Before Game of Thrones, before Regina George, before Rose wouldn’t move over, there was Macbeth.

A testosterone fuelled story of power, betrayal and ambition, this is Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest tragedy. Macbeth’s plot and characters are way more familiar than you’d think for a play this old.

Here’s the breakdown

Historical context:

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, this is no mere story, it is based on real events. In this case, the bloody war(s) between Scotland and England, and the reign of the real King Macbeth in the 11th century.

Shakespeare wrote this under the Stuart king James I, and has actually taken some liberties with history. Probably because he didn’t want to upset his company’s royal patron.
James I of England was originally king James IV of Scotland. The Stuart’s claimed a spot in the queue for the English throne because they said they were descended from Banquo, real King Macbeth’s fictional step son or something. There’s a whole other aspect of Catholicism vs. Protestantism but we won’t go into that.
So England is coming down from their Elizabethan high with an ugly Scottish king, and Scotland is bloody unimpressed at being united with long-time pain in the arse England. It’s a bit tense. James was able to keep things relatively civil by citing the divine right to rule given to kings by God (and having armies to enforce it). Shakespeare acknowledged this by how things turn out for the Macbeth duo when they try to usurp the throne.
Shakespeare also flips the characters of Banquo and Macbeth. Mythical Banquo is a pretty nasty bloke, but this is the clincher for his King’s claim to the throne, so Shakespeare made the character in his play an innocent victim. Macbeth, the real 11th century Scottish king, was a wise and capable ruler with a legitimate claim to the throne. So of course he had to be an evil bastard with no claim in the play. He did indeed kill (the pretty useless) King Duncan, but it was a proper battle and Macbeth won honestly. Duncan’s son Malcolm did flee, to England. The MacDuff clan had greater ties to England than Scotland. So Shakespeare has rewritten history in favour of the victors (England), and reinforced the idea that James’ tenuous claim to the English throne is actually iron clad by switching the two characters.


In our world, the most relevant discussion in this play is one of power, and that applies in two areas:


We live in a time when inaction is just as dangerous as the wrong action (just commit to something Malcolm). In fact, not doing anything is just about the worst sin in our society.
As young people trying to get ahead (or just get a job), we often talk about “hunger.” It’s hunger that drives you to chase opportunities and put in the extra mile, to do work for free so you can get your business of the ground, to stick to that plan even when you are tired and burnt out. We are shamed for not being ambitious enough, laughed at for our lofty dreams of homeownership, and in Macbeth we see that there are terrible consequences for being TOO ambitious.

Masculinity and Gender Roles

From the phallic symbolism to the heteronormative expectations placed on the characters, this is very much a masculine story. The most obvious aspects are toxic masculinity and the power available to women.
In Shakespeare’s time men could embrace without judgement or mutterings of “no homo,” but they could not cry and they DEFINITELY couldn’t back down from a fight. Every time someone thinks twice about murder, their masculinity is questioned and BAM! Once again masculinity is made to mean aggression and dominance. How is it that these dumbass rules have survived for centuries? Like why couldn’t big Macca just stay home and let his wife go do her thing? Oh that’s right, because her thing is murder and she’s a woman.
Though there is little difference between how men and women behave and what they desire, women are cast in a harsher light because they are not “allowed” to be violent. The female characters in the play are the main sources of chaos and evil: Lady M and her “unnatural” ambition make sure her husband follows through, the witches set the whole thing in motion, and the only divine intervention is Hecate the goddess of witchcraft. But here’s the kicker: women still don’t have their own power. The witches only suggest something to Macbeth, they don’t actually do anything. Lady Macbeth pursues her goals with even greater vigour than her husband, but she has to act through him. Her power is only borrowed, and she lacks the agency to enact real change herself.

What’s it got to do with my life?

And now, we place it here in Brisbane; a city which got its name from a Scot, and is built on land forcibly taken. In the last year or so we have seen a level of division within the world that is spookily similar to the global political landscape pre-WWII: our SSM plebiscite, Brexit, the crisis in Venezuela, the recent German election, North Korea, the prevalence of Neo-Nazisism (particularly in Scandinavia), ISIS and global terrorism. Trump and North Korea look like some Cold War, Mutually Assured Distruction shiz. Trump’s need to campaign while he was elected and reiterate that he did win. Despite being the least qualified candidate ever, he won against the most overqualified candidate ever. The first female candidate to boot. Maybe this play isn’t as out of place as you’d expect.

The show runs until Saturday 7 October.

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