Shakespeare for the culturally challenged

Ed
Ed Smith
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This is Shakespeare made plain. It is intended for those non-scholarly, non-academic and non-cultural types who want to appear educated. These will include some persons with university degrees.
Shakespeare wrote only three kinds of plays: history, tragedy and comedy. All the others are variations of these themes, which means they all have the same characters by different names and the same plots with different stories. The foregoing is as fine an example of a crystal-clear Shakespearean line as you're likely to find.
Our first play is Macbeth, which is normally regarded as a tragedy, especially for Macbeth. His father and mother were named Mac and Beth (respectively). They couldn't decide who to name him after, so they compromised.
The play opens with Macbeth meeting three old hags mixing a concoction reminiscent of Fogo Island home brew. They promise him that he will be Thane of Cawdor. This comes true, because thane is the first step in becoming totally inthane.
They also promise Macbeth that he will be king. There's only one problem. Scotland already has a king, whose name is Duncan. Duncan had married into a family named Hynes and together they're doing very well in cake mixes. Duncan is also moving into doughnuts, with branches in Scotland and Denmark. Some scholars believe it was this latter connection that got Shakespeare interested in Danish royalty, namely Hamlet.
Lady Macbeth, who closely resembles Phyllis Diller on a bad hair day, doesn't see Duncan as an impediment to her husband becoming king, which would then make her something like Camilla but not quite.
By sheer coincidence - coincidences are big in Shakespeare - the king is coming to the Macbeth house for a friendly visit. Lady Macbeth thinks, and not without good reason, that a knife in the chest would persuade him to abdicate. She broaches the idea to her husband.
Macbeth isn't nearly the man his wife is, and politely declines to do it. Why send a husband to do a wife's job, she reasons, and prepares herself to undertake her wifely duty.
"Come, unsex me here," she cries, although stage directions in this part of the play are noticeably lacking in that they do not indicate whether "here" is geographic or personal. Still, Shakespeare shows himself to be far ahead of his time in calling for the first sex change in history.
"Come you spirits to my woman's breasts and take my milk for gall."
It is to the credit of the spirits that they do not come. Some scholars conjecture that Shakespeare realized the dramatic visual limitations in this scene and decided to leave the spirits out of it. Of course, this was in the days before "Californication" and "Sex in the City."
The tender-hearted Mrs. Macbeth, however, cannot kill the king because in his sleep he looks too much like her father. So, like any good wife, she gets her husband to do it. He finally agrees, but not without trying to clear his mind.
"If it were done when it's done," he muses, "then it were well it were done quickly."
Many essays have been written on this one line alone by people who have too much time on their hands. The line has been called "the thinking man's Shakespeare," although not by anyone else except me. More college students have gone off the deep end attempting to define the logic involved than engineers trying to master the puzzle of Moncton's Magnetic Hill, where cars seem to coast uphill, but only if you go in reverse.
Using the same principle - thinking backwards - I have had moderate success with understanding this line. In short, it means Macbeth has already started to go inthane.
Strangely, after he has stabbed the king to death, Macbeth finds he cannot pray.
"Couldn't even say 'Amen,'" he complains to the missus. "Why couldn't I even say 'Amen'? I was certainly in need of blessing."
This last sentence is generally regarded as the greatest understatement in literature.
Things start to go downhill from there for the Macbeth family. Lady M. keeps seeing things floating in front of her and tries to scrub imaginary blood off her hands.
"Out, out damned spot," she screams, taking out her hysterical rage on the poor dog.
People soon began to suspect that Duncan may not have died a natural death, perhaps because of the knife sticking out of his chest. Macbeth consults his three witches again and they reassure him with prophecies straight out of the home brew they've been drinking all weekend.
"No one will hurt you," they tell him, "until the forest marches against your castle."
Sounds good to Macbeth.
"No man born of woman will ever do you in," they add, comfortingly.
Just to be sure, the new King starts laying about him left and right with his sword, executing anyone who he thinks might object to the way he ascended the throne. Like Joshua attacking Jericho, he doesn't spare women or children. One poor little boy cries to his mother, in case she hasn't noticed, "He has killed me, mother!"
It is not known if Shakespeare knew Latin, but the past tense makes it obvious the kid was speaking in a dead language.
His subjects do not react well to Macbeth's method of governing, and he is soon up to his gizzard in deep manure. He finally realizes he's been had by the three witches when the army marching against his castle chops down the trees and hides behind them as they advance.
Oh well, he thinks, no man born of woman can ever hurt me. He's in for a bad surprise when Macduff, the boy's father, informs him, just before separating Macbeth's head from the rest of him, that he was "from my mother's womb untimely ripped."
Even when discussing a cesarean section, Shakespeare cannot resist a little gory hyperbole.
But "ripped" certainly does cover it.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale. His e-mail address is edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Organizations: More college, Macbeth house

Geographic location: Scotland, Fogo Island, Denmark Magnetic Hill Jericho Springdale

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