Close Reading: Lady Macbeth “Come You Spirits.”

For commentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/ideal-portrait-of-lady-macbeth-97937

For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v. In this speech, Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits to make her cold and remorseless, so that she can convince her husband to kill the king, and take the throne.

The Text

Lady Macbeth
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits390
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature395
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,400
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, Lines 388-403.

The Given Circumstances

Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband. That letter informs her the witches prophesied he would be king. Soon after she’s finished reading it, another messenger, (hoarse and out of breath), tells her that King Duncan will be staying at her castle tonight! Lady Macbeth immediately sees this as the perfect opportunity to make her husband king, by plotting to murder Duncan as he sleeps under her roof.

Traditional Interpretations

I’ve seen at least six productions of “Macbeth” and when it comes to this scene I think the main interpretations I see are either that Lady Macbeth is gleefully evil, or highly sexual. While it is true that she is praying to dark spirits, and her language when she speaks to Macbeth is sexually charged, I feel that these are not the only options when playing this character.

Francis McDormad

I love the regal poise of Francis in this 2021 movie. She is utterly in control and has absolutely no qualms about murder. I get the sense that she’s more praying to Mercury to get her to speak daggers to her husband, instead of to Lucifer to help her use one. She even has knives coming out of her ears (look at those earings!) This Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem evil in the sense of a cartoon villain. She’s just a woman in a violent society who believes that regicide is an acceptable way to sieze power. I think in this world, might makes right.

By contrast, Judy Dench in the 1979 RSC production is also very human. Her spirits are like… well spirits. You get the sense that she’s taking a swig of liquid courage to get her to go through with these actions which SHE KNOWS ARE WRONG.

Literary Devices

Imagery

“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.

Ravens in Greek and Norse myths were birds of prophecy and associated with the goddess of magic, Hecate (who appears in the play in Act IV). Ravens often appeared to announce deaths or execution. The speech is also full of imagery that rejects traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues. Lady Macbeth seems to associate womanhood with kindness, mercy, pity, and remorse and thus attempts to shed her femininity to accomplish her cruel objective of killing Duncan.

Verse

The Rauen himselfe is hoarse,
That croakes the fatall entrance of Duncan
Vnder my Battlements. Come you Spirits,
That tend on mortall thoughts, vnsex me here,
And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full
Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood,
Stop vp th'accesse, and passage to Remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene
Th'effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests,
And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers,
Where-euer, in your sightlesse substances,
You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell,
That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes,
Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke,
To cry, hold, hold. Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, First Folio Reprint from Internet Shakespeare Editions.

It’s interesting to note that (in the First Folio text) this speech is only three sentences long. It is a constant build up of energy with only three stops. In addition, Shakespeare puts the most important words, at the end of each line. Almost every line ends with something Lady M wants to kill, such as Duncan, or wants to kill within herself (peace, remorse, nature, Woman(hood). The verse also has commands strewn about in the beginnings and ends of lines. The question is, how confident does Lady Macbeth feel while giving them?

Questions to consider

One of the biggest questions I have with this play is why Lady Macbeth and her husband want to be king and queen anyway? After all, Shakespeare has written plenty of plays that detail how hard and stressful (uneasy) it is to be king. Plus, Macbeth is already a trusted lord and friend of the king, why would he want to damn himself to get a job he knows isn’t his to take? I think that, especially now in the 21st century, it’s very important to have a coherent motive for why the Macbeths are willing to kill for the crown.

Our Interpretation

Looking over the text, my actress sensed a deep loneliness in Lady Macbeth and a haunted feeling that makes her seem desperate to change her life. I thought about how insomnia and paranoid fears are repeated motifs in the play, as well as character traits found in both Macbeth and later Lady Macbeth. Then I thought- Macbeth is a soldier; his wife has probably had to spend years wondering if he is going to come home and imagining what kind of terrible death he might suffer on the battlefield While the king sits safely at home. Perhaps she sees killing the king as a form of revenge for all the fear and sleepless nights she’s experienced, and an attempt to protect her husband from war, by safely placing him on the throne. Maybe she sees this as the only way to make sure her beloved husband never dies in battle. Therefore, instead of watching an evil woman become more evil, you’re watching a good woman, (with good intentions), damn herself for love, which I would argue is a much more active and dynamic choice.

Resources:

https://myshakespeare.com/macbeth/act-1-scene-5

Intro to Richard the Second

With the current political climate with leaders voluntarily giving up power and factions rising up within factions, I thought I might give you some historical perspective with Shakespeare’s play about a monarch who stole from his people, caused an insurrection, and whose supporters gave up their own power- Richard II.

Background presentation

Background info packet I created back in 2009.

Richard is a classic story of hubris. Richard literally believed he was appointed by god, and thus he could act with impunity. He, therefore, stole lands, taxed his people, and even gave land away to pay for his wars in Ireland. His actions offended his nobles, especially the house of Lancaster, who rose up and eventually deposed him. This play, therefore, has many lessons on how leaders cannot survive without their supporters, and nobles need to put the good of the people first.

Shakespeare’s version is not a dry chronicle with painstaking historical accuracy. For starters, every single line is in verse, and I don’t think even the real Richard spoke in iambic pentameter all the time. For a history play, this Richard has Shakespeare’s most poetic language:

Shakespeare’s Richard is full of self-pity, bewilderment, and a narcissistic desire for attention with a borderline God-complex. He even art-directs his own deposition with all the tragic solemnity of a passion play, casting himself as Christ, and everyone else as Pontius Pilate:

Shakespeare is very cogent about whether or not it was a good idea to depose Richard, especially since Queen Elizabeth was also an aging monarch who failed to produce an heir or quell a rebellion in Ireland (Shapiro: 1599). Nonetheless, the Queen was aware of the connection and famously declared: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” Some productions have blatantly connected the two monarchs, and even dressed Richard as the Queen.

This play’s strength depends on the casting. Not much happens onstage except for lots of talking, planning, speechifying, and cursing. It depends on actors who can deliver these great lines with beauty but also sincerity:

Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas Everyone!

Hello everyone! I’m back from break and happy to celebrate one of my favorite holidays with you- the one that gave its name to one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies- Twelfth Night

How to throw a Twelfth Night Party

How To Throw A Twelfth Night Party

How to Make a Twelfth Night Cake

Intro to Twelfth Night (THe play)

I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!

Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.

Past Posts on “Twelfth Night”

  1. Play of the Month: Twelfth Night
  2. The Fashion Is the Fashion: Twelfth Night
  3. Crafting a Character: Malvolio
  4. Exquisite Artwork from Twelfth Night

Would you like to know more? Take a class!

In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.

To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today! 

1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)

2.1996 Thames TV directed by Kenneth Branaugh 

The Origins of King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear is an age old tale. Like Cinderella it has been reinterpreted throughout time and in many different cultures. Here are a few interesting highlights in the old legend and how it got to Shakespeare in the 1600s.

The Princess Who Loved Her Father More Than Salt

This is an old folktale from my favorite podcast, Journey With Story, which starts with the Cordelia/ Lear plot of a foolish king who banishes his honest daughter. Then through extraordinary circumstances it becomes a Cinderella story. I think at some point these two stories were one and the same until they diverged and one became a story about an absent father and a wicked stepmother, while the other became about a wicked father and a dead mother.

https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/boeb/boeb05.htm

The ancient ballad of King Leir

The ancient ballad of King Leir, which helped inspire Shakespeare. It serves as a cautionary tale against flattery, and it places equal blame on Lear and his daughters:

And calling to remembrance then
His youngest daughters words,
That said the duty of a child
Was all that love affords:
But doubting to repair to her,
Whom he had banish'd so,
Grew frantick mad; for in his mind
He bore the wounds of woe:

Which made him rend his milk-white locks,
And tresses from his head,
And all with blood bestain his cheeks,
With age and honour spread.
To hills and woods and watry founts
He made his hourly moan,
Till hills and woods and sensless things,
Did seem to sigh and groan.

Even thus possest with discontents,
He passed o're to France,
In hopes from fair Cordelia there,
To find some gentler chance;
Most virtuous dame! which when she heard,
Of this her father's grief,
As duty bound, she quickly sent
Him comfort and relief

The characters of Gloucester and his children, Kent, and the Fool are absent in this ballad, but unlike the fairy tale above, both Lear and Cordelia die in each other’s arms.

The Annonymous History of King Leir, (first published c. 1594)

The anonymous history of King Lear, written shortly before Shakespeare

This play was written for Shakespeare’s rival acting company The Queen’s Men around 1590). Since the Queen was patronizing the company, most of their plays were government-funded propeganda. For instance, it was the Queen’s men who first did a tragedy of the wicked King Richard III.

Michael Wood. In Search Of Shakespeare, 2002.

If you watch the first 20 minutes of the documentary above, you will see that Wood and many other scholars believe Shakespeare must have worked for the Queen’s men, or at least performed their scripts, since they did their own versions of King Lear, Richard III, King John, and Henry V.

Screenshot from Internet Shakespeare Editions’ reprint of King Lear https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Leir_M/index.html

However Shakespeare got a hold of The Queen’s Men’s scripts, he didn’t adhere to them rigidly. Their King Lear follows the fairy-tale / history format of having Cordelia be banished, disguise herself as a peasant (like Cap ‘O Rushes in the earlier version), and eventually she is restored to her rightful place. Shakespeare’s version must have been a MASSIVE shock to anyone who read these old tales and ballads. In Shakespeare’s version, everyone dies and there is no guarantee that the kingdom will survive. Every other tragedy ends with a new king or emperor to take over the kingdom but Lear leaves the audience with a sense of apocolypse; that Lear’s madness and Edmund’s machinations have doomed England and all these characters’ lives will be erased by Time.

As pessimistic as Shakespeare’s Lear is, it does seem more true to life than the previous versions. Perhaps this is because of a legal case from 1603 that might have inspired Shakespear to adapt the story: In 1603, two daughters tried to have their father declared insane. By an astonishing coincidence, the third daughter, who protested, happened to be named Cordelia! Perhaps Shakespeare, (who had three children and was preparing to retire), might have been inspired by this case and worried he might suffer the same fate.

Intro to King Lear

Lear at its core is a play about growing older, and not just for its title character. Goneril and Regan learn their father is a lousy dad and learn to stand up to him. Edgar learns about the cruelty of the world and how to deceive his enemies.


Plot Summary

Lear, a king in pre-Christian England, is too old to rule, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He then tells them he will give the the kingdom to the one who loves him most.

Lear’ youngest daughter Cordelia, refuses to flatter her father, so she banishes her. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who warns the king that his actions are foolish and rash. Finally, Lear demands that, although he resigns his kingdom, his daughters call him king and agree to house him and his knights in their castle.

Lear is not the only rash old man who is blind to his true danger. His friend the Duke of Gloucester has a bastard son named Edmund, who schemes to usurp his father’s lands and marry into Lear’s family. Edmund frames his legitamite brother Edgar which forces him to disguise himself as the mad beggar Poor Tom

After his daughters refuse to house him and his knights, Lear goes stark-raving mad. He runs out into a storm on the heath, wishing the Earth were struck flat and all mankind was destroyed. He is soon cared for by his Fool, and Kent, disguised as a commoner named Caius.

Duels, wars, tears, and oblivion follow.

Dramaturgy Website: American Shakespeare Center

Contemporary Parallels:

“Empire” (TV Series 2015-2020)

Empire Cast - Original Soundtrack from Season 1 of Empire - Amazon.com Music
Poster for Empire with Lucius and Cookie, and their three sons Jamal

Succession (HBO- 2018- present)

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2018/08/02/succession-hbos-new-dramais-king-lear-modern-media-age/

This scene from “Brave”

“Slings and Arrows,” Season three

https://shakespeareanstudent.com/2022/10/17/slings-and-arrows-season-3/

“Ran” by Akira Kurasawa-

Encanto (2021): Click here to read my post about Encanto and Lear

Videos

Shameless Plug

I’ll be playing Kent in King Lear October 22nd, 1PM EST. It’ll be streamed on Discord and live on YouTube here:

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales- “Macbeth”

This is a 30 minute cartoon version of Macbeth originally produced for the BBC in 1992. It features Brian Cox  as the voice of Macbeth (before he was the voice of McDonald’s), and Zoë Wanamaker as Lady Macbeth (before she was a witch who teaches at Hogwarts).

I like the way it portrays the horror imagery of the play in sort of a European-manga animation hybrid. Admittedly, there are better ones in the series, but this one is still pretty neat.

DVD box art for “Shakespeare the Animated Tales.”

To check out other episodes in the series, view this playlist:

Great classes are available December 1st.

Scehdule

Class Descriptions:

Basics Of Stage Combat:  Students will learn the basics of safely enacting a fight onstage, in preparation for a Shakespeare play. We will also learn about the history of sword fighting in the military and the duel.

Trailer for Basics of Stage Combat.

My daughter really enjoyed taking this class. She was actually able to use her sabre and try out her routine on her father. Paul is quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare and made the class really fun by teaching a fight scene from Romeo and Juliet. It is amazing watching her practice with Paul over Zoom. I hope Paul will have. more combat classes, it is a different way to learn Shakespeare.

IB, Parent

An Interactive Guide To Shakespeare’s London (New Class)

A virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London will get kids to interact with the culture of Elizabethan England.

Class Experience

To teach kids about the Elizabethan era and the background of Romeo and Juliet, The Instructor will interact with the class (via pre-recorded videos), pretending to be Shakespeare. The class, pretending to be actors in Romeo and Juliet, will get a virtual tour of The Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, and a virtual visit to an Elizabethan doctor's office. This activity is an immersive way for them to learn about the period, how it relates to the world of the play, and how Shakespeare changed theater.

The class will take the form of a guided WebQuest activity.  First, the students will get a worksheet that has a series of fill-in-the-blanks about Elizabethan society (below). The students will fill out this worksheet based on a Nearpod and in conjunction with a website I’ve made, https://sites.google.com/nebobcats.org/visit-to-elizabethan-london/home?authuser=0 
Both the Nearpod and each webpage will have a virtual tour, a video, and text explaining some aspects of Elizabethan life. Before they go to each location, I will give a short introduction via prerecorded video:

Wizard Science

In this one-hour course, your child will discover the enchanting world of science through a series of magical experiments. Learn about such topics as Astronomy, Static Electricity, chemistry, and optical illusions.

What was Christmas like For Shakespeare?

In this one-hour course, students will learn and play games that will explore the history behind Christmas traditions. We will also discuss the themes, characters, and famous quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.”