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Monday, October 20, 2014


I was discussing Macbeth and supernatural elements with a friend yesterday and something occurred to me. How did the weird sisters and their weird black magic go down so smoothly with the realistic side of the story?

Most of Shakespeare's plays are pretty realistic. Magical elements are used more often in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Tempest, and this. Old Hamlet made just one appearance. With today's terminology, his works were "low magic."

Then I realized that everything that happens in Macbeth could happen without the magic. There is nothing in the plot that conflicts with human nature --- greed, ambition, murder, paranoia, conscience. Take out all the eerie "weird" stuff in the play, the story could very well happen exactly the way it does. The "blessings" the witches give Macbeth at the start of the play can be nothing more than the ambitions that have been brewing in Macbeth's mind for some time.

Funny, isn't it? If the witches come to him and say instead, "We know you are plotting to usurp Duncan's throne, but we're telling you it will all end in tears for sure," do you think Macbeth would agree, "OK, you're right, I will abandon my ambitions and be content with what I already have"? Do people really do this naturally? In a sense the witches played fair. They told Macbeth that, although you will be the next king, Banquo's offspring will take over for the next eight generations (BTW, Banquo's son does not become king by the end of the play, which might have been a slip-up). He knows this from the start. Then he goes on to do what he would do anyway, prophecy or not. Isn't this how people behave? They do what their nature dictates, not what is best for them. Not rationally.

Hence this is the difference between Greek tragedies and Shakespearean tragedies. I'm not saying either is superior to the other. Rather, Greek tragedies focus on the futility of people's intentions and plans in the face of much more powerful forces of nature beyond human control, such as coincidences, the tide of time, and what the rest of society does. You want to be a good person or a hero, but the world and fate have other plans, and you are just too small to change that. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is talking about the externalization of human motives. We project our hidden desires and socially unacceptable motives onto the people and world outside ourselves to escape the guilt and shame. It is the struggle between id and superego projected onto witches and magic.

Yet again, one has to admit, Shakespeare basically invented psychoanalysis!

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