One of an ongoing series of blog posts in which I massacre some of the finest plays written in the English language.
Macbeth – as any fule no – is a tragedy.
Why is it a tragedy? I hear you cry.
Acos it has no bleedin’ dancin’ in it that’s why. And we all know that every Shakespeare play in which a dance does not get shoe horned in there one way or another is very, very sad indeed.
Macbeth does not even sport a teeny, weeny eightsome reel, despite the fact that it is set in Bonny Scotland.
Although this is Scotland at a time when really things were not very bonny at all. The nights were long, the winds were raw and whistled up your kilt, which could explain the lack of dancing, and Billy Connolly had not been invented yet.
Add to that the ubiquitous haggis, which strikes fear into the hearts of mortal man, and the fact that the idea of deep frying a Mars Bar is but a twink in the laird’s eye, and it’s all waily waily and doooom.
Doooom I say.
So, what’s to do on a godforsaken patch of Scottish earth that will keep the fee paying public interested for two hours of their lives, and make up for the parlous state of television reception and the fact that the nearest place you can watch Take The High Road is Carlisle…
That’s right. You fight anyone and anything and any way for as long as you have the breath in your body to spell sassenach without spitting all over your own sporran. That’s what you do.
And by golly they do a lot of fighting in the Scottish play.
Before the fight though, there is always time for witches.
It is a little known fact that Winston Churchill kept three witches in his broom closet before Dunkirk.
In this play, the witches are free range witches who choose to idly wander about a windswept moor (not a negro loverman in this case – but an actual boggy, heather clad moor – although with Shakespeare you can never be entirely sure), looking for trouble. Imagine them as three disaffected youths who have run out of fags and bottles of Thunderbird and are loafing round a shopping centre in the gloaming, having spitting contests and shrieking a lot. They should be skanking dog ends and pestering old ladies on bicycles, but there aren’t many of them in the midst of a battle on a sullen Scottish evening, so they have to make do with putting the willies up Macbeth instead.
Macbeth has got a lot on. He has been fighting the combined forces of Norway and Ireland.
Picture a muddier, bloodier version of the Eurovision song contest – without Dana International.
Macbeth is Thane of Glamis. They use the word thane a lot in this play. I think it is a made up word that Shakespeare loved so much he decided to use it often and with conviction in the hope that it would stick. It means ‘I am the boss of you’. Macbeth has a trusty side kick called Banquo. Banquo is not a thane, but it doesn’t stop him skelping people with his sword and being very handy at the old stabby stabby – so that’s alright. Banquo has been busy helping Macbeth give the Norsers and Irishers null points and, as the play starts all is going brilliantly and everyone who needs vanquishing has been vanquished, and Macbeth and Banquo are idly scratching midge bites and lounging about in the heather reflecting on their victory.
Banquo is just reminiscing about the time he got old Hardicanute in a head lock when up pop the three witches looking a bit like Kate Bush in the Wuthering Heights video, and making about as much noise. They shout ‘Ho Thane of Glamis’ and ‘Ha Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘Wotcher mighty king’ at Macbeth, until he gets one of his nasty heads. Then they say ‘Alright Banquo mate. Don’t worry about the lack of Thaneishness in your life. You’re gonna be kings all the way down.’ It’s prophesy this and prophesy that with these witches. They have been on a course and have been dying to try it out. See: ‘The Three Highly Effective Habits of Venomous Witches’ for details.
Prophecy prophesied, they pop back behind some overhanging lichen – leaving Macbeth and Banquo wondering whether someone has spiked their cuppa, until a messenger from King Duncan trots up and says: ‘Hoy Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, now hot off the press Thane of Cawdor for being skill at fighting and all that and because that title happens to be free due to the previous Thane being a bit of a traitor – Wotcher Banquo – jings and crivens. P.S. King Duncan wants to see you.’
Macbeth and Banquo now have a moment of deep waily waily when they realise that the mysterious forces of magical witchiness are actually not down to hallucinogenic mushroom tea from the moors and might be true.
They pop off to see King Duncan who says damn right Thane of Cawdor and then invites himself to visit Macbeth’s castle on an indefinite basis on the strength of handing out a lordship. He names his son Malcolm as his heir and ignores poor Banquo, pushing off to make ready to eat Macbeth out of house and home.
Macbeth sends a telegram to his wife, Lady Macbeth:
Two thaneships: Stop.
Crazy witches on the moor prophesied it. Stop.
Said I will be king. Stop.
Make sandwiches. Stop.
Duncan coming for tea. Stop
Lady Macbeth has mixed feelings about all this. She is a feisty woman who listens to Beyonce and burns her bra. She can’t be doing with pandering to the needs of kings (Shippams sandwich paste and be damned is her motto), unless they are her husband, and she is resentful that she’s going to have to change the bedlinen, and it’s not even Friday. She decides that the best thing to do in this situation is leave the bedsheets in an uncertain state, and just murder King Duncan instead. She has been on a course. The Seven Highly Effective Habits of Psychopathic Megalomaniacs. It’s really working out.
It is unsurprising then, that when Macbeth arrives, and she puts her plan to him, that his feeble objections are cut to the ground like wheat before the scythe, and after impugning his manhood for not wanting to slaughter the king in his bed, and reminding him that at school they all called him ‘wee Jimmy four eyes’ and laughed at him because he wet himself, and we don’t want that again now do we? She gets her way. She is not a woman to be crossed. Imagine Les Dawson in drag, but with more tartan.
Duncan hoves into view demanding sandwiches, strewing muddy clothes all over the hall, moaning about the roads into Inverness and generally being an undesirable guest, even if only by dint of being entirely the wrong king. This serves to strengthen Lady Macbeth’s resolve to off him. She will not forgive him for the fact that last time he stayed he left curly hairs in the soap. Nor the fact that he picks his teeth and whistles at the dinner table. His fate is sealed.
When it comes down to it, Macbeth loses his nerve, claiming that he has ‘one of his heads’, and he’s not sure he knows the way to the best guest room, and he is feeling a bit jittery because he’s pretty sure he saw a sign that might be an omen, and it looked like a dagger dripping blood, and that probably isn’t a good thing. And…and…and. Gah. Lady Macbeth indulges in some severe tutting and a bit of stamping, but it’s cutting no ice with ‘wee Jimmy four eyes’. Thinking ‘What would Lady Ga Ga do?’ Lady Macbeth grabs the dagger and goes off to stab Duncan on her own, muttering ‘bloody men, you want a job doing well, you might as well do it your bloody self…’ all the way down the corridor.
There is a lot of blood. There is quite a lot of waily waily, and for a castle in which many residents have been given a sleeping draught and everyone else is knackered after a big battle, it is very lively. Owls hoot, blood drips, low moaning occurs. Drunken badinage with some random character left over from another play happens, probably because someone had to be written in thanks to a charity auction in aid of plague victims or something. It’s all go.
Lady Macbeth returns victorious, and very grateful she decided not to change the sheets after all. There is a bit more waily waily from Macbeth, who given that he was scything off the king of Norway’s head only that morning has turned out to be a very fair weather Thane indeed. Lady Macbeth is beginning to wonder if her mother wasn’t right all along: ‘Never marry a man, Dierdre. Nothing but trouble.’
She could have bred rare breed sheep. The things you give up for a night of lust and a wind tossed sporran.
The next morning, Duncan’s besty mates, Lennox and Macduff arrive to take advantage of Lady Macbeth’s sandwiches. They are met by Macbeth, muttering things about not really being wee Jimmy four eyes and the teeny weeny matter of the king being murdered in his bed, maybe, might be. When pressed he hedges his bets, saying it looks like either he had a slight accident with his shaving razor, or someone has murdered him. Jings and Crivens. If only he’d gone on that course: ‘The Ten Highly Effective Ways to Stay Being King.’
Lennox and Macduff are a bit put out at this news, knowing that the possibility of sandwiches is looking slimmer by the moment, and that they will probably have to fill in some forms – which is always annoying. Macduff goes off to check Duncan is actually dead and not faking it so he can have a week off at Camber Sands due to being a bit tired of slaughtering lesser nations all the time. But no. He is definitely dead. Most certainly murdered most foully. Lennox and Macduff break the news to Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, in the hope that they might fill out the forms while Lennox and Macduff make a start on the sandwiches, but no – like the uter wet and wedes they are, Malcolm and Donalbain hot foot it to England in case they are subject to a nasty shaving accident too.
Lennox and Macduff debate what to do now. They really don’t want a fuss. Sorting out new kings is a bit of a bother, and heads tend to roll. They eye up Lady Macbeth who is resentfully washing sheets in some suspiciously pink water, and who looks like she might be a bit of a tartar about things like blood stains. Her hands are ruined, ruined. If it’s not sandwich making, it’s stabbing kings. If it’s not stabbing kings it’s washing sheets. A nearly queen’s work is never done. Although if she can bribe Lennox and Macduff to overlook the formalities and just crown Macbeth for the price of another plate of bloody sandwiches, she will slave on a bit longer. As she is popping out to get some more Vanish, she mentions the possibility of sandwiches to Lennox and Macduff with a nod and a wink in the direction of the still bloodied crown. Lennox and Macduff are not slow on the uptake and dig in to some particularly toothsome shrimp paste sandwiches with gusto whilst signing forms in triplicate like there’s no tomorrow. Macbeth is crowned in a miasma of fish breath and the toxic aroma of Stain Devils.
Things trot along quite nicely at the palace for a few pages until Macbeth starts to worry that Banquo, who also heard the witches’ prophecy will a) dob him in, b) suspect, c) go back to calling him wee Jimmy four eyes, d) steal his crown, or worse, e) all of the above. He finds out that Banquo and his son, Fleance, are going out riding later, and rather than you know, think things through, sit round a table and chat, drug his tea, etc, he simply hires a bunch of idiot assassins to kill both Banquo and Fleance. Given his whole uselessness at the cold and calculated murder thing, you think that Macbeth would have run this plan by his much more successful murderer of a wife before he put it into action, but no. He has the bit between his teeth now. He is making up for being a bit rubbish over Duncan.
Or is he?
Satisfied at a job well done, even though it hasn’t yet been done he jaunts off to dinner with all his new Thanes, feeling chuffed that he has top trumps because King definitely has more skill points than thane, and he has two thaneships as well – so bobs on you, wee Jimmy four eyes. They’re just about to tuck into some more sandwiches that Lady Macbeth has grudgingly made (with all the crusts cut off, because it’s a banquet, and that’s posh) when word gets to Macbeth that although Banquo is dead in a ditch, Fleance has scarpered, off to join Malcolm and Donalbain in England.
This puts Macbeth right off his potted meat sandwiches, and he begins to whimper and feel like he’s never going to get out of the shadow of wee Jimmy four eyes, and what did he ever do to deserve this? Despite pep talks and the odd pointed jab in the elbow from Lady Macbeth, things go from bad to worse when Banquo’s ghost zooms in like an extra from Rentaghost, and starts dripping blood over the radishes shaped like flowers, giving Macbeth the heebie jeebies and making him scream like a girl.
Macbeth runs away, gibbering into the night. He wants to find the witches and get either a better prophecy, or his money back. Lady Macbeth is left to hoover up all the crumbs and send everyone packing. Things are looking black for Macbeth, especially when the witches are about as much help as a Countdown Conundrum to a dyslexic, and start babbling on about how Macbeth will be king as long as he remembers to watch out for Macduff, who has not forgiven Lennox for eating all the jam sandwiches, and who has now gone off to London with everyone else in the entire play who isn’t dead or mad, or both. They also tell him that he must fear no man of woman born, and that he’ll be alright until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
This makes little or no sense whatsoever to Macbeth, who is, by now, quite fed up with the way everything is going and just wants a new wife, a bit of tidy murder with no loose ends, and less cryptic crossword pronouncements in his life. He demands that the witches tell him if Banquo is still a threat. The witches take against him. They’re fed up of whinging, ingrate kings who can’t just get on and make the best of the kingship they’ve got. They show him Banquo’s relatives being all kingy down the ages and sniggering, they bugger off back to Wuthering Heights pronto. They prefer the Nineteenth Century novel and the twentieth century pop single.
While Macbeth is out, frolicking on the moors with the witches, Lady Macbeth has made one sandwich too many and has suddenly gone completely hat stand, wringing her hands, wailing about spots and generally giving the game away. It’s all going wrong, and the supply of sandwiches has dried up, meaning loyalty to Macbeth is beginning to waver. Macbeth comes home, murders all of Banquo’s family, except Fleance who is on the London Eye, hanging out with Malcolm and Donalbain. The London Eye turns out to be very slow, and bored of the revelation that Donalbain is in love with a living statue of a tin man on the South Bank and won’t be coming back to Scotland any time soon, Macduff decides with the others that the best thing to do is probably to raise an army, go back to Scotland and lay claim to all the sandwiches before it’s too late.
Macbeth, meanwhile is utterly fed up. He too is raising an army, but an army marches on its stomach, and Lady M is in no fit state to make packed lunches of any kind, wandering around as she is, hooting like an owl and showing everyone her nightie. It is a blessed relief when she tops herself and he can get on with the real man’s work of ignoring his soldiers calling him wee Jimmy four eyes and defending his honour, such as it is, from the ravening sandwich pillagers of olde London town.
All is going well for Macbeth until he finds out that a) his army are a bit rubbish, b) Macduff is in charge of the opposing army and he’s a bit tetchy for lack of carbs – which is never a good thing, and c) the enemy soldiers are disguised as Birnam Wood and coming up to Dunsinane on the inside.
Macbeth still holds on to his shred of dignity by engaging in one to one combat with Macduff and saying: ‘Ha ha ha! Only man who hasn’t been born of woman can kill me, you big, sandwich stealing wazzock.’
To which Macduff replies: ‘Me mam had a c-section. She was too posh to push. Take that, Wee Jimmy Four Eyes. You’ve always smelled of wee.’
And he kills Macbeth.
He turns to his beforested army, shouts: ‘The sandwiches are on me.’ and before you know it they’re at Inverness castle tucking into a high tea Enid Blyton would have been proud to call her own, while Malcolm takes the crown, and Fleance waits patiently in the wings to be related to James I.