The first four acts of Macbeth come close to being the best play Shakespeare ever wrote. They don’t quite live up to Hamlet, but they’re better than Othello, better than Lear, better than Richard III any day. The banquet scene. The dagger of the mind. Lady Macbeth proudly announcing that she would rather smash a newborn baby’s head on the stone floor than be the coward she believes her husband is being. Macduff’s defeated lament when he learns of the death of his wife and children. Even the witches – whom a modern reader struggles to see as anything but clichés – add a level of intrigue to the play. But then Act Five happens, and if you’re an English teacher like me, you’re probably praying for a fire drill or class picture day or something to distract you and your students from the fact that Shakespeare wrote a very, very bad ending to this play.
Act V, scenes i and v are exempted from my general condemnation of the play’s ending. These scenes contain some of the most iconic moments in the play: Lady Macbeth wringing her hands, Macbeth’s chilling statement (“Out, out, brief candle…”) when he learns of her suicide. As overdone as Lady Macbeth can be, the parts of the play that concerns the marriage of these two enigmas are all wonderful. I think there is a special appeal to Macbeth as a tragic hero because he is just a guy. He’s not the son of a murdered king like Hamlet or a king himself like Lear – he’s a reasonably successful nobleman and military commander who, at the outset of the play, is on his way home after a decisive victory on the field of battle. He’s happy, but his behavior during his encounter with the witches suggests that he is not as self-assured as he seems. There’s a vulnerability to Macbeth at the beginning of the play – a vulnerability that I want to say is rather modern (or Modernist) in nature, except for the fact that Shakespeare knew about it, and Shakespeare was born into a world that had never known Freud or read about J. Alfred Prufrock. The destruction of Macbeth is contained within Macbeth; he is about to crack from the first time he walks onstage. A ninth grade student of mine made a connection between Macbeth and Walter White in Breaking Bad, and I think her observation is a good one – except that White’s unraveling can’t be blamed on his wife or on some creepy homeless witches.
In Act IV, scene i, the witches visit Macbeth again and give him three prophesies. The first one is “Beware Macduff” (or, to be more specific, it’s “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth: beware Macduff, / Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough” [IV.i.70-71], and I can’t quite imagine anyone reading these lines with a straight face). The second prophesy is that “none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.79-81). Since all people are born of woman, Macbeth begins to believe he is invincible. Finally, the third prophesy says that Macbeth will not be defeated until Birnam Wood (a forest) comes to Dunsinane Hill.
These prophesies, of course, contradict each other. The second and third suggest that Macbeth cannot be defeated, but the first warns him of Macduff. Macbeth mulls over this dilemma for the time it takes to speak ten lines of iambic pentameter; thereafter, he operates under the assumption that he can’t be killed.
Jumping ahead: Macduff kills Macbeth, of course. It turns out – and I always felt a little guilty explaining this to my classes, as if I were apologizing for some grave injustice – that Macduff was born by caesarian section, which, to an Elizabethan audience, meant that he was not “born of woman.” I do understand the historical context of all this – first, that caesarian sections were supremely dangerous and therefore rarely performed, and second, since Eve’s punishment in Genesis was to bear the pain of childbirth, the idea of any non-vaginal birth was considered deeply unnatural. Fine. But this still feels like a ‘gag’ to me – like something involving a whoopee cushion. At this point in Hamlet, Hamlet is fighting Laertes in the graveyard, jumping in and out of an open grave while pausing to deliver the occasional “Yorick” speech. There’s humor in this scene as well, but it’s a dark humor, reminding us that we are always balancing on the edges of our graves. The humor at the end of Macbeth is about as sophisticated as “I just flew in from Cleveland, and boy are my arms tired.” Ba-dum-bum.
But then it gets worse. The play descends to the level of a kindergarten Christmas pageant in which half the class plays trees because the teachers want to make sure everyone has a part. Malcolm – who’s allied with Macduff (he of C-section fame) – decides to have his army sneak up on Macbeth carrying boughs cut from the trees in Birnam Wood. From a distance (I guess), it will look as if Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, as predicted by the witches. And then there’s some more horrific violence and the play ends.
As I see it, there are two options. Either the ending is bad or it is a deliberate nihilistic statement. There’s plenty of nihilism elsewhere in Shakespeare, including in Act V, scene v of this very play (in what are, by the way, some of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is told no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (V.v.18-27)
Shakespeare had plenty of reason to feel cynical, especially about love and marriage and family. Yet, strangely, there is almost no cynicism in his treatment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth is deeply saddened to hear of his wife’s suicide, and he grieves in earnest (if briefly), and the events of the last four acts of the play suggest not only that the universe is meaningless but that the universe is ridiculous. Shakespeare is a master at foreshadowing, at building each play as a coherent whole, and I’m used to being able to go back to Act I after I read Act V and seeing all the seeds of the ending planted there. Act I of Macbeth includes plenty of these seeds – largely in establishing Macbeth’s gullibility and bringing to our attention the motif of nature – but there’s nothing to suggest that the play will end with events that defy everything we know about cause and effect.
There are episodes of Scooby-Doo that end with more sophistication and wit than Macbeth does. If Shakespeare had a Netflix account (or if TIME TRAVEL had been an option), he could have borrowed one of the many notorious endings from serial television, any of which would be an improvement over C-Section Macduff and his traveling forest. He could have had Malcolm and Macduff blow up Scotland to prevent Macbeth from having it, like in the final episode of Little House on the Prairie. He could have had the play’s protagonist carried off by government agents to be vivisected and experimented upon, like in the final episode of ALF. He could have had Macbeth wake up in bed with whomever he was married to before Lady Macbeth, to find that the events of the play were all a terrible nightmare, like in the final episode of Newhart. He could have implied that the entire play took place in the mind of an autistic child staring at a snow globe, as in the final episode of…
You get the idea.
There’s a lot of lionizing of Shakespeare that goes on in American schools, and in most cases I’m happy to participate. But everything we say about his brilliance is meaningless if we don’t also acknowledge the (occasional) ways in which his plays don’t hold together. My students always came to class reserved after they read the last act of this play, looking at me as if I had invited them to come trick-or-treating at my house and then handed out toothbrushes. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach Macbeth; I’m just saying that when Shakespeare jumps the shark, we need to call him on it.