Gender, Guilt, and Fate - Macbeth, Part 2: Crash Course Literature 410 - YouTube (1)
Hi I'm John Green.
This is Crash Course Literature and today we'll be doubling, bubbling, toiling and
troubling as we continue our discussion of Macbeth.
Today we'll be looking more closely at the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as
well as discussing the play's treatment of gender roles and its downer ending.
INTRO One of the
most remarkable things about Macbeth is that it presents us with a hero who is also a villain.
As we discussed last time, when we first meet Macbeth he's helped win a major battle for
The first time he's mentioned, a sergeant introduces him as “brave Macbeth.”
Being brave and winning battles were two of the major signs of Great Mandom at the time.
And okay, maybe this Macbeth is a little violent; he slices an opponent down the middle and
spikes his head on the battlements.
But he's definitely the hero of the day and Duncan, the King, rewards him.
Even if that whole beheading thing seems a little extreme, at the beginning of the play
we're on Macbeth's side.
And we stay on his side when he has a lot of second thoughts about his wife's plan
to kill the king.
/ His wife has to talk him into it—basically
she attacks his masculinity, but more on that later—and I think our sympathies mostly
stay with him even after the murder.
We worry that someone is going to find him out, maybe the same someone who knocks so
unrelentingly on the gate, and hope he gets away with it, even though it's horrible.
(The fact that it sickens even him is another way to get us on his side.)
Once he becomes king, his paranoia kicks in and so does his cruelty.
He starts ordering more murders, maybe even some he doesn't have to order, like that
Now he's the one encouraging murderers, not his wife--he's gone from hero to antihero,
a journey that has since been undertaken by everyone from Walter White to Tony Soprano
to Pablo Escobar to Don Draper to Jamie Lannister to that Hannibal Lecter guy in Westworld.
I wonder if it's a coincidence that all those dudes are dudes.
But before we get there, let's examine how to understand Macbeth's choices in the Thoughtbubble:
Could we argue that Macbeth's encounter with the witches has made him evil?
I mean, there's no suggestion that they've enchanted him, and they never tell him to
kill Duncan or even suggest that killing Duncan is a possibility.
They let Macbeth and his wife figure that part out for themselves—along with all the
blood and the daggers.
But the witches do light up his ambition with their prophecies.
Now, maybe Macbeth has been a terrible guy from the get-go, a Thane who just needed the
excuse of the witches prophecies to act on his worst impulses.
As we saw, there are signs of his cruelty even from the beginning; splitting open opponents
from neck to belly is not the work of an especially meek and mild person.
But then if Macbeth is inherently evil, in the manner of some Shakespeare villains, then
why do his actions trouble him so much?
Almost immediately, Macbeth loses the ability to pray and sleep and he even seems to envy
Duncan: “After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.”
Meanwhile Macbeth is an insomniac.
He also doesn't seem to enjoy being king, a job he was literally willing to kill for.
And whether he actually sees Banquo's ghost in the banquet scene or just hallucinates
him, neither suggests a man who is happy in his life choices.
A sociopathic villain, like I'd argue Iago is from Othello, just wouldn't be haunted
in that way.
But for a guy who maybe isn't evil to begin with, he does keep getting a lot of people
Or maybe, seeing that the murder of Duncan has already damned him for eternity, he figures
there's no point repenting now.
As he says to his wife...
“I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as
tedious as go o'er.”
Basically, if you're midway through fording the River of Blood, might as well cross
to the other side.
However we understand Macbeth, by the midpoint of the play, probably around when he orders
the murder of Banquo and his son, we've stopped rooting for Macbeth and his wife to
get away with their crimes.
Instead, we're hoping they'll get their comeuppance, preferably before Macduff's
wife and kids are brutally murdered in front of us.
Shakespeare keeps the violence offstage until that scene, then he allows it full rein, which
should shake anyone who still feels sympathy for Macbeth.
Even the witches now acknowledge his evil.
The next time he approaches them, they say, “Something wicked this way comes.”
And as for nameless Lady Macbeth, Holinshed, in the play's source material, describes
her as “verie ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.”
She's the one spurring him on to murder when he's reluctant or frightened or listening
to his conscience.
In her opinion, at least early in the play, stabbing a king is no big deal.
/ She even offers to go frame the guards by
smearing them with Duncan's blood, saying, “A little water clears us of this deed.”
It's interesting to see the opposite effects the murder has on them.
It hardens Macbeth into a serial murderer, but it softens Lady Macbeth into a victim.
Her mind disturbed, she brings to sleepwalk, miming washing her hands over, desperate for
the little water to clear her of her deed.
But she can't get the spot of blood out--not even after its visibly gone.
Instead her guilt seems to drive her to suicide.
To understand more about this dynamic, let's look at how the play treats masculinity and
This tragedy has a particular interest in what it means to be a man, but we get our
first taste of this by characters who don't really seem male or female, the witches.
Banquo says to them, “you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/
That you are so.”
These are the weird sisters, which may be a corruption of “the wayward sisters,”
and there's definitely a suggestion that characters who aren't identifiable as either
male or female are destabilizing and upsetting.
This was a period that oppressed gender fluidity, even though it's worth noting that theater
was a place of gender complexity, since male actors played female roles, and Shakespeare's
characters often play with traditional gender constructions.
We get another example when Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter and starts worrying
that he won't be man enough to get himself the crown.
Knowing he'll need her help she calls on spirits to “unsex her”:
“make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!
Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall,”
So Lady Macbeth is saying, stop me from menstruating, stop me from lactating, basically take everything
about me that's liquid and feminine and pliable and make me harder and crueler.
When Macbeth tells her he's not going to kill the king, she tells him he's unmanly.
“When you durst do it, then you were a man,” she says.
And it gets worse.
She says that she's breastfed children (where those children have gone is the sort of problem
that gives scholars fits) and loved those children but that she would happily “have
pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn
as you/ Have done to this.”
And just a cool poetic meter note: When they're having these kinds of arguments, especially
the one about killing Duncan, many of Macbeth's lines have so-called feminine endings (an
extra syllable in the line) and hers don't.
/ Because she's the one behaving in the more
traditionally macho way.
So far the play seems to be suggesting that there's something cruel and almost unnatural
about masculinity, about manning up.
And maybe we can see this as another reason why Macbeth gets so murder-y.
/ Having committed to such a hard and unyielding
vision of masculinity like the kind his wife offers, he doesn't really know how to soften
But that's not the only vision of masculinity that the play provides.
There's a scene between Malcolm and Macduff where Malcolm tries to brag that he's really
evil and greedy and lecherous.
But then he takes it all back, suggesting that it's his innocence and even his virginity,
his unmanliness, that will actually make him an honorable king.
In that same scene, Macduff learns that his wife and all of his children have been murdered
and nice virginal Malcolm tries to tell him, Lady Macbeth-style, to man up.
“Dispute it like a man,” Malcolm says.
But here's the difference between Macduff and Macbeth.
Instead of Macbeth going along with his wife's toxic vision of masculinity, Macduff finds
He says: /
“I shall do so “But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were, That were most precious to me.”
Yes, Macduff is not of woman born so you could argue that he's the manliest of anyone in
this play, but his definition of manliness is different.
It involves fighting, but it also involves feeling.
Not that any of this is going to stop him from cutting off Macbeth's head at the end.
Let's look at that ending.
Before the final battle, Macbeth receives the news that his wife has died and recites
a soliloquy saying that at this point life means nothing.
He says: /
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Those beautifully written nihilistic lines have resonated through the last four hundred
years--Faulkner titled his most famous book after them.
/ And here at the end, Macbeth doesn't seem
anything like the Thane we met at the beginning of the play--he doesn't seem worried or
brave or ambitious or bloodthirsty--just tired.
/ The dagger, the line of kings, Banquo's
ghost, even his wife's death--none of it matters.
And not really the go-getter we got to know at the top of the play.
He doesn't seem worried or ambitious or bloodthirsty, just really, really tired.
The shadows and illusions he's witnessed—the dagger, the line of kings, Banquo's ghost—don't
His wife's death doesn't matter.
But that's not going to stop him from going on one last murderous rampage before his own
His humanity seems gone and it's almost as though he'd like someone to stop him,
but he can't bring himself to commit suicide and he's worried that no one equals him
Macduff is a C-section baby.
Even here, at this revelation, Macbeth is still worrying about his manliness, saying,
“Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,/ For it hath cow'd my better part of man!”
/ Grieving Macduff is more worried about cutting
off his head.
Which he does.
/ He presents them to Malcolm who says a fond
farewell to “the dead butcher and his fiendlike queen.”
Those words don't describe the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth we meet early in the play,
but maybe they do portray the ones who die in the final act.
Macbeth is a short play and that's a lot of change to compass in a couple of hours.
At the end, we still don't really know if Macbeth's fall was inevitable, even divinely