William Shakespeare’s shortest, bloodiest tragedy, Macbeth, is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the Bard’s works. It follows the hero of the title, a Scottish general, as he schemes to become king of Scotland – encouraged by his wife, the manipulative Lady Macbeth. The play is not an easy ride: it is relentlessly dark, packing murder, madness, and marital breakdown into its compact size. Yet it is one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays – filming began on a new adaptation, starring Denzel Washington, until Covid-19 halted production.
The play traces the Macbeths’ attempts to claim the Scottish throne. Controversially, it attributes most of the ambition – and the ruthlessness needed to achieve it – to Lady Macbeth. Here, ambition leads to tragedy – but can the drive for success be a good thing?
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Over the course of the play, the Macbeths gradually lose their sanity, but in different ways. Macbeth slips into a depression, while his wife falls prey to terrifying hallucinations. Today, mental health is more hotly debated than ever. How much do we know about it?
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Early on, the three witches tell Macbeth there is a prophecy that he will claim the throne. When this eventually happens, the question remains: did he choose to become king, or was he always fated to become so? Are we free to act as we wish?
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The play’s setting in Scotland is no accident. It ends with the crowning of a supposed ancestor of King James I, who ruled over a unified Scotland, England, and Ireland. This conclusion must have pleased the king. But four centuries later, the relationship between Scotland and England is more fraught than ever…
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