Setting the scene: in one corner we have Shakespeare, with nothing to prove and hundreds of years of sales, critics and respect under his belt. In the other corner we have Sophie, an English student, struggling to understand how Macbeth is even classed as English when it's a Scottish play and how Shakespeare ever made any money.
Sophie has the job of explaining the meeting of the witches with Macbeth. They've read about it in class, they've been shown an awful film by the BBC and they had three weeks of preparation for this one piece of work. Now she sits, pen in hand, staring at the page and hating, just seriously hating Macbeth, his witches and anything else to do with Shakespeare or poetry (why isn't this poetry, Miss?) and whatever else they have to study between now and the end of Year 11.
FIRST WITCH: Where hast thou been, sister?SECOND WITCH: Killing swine.
This shows that the witches are related and they like to have a chat. Also, a swine is a pig so the witches like to kill pigs.
Pause for deep thought. Miss said to make sure you talk about the sub-text. Sophie knows the sub-text is something unknowable that lives under the main text of the play and is meant to be obvious and clever. It seems to mean making up other stuff that was never in the play, so she adds:
Macbeth is like a pig to the witches because they really want him to die. And maybe eat him?
Pleased, she nods and reads on.
FIRST WITCH: 'Give me,' quoth I
'Aroint thee, witch!' the rump-fed ronyon cries.
'Quoth I' means the witch is speaking to the woman who is eating chestnuts. The woman is not pleased about having to share her chestnuts and wants to aroint the witch. By using words like aroint and ronyon, Shakespeare makes this conversation sound very mysterious.
Sophie frowns, feeling the whole of the play is a mystery, even though it's apparently not a mystery at all but a tragedy, except it doesn't seem too tragic that a villain like Macbeth ends up being killed off. Oh, but then Macbeth isn't a villain? Miss said he wasn't a villain, and even his wife is meant to be a tragedy too?
Sighing, she moves on:
MACBETH: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
The weather is very bad but this is also a play on words (Sophie smiles, pleased with herself) because the witches have made the weather bad and the witches are evil so the weather is like an evil thing. His day is also fair because he won his battle and he's excited about it and not even the weather can bring him down today.
(Sophie has made a really good point here and actually looked deep into the dark well of Macbeth; except she'll probably be marked down because her language is too informal - you're meant to have the proper respect for Shakespeare and not use phrases like 'bring him down'. Yes, the unfairness of it!)
BANQUO: If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
There's a deep pause. Sophie has no memory of this bit. At all. Never in her life can she remember reading it or hearing about it. It's like the book opened and new words fell in. What on earth is she meant to do with this? And who was Banquo again? She has a feeling he was kind of important.
Yes, he was a ghost! But is he a ghost here? Is he already a ghost? Nobody seems much bothered by him, so maybe he's not. And he's asking questions as well, so he probably is alive because ghosts would know things and not have to ask and anyway, Macbeth would hardly be scared of the witches if he had a ghost following him round all the time.
Banquo is talking to the witches and
Utter desperation sets in. Sophie holds her pen in the air, as if the gap between pen and paper will magically draw ideas and make them into her own words. She reads and re-reads the passage. He's talking to the witches, he's saying, no, he's asking! He's asking, even though there's no question mark. Bloody Shakespeare.
Banquo is asking the witches to speak to him about his own time
A big sigh and what feels like the start of a headache. Everyone else is writing. What do they know that Sophie doesn't? Everything probably. Oh well, better make something up so she looks like she knows what she's doing. And Miss did say that if you could back it up with the text then it might mean extra marks, even if you weren't sure you were right.
Banquo isn't frightened of the witches because he knows they're just evil and he's good so he doesn't mind talking to them. He thinks they won't be able to make him afraid or make him beg because he's good and honest. He wants to know about his own time so he asks them, but he doesn't make it a proper question because it's impossible to ask about the future so he makes it a statement instead and he hopes they'll tell him something good.
Sophie feels like she just did double PE but without the shouting. She could lie down for the rest of the day, except it's only 10.15 and Physics next. She rests her pen and wonders why Shakespeare even matters. It's not as if she'll ever need to know any of this stuff later, is it? It's not like she wants to take English for A Level (more reading!). She likes reading but only books like Harry Potter, or watching Game of Thrones on TV. She likes ones with lots of excitement, a bit of love and a hero that isn't too boring and magic and mystery in them too.
Sophie blinks and looks back down at Macbeth. Could it be that Shakespeare meant this to be that kind of story? Was this the same for him as her books are for her?
For a moment Sophie feels a link with the text she never had before, an understanding of its purpose and why people might enjoy it. Then her gaze falls on 'what seem'd corporal melted as breath in the wind' and suddenly she hates him again, him and his missed 'e's and double uses of words and rhyming when it isn't poetry, even though it is.
She picks up her pen and starts to write her conclusion without knowing what it is yet. And she wishes, with all her heart, that they could study real books for English, something she understands and not have to look up all the time just to read one line.
Something not mysterious and meant so that everybody can read it, even if they aren't good at English.
I think Macbeth feels like the witches are very mysterious because he meets them in a storm and they know his name. His friend Banquo isn't afraid because he has nothing to fear but Macbeth is nervous because just when things are going right, witches appear out of nowhere and he's worried it will all go wrong. But he's also tempted to find out what they can do, which is why he is a tragic hero. If he had decided they were evil and carried on being good, he would still be alive at the end of the play and so would nearly everybody else and the witches wouldn't be able to do anything except make storms and kill pigs.
©Amanda J Harrington 2015