Lay on, Macduff!

Photo of the first page of Macbeth from a facs...

Photo of the first page of Macbeth from a facsimile edition of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(c) Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

There are some things you just shouldn’t read at bedtime and I’m here to tell you Macbeth is one of them. And, for that matter, probably any one of Shakespeare’s tragedies is liable to interfere with quiet repose, even that boosted by Lunestra, etcetera. They are simply too stirring, suggestive and have a peculiar potency for roiling one’s unconscious.

Perhaps for a first time reader, this is not the case; perhaps a newbie to the Bard’s tragedies has certain first-timer immunity, one provided by the Elizabethan language barrier, the unfamiliar cultural context and the fact that most of them deal with dead kings who lived and died 800 or so years ago. You have to wade in, immerse yourself through repeated exposure, in order to really understand and feel the power of his perfectly articulated imagination.

But for someone like me, revisiting again and again over the course of many years these plays to savor and re-consider (and perhaps learn from them some characterization, dialogue and dramatic tension pointers for my own work), sleep and Shakespeare are not friendly with one another. No no no.

I know many friends who doze off sweetly to horrific Stephen King novels and cliffhanger John Grisham courtroom dramas, as well as anything and everything containing a zombie or vampire roaring through an apocalyptic plot inflicting the worst terror and incredible suffering on the human population on planet earth. Those books, I suspect, are safely “scary;” they send chills and thrills up and down your spine, zap your brain with a pang of fear, but for whatever reason, these effects are fleeting and subside quickly. You eventually weary, look at the clock one last time, close the book, turn off the light, exhale softly and sail off calmly and quickly to dreamland, no problemo.

The problemo with reading Shakespeare’s tragedies late at night as a “soporific” is that he is so dead on about character and all his tragic heroes, for all their good and noble qualities, have a fatal flaw that slowly and relentlessly proves their undoing. Call it a weakness,  a mere venality that, under the right malevolent circumstances grows beastly, even inhumane, and which then unravels through an ineluctable sequence of events and bad choices, all the good they’ve done and ends in their untimely deaths.

Now that’s really scary because that, folks, that tragic plot is a potential encrypted in all of us one way or another and contingent on both our individual nature and nurture. We all have weaknesses, varied and complex though they may be, and temptations and land mines exist for all of us in life against which we are by reason of our “character” (you can throw in “genes” too these days) defenseless. Sure we can use self-knowledge, introspection and psychology to improve the odds and our chances of not falling prey to them and ruining our lives thereby. But so did Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, all of whom had an uncanny, brilliant degree of self-knowledge and still, through luck of the draw, a turn of fickle Fortune’s wheel, each was faced with a situation that challenged them at their weakest point, and thus confronted and poorly equipped, each  made a fateful decision that destroyed their lives and reputations.

What launched this reverie for me was my own poor judgment in taking out Macbeth the other night for a few savory snatches of my favorite speeches in the play as a treat before sleep. Never crawl into bed with Macbeth! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! I woke myself up twice saying aloud, “Lay on, Macduff!” practically the last words he uttered before having his head whacked off by a broadsword, a punishment at that point which he richly deserved.

The following morning, bleary-eyed and cranky, trying to make coffee and figure what day it was, another statement of Macbeth’s jarred my peace yet again, and the irony of my silly situation made me smile. A major theme of the play is sleep and how a guilty conscience can ruin it wholesale. Both Macbeth and his Lady, because of their deliberate crimes and travesties, become zombie insomniacs and lose their remaining marbles under sleep deprivation! Too late he recognized with horror what he had done, not only in murdering everyone to whom he had sworn undying loyalty and friendship, as well as many innocent bystanders, but most awfully what he had done to himself in the process. In an agonized cry from the deepest recesses of his soul the words ring out unforgettably. Yes, I agree, most famous thane of old Scotland! “Macbeth has murdered sleep!” In this particular case, however, mine.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger.
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7 Responses to Lay on, Macduff!

  1. J.B. Long says:

    Great entry! I was introduced to Shakespeare though Macbeth in middle school and will ashamedly admit I’m just now working my way through Hamlet; I’m finding it equally haunting. Shakespeare, like all our greatest artists, demonstrates a knowledge of the human condition which leaves one awestruck. His insight is even more powerful because of how long ago he lived. I think you’ve inspired me to spend some time re-considering Macbeth as well. 🙂

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    • Love it. He’s the greatest, no contest, hands down. My guess is one has to get some miles on one life-wise to appreciate his stupendous insights and verbal fireworks. I get my eyes and mind ripped open every time I re-read one of his plays these days.

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      • J.B. Long says:

        I agree! I heard on NPR once that Melville was introduced to Shakespeare much later in life. Once he was he became obsessed by his brilliance. He proceeded to give us Moby Dick. I’m glad I was exposed as a kid, but I wonder if many would get more out of his works if they were introduced after they have enough life experience to really appreciate his majesty. Thanks for responding!

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        • Haha, any high school English teach will tell you what a trial, an agony, it is to teach Shakespeare to adolescents. Generally, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are the best bets and go down most easily (with lots of kicks in the ribs!). But there’s nothing like coming to Shakespeare after you’ve lived long enough to have experienced real disappointment, loss, fear, deep and profound love etc. He positively sings to you then in the perfect key of truth. Thank you for the great conversation. Wonderful

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          • J.B. Long says:

            We necessarily had to avoid any contact with Shakespeare when I was teaching ESL to middle schoolers, but I might have slipped in a few sonnets here and there 🙂 Thank you too for the excellent post!

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  2. Lonie Fulgham says:

    Reblogged this on Reconsiderations and commented:
    Out of a choice of 5 passages to memorize from Macbeth my senior year, I chose the three witches chant in Act 1: Scene 1. Looking at my life and what I learned that I loved, I can’t help but smile at silly younger self.

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