As promised, here are some of the mixups that can happen if you don’t catch all the details in 1.2:
- When the witches tell Macbeth he “shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.51) and he assumes this means he should just go on ahead and kill Duncan without waiting to see if things play out naturally, you might be inclined to think his reaction is totally unreasonable and sociopathic. But if you caught the set-up in 1.2, you remember that this Scotland is a place where countrymen on whom you build “an absolute trust” (1.4.14)—like the “disloyal traitor” (1.2.52) Cawdor or the “merciless Macdonwald” (1.2.9)—betray the king at the drop of a hat. This is a world where people advance because the people above them are murdered. Macbeth’s assumption is maybe not so unreasonable.
- When Lady Macbeth describes her husband as “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (1.5.15) and then calls him a coward to his face, you might be inclined to believe her. But if you caught the nuance of 1.2, you’re more likely to think “What in the sam hill? Macbeth just unseamed some dude from the nave to the chops without hesitating! Even the other soldier guys said he’s hardcore. If this lady thinks he’s weak, she must be SUPER MEAN.”
- When Macbeth goes all bloodlust rage at the end of the play, you might think he’s gone mad. But if you caught the nuance of 1.2, you remember this sounds pretty much like the same guy, memorizing Golgothas and whatnot (1.2.40). And since the play ends with Macbeth’s severed head on a pike, you realize this beheading bookending has a nice little symmetry/repetition/suggestion that time folds back on itself and life’s just “a tale / Told by an idiot” (5.5.26–27) anyway. #nihilism
See how important this monologue is? We think that playing the monologue as a video game will cut through the confusion of the language, and foreground some crucial themes that would have been a lot more understandable to a Renaissance audience.
Is it somehow better to understand Macbeth as if we’re a Renaissance audience? Hey friend, I don’t know, and anyway recreating an authentic experience from 400 years ago is objectively impossible. Is your daily life in any way affected by the existence of “computers” or “dentistry” or “refrigeration”? Sorry, you can’t access a filter-free Renaissance authenticity.
Windmills aside, what I do know is that sitting around feeling bored and frustrated behind the barrier of complicated language never helped anyone think critically about a play. And for better or for worse (I think better, but: biased), Shakespeare’s plays remain a foundational text in our schools. Let’s do our best to make sure everyone gets a chance to say something about them.