Sunday, September 02, 2007

An English writer's Scottish crime story

With Macbeth, the story of a man sent spiraling into murder and despair by his own weakness and the prodding of a femme fatale, the versatile English genre writer William Shakespeare proves he is as at home in crime drama as he is in romance and historical stories.

Macbeth, a thane or "capo" in medieval Scotland, plots a route to power like Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello's, only more ruthless and more direct. Rather than eliminating rivals one by one, he goes right for the top, killing the king and planting forensic evidence on his guards, whom Lady Macbeth has got drunk in the meantime. The next day, feigning grief and anger at the murder, Macbeth kills the guards, neatly eliminating two possible witnesses.

Like Little Caesar, Shakespeare's story turns "away from the ... focus on detectives and victims of crime, and onto the life and development of the gangster himself." That focus takes a noirish turn almost from the start. Though noble and highly placed, Macbeth is a weak man and thus a cousin to the losers of classic roman and film noir. Plagued by visions and hallucinations, swinging wildly between depression and desperate optimism, Macbeth begins killing off possible threats to his new crown.

When Lady Macbeth, whose plot for Macbeth to take over the throne found fertile soil in her husband's susceptible mind, commits suicide, Macbeth is plunged into a hopelessness as affecting as any in Jim Thompson or David Goodis, the famous "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech. Many of the key scenes take place at night, thus lending the story a noirish feel to match its tragic protagonists' descent into hopelessness and death.

With its Scottish setting, Macbeth is sure to please fans of Ian Rankin.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

Now if only the First Folio were still in print...

Nicely done, Peter.

September 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. This Shakespeare ... I'm telling you, you'll hear this guy's name again.

Give you good night!

September 03, 2007  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

I love Macbeth, Peter! (The play, not the character). I always saw his descent into evil as a bit more gradual, though. Initially we see him as a man with some goodness in him, although he's already contemplating murder--but more as a hypothetical thing, and it's his wife who basically forces him to make it real, by attacking his manhood, or lack thereof. (In fact, I suppose it's appropriate to the time period, but I was always bugged by all the insults slung around by the thanes that involved the word "girl." :)

Even just before his dagger soliloquy Macbeth seems determined to cling to his last shreds of goodness, to his admiration for his kinsman. And I think that makes the mystery all the more powerful: the way that the evil takes hold of Macbeth and drags him down.

I also see his first crimes not so much as calculated killings as acts of desperation. It's the later ones: the killing of Banquo, the attempt on Fleance, the murderous rampage through the MacDuff household--where I really see Macbeth as an evil man.

September 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Macbeth and Julius Caesar were always the first two Shakespeare plays we studied high school. I presume this was not because anyone wanted us to kill or to be killed, but because the plays were two of Shakespeare's shortest.

Re manhood, it goes two ways in Macbeth. Don't forget that Lady Macbeth steels herself for the murders by calling on the spirits to

"unsex me here, /
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full /
Of direst cruelty!"

Murder is especially unnatural for a woman. And I did notice that one of Macbeth's scared, macho taunts to Banquo's ghost is: "If trembling I inhabit then, protest me / The baby of a girl." which means, as a footnote tells me, a baby girl.

Re the speed of Macbeth's descent, maybe all that stuff about spiralling descents and plunges was just the merest bit of hyperbole, though appropriate to the tone of the discussion. But I do see the germs of the descent right from the beginning, in Macbeth's almost immediate doubts and second thoughts. That's what suggested the not entirely facetious noir parallels to characters doomed from the start.

Oddly enough, I view the first killings as calculated and the later ones as acts of desperation. Or rather, the calculations just get wilder and more desperate.

September 03, 2007  
Blogger book/daddy said...

Actually, Julius Caesar is always used in school because it's Shakespeare's only play with no sex in it and even a very low number of dirty words or even words that could be inventively construed as dirty by the schoolmarmishly inclinded. Macbeth ranks low on the libido/kink scale, too, once one discounts the "unsex me" stuff. Nothing much to get the kids in a dangerous, throbbing sweat.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting theory about Julius Caesar, and I suspect you may be right. Strangely, I don't remember too much snickering at Macbeth's "Come to my woman's breasts / And take my milk for gall."

But I can well imagine a teacher being hard put to it to explain the wordplay behind Hamlet's "country matters."

September 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a film, Joe Macbeth, which remakes Macbeth among 20th-century American gangsters. It's not a great film, but it's worth watching.
James Thurber's The Macbeth Murder Mystery features a detective story fan who maintains that it was actually MacDuff who did all the murders...

April 25, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know the Thurber story but not Joe Macbeth, but I may look for it. I'm glad I'm not the only person who has noted Macbeth's affinities with rise-and-fall gangster stories.

April 25, 2016  

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