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  • Hi I'm John Green.

  • This is Crash Course Literature and today we'll be doubling, bubbling, toiling and

  • troubling as we continue our discussion of Macbeth.

  • Today we'll be looking more closely at the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as

  • well as discussing the play's treatment of gender roles and its downer ending.

  • INTRO One of the

  • most remarkable things about Macbeth is that it presents us with a hero who is also a villain.

  • As we discussed last time, when we first meet Macbeth he's helped win a major battle for

  • Scotland.

  • The first time he's mentioned, a sergeant introduces him asbrave Macbeth.”

  • Being brave and winning battles were two of the major signs of Great Mandom at the time.

  • And okay, maybe this Macbeth is a little violent; he slices an opponent down the middle and

  • spikes his head on the battlements.

  • But he's definitely the hero of the day and Duncan, the King, rewards him.

  • Even if that whole beheading thing seems a little extreme, at the beginning of the play

  • we're on Macbeth's side.

  • And we stay on his side when he has a lot of second thoughts about his wife's plan

  • to kill the king.

  • / His wife has to talk him into itbasically

  • she attacks his masculinity, but more on that laterand I think our sympathies mostly

  • stay with him even after the murder.

  • We worry that someone is going to find him out, maybe the same someone who knocks so

  • unrelentingly on the gate, and hope he gets away with it, even though it's horrible.

  • (The fact that it sickens even him is another way to get us on his side.)

  • Once he becomes king, his paranoia kicks in and so does his cruelty.

  • He starts ordering more murders, maybe even some he doesn't have to order, like that

  • of Banquo.

  • Now he's the one encouraging murderers, not his wife--he's gone from hero to antihero,

  • a journey that has since been undertaken by everyone from Walter White to Tony Soprano

  • to Pablo Escobar to Don Draper to Jamie Lannister to that Hannibal Lecter guy in Westworld.

  • I wonder if it's a coincidence that all those dudes are dudes.

  • But before we get there, let's examine how to understand Macbeth's choices in the Thoughtbubble:

  • Could we argue that Macbeth's encounter with the witches has made him evil?

  • I mean, there's no suggestion that they've enchanted him, and they never tell him to

  • kill Duncan or even suggest that killing Duncan is a possibility.

  • They let Macbeth and his wife figure that part out for themselvesalong with all the

  • blood and the daggers.

  • But the witches do light up his ambition with their prophecies.

  • Now, maybe Macbeth has been a terrible guy from the get-go, a Thane who just needed the

  • excuse of the witches prophecies to act on his worst impulses.

  • As we saw, there are signs of his cruelty even from the beginning; splitting open opponents

  • from neck to belly is not the work of an especially meek and mild person.

  • But then if Macbeth is inherently evil, in the manner of some Shakespeare villains, then

  • why do his actions trouble him so much?

  • Almost immediately, Macbeth loses the ability to pray and sleep and he even seems to envy

  • Duncan: “After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.”

  • Meanwhile Macbeth is an insomniac.

  • He also doesn't seem to enjoy being king, a job he was literally willing to kill for.

  • And whether he actually sees Banquo's ghost in the banquet scene or just hallucinates

  • him, neither suggests a man who is happy in his life choices.

  • A sociopathic villain, like I'd argue Iago is from Othello, just wouldn't be haunted

  • in that way.

  • But for a guy who maybe isn't evil to begin with, he does keep getting a lot of people

  • murdered.

  • Or maybe, seeing that the murder of Duncan has already damned him for eternity, he figures

  • there's no point repenting now.

  • As he says to his wife...

  • “I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as

  • tedious as go o'er.”

  • Basically, if you're midway through fording the River of Blood, might as well cross

  • to the other side.

  • Thanks, Thoughtbubble.

  • However we understand Macbeth, by the midpoint of the play, probably around when he orders

  • the murder of Banquo and his son, we've stopped rooting for Macbeth and his wife to

  • get away with their crimes.

  • Instead, we're hoping they'll get their comeuppance, preferably before Macduff's

  • wife and kids are brutally murdered in front of us.

  • But alas.

  • Shakespeare keeps the violence offstage until that scene, then he allows it full rein, which

  • should shake anyone who still feels sympathy for Macbeth.

  • Even the witches now acknowledge his evil.

  • The next time he approaches them, they say, “Something wicked this way comes.”

  • And as for nameless Lady Macbeth, Holinshed, in the play's source material, describes

  • her asverie ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.”

  • She's the one spurring him on to murder when he's reluctant or frightened or listening

  • to his conscience.

  • In her opinion, at least early in the play, stabbing a king is no big deal.

  • / She even offers to go frame the guards by

  • smearing them with Duncan's blood, saying, “A little water clears us of this deed.”

  • It's interesting to see the opposite effects the murder has on them.

  • It hardens Macbeth into a serial murderer, but it softens Lady Macbeth into a victim.

  • Her mind disturbed, she brings to sleepwalk, miming washing her hands over, desperate for

  • the little water to clear her of her deed.

  • But she can't get the spot of blood out--not even after its visibly gone.

  • Instead her guilt seems to drive her to suicide.

  • To understand more about this dynamic, let's look at how the play treats masculinity and

  • femininity.

  • This tragedy has a particular interest in what it means to be a man, but we get our

  • first taste of this by characters who don't really seem male or female, the witches.

  • Banquo says to them, “you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/

  • That you are so.”

  • These are the weird sisters, which may be a corruption ofthe wayward sisters,”

  • and there's definitely a suggestion that characters who aren't identifiable as either

  • male or female are destabilizing and upsetting.

  • This was a period that oppressed gender fluidity, even though it's worth noting that theater

  • was a place of gender complexity, since male actors played female roles, and Shakespeare's

  • characters often play with traditional gender constructions.

  • We get another example when Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter and starts worrying

  • that he won't be man enough to get himself the crown.

  • Knowing he'll need her help she calls on spirits tounsex her”:

  • make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

  • That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

  • The effect and it!

  • Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall,”

  • Okay.

  • Wow.

  • So Lady Macbeth is saying, stop me from menstruating, stop me from lactating, basically take everything

  • about me that's liquid and feminine and pliable and make me harder and crueler.

  • When Macbeth tells her he's not going to kill the king, she tells him he's unmanly.

  • When you durst do it, then you were a man,” she says.

  • Ouch.

  • And it gets worse.

  • She says that she's breastfed children (where those children have gone is the sort of problem

  • that gives scholars fits) and loved those children but that she would happilyhave

  • pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn

  • as you/ Have done to this.”

  • Again: Wow.

  • And just a cool poetic meter note: When they're having these kinds of arguments, especially

  • the one about killing Duncan, many of Macbeth's lines have so-called feminine endings (an

  • extra syllable in the line) and hers don't.

  • / Because she's the one behaving in the more

  • traditionally macho way.

  • So far the play seems to be suggesting that there's something cruel and almost unnatural

  • about masculinity, about manning up.

  • And maybe we can see this as another reason why Macbeth gets so murder-y.

  • / Having committed to such a hard and unyielding

  • vision of masculinity like the kind his wife offers, he doesn't really know how to soften

  • up again.

  • But that's not the only vision of masculinity that the play provides.

  • There's a scene between Malcolm and Macduff where Malcolm tries to brag that he's really

  • evil and greedy and lecherous.

  • But then he takes it all back, suggesting that it's his innocence and even his virginity,

  • his unmanliness, that will actually make him an honorable king.

  • In that same scene, Macduff learns that his wife and all of his children have been murdered

  • and nice virginal Malcolm tries to tell him, Lady Macbeth-style, to man up.

  • Dispute it like a man,” Malcolm says.

  • But here's the difference between Macduff and Macbeth.

  • Instead of Macbeth going along with his wife's toxic vision of masculinity, Macduff finds

  • another way.

  • He says: /

  • “I shall do soBut I must also feel it as a man:

  • I cannot but remember such things were, That were most precious to me.”

  • Yes, Macduff is not of woman born so you could argue that he's the manliest of anyone in

  • this play, but his definition of manliness is different.

  • It involves fighting, but it also involves feeling.

  • And loving.

  • And mourning.

  • Not that any of this is going to stop him from cutting off Macbeth's head at the end.

  • Let's look at that ending.

  • Before the final battle, Macbeth receives the news that his wife has died and recites

  • a soliloquy saying that at this point life means nothing.

  • He says: /

  • 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.”

  • Those beautifully written nihilistic lines have resonated through the last four hundred

  • years--Faulkner titled his most famous book after them.

  • / And here at the end, Macbeth doesn't seem

  • anything like the Thane we met at the beginning of the play--he doesn't seem worried or

  • brave or ambitious or bloodthirsty--just tired.

  • / The dagger, the line of kings, Banquo's

  • ghost, even his wife's death--none of it matters.

  • And not really the go-getter we got to know at the top of the play.

  • He doesn't seem worried or ambitious or bloodthirsty, just really, really tired.

  • The shadows and illusions he's witnessedthe dagger, the line of kings, Banquo's ghostdon't