I have issues with Shakespeare. I just wanted to say that. Sometimes people get upset with me when I criticise him, so I thought I’d say that up front in case you want to, I don’t know, plan an intervention or something. Honestly, I really do like his work. Okay, I love his words. I just have… issues.
It’s not that he half-inches entire plots, although he does. And it’s not that he’s gratuitously anachronistic, classist, sexist and racist, although he is, at times, all of those things. It’s that he writes in this beautiful, lyrical language, he makes the English language dance for him and invents new words to make it flow — something that other writers are rarely able to get away with — and he takes that beautiful language and uses it to cover up plot holes.
Macbeth — which I confess is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays — has a plot hole the size of a house. I’ve read a number of critics who claim that there is in fact a scene missing from the play (which would explain a lot) but that might as well just be wishful thinking. We have to work with the scenes that are extant. And as it stands Macbeth and Lady Macbeth swap sides mid-play for absolutely no reason.
The best version of the play that I’ve ever seen is actually in Japanese — Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Shakespeare with samurais) — and it includes just such an extra scene which not only explains but causes their reversal of position. Which is great. But isn’t technically Shakespeare. I mean, it’s still a good story (actually, a better one) but without those words… it’s hard to really recognise it as the work of the Bard at all.
There are all kinds of themes in Macbeth — greed and guilt and other things that don’t even start with ‘g’ — but the original turns on a tiny piece of wordplay. A misinterpretation of a true prophecy. Macbeth is told ‘none of woman born shall harm [him]’ that he will ‘never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him’ which he translates as ‘Never Happen’. Translations, you see, never quite the same as the original.
I love Kurosawa but you just don’t get this in Japanese:
If thou speak’st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee; if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth. “Fear not, till Birnam Wood
Do come to Dunsinane,” and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
If this which he avouches does appear,
There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I ’gin to be aweary of the sun
And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!
At least we’ll die with harness on our back.
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act V, Scene 5)