A Macbeth primer

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 05:32 AM

If a local theater group should ever produce a performance of Macbeth in your area, don’t miss it. The play is generally regarded to be one of the best tragedies ever written. And while it’s a compelling drama, the obscure language and symbolism can be as baffling as a Paris Hilton interview.

So for those of you who took AP Cosmetology instead of English during high school, here’s a summary of the plot: Macbeth’s villainous wife, Gruoch, convinces her hubby to rub out Scottish King Duncan, clearing the way for Mr. Mac to assume the royal throne.

Honestly, that's about the gist of it.

Early on, it’s pretty obvious that Lady Macbeth is going to lose it. But it’s hardly surprising that she turns out to be less than the perfect medieval hostess. After all, who wouldn’t be a grumpy, murderous, battle-axe with a name like Gruoch?

Now, before all you Macbeth scholars out there get your pantaloons in a knot, I do realize that Lady Mac’s first name is never revealed in the play; but trust me on this, that was her real name.

Yes, there really was a Macbeth, with a better half – much better, in fact, than the literary character portrays. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays that were based on historical figures, the depiction of Macbeth and his wife as the Mad Macs filled with greed and ambition is mostly fiction and bears little resemblance to the real Macbeths of Scottish history.

Historians believe that King Duncan really was killed by Macbeth in 1040, but most likely in battle. Years later as King of Scotland, Macbeth was himself slain by Duncan’s son in 1057. As for Duncan, well, his descendants immigrated to America where they opened a successful chain of donut shops.

In modern times, many actors have tackled the role of Macbeth. For instance, Christopher Plummer, Kelsey Grammer, and Patrick Stewart all played Macbeth on Broadway.  Even William Shatner once attempted the role, but was booed off the stage when he ad-libbed, “Beam me up, Macduff!”

In film, Orson Welles was an awesome Macbeth in 1948, but Sean Connery flopped in a 60s TV movie. You just don’t bump off a head of state, then introduce yourself to your new subjects by announcing: “The name’s Macbeth, KING Macbeth.”

Even if you’re not a Shakespeare nut, you’ll probably recognize this familiar line from Act IV, Scene I:

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Here we find the three gourmet witches invoking an incantation as they prepare their 11th century version of Camp Stew – a charming concoction containing tasty delicacies such as “toe of frog,” “tongue of dog,” and “eye of newt.”

Shakespeare’s recipe was intentionally ominous in order to enhance the sinister role of the witches. Had they created their potion from dandelions, lentils and tofu, these ladies might never have come across quite so menacing, although they would’ve been quite popular with the medieval veggo crowd.

In reality, symbolism was often used in the Middle Ages to conceal a potion’s true ingredients which were often just common herbs and plants. For instance, ‘tongue of dog’ was actually the hound’s tongue plant with rough leaves resembling a dog’s tongue; while ‘eye of newt’ could have been any of the flowering plants resembling an eye, such as a daisy.

In total, dozens of movies based on Macbeth have been filmed for the big screen or as TV movies over the years. But I wonder how filmmaker Michael Moore would treat a remake of the classic Shakespearean drama. He would probably begin by retitling as “Macbeth & Me.”

We could also predict a rewrite with not-so-subtle political overtones. Along these lines, I expect his witches would likely make their potions from more contemporary ingredients such as “Tongue of Palin” and “Eye of Gingrich.”

 

Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at alongtheselines@yahoo.com