Free Will, Witches, Murder, and Macbeth (Part 1): Crash Course Literature #409


Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature and today we’ll be discussing Macbeth. Some people…
…call it the Scottish play or the Bard’s play because allegedly, back in the 17th century
a coven of witches cursed the play to punish Shakespeare for including their spells. But that’s just not credible. So I’m going to call it by it’s real name. While acknowledging that there have been maybe
a lot of riots, deaths and accidents associated with Macbeth in performance. But this is a YouTube ch…You know what? Maybe we should call it the Scottish play. For the record, I did my own stunts in that
bit. Anyway, today we’ll discuss the historical
background for the play, the political and religious context in which it was written,
the play as a likely collaboration, and Macbeth’s famous dilemma. All right, time to find out just what all
that sound and fury signifies. INTRO
Let’s just go straight to the Thoughtbubble. As the play begins, the Scottish generals
Macbeth and Banquo have defeated the invading armies of Ireland and Norway. Great work, Scotland! They meet three witches who tell Macbeth,
the Thane of Glamis, that he’s going to become Thane of Cawdor and then king. They tell Banquo that while he won’t become
king, his sons will. Macbeth calls these witches “imperfect speakers”
and says that all this talk “stands not within the prospect of belief,” but then
Macbeth almost immediately does become Thane of Cawdor, so he writes to his wife, and she’s
like, we’re going to be royalty! There’s just the small matter of killing
the king. The king, Duncan, comes to stay at Macbeth’s
castle, and the Macbeths plan his murder. They kill the king, but the second half of
the plan, killing Duncan’s sons, goes Shakespearenly awry. So Macbeth has to worry about those sons;
he also has to worry about Banquo’s son, so he hires some murderers. Banquo is killed, but his son escapes. Macbeth starts hallucinating at dinner parties,
so he goes to visit the witches and they tell him: stay away from Macduff (another Thane),
no man born of woman can hurt you, and you’ll be fine as long as Birnam Wood, the forest
outside Macbeth’s castle, stays put. And Macbeth is like, trees can’t travel,
I got this. Still he becomes crueler and more paranoid,
executing Macduff’s family and trying to quash a growing resistance. Lady Macbeth, haunted by her part in the king’s
murder, can’t get an invisible spot of blood out of her dress, begins to sleepwalk and
then dies, a probable suicide. Macduff, in league with Duncan’s son Malcolm,
brings an army to fight Macbeth. The army uses branches from Birnam Wood as
camouflage. Macbeth holds out until he and Macduff meet
on the battlefield. He says no one of woman born can hurt me and
Macduff’s like, “I was a C-section baby!” Then he lops off Macbeth’s head. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So Macbeth is a tragedy, but it’s also a
history play. Kind of. Like Cymbeline or King Lear, it’s based
on historical sources. But these sources have their own problems
and Shakespeare takes plenty of liberties, some of them artistic, some of them having
more to do with the politics of his day and the preferences of his patron. Most of what we know about the real Macbeth
comes to us from Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1577 and a source for a lot of
Shakespeare. The Chronicles tell us that Macbeth and Duncan
were kinsmen in medieval Scotland, and that Macbeth was a great general, although maybe
too cruel and Duncan was a compassionate king, although maybe too nice. The chronicles tell us that he was so nice
that the country went to the dogs because Duncan couldn’t enforce the rule of law. Also after a battle, Macbeth and Banquo meet
“thrée women in strange and wild apparell.” So far, so Macbeth. But then Shakespeare makes some pretty substantial
changes: In Holinshed, Banquo helps Macbeth slay the king and Macbeth actually becomes
a pretty good ruler, at least for a while. In the Chronicles, “he set his whole intention
to mainteine iustice, and to punish all enormities and abuses, which had chanced through the
féeble and slouthfull administration of Duncane.” /
And Macbeth maintains this justice and punishes enormities for ten years–before become eventually
becoming paranoid and cruel. So Shakespeare probably made some of his changes
out of narrative necessity–murder and tyranny make for a better story than boringly effective
kingships. He also, of course, wanted to explore how
ambition and prophecy and heirs shape human experience. But he probably left Banquo out of the murderous
plotting for one very specific reason: King James I was Shakespeare’s patron at
the time, and King James I just happened to trace his lineage back to Banquo, who by the
way, is probably a made-up figure. So obviously, Macbeth the king killer had
to be bad, and Banquo the king’s ancestor had to be good, unless you’re the kind of
playwright who’d rather live out the rest of his career in a dungeon. Also King James I’s men had just foiled
a pretty serious assassination plot, the Gunpowder Plot, which you may remember because it involved
Guy Fawkes and Remember Remember the Fifth of November and that massively overrated movie
V for Vendetta. Macbeth was probably first performed the following
year, so the killing of kings was a touchy subject, even touchier for James because his
mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was killed by Queen Elizabeth and his father was assassinated. So in this context, it makes sense that Shakespeare
would highlight the dire consequences on offer when someone assassinates a divinely crowned
king. James I as a patron also may help to explain
the text’s emphasis on the supernatural, because James I was super into the supernatural. So into it that in 1597 he published a book
on witchcraft, called “Daemonologie.” The book really caught on; after it, people
in England became a lot more willing to believe in witches, and fairies, and ghosts, and demons. Daemonologie also helped perpetuate witch
hunts all over Europe. James, in fact participated in witch hunts
himself, most of which targeted vulnerable women, particularly the poor and the elderly. So taking the witches seriously is another
way to flatter and interest his patron. Although it should also be noted that Macbeth
taking the witches seriously leads to disaster. Oh, it’s time for the open letter? An open letter to witch hunts. But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh my gosh! It’s Yoda, who almost certainly would have
been prosecuted as a witch in 17th century England. I mean aside from the magic and the cryptic
speech patterns, there’s just something to his look that I suspect wouldn’t have
gone over well. Dear witch hunts, I’m gonna take the controversial
opinion that I am opposed to the social order blindly attacking the weak. That’s what a witch hunt is. The power structure looking to defame and/or
murder people who cannot defend themselves. the publication of direct and accurate quotations,
even if they’re unflattering? Not an example of a witch hunt. Legal investigations into actual non-supernatural
crimes? Not a witch hunt. And lastly, if you travel to a bunch of different
locations to find certain items, that is not a witch hunt. That’s a scavenger hunt. In short, witch hunts, I am opposed to you,
but I am also opposed to wrongful characterizations of you. Best wishes, John Green. All right. Let’s turn to a moment to authorship. All of Shakespeare’s plays were written
by Queen Elizabeth. And yes, that includes the ones that were
written after she died. What’s that? Oh, Stan informs me that most scholars agree
that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. But it’s possible that Macbeth was written
in part by someone else, too. For a while scholars have been arguing about
whether another Jacobean playwright, Thomas Middleton, contributed to a later revision
of the play. This wouldn’t have been unusual. Collaboration was common at the time and some
of Shakespeare’s early and late plays were collaborations. Middleton almost certainly contributed to
Timon of Athens, for instance, a Shakespeare play that is famously not as … what is the
adjective I’m looking for … finished as Macbeth. Evidence for Middleton’s collaboration includes
the fact that the witches’ songs show up in his own play The Witches. Also, a couple of the stage directions sound
like Middleton’s, as do the diction and the meter in a few cases. But even the most enthusiastic Middleton cheerleader
only credits him with at most a hundred or so lines. But of course who wrote the play is only tangentially
related to what’s in it–and Macbeth has survived through the centuries not primarily
because it was written largely by Shakespeare but because it is, you know, great. So as the play begins, Macbeth has just won
an important battle. He’s the hero of the day—a day still steaming
in blood. And then he meets the witches, who have been
laying in wait for him and they give him the prophecy. Now we might wonder if the witches are real,
actual witches or just some embodiment of Macbeth’s own ambitions and desires, though
the fact that Banquo sees them argues for reality. But maybe they’re both real and metaphorically
resonant. We should also wonder if their prophecy is
true. Can they really see into the future or are
their words a way to mess with Macbeth and tempt him to do something terrible? Is Macbeth’s fall inevitable or could he
have avoided it if he’d ignored the witches’ pronouncements? Now I’d argue that this is not just a problem
for Macbeth–all of us would like to know if our future is fated or our will is free. In some way, Macbeth learning his future seems
to change his future– Like was he going to be King before he found
out he was going to be king? Well that gets into the question of predestination,
which was one of the central religious debates of the era in Europe–
are you predestined to go either to heaven or to hell, or do we have free will to choose
our eternal fates? Shakespeare’s England was at the center
of these conversations–it was officially newly Protestant but deeply religiously divided. And one of the geniuses of Macbeth is that
it explores how difficult it can be to tell fate from choice–
I mean Macbeth and his wife make a lot of choices, but they also fulfill every single
prophecy Macbeth knows he shouldn’t kill the king. This is a very important idea in both Game
of Thrones and 17th Century England. James I believed in a divine right of kings,
the idea that kings are ordained by god to rule Undercutting that idea was very dangerous
for political stability, because then anybody could be king, or maybe we don’t even need
kings. and Shakespeare basically upholds this idea. So on the one hand then you have moral prohibition,
the risk of earthly punishment, and eternal damnation. And on the other side you have the opportunity
to become the king of scotland, the 732nd most important kingdom at the time. Deciding between doing what you should do
and doing what you want to do shouldn’t be that difficult–but it is, as anyone who
has ever lived an actual human life can tell you. In the end, Macbeth cannot resist his ambition. But once he’s made the decision, he sees
a dagger hovering in the air in front of him: “A dagger of the mind, a false creation,/
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain.” Now, is Macbeth insane and hallucinating things
or is this another supernatural goad? I mean, Macbeth feels conflicted about his
choice and the appearance of a dagger both shows his distress, but he interprets it as
legitimizing his choice to kill the king. Not for the first time, the supernatural being
open to human interpretation. A dagger hovering in the air seems like a
pretty good sign to go ahead with a murder that Macbeth both desires and is horrified
by. Reading Macbeth, you have to get used to that
push/pull of attraction and repulsion. From the time the witches say, “Fair is
foul and foul is fair,” this is a play full of contradictions and double meanings. A lot of scholars link this linguistic ambivalence
to the issue of equivocation, which means answering in ways that are deliberately unclear. It’s a method that Catholics, who were persecuted
in England in Shakespeare’s day, were encouraged to adopt, chiefly via Henry Garnet’s “A
Treatise on Equivocation.” Shakespeare’s father was likely a Catholic,
but the play suggests that there’s something evil in ambiguous speech, like the kind the
witches, who speak in half-truths, use. And it suggests the same about conflicted
or ambiguous morality, like the kind Macbeth initially practices. But I don’t think this linguistic ambivalence
is just reflective of a 17th century religious debate. I also think it’s reflective of Macbeth’s
psychological ambivalence, He is both excited and afraid at the thought
of becoming king via murder and that gives us a little bit of insight into a man who
begins the play as a decorated war hero and ends it as a decapitated butcher. We’ll pick up next time with a further discussion
of Macbeth’s complicated and fascinating character. Until then, if any weird sisters approach
you on a blasted heath, do not listen to them. After all, it’s not the prophesying that
did the damage. It’s the believing the prophecy. Thanks for watching.

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