Friday, January 1, 2010

Macbeth and the New Year

This week a woman died while giving birth, and her child was taken—himself gray and lifeless— by caesarian section. But in moments, the baby was revived and then the mother abruptly came back to life. This news story compelled me. I watched the TV interviews and read all I could find on it. The situation reminded me of Shakespeare's Macbeth and seems a fitting idea for the start of a new year.

May critics and students consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth “just too dark.” This is probably due to the movies made of the play, because the play is really about the redemption of life. The story introduces Macbeth as a warrior so fierce he battled a traitor to Scotland

…with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution, Like valor’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which nev’r shook hands, nor bade farewell to him
Till he unseamed him from thenave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements…(1.2.18-24)

This means that Macbeth cut his way through the battle so fiercely that his sword steamed with his enemy’s blood (smoked with bloody execution) and then in one motion opened him (unseamed him) and chopped of his head. Mighty, ruthless, peerless was Macbeth.

After the battle maybe he was tired. He was vulnerable, because when he meets three witches on the heath, he succumbs to the trap they set to arouse and inflame his ambition. When his King honors him, Macbeth, who “should against his (King’s) murderer shut the door,/Not bear the knife”(1.7.25-26)himself, repays the king by murdering him in his trusting sleep while he visits Macbeth’s castle.

Things go downhill from there. During the night after the king is murdered, things go strange in Scotland. Dark and “unruly” where “lamenting heard” and “strange screams of death,” it was said that “the earth/Was feverous and did shake” and that horses were biting each other. Anyone who has met a horse knows this is weird. As time goes on, darkness remains even during daylight,an odd occurrence described as”By the clock, ‘tis day/ And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp”(the sun)2.4.6-7) All this to show that what was normal and natural in Scotland is no more.

Things go further downhill from there. Macbeth is crowned king, but now his ambition devours his humanity: he wants to be king forever. He murders his best friend whose descendents were prophesied to be future kings; he seeks more help from the witches and though he is told that no one born of woman can harm Macbeth, he cannot rest. Everyone’s born of woman, right?

The witches also whisper to “Beware Macduff” another mighty Scots warrior, and though Macbeth reasons that Macduff must have been born of a woman he fears him enough that he murders his wife and children.

This is why people think it is a dark play, a king, a best friend and innocents murdered. I agree. Macbeth is as bad as they come; his will consumes him. He's too strong to be so weak inside.

In the end of the play, Macduff defeats Macbeth. He is able to do so because he was not born of a woman. In the battle where they face one another, Macbeth knows his army is defeated, but he stays to fight believing no one can kill him. Macduff tells Macbeth that he was “from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped”(5.8.15-16)

Some scholars say that Macduff was born by a caesarean section. This cannot be the whole story. Many of us have thus been born by c-section and our mothers are still women. No, Macduff’s situation was like that of the mother and child in this week’s news. His mother must have died and he was cut out to save him.

We know that Shakespeare considered those past life to be genderless. This is shown in the famous grave scene in Hamlet when the prince asks the gravedigger about the person to be buried. Through witty dialogue (5.1.130-135) the gravedigger establishes the idea that the dead body is now neither man nor woman.

Thematically also, Macduff had to be born from death. Like the seed that "remains alone unless it falls to the earth and dies" so is the miracle of new life. It is Macduff who brings life back to Scotland. He stops the tyrant; he restores sunlight and order to the land and sees that the good King is crowned. The miracle of Macduff’s birth, having defeated death, coming from death with the power we all long for—the power to stop oppression, to stop death--qualified him in a symbolic way to end the tyranny of death and establish life.

In this way, Shakespeare’s Macbeth creates a stunning and satisfying picture of redemption. It is something we all wonder about and long for.

My fifteenth birthday came just two months after my father’s death. When opening gifts, my mother handed me a small, rectangular package. As I tore the paper off, she said, “This is from your father.” For just an instant, I thought maybe the awful reality was not true—
For just one moment I thought him alive again.
That moment, the feeling of wonder and hope of what it would have been like to get him back again has never left me. I understand how Lazarus’ sisters must have felt to see him emerge from the tomb, how the young father this week must have felt when his wife and son were given back to him.

On the first day of this new year, I wish you new life. May the Lord turn your mourning into joy; may he restore and heal and redeem all you lost or messed up last year. He’s good at that.

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