Friday, March 07, 2008

Macbeth: Is He Not A Good Guy?

During the second season of Slings & Arrows, they perform Macbeth.  The conversation is almost entirely around words like "evil" and "psychopaths."  I get that they're going over the top with it.  I understand that in producing this particular play, people really like to go nuts with the curse and the blood and the smoke and mirrors and all that good stuff. 

But I'm left wondering if I've fundamentally misunderstood the ending to Macbeth all this time.  Is Macbeth a fundamentally good guy who has been corrupted by ambition this whole time, who realizes too late the error of his ways?  Or is he, right to the very end, just a demented psychopath who is too insane to realize that he's already dead and just doesn't know it yet?

I've always thought it the former.  After all, we've gotten a glimpse into his character (and his descent) through the whole play, it's not like we have another good guy to play off of where we get to say at the end "Hooray, the good guy won!"  I mean yeah, we do, but he just sort of shows up at the end, it's not like the play was one big chase where the good guy is always one step behind.  Most of the play is about Macbeth going nuts, and only at the end do the good guys appear and win the day.

I guess I'm pondering the essence of the tragedy in this one.  If Macbeth is indeed a psychotic monster (every time I say it like that I imagine an action movie ending where he keeps getting butchered and just keeps getting up and charging the hero, until finally his head is chopped off), then where is the tragedy exactly?  Doesn't there have to be that moment of "Oh good, everything's going to be ok....too late, too late!" for it to be tragic?  Doesn't Macbeth have to have some awareness of his situation?  I've always preferred to think of the ending as Macbeth's realization that he has not been his own man throughout this whole experience, and that even though Fate has been right so far, he's going to take control and go down fighting.  He doesn't expect to win but he doesn't plan to roll over and let Fate have it's way with him, either.  Or, that could also be the ravings of a lunatic who is beaten and refuses to realize it, too. 

Now I want to go see a Macbeth. :)


ren girl said...

Oh, Macbeth...this is a weird play. One of my faves, but a weird one.
Take note, though, that for all the throwing about of "evil" in S2 of S&A, Geoffrey keeps trying to get back to the human side (I don't know how far into S2 you are...I think it's episode 3 or 4 where that really happens).
I wrote a paper for a class once, where the discussion was between whether the world of Macbeth (not necessarily the character himself) was a moral world or not--that is, does it present a world where it's good v. evil, or is it more confusing than that?
I tend to side closer to the amoral universe--which is not to say that all the characters are amoral, but that it's not as clear-cut as good v. evil. What I mean is that yes, the world of the play has a moral framework, built from human morals and values and compassion; but it's complex, & a lot of characters (especially Macduff, holy cow! He was my thesis of that paper) are caught in the middle of that complexity.
I think Macbeth is human--for all the supernatural forces going on. But he's a human with flaws (as we all are), & his paranoia & ambition, as well as his wife, drive him to do things that he knows, on some level, are bad. (Later in the play I see him a little like Claudio in Hamlet--remorseful for his actions partly, but unwilling to give up what he gained from them.)
It's a tragedy for Macbeth in that he made the wrong choices & fell from a position of prominence and respect. It's a tragedy for us in the Aristotelian sense that we can recognize our own flaws in him (perhaps we too are also paranoid? Maybe we're led too easily by suggestions?) & this story might scare to sense.
There is a sense of restoration at the end of the play--Macduff kills Macbeth, Malcolm will come back to be king; but for me, it's a very uncomfortable ending. There was just as much violence in getting the "legitimate" heir to the throne as the unlegitimate. Malcolm is untested; divine right is not going to make him a good king, just the "correct" one. We don't know that the world after Macbeth will be perfect.

...this was sort of long...I'm not even sure I answered your question. But I find it all really interesting too! :)

Duane said...

You're right, Ren, I'm going through S2 as we speak and it's funny because just 5 minutes ago Geoffrey was arguing about making Macbeth more human, and everybody is against him :).

At the end there is redemption of the natural order, yes - the monster is gone, the "rightful" king is on the throne. But is there redemption in Macbeth the character? Is he aware of his position and his fate during the final speech, or is he completely insane? Is he a flawed human, doomed to die, but still demonstrating his free will by fighting to the last? Or is he that horror movie monster that won't stop coming until you cut his head off?

By the way I agree completely about the amoral universe, it seems like every disagreement is met with "Ok, go kill him." In most of the other stories, R&J, Othello, Hamlet...there is some talk of law and order, prisons, elections of new rulers. In Macbeth we're left with,as you said, "You killed him, nobody's killed you yet, I guess you're it."

You know, it seems custom made for a sequel. :)

Gedaly said...

I lean to the side that Macbeth is a good guy who is corrupted by his ambition, among other things. If MacB is just a monster who is defeated at the end then there's no tragedy! The tragedy of the story is that of a good man who has everything going for him (war hero, thane, another thane, loved by the King...) but he is tempted by evil to a different fate.

The tragedy continues as Macbeth struggles to keep what he took. He's not driven by greed to wipe out the rest of his enemies but because of fear. He is a fearful man and he attempts to answer his insecurities by eliminating the immediate threats to his security.

Here's a man who wasn't 100% sure this is what he wanted but his wife pushed him onto a runaway train and he's doing his best to stay on it even though he's doomed to crash sooner or later.

I don't think that he's redeemed at the end. Everything has gone wrong at this point, "Though Birnan wood be come to Dunsinane, / And thou oppos'd, being of no woman born," he's a true warrior and will die a soldiers death on the battlefield.


ren girl said...

The whole strip-him-naked bit? Yeah, it's funny how everyone's so against it (but there are obviously theater & personal politics going on, aside from the fact that the man playing Hamlet is a pretentious idiot).

I don't know that I would call it redemption within Macbeth, but yes, I do think he's fully aware of his situation, & I do think he's human. The only supernatural "monsters" in the show are the witches (if they are monsters at all; I only use them as counterpoint because I don't see them as entirely human, whereas I think Macbeth is). Macbeth knows he's messed up, but he's stubborn, & as you said, I think he's realized how much trouble he's in, but he's going down with a fight because that's his last way of retaining the dignity that he's been throwing away.

As for a sequel...well. The theater I work at has a youth ensemble--I wasn't involved with this show in particular, but they did a Macbeth a couple summers ago, & it was chilling & scary, & very good. At the end, when Macduff holds up MacB's head, & proclaims Malcolm as king, he says "Hail, King of Scotland!" & the rest of the victors chime in, "Hail!" ...and then the witches slink out of the set & repeat their refrain: "Hail...hail...hail."
The echo is painfully obvious, even without spelling it out by bringing the witches back; but what that does of course is set Malcolm up for the same meeting with the witches that Macbeth had.
The question then becomes: Is Malcolm a Macbeth or a Banquo: will he fall into belief & paranoia & ambition when tempted by supernatural prophecies, or will he be cautious, alert & responsible?
We don't know, but that's what that reading leaves us with. (& I really like it.)

Alan K.Farrar said...

"who realizes too late the error of his ways?"
To the Elizabethans the point would most likely have been it is NEVER too late - he realises, but refuses to repent. That's the tragedy - absolution is possible even 'til the point of death.
You are right - he starts off the perfect soldier - then he lets his guard down - and, again, the Elizabethans would have seen that as an indication of the 'ever present' devil ready, willing and able to corrupt even the greatest of men.
We don't need to follow their moral framework - but it does bring a degree of agreement to your original doubt about him being just mad.