So last night, we watched MacBeth—a recent version starring Patrick Stewart and his moustache. (Why has that man never been asked to headline a biopic of Lenin?) I’ve always found Lady MacBeth to be one of Shakespeare’s more two-dimensional characters, the incarnation of unfettered ambition, but my wife, who is a much smarter person than I, marked some of the problems with how she and MacBeth are popularly portrayed:
1) So the war is apparently close enough to MacBeth’s castle that the folks leading it, including good King Duncan, can hie their way thither in short order once the battle is won. Lady MacBeth has, therefore, likely been dealing with the sick and wounded at her place, as well as the constant threat of the castle being overrun by enemy forces. Soldiers often find things to do with female non-combatants. So look at it from her perspective—when MacBeth says that these weird sisters have promised him the kingship, maybe it comes at a time when she is at the end of her rope and can imagine that as a better, safer position for her, for both of them. One last murder to secure the peace. What drives her eventually mad is that the peace never arrives, that maintaining her husband’s rule requires more and more murders.
2) Speaking of murder—that’s what MacBeth has been doing all this time before the play opens. He’s a trained soldier. The issue at play is not the murder of the king but rather the violation of the law of hospitality. Remember the story of Lot—better for him, in his view, to offer his daughters to be raped by the mob than turn over his guests to their lust. MacBeth is good at killing. His hesitation lies elsewhere.
3) But—however cruel the murder of Duncan is, the king is not the ghost who haunts MacBeth but rather Banquo, whom he did not personally murder. Do MacBeth’s failings as king boil down to the fact that he is a hammer who can see only nails, that he is a soldier whose problems, in his mind, can only be solved by killing? The play is, after all, a tragedy, which means that our protagonist must possess some tragic flaw upon which we can write tedious term papers. Does Banquo’s death haunt him because it’s an uncomfortable foray into political killing? (Interestingly, the production we watched had MacBeth participating personally in the murder of MacDuff’s family, even drawing a knife upon his wife and children.)
4) My wife has been listening lately to a lot of interviews with soldiers, and if there is one thing soldiers quickly develop from their battlefield experience, it is a belief in luck. Fortune. The question lingers always: Why did I survive when my comrade was shot down? The operations of war are often random, especially for the guys on the front lines, and Luck quickly becomes a kind of minor god whose operations are seen time and again. So when MacBeth encounters these three women telling him of expected good fortune, especially right after he has stepped off the battlefield, well, what is a soldier to make of that? Would it not make some kind of sense to him that, if he has been this lucky already, perhaps there are even greater things in store for him?