TV Tropes Org
site search
Macbeth back to reviews
Comments
Glimpses of genius marred by inconsistent writing and poor characterization
This review focuses on Macbeth, but will also contain my criticism of Shakespeare's works as a whole.

Shakespeare makes rational men mad and the greatest of critics weak kneed and fawning. The man is the foremost writer of the english language, and we consider his works to be on the same level as the greats of today. But I ask you this? Why. The mans work had flaws that any other author would be called on. If we excuse that with, "He was from the 1600s" we insult the man. He can't be the best of all time and a product of his.

Now, the work in question. Macbeth is introduced as an honorable, worthy and good guy. What the hell happened? The excuse of his wife's nagging loses its punch after he locks her out of his schemes. Character Development you say. Well there's a difference between that and Macbeth, one scene he feels guilty, next he starts calling upon Satan and murdering peoples families for shits and giggles. If this play had some intervals between these events I would have bought it, but the play jumps ahead so fast that its like they have seven identical brothers with completely different personalities.

Shakespeare does have some excellent lines that make up for the flaws in characters, but for every brilliant soliloquy he puts in you have one guy saying, "I am slain." And that line came after a fairly charming interaction between that character and his mother.

The plot is simple and the Aesop is dull and cliche, Ambition Is Evil. And the editing is simply awful. Macbeth is full of disappearing characters and dropped plotlines.

Ah, what about the characters themselves, they may have changed, but if you care about them, every thing is fixed, right? Well, Shakespeare did succeed, I liked Macbeth, I liked Lady Macbeth, I wanted them to win, I found Duncan to be an incompetent loser whose death would benefit scotland. This made the poor writing all the worse. I wanted the cool, conflicted Macbeth back, I wanted him to achieve victory over their dull and flat enemies. But instead of making an Anti Villain Shakespeare decided to throw him off the slippery slope to save himself the trouble of making the work complex at all.

P.S I'm not a troll, so don't accuse me of such.
I think that's why I like Shakespeare. He's entertainment over pretensiosness. I gives us all hope that if someone who has as glaring faults in his writing as Shakespeare can be remembered so we could too.
comment #1818 wellinever 7th Feb 10
"The Aesop is dull and cliche."

Uh, yeah...
comment #1819 Glowsquid 7th Feb 10 (edited by: Glowsquid)
"And the editing is simply awful."

Pfft.
comment #1822 Penguin4Senate 7th Feb 10 (edited by: Penguin4Senate)
Ambition Is Evil, that lesson is Older Than Feudalism. And copying a lesson wholeheartedly from the bible, doing nothing new with it, and relying on the Diabolus Ex Machina of Macbeth's swift Character Derailment is lazy. If you're going to take an idea that was already old, and you're a "genius" author, then you'd better do something interesting with it.
comment #1823 Phrederic 7th Feb 10
Regarding the "I am slain!" bit: To be fair, acting back then wasn't the same as it is now, and neither were audiences. Maybe without it audiences wouldn't have known he was dead? I seem to recall my year 12 notes saying something to that effect.
comment #1860 LoniJay 13th Feb 10
I think a lot of your complaints stem from you applying a modern mindset to a fairly old play. You are not going to get all the jokes, or understand all the words, or be convinced by the language used. Despite this, a good production can find ways to bring an old play to a modern audience.

In regards to the editing, it is normal for productions to drop certain lines which lack relevance to modern audiences. It is suggested that even Shakespeare's own performances would undergo plenty of editing, rewrites and improvised scenes. As it happens, there are usually plenty of loose plot threads in Shakespeare plays. The most obvious are in his earlier works, like The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Only the more pretentious "purists" see any need to perform a Shakespeare play without any edits whatsoever.

Shakespeare's works are almost always adaptations of other stories, however if you read the source plays/stories, you realise how much better/more pragmatic Shakespeare's versions are. Shakespeare's trick was to take a convention that was already fairly clich├ęd in his day (e.g. a straight up revenge story in which I prince burns down the villain's castle) and then playing around with it to create something new (a revenge story about a reluctant prince who procrastinates at every oppurtunity instead of doing the job). In the case of Macbeth, well, the witches. The witches add a whole Classical Tragedy element to the story, because we don't know if Mac Beth would have ever gone on to do what was prophesised, had he not heard the prophecys of the witches in the first place. Shakespeare combined the bible story with even older story elements, and then threw in some contemporary witches to interest James I and co.
comment #1862 maninahat 13th Feb 10 (edited by: maninahat)
Contemporary accounts of Macbeth appear to refer to scenes not in the current text, and it is significantly shorter than the other plays he wrote around the same time. Thus, poor editing may well be an understatement - large chunks of the original play may have been completely lost.
comment #2115 robert 25th Mar 10
@maninahat I wrote this after reading the play, if it had been a production I would've been much more glowing about it. I like most of the adaptations I've seen of Shakespeare's works, but mostly because good acting and rewriting can change the play around. This is a review of the straight up play they have in most libraries and schools, I'm sorry if that confused anybody. About the whole, "It's old and thus different", I understand that, but its exactly people saying he's awesome, despite the massive cultural difference between 16th century England and today that makes me sick when people call him a genius. He was a genius by 16th century English terms, and many of his plays can be updated to be quite excellent, but he is not a good author. I'm fine with reading his works to get a historical and cultural perspective, but its a bad thing to hold him up as this example of awesomeness that we shove in starting authors faces, we tell them,"This guy is king", he isn't. If his works were released under a different name and the language updated a little bit, they'd tank.

Please, I'd like to hear why we should teach his work in basic Lit classes? What makes him such a great author by a modern perspective? I want to know, so please, respond.
comment #2117 Phrederic 25th Mar 10
The reason why it is necessary to teach Shakespeare is because he is one of the foundation stones to the history of literature and theatre. It is important to note that he is not a "bad author" in the sense that is not an author at all. He is a "poet and playwright". The novel hadn't actually been invented and playwrights never wrote plays to be read, just acted. Still, his works necessitate lengthy analysis (and yes, boring classroom sessions). The sheer number of words and phrases directly attributed to his works is mind boggling. The stories from his plays are endlessly adapted into new stories, and whilst he never come up with the stories in the first place, he popularised them. That is why movies are described as being "like Romeo and Juliet" instead of "Like Triston and Isolde". Plus Shakespeare was a damn good sonnet writer.

"If his works were released under a different name and the language updated a little bit, they'd tank." Like the Lion King? The thing is, Shakespeare's works already are being released under different titles, names, languages etc. All the time. His works have had that huge an influence on entertainment and literature.
comment #2118 maninahat 25th Mar 10 (edited by: maninahat)
Shakespeare tends to be more interesting when performed by really good actors than when read, because the lines themselves don't have any description or inflection and a really good actor can really make them shine. And as for the "I am slain" thing, it needed to be made clear in the dialogue because of the lack of stage directions.

Macbeth isn't Shakespeare's best, anyway. Go read/watch King Lear.
comment #2123 173.54.55.131 26th Mar 10
maninahat, true, he is influential, but now its descended into a self perpetuating cycle, we teach his work, and authors are influenced by him, then because their works get important, it makes Shakespeare even more significant, its a vicious cycle, just say no to Shakespeare.j

I agree with you about your second point, many of his works are excellent, and good portrayals of them can be very enjoyable. I loved Romeo+Juliet, hated the play though.

Oh and 173.54.55.131, I don't know, I love Macbeth, its got witches and sword fights and evil sexy chicks, and a stupid ass king. And quit telling me why they used "I am slain" I know! Its still a bad, bad line, and almost anything would've been better.
comment #2124 Phrederic 26th Mar 10
When you say "The plot is simple and the Aesop is dull and cliche", one of these things is not like the other. Works of fiction can be written for other reasons than teaching an "Aesop". (Gah, if there's one item of TV Tropes vocabulary I really hate... but that's a different rant.) Macbeth's ambition is an example of hamartia or tragic flaw; the play is meant to be a character study, a look at the progress of a particular character without necessarily any general implication — and of course an entertainment. Which it is. I agree with you about the Narm of "I am slain", but Shakespeare does have "off" moments like that even in his great plays. (Here it can be put down to haste — it's thought he wrote Macbeth and two other of the great plays within one year.) Protection From Editors may come into it — though you have to remember that many of his plays were edited by others in the centuries after his death, and in every case the original has outlived the edited versions, so he must be doing something right....
comment #3818 Vilui 9th Aug 10
Shakespeare could be kind of considered the big person of his time, like an NBC compared to public access. The biggest and most popular things around are usually going to have realism sacrificed for entertainment and clarity. That's why these things are popular, because they're accessible.

The assertion that you're making that the Aesop of Macbeth is "dull and cliched" was actually hilarious. Considering this play was Older Than Steam.
comment #3886 Thormy 11th Aug 10
I've already made this point but Ambition Is Evil was in the big one, you know, a book written more than a millennium before Macbeth, and it's a very simple Family Unfriendly Aesop. And I would agree with that this is a character study had his character not been so inconsistent, the man is almost bipolar.
comment #3898 Phrederic 11th Aug 10
Another reason why Macbeth has a quick character derailment was that he disrupted the Elizabethan Universal Order, an order that put King Duncan ahead of Macbeth, and when he kills Duncan and becomes the king, the spirits of the underworld come and destroy his mind leading to his death in Act 5. His wife becomes "unsex'd" in Act 1 and it is possible that her guilt drove her to suicide in Act 5. In Act 3, Lady Macbeth loses control of her husband as he begins to make the decisions to kill other people by himself.
comment #6760 199.212.250.97 11th Mar 11
I really liked the Victorian genitalia puns. "Why I have nothing in my lap!" lolololol. Dude knew his audience all right.
comment #6763 spambot 11th Mar 11
Medieval age morals and values.
comment #6770 130.49.70.185 11th Mar 11
"I've already made this point but Ambition Is Evil was in the big one, you know, a book written more than a millennium before Macbeth, and it's a very simple Family Unfriendly Aesop."

What. The same book that says "Use your abilities to the fullest"(1) apparently espouses ambition as evil? I'm afraid you'll need some proof there, comrade.

(1) For reference, see Proverbs 3:9-10, as well as Ephesians 5:15-16.
comment #7608 LostHero 8th May 11 (edited by: LostHero)
Well it was written to please the King. A king who believed being king was a god-given right (as was the religious attitude at the time), and anybody who opposed therefore automatically evil...
comment #7612 MrMorley 8th May 11
The whole plot is actually Lampshaded by the "throwaway" scene of the Witches brewing up revenge against a stingy housewife who refused to give one of them some chestnuts. The housewife's husband is a sailor, and while they aren't allowed to sink his ship (which is destined to arrive in port safely), they're going to make the voyage pure misery for him.

By analogy, then, Macbeth was going to be King of Scotland one way or another - the Witches just influence him to make it the worst way. (Both he and his wife were members of the Royal line, so Mac was eligible to inherit under the old custom of "tanistry".)
comment #7638 Maven 10th May 11 (edited by: Maven)
"Macbeth is introduced as an honorable, worthy and good guy"

Far as I recall, he was introduced above all else as a guy who's really good at killing people. If they ascribe to him nobility and trustworthiness, they probably said the same of the traitor they fight in the opening. Did it ever occur to you that the rebellion Macbeth quells gave him ideas? What was it Shakespeare siad, "blood will have blood"?

Then there's the witches' prophecy, which would tempt your average lord and master of violence. See also the vision of the dagger and Lady Macbeth's admission of past mental infirmity. Macbeth is clearly a bit touched.

"Character Development you say. Well there's a difference between that and Macbeth, one scene he feels guilty, next he starts calling upon Satan and murdering peoples families for shits and giggles."

Who says murderers can't feel guilt and keep on murdering? Anyway, it was never For the Evulz, as you imply. Everyone killing, so far as I recall, was to shield himself from Duncan's fate, including that of Macduff's family and especially Banquo's son.

"If this play had some intervals between these events I would have bought it, but the play jumps ahead so fast that its like they have seven identical brothers with completely different personalities."

This is a plausible criticism, but I don't see it. Best to think of it like an action movie, which live and die on pace, tension, and payoff. Slowed down, Macbeth, Man of Action par excellence, would be lost. If you've ever spent time around that sort of person, you'd know their emotions are constantly being supressed by eachother. He obviously has a limited capacity for introspection and ratiocination, and has no time to go all Hamlet on us.

"Shakespeare does have some excellent lines that make up for the flaws in characters, but for every brilliant soliloquy he puts in you have one guy saying, 'I am slain.'"

You're bumping up against stage conventions of the time, here. Lines like this clarify for the audience what's happening. They were common, and there are much worse examples, usually consisting of "OOOOOOOO Oh AAAAAAA Ah EEEEEEEEE Er" Don't give me any of that "For Shakespeare to be the best of all time he must transcend his own time" guff. He doesn't have to transcend everything little thing.

Also, you never know what lines will sound like when spoken. "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" spoken by Rico himself, is an classic movie line, and rightly so, that seems unbearably ridiculous out of context.

"The plot is simple"

Yes, superficially, but plot was never Shakespeare's claim to fame. He stole them freely. It's when you take into account the themes and characterizations and how they interact with the plot that the complexity comes out.

"Ambition Is Evil."

If all it was was a morality play, that might have been too paltry lesson for so much. You must know it wasn't all about the lesson. Heck, I don't think it's even the lesson, if any, Shakespeare was trying to teach. Certainly the unfgolding of the play doesn't teach it. More like it assumes it all along. The play opens by condemning a usurper. You never don't know Macbeth's in the wrong, and why.

"Macbeth is full of disappearing characters and dropped plotlines."

True, but, again, we're bumping up against the limitations of his time. As you may know, the text you read did not derive from a master copy by Shakespeare's hand. His plays were published posthumously, from the memory of actors if I recall correctly. Most contemporary versions are a blend of the Folio and Quarto editions, which differ from eachother greatly.

That said, you're right, Shakespeare has a problem with loose ends. Perhaps it justly ought to bar him from the ranks of greatness. Or maybe this is at long last reveals the limits of proper form. Perfect works of art, in the technical sense of abiding by all the conventions and eternal rules of form and stlye) if they exist, might be boring. Certainly plenty of solid gold classics have conspicuous flaws, for instance Don Quixote and War and Peace.

I, for one, can overlook flaws, especially as I make no claim for Shakespeare as a great plotter. His virtue is as poet and characterizer, relatively less so as thematist, action/scene-setter, and pure storyteller. Let stand that plot isn't his strength.

"But instead of making an Anti Villain Shakespeare decided to throw him off the slippery slope to save himself the trouble of making the work complex at all."

First of all, I can't say Macbeth isn't an anti-villain as it is. You don't have to end up rooting for him, as I understand it, nor he end up winning for that trope to apply. All that are necessary are sympathetic snatches, which Macbeth has.

It must be a modern thing, by the way, this association of moral ambiguity with story complexity. It's one of the easiest tricks in the trade to jigger with villain and hero. The lowest, most pandering pieces of trash do it. See every cops and robbers story ever told. There's nothing more or less complex, all things being equal, for bad guys to be bad all along.

I realize there's a popular connection of ambiguity with complexity, and it's provisionally true (such provisions being, for instance, no ambiguity for its own sake, no ambiguity on top of ambiguity [revolving clarity and ambiguity, if you will], etc.), I guess. But no one's to say what you must be ambiguous about. If you're morally clear, you can at the same time be ambiguous about which character's going to prevail, or if you know whose downfall is inevitable, how they're going to fail.
comment #7916 tublecane 3rd Jun 11
When I read your reviews, I get the feeling that you had an awful experience with your highschool lit classes. Haha.Your reviews tend to be caustic.

I would say that the main flaw of teaching Shakespeare in an English class is that most teachers have their students read the play. The plays were never just meant to be read, they are meant to be acted. Instead of reading the plays for school, I downloaded free audioplays and followed along with the script. Shakespeare's hard to read and understand by itself, but when someone's actually saying the lines it adds a lot more understanding and more enjoyment to his plays. Some of your complaints do derive from stage conventions of yore. Characters loudly proclaiming they are going to do something, then do it, is so that the audience has no question about what has just happened. The whole idea of "show, don't tell" is a fairly new convention that arose more in the 20th century.

As for Macbeth turning evil very quickly, it has to do with Elizabethan thought. They believed in the Great Chain of Being Essentially, everything has a hierarchy. God and the angels are a hierarchy, Humans have a hierarchy, and nature has a hierarchy. They all parallel each other so God=King. Anyone who rebels against the King=Lucifer. So when Macbeth kills Duncan, he's committing a sin against humankind. Macbeth disrupted the natural order of things,which essentially turns him into the devil. That also explains all the whacky nature stuff that happens throughout the play. Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have been able to identify the subtext and the play would have reinforced their values. For them, The Monarch was preordained by God to rule.

Most English teachers don't mention that fundamental philosophy when they teach the plays. Maybe it's because they don't have time or they just don't know. IDK.

Also, I don't think Duncan was supposed to be portrayed as an ineffectual ruler, though he was IRL. In the play, he appreciated his subjects. His only flaw was that he was much too trusting.

Why do we still study Shakespeare? Because his jokes are still kinda funny. Also, a lot of his works do derive from historical events and archetypal stories that many cultures consider fundamental. His plays were meant for a largely uneducated audience, so with a little help we can still understand them today. Also, some of his lines are really sheer beauty and poetry. There's lots of adaptations of his plays, which has a lot to do with the fact that he's so well-known and nobody would have to worry about getting sued, but there is something very universally appealing about his stories and his characters.
comment #7945 LaCapitana 5th Jun 11
In order to post comments, you need to Get Known
TV Tropes by TV Tropes Foundation, LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available from thestaff@tvtropes.org.
Privacy Policy