Enjoying "Macbeth", by William Shakespeare
by Ed Friedlander, M.D.
erf@kcumb.edu

Warning: Macbeth is supposed to upset people. It shows life at its most brutal and cynical, in order to ask life's toughest question. This page deals with all this without apology. I have a high regard for truth and I talk plain. If you want something nice, please leave now.

Please note: I am the author of all the material on this page. My work has been used without my permission or acknowledgement by around a dozen other people (Google search September 26, 2009), including several sites offering it for sale. This one is the original site.

Wimbledon Studio Theater

Birnam Wood, by a Germantown Academy student If you are a student assigned to read or see Macbeth, or an adult approaching it for the first time, you are in for a lot of fun.

Everybody brings a different set of experiences to a book, a theater, or a classroom. Although I've tried to help, ultimately you'll need to decide for yourself about Shakespeare and Macbeth.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

This Is NOT "Family Entertainment."

Young people who know of Shakespeare from "Shakespeare Gardens" and "Beautiful Tales for Children" may be surprised by what happens in Macbeth.

The Real Macbeth and His Times

Shakespeare got his story from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. You'll need to decide for yourself whether Shakespeare himself knew the story was already fictionalized; Shakespeare's altered it again to clear Banquo, King James's legendary ancestor, of complicity in the murder. It's a fun read. Click here to read Holinshed. Holinshed spends a lot of time on the incident in which Malcolm (who became a popular king) tests Macduff by pretending to be mean when he is really nice. Holinshed talks about the murder of King Duff by Donwald in the century before Macbeth. According to Holinshed, Donwald was nagged by his wife until he did the evil deed, and drugged the guards. Shakespeare adapted this for Macbeth.

I've read that Holinshed's section on Macbeth was largely derived from the work of one Hector Boece, Scotorum Historiae ("Chronicles of Scotland", 1526-7, translated from Latin into English by a John Bellenden in 1535).

It is evidently not online. I've also read that Boece's sources include the Chronica gentis Scotorum ("Scotichronicon") by John of Fordun in the early 1500's (he also writes about William "Braveheart" Wallace and Robin Hood), and Andrew of Wyntoun (1400's). John of Fordun seems to have been the first to record the story of the dialogue on kingship between Macduff and Malcolm. You may be able to find this book in an old university library, but I could not find it online. By the time the story of Macbeth had reached Holinshed, it was already mostly fiction.

Here's what we think really happened with Macbeth and the other characters.

In a barbaric era, population pressures made war and even the slaughter of one community by another a fact of life. Survival depended in having a capable warlord to protect life and property, prevent infighting, and protect from distant enemies. Groups of warlords would unite under the nominal leadership of one king to promote their common interests and war on more distant nations. While people pretended to believe in "the divine right of kings" and "lawful succession", continuing effective leadership was assured by warlords killing off the less capable family members.

The name "Macbeth" means "son of life", and is a Christian name rather than a patronymic (hence the "b" is lower case.) Macbeth would have signed his friends' high school yearbooks "Macbeth mac Findlaech" (McFinley). There are MacBeth families in Scotland and Nova Scotia.

Macbeth's father Findlaech was ruler ("mormaer", high steward) of Moray, at the northern tip of Scotland. Macbeth's mother's name is unknown, but she is variously said to have been the daughter of King Kenneth II or the daughter of King Malcolm II. In 1020, Findlaech was killed and succeeded by his nephew Gillacomgain. In 1032, Gillacomgain and fifty other people were burned to death in retribution for the murder of Findlaech, probably by Macbeth and allies.

The historical Mrs. Macbeth was not named "Lady", but "Gruoch" (GROO-och). She was the daughter of a man named Biote (Beoedhe), who was in turn the son of King Kenneth III "the Grim" who Malcolm II had killed to become king. (Some say that Biote was the son of Kenneth II instead.) She was originally married to Gillacomgain. Their son was Lulach the Simple (i.e., stupid; no, Lady Macbeth didn't brain him.) After Macbeth killed Gillacomgain, he took his widow Gruoch for his own wife, and raised Lulach as their stepson. What a guy!

Centuries before Macbeth, King Kenneth MacAlpin, "founded Scotland" by uniting the Picts and the Scots, i.e., getting them to fight foreigners rather than each other. In this era, Gaelic custom required that the succession go via the male line, and that if an heir was not yet old enough to reign when the king died, the kingship went to whatever male adult was next in line. Since the succession was designed to ensure some stability in a world of warlords and infighting, this made sense. Kenneth MacAlpin's male line continued to King Malcolm II, who had at least two daughters but no sons, and he killed the last member of the male McAlpin line. One daughter, Bethoc, (Holinshed calls her Beatrice) married Abbanath Crinen, the secular hereditary abbot of Dunkeld, and gave birth to Duncan.

In 1034, Malcolm II was murdered at Glamis by his fellow warlords, possibly including his grandson Duncan. Then Duncan managed to kill his rivals and seize the throne. Duncan married Sibylla Bearsson and they had Malcolm and Donald "Bain".

Sean Bean & Samantha Bond Macbeth allied with Thorfinn of Orkney, a Norseman. Thorfinn was the son of Sigurd the Fat and Bethoc, apparently the same Bethoc who was Duncan I's father. Thorfinn Sigurdsson is variously called "Thorfinn I", "Thorfinn II", "Thorfinn Skull-Smasher", "Thorfinn the Black", and "Thorfinn Raven-Feeder" (ravens eat dead meat, including human corpses). Thorfinn and Macbeth defeated and killed Duncan I in a battle in Elgin in August 1040. Thorfinn ruled northern Scotland, and Macbeth ruled southern Scotland. According to accounts, Macbeth was a good king, strict but fair, for the first decade of his reign.

In 1054, Earl Siward of Northumberland, who spirited Malcolm to England after Duncan's death, invaded Scotland. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, he met and defeated Macbeth at the battle of Birnam Wood / Dunsinane (July 27). Most of Macbeth's army were killed, but Macbeth escaped. Siward's son and nephew were also killed. According to the Chronicles of Ulster, Macbeth continued to reign and was actually killed in 1057 by Duncan's son Malcolm at Lumphanan near Aberdeen. Thorfinn II survived until 1064.

After Macbeth's death, Lulach claimed the kingship and had some supporters. Lulach was ambushed and killed a few months later by Malcolm.

Malcolm went on to reign as Malcolm III "Canmore" ("big head" or "great ruler"). He took Thorfinn's widow Ingibiorg for himself, and they had a son Duncan, who later ruled as Duncan II. After Ingibiorg died, Malcolm Canmore married Margaret, a princess of the old English royal family. Margaret was a woman of great personal piety, and is now honored as a saint by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Three of their sons became kings in their turns.

Malcolm Canmore was an aggressive and successful warrior who invaded England several times. He was finally killed in Northumberland. The story is that a treacherous soldier, pretending to hand him a key on a spear, put the spear through his eye socket.

Donald Bane, was king twice (deposed for a time by Duncan II, who he later defeated and killed). Donald Bane was finally defeated, imprisoned, and blinded by King Edgar, one of the sons of Malcolm Canmore and Margaret.

Boece, from a Roman Catholic source

Banquo and Fleance Never Existed

Banquo by Christopher Dunne Banquo (Banquho, "Thane of Lochabar") and Fleance are supposed to be the ancestors of the Stewarts (Stuarts), including some kings of Scotland and later Scotland-and-England. After Banquo's murder by Macbeth's assassins, Fleance fled to North Wales, and married one Nesta / Mary, daughter of Gryffudth ap Llewellyn, Prince of Wales. Walter the Steward, first "High Steward of Scotland" and the historical founder of the Stewart line, was supposedly their son.

This is all bunk. Walter's real name was "Walter Fitz Alan Dapifer", son of Alan Dapifer, the sheriff of Shropshire. The sheriff was the son of some ordinary folks.

For some reason, perhaps to give his own Stuart king some more glamorous ancestors, Boece made up Banquo and Fleance. Check out the old Scottish genealogies online. You'll find nobody matching their descriptions.

Joe Cochoit explains how we know Banquo and Fleance are fictitious.

Mr. Jensen explains explains how the riddle was solved, and the true ancestry of the Stuarts became clear. As usual, the truth is far more interesting than fiction.

According to Holinshed, Macbeth's parents were Sinel, Thane of Glamis (whose existence is otherwise unattested) and a daughter of Malcolm II named Doada (again, modern genealogies mention no such person.)

Some Story Details

Lady Macbeth's lie 'What, in our house?' would have given the game away to even the stupidest detective, but somehow no-one picks up on it.
If you're here, you already know the plot of Macbeth, or can find it from the links. Here are some things to notice.

Wooton The three witches remind English teachers of the three Fates of Greek mythology and the three Norns of Norse mythology. "Weird" (as in "weird sisters") used to mean "destiny" or "fate". Perhaps in an older version they were.

At the beginning, Duncan I is not leading either of his people's armies. He is not even present for Cawdor's execution. This is a good way for a king to get himself replaced quickly.

A blood-drenched captain reports that Macbeth and Banquo have just defeated the rebellious Macdonwald (MacDonald, E-I-E-I-O). Ross and Angus then enter and announce that "Bellona's bridegroom, lapped in proof" has defeated the Thane of Cawdor and the Norwegians at Fife. Holinshed credits Macbeth with both of these victories, but let's think. Macbeth cannot have fought two battles 500 miles apart at the same time, and in the next scene he knows nothing about the Thane of Cawdor's disloyalty. Macduff is thane of Fife. If "lapped in proof" is a mistake for "brave Macduff" or "Lord Macduff", then the whole scene makes more sense, and Shakespeare introduces the conflict between the two men early. (In Holinshed, Macbeth does fight both battles. Shakespeare is, as he often does, telescoping time. For the stage, perhaps "brave Macduff" does work better.) Duncan gives Cawdor's title and property to Macbeth. (If Macduff defeated the Thane of Cawdor, then Macduff should have gotten the title. Is Duncan again showing incompetence?)

Update 2010: The Folger "supernatural horror" production available on DVD uses "brave Macduff".

Malcolm was not yet of age, and Duncan's declaring him heir was an impediment to Macbeth's claim on the throne via his mother. Holinshed points this out.

As soon as Macbeth thinks of murdering Duncan, he says to Banquo, "Let's talk about this confidentially." This happens again before the dagger scene. However, Shakespeare's Banquo only becomes Macbeth's accomplice by his acquiescence afterwards.

Nothing is what it seems. This begins with Macbeth's beautiful castle and gracious hostess. When Duncan talks about the nice air and the nice birds at Macbeth's castle, Banquo -- very much the butt-kisser -- immediately agrees in a way that will make the king think that Banquo thinks that the king is a good observer of nature.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether Macbeth begins the play as a "nice guy." Unlike Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, no one seems to genuinely admire or love him except as a warlord. Lady Macbeth famously says he is full of the milk of human kindness, which she dislikes. In considering the murder, Macbeth seems most worried about the dangers and disadvantages to himself. You may enjoy listing these. ("Maybe destiny will make me king without murdering anyone." "It would be more fun to enjoy my current success and popularity for a while." "I'll go to hell." "Duncan is a good man and people won't like his killer." "I might get caught red-handed." "Somebody will assassinate me in turn.") Do you think he's also considering that what he's doing is wrong? Different people will reach different conclusions.

Notice that on the morning of the day Banquo gets murdered, Macbeth asks him three times where he is going and whether his son will be with him. Banquo should have been more suspicious. After the banquet, every one of the other warlords in Scotland knows that Macbeth killed Banquo for no good reason, and that he is mentally imbalanced, and that they are themselves in danger. My friend Ian Brown offered an idea that seems ingenious. Much of what goes on in this short play is what is NOT said. In the scene after the banquet, the Macbeths have become distant from one another. They say little of consequence, as in a marriage that both parties know has failed. Brown suggests that Lady Macbeth writes a letter warning her friend, Lady Macduff, about her husband. This explains the appearance of the messenger to warn Lady Macduff just before she is killed -- this episode does not contribute otherwise to the drama -- and afterwards, Lady Macbeth's repetitive writing during her sleepwalking.

My cyberfriend Kyle Reynolds wrote to remind me that most (all?) of the actual murders occur off-stage, since without any between-act curtains, the story had to be written so that somebody would remove a dead body from the stage. Thanks.

People suspect Malcolm and Donalbain because they ran away. No white Bronco though.

The Background

Around 1950, scholars noticed and argued the obvious. Macbeth was written specifically to be performed for, and to please, King James I.

James Stuart was already King James VI of Scotland when Queen Elizabeth's death made him James I of England as well. In the late 1500's, Scotland had a witch craze, with many people convicted of wicked secret practices without physical evidence. James I, who believed the witch hysteria, wrote a book about the supposed hidden world of wicked witches, entitled Demonology.

The witch persecutions were a monument to human stupidity. James may have really believed that there was a secretive sect devoted to malicious evil. Or he may have been just another cynical politician trying to unite people against a common imagined enemy with different cultural practices. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Whatever indigenous/pagan beliefs and practices may really have existed in Macbeth's Scotland, the "witches" of the play are obviously there for their role in Macbeth's fictionalized story.

Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" (highly recommended, a book about Shakespeare's times and how he must have been influenced by contemporary events) explains some puzzling features of our play.

Macbeth deals with the fictional ancestors of the Stuart line (Banquo, Fleance) and presents Banquo more favorably than did the play's sources. (In Holinshed, Banquo is Macbeth's active accomplice.) The procession of kings ends with a mirror (probably held by Banquo rather than another king, as in some notes.) James could see himself, thus becoming part of the action. Macbeth says he sees more kings afterwards. Shakespeare has turned the nature spirits of his sources into witches for the witch-hunting king's enjoyment.

Evil? Predestination?

U. Oregon -- J D Mason You may be asked, "What is the nature of evil in "Macbeth"? Again, you'll need to decide for yourself.

Shakespeare only uses the word "evil(s)" in the England scene, and only uses it to refer to bad deeds and bad character traits. (The "King's Evil" for which Edward touches people was scrofula, a mycobacterial infection of the cervical lymph nodes. There was an old superstition that it could be cured by the touch of a king. James I, for whom the play was probably performed, also touched for scrofula because his English advisors told him the people wanted it. William III told a man who asked for his touch, "May God give you better health and better sense.")

Some people will decide that the Macbeths are victims of supernatural forces beyond anybody's control. Other people will decide that the talk about predestination simply reflects the folk-tale, or that the Macbeths' era and/or their outlook on life guarantee that something really bad will happen to them.

Perhaps despite the supernatural trappings of witches and talk about devils, "evil" for Shakespeare is nothing more or less than bad human habits and behaviors. You decide.

Are You a Man?

Sadowski poster As you go through the play, look for the repeated theme of "What is a real man?" Like nowadays, there is no consensus.

There are others. You can get a good paper out of this.

Who Was the Third Murderer?

People have had lots of fun trying to figure out who the Third Murderer really is. It's evidently somebody who knows Banquo and Fleance. The usual suspects include Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or a servant or thane. All these people are supposed to show up momentarily at Macbeth's dinner party, without bloodstains.

My ingenious cyberfriend Tanner Campbell suggested it is one of the witches. She can blow out a torch by supernatural means, and their participation could assure the survival of Fleance and thus the success of her prophecy.

Shakespeare actually needed to set the scene for a murder. He does not have a modern filmmaker's repertoire. (Macbeth's mutterings would be today's voice-overs.) So to set the scene, he had to use dialogue.

Macbeth pays spies in each of his warlords' castles, so he has other people available. It seems reasonable that he would send somebody knowledgeable to help two disenfranchised persons (not professional hit men) kill a mighty warrior and his teenaged son. It is also unlikely that he would want to introduce the assassins to each other ahead of time.

The Third Murderer does not come back with the others to collect his fee, because he was probably played by one of the minor actors who were party guests and would need to be changing costume.

My correspondent Matthew Houston reminded me that the Third Murderer is someone familiar with Banquo's habits ("... he usually does ... ") and suggests the First Murderer put out the light because he answers evasively when the Third Murderer asks "Who did strike out the light?" I am wondering whether the First Murderer was reluctant to kill a child. In other words, you will have to decide for yourself!

Is Macbeth bad luck?

Producing Macbeth is supposed to be unlucky. Fires, falls, and weapon injuries have plagued past productions. Superstition requires those involved in productions not to say the play's title, but rather "The Scottish Play". There are silly urban legends about the boy actor who first played Lady Macbeth getting sick and Shakespeare having to fill in, and Queen Anne closing the theaters after people thought the deviltry of the play had caused a bad storm. Some people think that the play's vision of evil, with witches, demonic familiars, and so forth explains the bad luck. You will have to decide for yourself.
    The Curse by Ivanov is now down. It dealt with theatrical superstitions. The accidents are more common because the stage is dark, there's fire scenes, the fog machine makes the stage slippery, there's more wielding of crude weapons by more people, and so forth. Link is now down.

A correspondent in 2002 reminded me that failing acting companies would produce "Macbeth", which was very popular, as a last-ditch, not-always-successful way of staying in business.

A correspondent in 2003 told me that saying the name of the play was bad luck but that people avert this by a prayer/apology to the "Muse of the Theater", i.e., Melpomene (mell-POMM-eh-neh or --eeny; portfolio is tragedy, Thalia is comedy). "Did the Greeks really believe in their mythology?" Who knows? If you would like a different counterspell, let me suggest this. Those wishing to participate join hands in a circle, and one member says, "May those who work on this production, and those who see it, be guided to choose peace over violence, love over vanity, and hope over despair." All say, "Amen."

Delaware Theater production

A Rooted Sorrow

Previous stage villains, notably Shakespeare's Aaron and Richard III, do not reach the Macbeths' depth. Aaron gloats on his misbehavior, and Richard acts the villain until the end. Your instructor may talk about Macbeth beginning as a good and fine man, possessing the tragic flaw of ambition, upsetting the divinely-ordained natural order, and so forth. You'll need to decide for yourself about this. On the one hand, the other characters talk about Duncan as being "meek", very likable and kindly, and so forth. And people do seem to be dismayed over the murder. On the other hand, Macbeth seems -- from the play's bloody beginning -- to be one of many thugs in a society in which power is gained and maintained by killing other thugs, and where loyalty is at best provisional. Lady Macbeth doesn't seem to think that there's anything really unusual about the idea of murdering a guest, and she assumes it's occurred to her husband as well. You could get a good paper by arguing one side, or both -- does Shakespeare believe that there is a deep morality underpinning human society, or does he not believe this, or does he let you decide?

Of course, the Macbeths end up miserable. They do not suffer primarily from conscience (which is not much in evidence in any character, though Malcolm at least claims to live clean to test Macduff). They do not suffer from fear of the afterlife (which Lady Macbeth b-tches out of her husband; he talks about giving up his "eternal jewel", i.e., his soul, to the devil simply as an accomplished fact). Their fear of human retribution merely drives them to additional murders.

Shakespeare's insight goes far deeper. So far as I know, this is the first work in English that focuses on the isolation and meaninglessness that result from selfishness and cruelty. By the end, Lady Macbeth dissociates from the horror of what she has become. Shakespeare uses insanity as a metaphor for actually gaining insight in "King Lear" and maybe elsewhere. Lady Macbeth's insanity is really nothing more than her realizing the nature and consequences of the horrible thing she has done. Macbeth verbally abuses and bullies the people who he needs to defend him (and who are abandoning him), while reflecting to himself on the emptiness and futility of it all. Of course, the couple no longer have a relationship, and Macbeth is merely annoyed when she dies.

Kids... this is true to life. Try to live better than the Macbeths did.

What Does It All Mean?

Cawdor castle Fair is foul and foul is fair. In Macbeth, things are seldom what they seem, and we often don't know what's really happening. The play is full of ambiguity and double meanings, starting with the prophecies. The day is extremely foul (weather) and extremely fair (MacDonald has been disemboweled.) Banquo is not so happy, yet much happier. Is the dagger a hallucination, or a supernatural phantom? Ask the same question about Banquo's ghost. Does the bell summon Duncan "to heaven or to hell"? One of Duncan's son's called out "Murder!" in his sleep, but the other one laughed, mysteriously pleased at his father's death. Which was which? Liquor "equivocates" with the porter's sexuality. Does Macbeth say "Had I but died an hour...." because he is really sorry (i.e., sad about his moral deterioration and/or realizing he's getting himself into trouble), or just overacting? Does Lady Macbeth really faint? ("Perhaps she is actually a person of more sensitive feelings than she lets on.") Or does she simply pretend to faint to divert attention from her husband's overacting? Who's the third murderer? Is Ross playing both sides? Is Lennox, who overheard Macbeth's plot against Macduff after the party, the messenger who warns her too late? Does Lady Macbeth commit suicide or die of cardiac complications? What is Lady Macbeth writing in her sleepwalking scene? A confession? A suicide note? A last love letter to a neglectful husband? (My correspondent Terilyn J. Moore, who has taught the play for many years in high school and also shared the idea about Lennox and Lady Macduff, tells me that she invites class members to reproduce what Lacy Macbeth might have written.) There's a lot of talk about clothing -- clothes give you an identity and also conceal who you are. These mysteries add to the literal fog on-stage.

Shakespeare chose his subject matter and some plot details to please James I. But as always, his deeper purpose seems to be to show us our own lives and make us think.

The key question that Shakespeare seems to ask is this. Is human society fundamentally amoral, dog-eat-dog? If so, then Macbeth is right, and human life itself is meaningless and tiresome.

Or do the hints of a better life such as King Edward's ministry, Malcolm's clean living, the dignified death of the contrite traitor, and the doctor's prescription for pastoral care, display Shakespeare's Christianity and/or humanism?

It's a dark play. The light of goodness seems still fairly dim. But evil always appeals more to the imagination, while in real life, good is much more fun.

Is the message of Macbeth one of despair, or of hope?

I don't know. You decide.

Citing this page:

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/macbeth.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

Links

Sigmund Freud on the Macbeths. Today's psychiatrists will almost all tell you that Freud's actual contribution was taking emotions seriously, listening and trying to understand. Much of his "theory" is only of historical interest, but you might decide that some of the "psychoanalytic" writings -- like this one -- are just common sense described in unfamiliar terms. Thanks to Caitlin Monesmith for finding this link.

Homework Resources

Real History and Shakespeare's Sources

Watch Macbeth on videos

Productions

Saint Louis prodution

Olivier as Macbeth Fun Sequels

More Help for Students

My favorite of the movie versions is Roman Polanski's dark and (in Macbeth's time) accurate vision of a world in which murder is normal means of achieving power. (Do you think these is a connection to the events of Mr. Polanski's life? Remember he had already made "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby" BEFORE the murder of his wife. You decide.) Other movie adaptations include "Joe Macbeth" and "Men of Respect" -- both gangster tales, a contemporary version from India called Maqbool (link is down), and "Throne of Blood", a classic samurai version.

Chasseriau, Macbeth and the Three Witches One very clever student pointed out to me that Bottom's speech about a tyrant describes Macbeth, and Macbeth's speech about "a poor player" describes Bottom!

Another very clever student pointed out to me that at the beginning of the play, Macbeth is mopey and quiet and has hallucinations, and Lady Macbeth is verbally abusive. At the end of the play, Lady Macbeth is mopey and quiet and has hallucinations, and Macbeth is verbally abusive.

One easy theme is that of sleep. Macbeth, for whom life is a painful meaningless enterprise, speaks of Duncan sleeping peacefully in death "after life's fitful fever"; part of Macbeth's own punishment is to be an insomniac, and Lady Macbeth's is to sleepwalk.

My correspondent Gianfranco Gauci has suggested that perhaps Macbeth purchases poison from the physician and uses it to kill his wife. The patient dealing with psychological guilt "must minister to himself" -- either by repentance (as I've always assumed) or by suicide. A director could have Macbeth look the doctor squarely in the face, hand him money; the doctor smiles knowingly and give him a bottle and Macbeth then pours it into something on Lady Macbeth's nightstand from the sleepwalking scene. After all, Macbeth doesn't seem surprised by his wife's death, merely annoyed that the body was found when it was. Something wicked this way comes. You decide. and lack of surprise at the timing of her death

You already know that most (not all) "clan" tartans are inventions from the 1800s (when Sir Walter Scott's novels became popular). Whatever the historical Macbeth may have worn, they are still fun. See scottishtartans.org and here for more information.

The MacBeth Tartan

Two Macduff Tartans

The MacAlpin Tartan

One of the Many MacDonald Tartans

A Ross Hunting Tartan

The Lennox Tartan

Hi, My Name's Ed!

Edward has long been the most popular of the "Ed" names (Edwin, Edgar, and Edmund are all still in use; all are of medieval English origin.) The name because popular because of Edward the Confessor, a good man whose saintliness (celebrated in Macbeth), contrasts with his Scotch counterpart's nastiness. William the Conqueror put the "saint" spin on Edward, from whom he traced his pretended rightful claim to the English throne.

In the year I was born, "Edward" was the eighth most common name for a baby boy. Today it is fairly uncommon. Winnie-the-Pooh's first name is Edward. Being an Edward, it's fun to ask other people with "Ed" on their nametags which they are. I think that "Ed" is the shortest name by which a male in the US is likely to go.

I met my first "Ned", an older nickname for any "Ed" name, online in late 2002. Edmund Moriarty, who was playing the cream-faced loon at West End, pointed out an alternative explanation for why "Macbeth" is supposed to be bad luck. The play was very popular in the 1800's, and a theater company that was about to fail would produce it in a last-ditch attempt to survive.

Edward the Confessor

Macbeth at Rice
    Macbeth, in a manner most flighty,
    Aspired to the high and the mighty.
      Urged on by his wife,
      He stuck in his knife,
    And the blood got all over his nightie!
        -- Author Unknown!

Rule 9: Don't ... DON'T ... nag! -- Dale Carnegie on marriage

Shakespeare's Sonnets. A remarkable sequence even by today's standards. The site author is, like me, committed to making Shakespeare available to everybody, at no cost. Enjoy.

shakespeare.about.com -- lots of good contemporary essays.
Searchable Text
Absolute Shakespeare. Good introductions!
No Fear -- text along with 21st-century English translation

Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.

Sean Bean & Samantha Bond

To the best of my knowledge, all the links on my literature pages are to free sites. In August 2000, the operator of the large for-profit help-with-homework online Shakespeare site offered to buy these pages out "for a price in the low four figures." I refused, and the site owner replied that "I wish you would just close down the domain and spare everybody from a lot of wasted time. It's a shame." This site will always remain free, to help everybody enjoy the works that I have, myself, enjoyed so much. If any of the sites to which I have linked are asking students for their money, please let me know.

Words and phrases by Shakespeare -- under development

Polanski's Macbeth "What is there about Shakespeare that would interest a contemporary American?"

Visitors send me this question from time to time.

If being a "contemporary American" means being focused on dirty TV sitcoms, greed, casual sex, big-money sports, shout-and-pout grievance-group politics, televangelism, professional wrestling, crybabies, slot machines, postmodernism, political action committees, and "war on drugs" profiteering... then the answer is probably "Nothing."

If a contemporary American can still ask, "Is life just a meaningless exercise in status-seeking, or is there anything to give us hope that morality is real?" -- then the answer is maybe that "Shakespeare deals with basic human issues."

Canadian Macbeth Antony & Cleopatra -- just getting started
Hamlet
Julian of Norwich
King Lear
Julian of Norwich
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Moby Dick
Oedipus the King -- including something about the "tragic hero" business and "predestination"

The Book of Thel
Prometheus Bound
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger
Timbuctoo
Twelfth Night

I've received several requests for my thoughts on Othello, and wish I had time to put something together. For now, if you're asked to write on the play, here are two ideas.

(1) Look at the short story that provided the plot (click here or here), and notice how Shakespeare has portrayed racism as it really is in our world. Ordinary decent folks (i.e., the Venetian government) care only who a person is and what that person can do. They consider Brabantio a jerk for accepting a person of another race as a friend but not as a son-in-law. Iago, who for whatever reason has a chip on his shoulder, spews racial venom for his own dark reasons. Desdemona is originally frightened by someone who looks different, but quickly learns to love that person so that race become indifferent.

(2) It is very common for special-forces operatives who return to civilian life and/or who try to sustain a marriage to have terrible difficulties. Those who are successful deserve our special admiration. Too many become terribly confused and end up in self-destructive behaviors, both loving and hating. It's one of our world's strangest ironies that romantic love is more treacherous and incomprehensible than war.

Marin Shakespeare Company

Shylock and Jessica Likewise, it'll be a while before I can put anything online about "The Merchant of Venice." I do want to take a minute to ask people considering Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock to consider his era. In all but Shakespeare's earliest plays, our sympathies are always divided. Shakespeare's English contemporaries would seldom or never see a real Jew (they had been expelled from England in 1280), and the "stage Jew" of the time was an evil, comic figure. Nevertheless, Shakespeare is the first writer to present a Jew as a human being. And it is easy to understand why Shylock is bitter and angry. Even at the beginning, the protagonists of the play talk trash to him simply because he is a Jew, obviously without even thinking. It's impossible not to notice this. They invite Shylock to their party simply so that his daughter can rob him, and afterwards they are only amused when his feelings are trampled. The play is actually about anger -- and Shakespeare has chosen a Jew to represent somebody who is right to be angry. This is more than a progressive choice -- it must have taken a great deal of courage. Defending himself, Shylock points out the evils of slavery, which the Jews did not practice but which was accepted at the time by some Christians. (It was illegal in Shakespeare's England but would soon re-emerge in the colonies.) The most famous speech ("The quality of mercy...") anticipates what I've found to be Shakespeare's greatest theme, i.e., in a godless universe, our only hope is to be kind to one another. No matter what your grievance is, why not be the first to take the brave step to end the stupid hatreds that darken our world?

Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" may have been spoiled for you as required reading in high school, and/or by parodies of the balcony scene and/or a bad (left-wing, right-wing) college "Western Civ" course. Think: The play's about godawful teenaged murder-suicide. (Juliet is 14, Romeo 16.) Shakespeare's plot-source was a warning to teenagers to obey their parents. The themes of the play, which were pretty-much new with Shakespeare and very radical in his time, are (1) young people ought to be allowed to marry for love, not just whoever their parents choose for them; (2) young people's tragedies likely result from their parents' stupidity and meanness; (3) love matures people, and gives dignity, meaning, and beauty even in the worst of circumstances. By the way, did you notice that Papa Capulet is an old guy ("past [his] dancing days", thirty years since he was "in a mask"), but Mama Capulet was pregnant with Juliet at age 13. In other words, she was the old lecher's forced child-bride and she is setting up the same thing for Juliet. Forced marriage is still common (and the typical cause for a young girl's suicide) in much of our world. Did you also notice that the Capulets are not terribly surprised to find Juliet dead on her wedding day? The fact that forced marriage is illegal in the United States and England may be due, at least in part, to the fact that we listened when Shakespeare showed us who we are. For this, I'm thankful.

I'm Ed. I'm an MD, a pathologist in Kansas City, a mainstream Christian. a modernist, a skydiver, an adventure gamer, the world's busiest free internet physician, and a man who still enjoys books and ideas.

Have you a weird sister? An odd brother? -- Richard Armour on Macbeth
I hope you like Macbeth, and that I've been of some help.

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Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

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Teens: Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, and get out of abusive relationships by any means. If the grown-ups who support you are "difficult", say and act like you love them even if you're not sure that you do. It'll help you and them. The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people." Health and friendship.

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Lady Macbeth may or may not have taken her own life. But suicide is almost certainly a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

If you have a Second Life account, please visit my teammates and me at the Medical Examiner's office.

Travis Morgan -- gym buddy, skydiver, long-term friend -- has a new site to help ordinary folks catch computer misbehavior.