turn language, we now have some themes and expectations about the play. We could decipher ‘fair is foul’ as literally meaning ‘things aren’t what they seem’. Although a literal interpretation is crucial in our understanding, leaving it there isn’t very interesting.
The language of the witches is loaded with different intents and phrases. Are the witches products of evil? Have they deliberately set out to tempt Macbeth? Or one could simply say that they were merely a catalyst, who ‘marshall’d’ Macbeth in the direction he was already taking. Lady Macbeth echoes the witches in Act 2 ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’, suggesting that she is connected to their world of evil and darkness.
Once we unpick a passage, it becomes much easier to appreciate and engage with the text of Macbeth. By analysing Act 1 Scene 1 alone, it is easier to grasp the many themes of the play, and what we can expect of Macbeth. The language may be heavy, rich and full of imagery, however when decoded correctly, reveals to us many aspects of the play.
Demystifying the language allows us to gain a better insight into the world of the characters, their intentions, and often, things which are yet to come in the play. Quite simply, once we conquer the obscurity of the Shakespearian language, it becomes clear this is a play about a man who has lost his way. As I have said at the beginning of this essay, plays, no matter how difficult they seem, are always about people!
By Sophie B, English Language & English Literature Tutor In London.
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