Macbeth, the anti-David

 

Just the other day, my class was performing skits of various scenes in the life of David before becoming king of Israel (and the king of Israel’s brief Golden Age). As I was sharing a few personal thoughts to the end of one performance, I suddenly realized just how closely it paralleled the story of Macbeth. In 1 Samuel 24 we read that Saul is in pursuit of David. Taking a break to relieve himself, Saul goes into a cave where, unbeknownst to Saul, David is hiding with his own men. David creeps up to Saul probably to kill him (the text never says that was his original intent but can be surmised from the context of the situation), his enemy, and gain the throne of Israel. However, instead of killing Saul, David secretly cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Even that act, though, causes David deep remorse for touching “the Lord’s anointed,” and he orders his men not to attack Saul.

So what are the parallels with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth? First, in Macbeth the titular character begins as a brave warrior and Thane (nobleman) of Glamis. However, he receives two prophecies by a group of three witches. First, he would be Thane of Cawdor; this takes place later that scene. Second, Macbeth would become king of Scotland. However, Macbeth toils over the conundrum of his own role in the fulfillment of the second prophecy. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” (Act I, Scene 3). Can he trust the prophecy that what had been foretold will come to pass without his direct intervention? Or must Macbeth act on his own behalf? Well, SPOILER ALERT (for those of you who somehow are unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth), Macbeth takes matters into his own hands: He kills the king and, to secure his throne, kills many others besides. Before he knows it, he declares, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Act III, Scene 4).

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David, the antithesis of Macbeth, also receives a prophecy that he will become king, foretold by the prophet Samuel. Not only must David decide if he will wait for the efficacy of the prophecy (and God’s dictation), he must submit himself to the temptation of seizing control when fate seems to have favored him with the opportunity to kill Saul in the cave at En Gedi. David, however, remains true to his own humanity (and God’s law), and passes through the test having only gone so far as to cut a piece of the king’s robe. God, true to his word, later allows Saul to be killed in combat, and David, integrity intact, ascends to Israel’s throne.

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Do you believe that Macbeth would have eventually become king even without his own violent intervention?

Can you think of other examples of leaders (fictional or real) passing inner tests of integrity before ascending to their position?

6 Reasons to Read Macbeth

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Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.

This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.

1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.

Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

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2. The Scottish setting

Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.

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Dunsinane Hill from Wikipedia

3. The universal themes

Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.

…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)

Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.

4. The enticing plot

From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!

5. The brilliant writing

Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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. (5.5.22-31)

6. The great adaptations

Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.

 

Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.

So, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?